Footprints on the Seashore
by Nathaniel Hawthorne
It must be a spirit much unlike my own which can keep itself in health and vigor without sometimes stealing from the sultry sunshine of the world to plunge into the cool bath of solitude. At intervals, and not infrequent ones, the forest and the ocean summon me—one with the roar of its waves, the other with the murmur of its boughs—forth from the haunts of men. But I must wander many a mile ere I could stand beneath the shadow of even one primeval tree, much less be lost among the multitude of hoary trunks and hidden from the earth and sky by the mystery of darksome foliage. Nothing is within my daily reach more like a forest than the acre or two of woodland near some suburban farmhouse. When, therefore, the yearning for seclusion becomes a necessity within me, I am drawn to the seashore which extends its line of rude rocks and seldom-trodden sands for leagues around our bay. Setting forth at my last ramble on a September morning, I bound myself with a hermit’s vow to interchange no thoughts with man or woman, to share no social pleasure, but to derive all that day’s enjoyment from shore and sea and sky, from my soul’s communion with these, and from fantasies and recollections or anticipated realities. Surely here is enough to feed a human spirit for a single day.—Farewell, then, busy world! Till your evening lights shall shine along the street—till they gleam upon my sea-flushed face as I tread homeward—free me from your ties and let me be a peaceful outlaw.
Highways and cross-paths are hastily traversed, and, clambering down a crag, I find myself at the extremity of a long beach. How gladly does the spirit leap forth and suddenly enlarge its sense of being to the full extent of the broad blue, sunny deep! A greeting and a homage to the sea! I descend over its margin and dip my hand into the wave that meets me, and bathe my brow. That far-resounding roar is Ocean’s voice of welcome. His salt breath brings a blessing along with it. Now let us pace together—the reader’s fancy arm in arm with mine—this noble beach, which extends a mile or more from that craggy promontory to yonder rampart of broken rocks. In front, the sea; in the rear, a precipitous bank the grassy verge of which is breaking away year after year, and flings down its tufts of verdure upon the barrenness below. The beach itself is a broad space of sand, brown and sparkling, with hardly any pebbles intermixed. Near the water’s edge there is a wet margin which glistens brightly in the sunshine and reflects objects like a mirror, and as we tread along the glistening border a dry spot flashes around each footstep, but grows moist again as we lift our feet. In some spots the sand receives a complete impression of the sole, square toe and all; elsewhere it is of such marble firmness that we must stamp heavily to leave a print even of the iron-shod heel. Along the whole of this extensive beach gambols the surf-wave. Now it makes a feint of dashing onward in a fury, yet dies away with a meek murmur and does but kiss the strand; now, after many such abortive efforts, it rears itself up in an unbroken line, heightening as it advances, without a speck of foam on its green crest. With how fierce a roar it flings itself forward and rushes far up the beach!
As I threw my eyes along the edge of the surf I remember that I was startled, as Robinson Crusoe might have been, by the sense that human life was within the magic circle of my solitude. Afar off in the remote distance of the beach, appearing like sea-nymphs, or some airier things such as might tread upon the feathery spray, was a group of girls. Hardly had I beheld them, when they passed into the shadow of the rocks and vanished. To comfort myself—for truly I would fain have gazed a while longer—I made acquaintance with a flock of beach-birds. These little citizens of the sea and air preceded me by about a stone’s-throw along the strand, seeking, I suppose, for food upon its margin. Yet, with a philosophy which mankind would do well to imitate, they drew a continual pleasure from their toil for a subsistence. The sea was each little bird’s great playmate. They chased it downward as it swept back, and again ran up swiftly before the impending wave, which sometimes overtook them and bore them off their feet. But they floated as lightly as one of their own feathers on the breaking crest. In their airy flutterings they seemed to rest on the evanescent spray. Their images—long-legged little figures with gray backs and snowy bosoms—were seen as distinctly as the realities in the mirror of the glistening strand. As I advanced they flew a score or two of yards, and, again alighting, recommenced their dalliance with the surf-wave; and thus they bore me company along the beach, the types of pleasant fantasies, till at its extremity they took wing over the ocean and were gone. After forming a friendship with these small surf-spirits, it is really worth a sigh to find no memorial of them save their multitudinous little tracks in the sand.
