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Thursday, October 4, 2018

California Driftwood

Oh, the beach, the beach. How folks love the beach, especially when it gets hot, and you can cool off at the beach. They come in droves. Locals with dogs wearing cute checkered bandanas. Mothers with dozing infants in Bugaboo Buffalo baby strollers. Youths toting  Rocket 
Fish surf boards. Aging hippies with deep tans, scraggly beards, tie-dyed T-shirts and Jesus sandals. Tourists speaking in foreign tongues, looking a little uncertain. Families with small children, cabana towels, picnic baskets, and Tommy Bahama umbrellas (or portable beach pavilions). Nerf ball and frisbee players. Surf caster fishermen, walkers, joggers, and amateur photographers. The occasional wedding party. Even
Stylized California highway marker (mission bell and
shepherd’s crook).  Its real-life counterparts can be
found along US 101 between Los Angeles and San Jose.
professional photographers doing fashion shoots for Elle or Vogue.

Some show up after dark with six-packs of beer and stay until late. Others, sometimes the homeless, stay the whole night.

Tidewrack shack with seaweed. A variation of the 
Paleo-Survivalist style emphasizing Spanish moss 
over seaweed is common along the southeastern 
Atlantic seaboard.
And amongst this multitude are the beach artists and architects. I’ve never actually seen them at work, but until swept away by the tides, their creations endure as testimony to their inventiveness. Just as children dig sand and build castles,  grown-ups fashion stuff from driftwood, seaweed, and rocks. Perhaps it’s the primitive urge to construct shelters or make art. Perhaps some innate impulse to repair chaos, organize things.  Or maybe just boredom after enough  sun and sea. The builders often work together, I’m told, like Mennonites at a barn raising.

Beach creations come in various shapes and sizes. Lean-tos, burners, tepees, A-frames, dugouts, pillboxes, circulars, and wind breaks are among the most common. Some aren’t so much structures as sand art incorporating driftwood, rocks, seashells, and feathers.

One way to build a driftwood sculpture without getting your feet wet is to 
photograph the scene, assemble the structure you want using available 
elements and really good software, and then trust to sympathetic magic. 
After all, what is more than but an avatar of something imagined?
The sky’s the limit when it comes to what takes shape on the beach, and some of this handiwork defies description. You might even be given to wondering whether some of it is cast up ready-made by the ocean itself, like Athena springing full grown from the head of Zeus. Recall that the first ever Burning Man event (1986) was held, not in Black Rock City, Nevada, but on a beach, Baker Beach, in San Francisco – and Zeus was from San Francisco.

“Welcome” sign, Nazca-like lines, cairns, bird’s 
beak totem with kelp. It seemed like the hip 
beginning of something – maybe a trendy motel.

Oh, the beach, the beach.

In some cultures, driftwood has been viewed as a sort of fundamental element, like earth, air, fire, and water. According to Norse mythology, Ask and Embla, the first human couple, were made from driftwood by Odin (god of a litany of things)  and his brothers, Vili and VĂ©. The Vikings had the habit of throwing wood into the sea before making landfall, then building their mead halls wherever the wood washed up. Perhaps they figured if you fell in the drink while drunk, you’d drift to shore like the jettisoned wood, not out to sea and be sunk.

A recent book, Driftwood Forts of the Oregon Coast by James Herman, waxes philosophical about all this. “Something deep and dark runs through the forts here [north jetty of the Siuslaw River],” he says. “It’s not a bad thing…The forts are smoky and talk to you, even if you aren’t listening.” Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so maybe Herman is on to something even it’s coming from smoke signals.

Flotsam’s many forms: Installation by Zoe Leonard (Whitney Museum of American Art, March-June, 2018, New York) reimagined for the beach. At first glance through the gallery doorway during your visit to this display, you might have meet with a little confusion – misread the installation and its uniformed guard as the queued-up, secured luggage of an actual tour group. For a brief moment you might have hesitated to go in. What on earth was a baggage room doing amidst an enfilade of galleries? And how come none of the suitcases had wheels or retractable handles?  So many questions, so few answers. Yet one answer may wash up on the beach.  For works of this ilk, it seems to me, are ideally suited to the beach. The rich offset of the shoreline, for example, would highlight the suitcases in ways not possible in an expressionless and otherwise vacant (except for a few wall-mounted photos) gallery. Ocean swells would bring to bear the timeless forces that ceaselessly work and re-work the wrack line, lending a certain dynamic. Slick with Vanicream®, visitors sporting Oakleys® and Tevas® would queue up galore for a glimpse of the plein air spectacle, especially during high water. And, yes, there’d be spare suitcases aplenty – where these came from. Just in case. 

“Standing Supplicants” (mixed media), 2017. This installation could be 
a museum piece, beach and all.
Yet I take at least mild exception to his idea of  the beach “fort” (not that he’s alone in this appellation). Typically, beach structures resemble shacks or huts, not forts. Moreover, none of them would withstand even the most faint-hearted assault if it came to that. Maybe the idea harks back to “forts” such as children build. Once while on a playground with my granddaughter, I noticed several of the boys had styled a simple open space as an imaginary base or fort. So for all intents and purposes, I suppose, a fort could be anything you want, including a mash-up of driftwood.

But I’d certainly agree there’s something primeval and mysterious about beach structures, particularly shacks or huts, as though they might be the haunts of sea sprites, places where nereids and other minions of Neptune go to relax, hang out, and sip Singapore slings in the heat of the afternoon.  Yet – absent a few slings of your own –  don’t aspire to catch even a glimpse of them. At the first sign of company they abscond beneath the waves, leaving leisure behind and you with the bar tab. Some say they guard a fabulous treasure, the Golden Egg of Stylth, but I have my doubts. Rumor has it the treasure is in the private collection of J.K. Rowling who guards it even more jealously than the sprites did.

            “Sticklers for a lineup” (seawater, wood on sand), 2018
Here are a few unwritten rules for building beach huts. You ought use only what you find on the beach – no nails, screws, or plastic zip ties. This makes sense because structures put together with nails, say, could pose a hazard once knocked down by the waves. Plastic would only add to the man-made refuse already adrift in the oceans. If you use tools, they should be ones you make yourself. Kindly refrain from dismantling someone else’s construction in order to build your own. They’re community, not personal, property. As one writer put it, they “belong temporarily to everyone and permanently to the ocean.”


A female long-necked sand sitter (Oslignum littoralis) restrains an eager pup 
while two older siblings playfully nuzzle. Sadly, these rare creatures have 
become prized for their fur by the luxury garment industry and face a rising 
tide of endangerment. 















Atrophy & Hypertrophy, demiurges of the primal flood. And Pericles!















At Hendry’s Beach, wooden park benches feature cast bronze memorials – 
a semblance of permanence aloof from the tides but also a reminder of the 
transitory. 
























My Little Grass Schack







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