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July 30, 2022

Yonder is the sea, great and wide,

    which teems with things innumerable,

    living things both small and great. Psalm 104:25

Claude Debussy’s composition “La Mer,” French for “The Sea,” is not a literal portrait of the ocean. Instead, “La Mer” takes us out into the waves beyond the breakers. We hear the colors of sunlight on the water and see the curl of waves crashing on the shore. In this ever-changing soundscape, as with the sea, we experience the gamut from the serene tranquility of gentle tides to the stormy ocean’s awe-inspiring power.

Debussy completed the work in March 1905 at the Grand Hotel at Eastbourne on the coast of the English Channel, but most of the composition was done far from water. He drew inspiration from depictions of the sea in paintings and literature rather than from actual salt water. For the cover of the score, he chose “The Great Wave,” a woodblock print by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Above all, Debussy recalled distant memories of summers spent by the Mediterranean.

For thirty-six years, the first week of August would have been the week that our family vacationed at Pawleys Island. Clare and I have not been to the coast in several years. Our mobility has been limited by age. Neither of us drives now. We both must walk with props. Clare uses a walker, and I hobble along with a cane. Like Claude Debussy, we have vivid memories of our vacations at one of our favorite places. Eight adults and six grandchildren made a full house last time we went. We still cherish the memories that we made together in that beautiful place.

A week at the beach was a close encounter with people we love and hold dear. The week together was a time for singing and storytelling in the shade, gathering around a long trestle table to feast on cold boiled shrimp, dripping popsicles licked to the stick on the back porch, and children lining up for baths, brushing teeth and hair, pajama time. The settling down to bedtime stories and prayers brings a strange quietness to the house. Then the adults might enjoy a movie or pleasant conversation.

Those days on the coast gave us the opportunity to experience the elements. We love the sunshine and were grateful for sunscreen. Rainfall was a welcomed visitor in the middle of the week. It afforded the opportunity to work a jigsaw puzzle, take a nap, or read a good book.

The wind was a steady companion, especially in the late afternoon. Capturing a gust in a kite or catching a breeze in a wind chime was sheer delight.

Observing birds riding an updraft was a lesson in aerodynamics. We took great delight in watching coastal birds. One of our grandsons has a particular interest in these feathered friends. I usually took along a bird feeder and suspended it from a pine tree in the backyard of the beach house. Several varieties were attracted to a seed feeder near the ocean just as quickly as they would be to one located hundreds of miles inland. Cardinals, chickadees, and finch were regular visitors.

Insect eaters – like swallows, purple martins, wrens, and bluebirds – are much in evidence at the coast. Scavengers – like crows and red-winged blackbirds – join their cousin gulls in an ongoing cleanup operation. The marsh offers a banquet for snowy egrets and great blue herons. The surf spreads a buffet for sandpipers and plovers.

The most magnificent of all are the birds that fish in the ocean. The ospreys that work as solitary fishers plunge talons in first to catch fish that are the envy of surf casters. Brown pelicans fly in effortless formation until food is sighted. Then they break formation and hurtle headfirst into the waves to make their catch.

Of course, the ocean is the main beach vacation attraction. Little children run into the ankle-deep tide and back again like sandpipers. Some of the adults in our family enjoyed going a little further out, just beyond the breakers, and riding up and down with the waves. We never went alone and were cautious of the undertow. For some reason, our vacation usually coincided with Shark Week on television, so we were watchful.

A vacation at the beach is an ongoing encounter with ubiquitous sand. It seemed to be everywhere, not only on the beach but also in places it does not belong – in our shoes, in our hair, in our bed, and in our laundry room when we returned to our Upstate home. Along with the blue-green Atlantic, sand was a main attraction.

Soon after we arrived at the beach, when the car was unloaded, my first impulse was to take off my watch, kick off my shoes, and walk on the wet sand where land and ocean meet. The tides mark time. Breathing the salt air, and feeling the sea breeze, are at once calming and invigorating. Before long, I alternately gazed out to the horizon and glanced down at the treasures washed up at my bare feet.