When we have paced the length of the beach, it is pleasant and not unprofitable to retrace our steps and recall the whole mood and occupation of the mind during the former passage. Our tracks, being all discernible, will guide us with an observing consciousness through every unconscious wandering of thought and fancy. Here we followed the surf in its reflux to pick up a shell which the sea seemed loth to relinquish. Here we found a seaweed with an immense brown leaf, and trailed it behind us by its long snake-like stalk. Here we seized a live horseshoe by the tail, and counted the many claws of that queer monster. Here we dug into the sand for pebbles, and skipped them upon the surface of the water. Here we wet our feet while examining a jelly-fish which the waves, having just tossed it up, now sought to snatch away again. Here we trod along the brink of a fresh-water brooklet which flows across the beach, becoming shallower and more shallow, till at last it sinks into the sand and perishes in the effort to bear its little tribute to the main. Here some vagary appears to have bewildered us, for our tracks go round and round and are confusedly intermingled, as if we had found a labyrinth upon the level beach. And here amid our idle pastime we sat down upon almost the only stone that breaks the surface of the sand, and were lost in an unlooked-for and overpowering conception of the majesty and awfulness of the great deep. Thus by tracking our footprints in the sand we track our own nature in its wayward course, and steal a glance upon it when it never dreams of being so observed. Such glances always make us wiser.
This extensive beach affords room for another pleasant pastime. With your staff you may write verses—love-verses if they please you best—and consecrate them with a woman’s name. Here, too, may be inscribed thoughts, feelings, desires, warm outgushings from the heart’s secret places, which you would not pour upon the sand without the certainty that almost ere the sky has looked upon them the sea will wash them out. Stir not hence till the record be effaced. Now (for there is room enough on your canvas) draw huge faces—huge as that of the Sphynx on Egyptian sands—and fit them with bodies of corresponding immensity and legs which might stride halfway to yonder island. Child’s-play becomes magnificent on so grand a scale. But, after all, the most fascinating employment is simply to write your name in the sand. Draw the letters gigantic, so that two strides may barely measure them, and three for the long strokes; cut deep, that the record may be permanent. Statesmen and warriors and poets have spent their strength in no better cause than this. Is it accomplished? Return, then, in an hour or two, and seek for this mighty record of a name. The sea will have swept over it, even as time rolls its effacing waves over the names of statesmen and warriors and poets. Hark! the surf-wave laughs at you.
Passing from the beach, I begin to clamber over the crags, making my difficult way among the ruins of a rampart shattered and broken by the assaults of a fierce enemy. The rocks rise in every variety of attitude. Some of them have their feet in the foam and are shagged halfway upward with seaweed; some have been hollowed almost into caverns by the unwearied toil of the sea, which can afford to spend centuries in wearing away a rock, or even polishing a pebble. One huge rock ascends in monumental shape, with a face like a giant’s tombstone, on which the veins resemble inscriptions, but in an unknown tongue. We will fancy them the forgotten characters of an antediluvian race, or else that Nature’s own hand has here recorded a mystery which, could I read her language, would make mankind the wiser and the happier. How many a thing has troubled me with that same idea! Pass on and leave it unexplained. Here is a narrow avenue which might seem to have been hewn through the very heart of an enormous crag, affording passage for the rising sea to thunder back and forth, filling it with tumultuous foam and then leaving its floor of black pebbles bare and glistening. In this chasm there was once an intersecting vein of softer stone, which the waves have gnawed away piecemeal, while the granite walls remain entire on either side. How sharply and with what harsh clamor does the sea rake back the pebbles as it momentarily withdraws into its own depths! At intervals the floor of the chasm is left nearly dry, but anon, at the outlet, two or three great waves are seen struggling to get in at once; two hit the walls athwart, while one rushes straight through, and all three thunder as if with rage and triumph. They heap the chasm with a snow-drift of foam and spray. While watching this scene I can never rid myself of the idea that a monster endowed with life and fierce energy is striving to burst his way through the narrow pass. And what a contrast to look through the stormy chasm and catch a glimpse of the calm bright sea beyond!
