Beach House Diaries: Gifts from the Sea

crab shell on beach
Jane Wimshurst

As far as I'm concerned, sea water beats lake water by a long shot. The simple presence of salt -- a miracle mineral -- is one reason. More than a flavor booster, it's a buoyancy enhancer, a preservative and, as spa-goers will attest, an effective exfoliant. Plus it is an age-old healing agent, which explains why doctors make such ample use of saline solution. Nevertheless, it's the interesting stuff the sea delivers to my beach daily that really sets saltwater apart from fresh.

Seashells are an obvious example, and my fascination with them is widely shared. Witness Anne Morrow Lindbergh -- wife of pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh and mother of the kidnapped Lindbergh Baby -- who in 1955 penned a book about her own shell obsession while at a beach house in Captiva, Florida. In Gift from the Sea, the author admitted she "couldn't walk head up looking out to sea, for fear of missing something precious." But Lindbergh didn't merely collect shells.

Knowing our at-home lives involve "contradictory tensions" and "a whole caravan of complications," she also used them as teaching tools: for example, turning the Double Sunrise (a bivalve with two perfectly-matched sides) into a metaphor for marriage or the Moon Snail into a symbol of contented solitude. Lindbergh's little life lessons still ring true -- in fact, they seem so modern you can almost hear her serving up sound byte-sized morsels of wisdom on "Dr. Phil." But whenever I try to reflect on them fully, I'm distracted by something else the metronomic waves wash in.

You see on Pictou Island shells aren't the only treasures waiting to be discovered. Any given morning I might spy pretty pieces of polished driftwood, scrimshaw-worthy bits of bone or sculptural knots of seaweed. Then there's the human detritus. Rogue buoys are just the beginning. In decades past, Islanders (by necessity) dumped what refuse they couldn't burn or compost straight into the strait -- cars included. Today the tide carries back everything from antique crockery shards to auto parts (left to rust for 50-odd years, the latter take on the look of Grecian amphora).

Sea glass, however, trumps them all. When I first came to this same beach as a child, I could scoop up the frosted faux jewels by the pail-full. Even when my own kids were small, a plentiful supply allowed them to pick and choose. (Beer-bottle brown? Boooring. Perfume-bottle purple? Bingo!) Years of conscientious recycling has made a radical difference -- which is, of course, a good thing overall. Yet my party of four does go old-school for one annual family ritual.

At the end of each season, after the summertime swimmers have departed, we write down our wishes for the coming year, drop them inside a beautiful cobalt-blue vodka bottle saved specifically for the purpose and then, as the tide is beginning to turn, bash the bottle into unrecognizable bits on some remote rocks that jut out into the water. I understand this process (dubbed "sea glass seeding" by devotees) is not universally accepted. I also understand naysayers' concerns.

I just can't help it because I know Northumberland Strait will eventually smooth off any sharp edges... which is precisely what the beach house does for me.

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Each week writer Susan MacCallum-Whitcomb will report on summer beach house life from her vacation home on Pictou Island, Nova Scotia. Follow along for a glimpse of the shore, plus tips on what to pack, how to entertain guests and how to relax at your own beach house.
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