We would stand in the surf and feel the tide pull the sand from beneath our feet. It is the very definition of shifting sand. Ocean currents and the wind move the sand around to other locations. Massive dunes such as Jockey’s Ridge, North Carolina, or the dunes near the tip of Cape Cod at Provincetown, Massachusetts, are naturally occurring. These are places we have enjoyed in years past.

Most sand dunes along the coast of South Carolina have been created so the beach can be preserved. Sand dunes held in place by strategically located fences and established sea oats plantings are essential to control beach erosion. We tried to teach our younger family members to respect the fragile nature of the dunes.

Our children and grandchildren made building a sand castle a regular beach activity for our family. Perhaps you have seen some of the massive works of art rendered by professional sand castle builders. In our family, we are all amateurs. We made up the design as we went along. Maybe we were not so heavily invested because we understood the inevitable end to every sand castle.

On Easter Sunday morning in 1980, our family had a brief sunrise service alone on a large dune near the end of Cape Cod. In the first light of the morning sun, we could see a pod of thirty or forty right whales playing in the ocean.

We have yet to spot a whale off the coast at Pawleys Island. However, the sight of a group of bottle-nosed dolphins was usually a part of our vacation. The graceful creatures arching in the waves were like watching synchronized swimming.

Beach walking was a favorite activity for us, especially after supper. Whether you are an avid shell gatherer searching for a rare specimen, a fossil collector looking for a larger shark’s tooth, or just a casual stroller splashing in the surf, walking on the edge where water and sand meet is a pleasure. Once or twice during the week, at low tide, we walked to the north end of the island. To find a bleached sand dollar lying on the sand, to come upon an unbroken channeled whelk, or to watch as coquinas and mole crabs dug their way into the sand at ebb tide was to witness the wonder of creation.

Most coastal states have a state sea shell. The state shell of Georgia is the knobbed whelk. For South Carolina, it is the lettered olive. For North Carolina, it is the Scotch bonnet. To find a smooth shell, perfectly formed and intact, abandoned by the animal that called it home, is to discover a unique souvenir.

A casual walk along the coast will also reveal unsightly trash left by humans. Our more populated beaches are littered with rubbish. Fishermen report seeing floating debris many miles offshore. Sea turtles strangle to death on plastic bags because, in the water, the bags look very much like jellyfish, a favorite food of sea turtles. 

When I walked along the beach with a grandchild, I often took a small plastic bag to hold the treasures found along the way. I also took along a trash bag to pick up litter that we found.

For a grandfather, there is no greater joy than seeing children playing on the beach, seeing the wonder in their eyes when they find a treasured shell, or looking at the amazement in their faces when I tell them made-up stories about Green Beard, our favorite friendly pirate.

Clare and I had many marvelous weeks with our family at the beach. We were always happy to return to our home. But you know what? Our memories are lasting treasures. And who knows, there may yet be a time when we can enjoy the beach again in person. Until then, we have Debussy’s “La Mer,” our memories, and the words of the psalmist,

O Lord, how manifold are thy works!

    In wisdom hast thou made them all;

    the earth is full of thy creatures.

Yonder is the sea, great and wide,

    which teems with things innumerable,

    living things both small and great.

May my meditation be pleasing to him,

    for I rejoice in the Lord.

Bless the Lord, O my soul!

Praise the Lord!

                           (Psalm 104)


Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, storyteller, teacher, pastoral counselor, and retired pastor.

He can be reached at

Over these past months, I have asked that we contribute to our local charitable agencies. Thank you for all you have done. I will continue making suggestions because I have learned that these nonprofit organizations are quickly forgotten unless they are called to mind. Please know that I respect your freedom to choose agencies that are meaningful to you. Please continue with your kindness and generosity. This week, please donate, as you are able, to Ocean Conservancy. Donations are 100% tax-deductible. 800-519-1541,

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