Many interesting discoveries may be made among these broken cliffs. Once, for example, I found a dead seal which a recent tempest had tossed into the nook of the rocks, where his shaggy carcase lay rolled in a heap of eel-grass as if the sea-monster sought to hide himself from my eye. Another time a shark seemed on the point of leaping from the surf to swallow me, nor did I wholly without dread approach near enough to ascertain that the man-eater had already met his own death from some fisherman in the bay. In the same ramble I encountered a bird—a large gray bird—but whether a loon or a wild goose or the identical albatross of the Ancient Mariner was beyond my ornithology to decide. It reposed so naturally on a bed of dry seaweed, with its head beside its wing, that I almost fancied it alive, and trod softly lest it should suddenly spread its wings skyward. But the sea-bird would soar among the clouds no more, nor ride upon its native waves; so I drew near and pulled out one of its mottled tail-feathers for a remembrance. Another day I discovered an immense bone wedged into a chasm of the rocks; it was at least ten feet long, curved like a scymitar, bejewelled with barnacles and small shellfish and partly covered with a growth of seaweed. Some leviathan of former ages had used this ponderous mass as a jaw-bone. Curiosities of a minuter order may be observed in a deep reservoir which is replenished with water at every tide, but becomes a lake among the crags save when the sea is at its height. At the bottom of this rocky basin grow marine plants, some of which tower high beneath the water and cast a shadow in the sunshine. Small fishes dart to and fro and hide themselves among the seaweed; there is also a solitary crab who appears to lead the life of a hermit, communing with none of the other denizens of the place, and likewise several five-fingers; for I know no other name than that which children give them. If your imagination be at all accustomed to such freaks, you may look down into the depths of this pool and fancy it the mysterious depth of ocean. But where are the hulks and scattered timbers of sunken ships? where the treasures that old Ocean hoards? where the corroded cannon? where the corpses and skeletons of seamen who went down in storm and battle?
On the day of my last ramble—it was a September day, yet as warm as summer—what should I behold as I approached the above-described basin but three girls sitting on its margin and—yes, it is veritably so—laving their snowy feet in the sunny water? These, these are the warm realities of those three visionary shapes that flitted from me on the beach. Hark their merry voices as they toss up the water with their feet! They have not seen me. I must shrink behind this rock and steal away again.
In honest truth, vowed to solitude as I am, there is something in this encounter that makes the heart flutter with a strangely pleasant sensation. I know these girls to be realities of flesh and blood, yet, glancing at them so briefly, they mingle like kindred creatures with the ideal beings of my mind. It is pleasant, likewise, to gaze down from some high crag and watch a group of children gathering pebbles and pearly shells and playing with the surf as with old Ocean’s hoary beard. Nor does it infringe upon my seclusion to see yonder boat at anchor off the shore swinging dreamily to and fro and rising and sinking with the alternate swell, while the crew—four gentlemen in roundabout jackets—are busy with their fishing-lines. But with an inward antipathy and a headlong flight do I eschew the presence of any meditative stroller like myself, known by his pilgrim-staff, his sauntering step, his shy demeanor, his observant yet abstracted eye.
From such a man as if another self had scared me I scramble hastily over the rocks, and take refuge in a nook which many a secret hour has given me a right to call my own. I would do battle for it even with the churl that should produce the title-deeds. Have not my musings melted into its rocky walls and sandy floor and made them a portion of myself? It is a recess in the line of cliffs, walled round by a rough, high precipice which almost encircles and shuts in a little space of sand. In front the sea appears as between the pillars of a portal; in the rear the precipice is broken and intermixed with earth which gives nourishment not only to clinging and twining shrubs, but to trees that grip the rock with their naked roots and seem to struggle hard for footing and for soil enough to live upon. These are fir trees, but oaks hang their heavy branches from above, and throw down acorns on the beach, and shed their withering foliage upon the waves. At this autumnal season the precipice is decked with variegated splendor. Trailing wreaths of scarlet flaunt from the summit downward; tufts of yellow-flowering shrubs and rose-bushes, with their reddened leaves and glossy seed-berries, sprout from each crevice; at every glance I detect some new light or shade of beauty, all contrasting with the stern gray rock. A rill of water trickles down the cliff and fills a little cistern near the base. I drain it at a draught, and find it fresh and pure. This recess shall be my dining-hall. And what the feast? A few biscuits made savory by soaking them in sea-water, a tuft of samphire gathered from the beach, and an apple for the dessert. By this time the little rill has filled its reservoir again, and as I quaff it I thank God more heartily than for a civic banquet that he gives me the healthful appetite to make a feast of bread and water.
Dinner being over, I throw myself at length upon the sand and, basking in the sunshine, let my mind disport itself at will. The walls of this my hermitage have no tongue to tell my follies, though I sometimes fancy that they have ears to hear them and a soul to sympathize. There is a magic in this spot. Dreams haunt its precincts and flit around me in broad sunlight, nor require that sleep shall blindfold me to real objects ere these be visible. Here can I frame a story of two lovers, and make their shadows live before me and be mirrored in the tranquil water as they tread along the sand, leaving no footprints. Here, should I will it, I can summon up a single shade and be myself her lover.—Yes, dreamer, but your lonely heart will be the colder for such fancies.—Sometimes, too, the Past comes back, and finds me here, and in her train come faces which were gladsome when I knew them, yet seem not gladsome now. Would that my hiding-place were lonelier, so that the Past might not find me!—Get ye all gone, old friends, and let me listen to the murmur of the sea—a melancholy voice, but less sad than yours. Of what mysteries is it telling? Of sunken ships and whereabouts they lie? Of islands afar and undiscovered whose tawny children are unconscious of other islands and of continents, and deem the stars of heaven their nearest neighbors? Nothing of all this. What, then? Has it talked for so many ages and meant nothing all the while? No; for those ages find utterance in the sea’s unchanging voice, and warn the listener to withdraw his interest from mortal vicissitudes and let the infinite idea of eternity pervade his soul. This is wisdom, and therefore will I spend the next half-hour in shaping little boats of driftwood and launching them on voyages across the cove, with the feather of a sea-gull for a sail. If the voice of ages tell me true, this is as wise an occupation as to build ships of five hundred tons and launch them forth upon the main, bound to “Far Cathay.” Yet how would the merchant sneer at me!
And, after all, can such philosophy be true? Methinks I could find a thousand arguments against it. Well, then, let yonder shaggy rock mid-deep in the surf—see! he is somewhat wrathful: he rages and roars and foams,—let that tall rock be my antagonist, and let me exercise my oratory like him of Athens who bandied words with an angry sea and got the victory. My maiden-speech is a triumphant one, for the gentleman in seaweed has nothing to offer in reply save an immitigable roaring. His voice, indeed, will be heard a long while after mine is hushed. Once more I shout and the cliffs reverberate the sound. Oh what joy for a shy man to feel himself so solitary that he may lift his voice to its highest pitch without hazard of a listener!—But hush! Be silent, my good friend! Whence comes that stifled laughter? It was musical, but how should there be such music in my solitude? Looking upward, I catch a glimpse of three faces peeping from the summit of the cliff like angels between me and their native sky.—Ah, fair girls! you may make yourself merry at my eloquence, but it was my turn to smile when I saw your white feet in the pool. Let us keep each other’s secrets.
The sunshine has now passed from my hermitage, except a gleam upon the sand just where it meets the sea. A crowd of gloomy fantasies will come and haunt me if I tarry longer here in the darkening twilight of these gray rocks. This is a dismal place in some moods of the mind. Climb we, therefore, the precipice, and pause a moment on the brink gazing down into that hollow chamber by the deep where we have been what few can be—sufficient to our own pastime. Yes, say the word outright: self-sufficient to our own happiness. How lonesome looks the recess now, and dreary too, like all other spots where happiness has been! There lies my shadow in the departing sunshine with its head upon the sea. I will pelt it with pebbles. A hit! a hit! I clap my hands in triumph, and see my shadow clapping its unreal hands and claiming the triumph for itself. What a simpleton must I have been all day, since my own shadow makes a mock of my fooleries!
Homeward! homeward! It is time to hasten home. It is time—it is time; for as the sun sinks over the western wave the sea grows melancholy and the surf has a saddened tone. The distant sails appear astray and not of earth in their remoteness amid the desolate waste. My spirit wanders forth afar, but finds no resting-place and comes shivering back. It is time that I were hence. But grudge me not the day that has been spent in seclusion which yet was not solitude, since the great sea has been my companion, and the little sea-birds my friends, and the wind has told me his secrets, and airy shapes have flitted around me in my hermitage. Such companionship works an effect upon a man’s character as if he had been admitted to the society of creatures that are not mortal. And when, at noontide, I tread the crowded streets, the influence of this day will still be felt; so that I shall walk among men kindly and as a brother, with affection and sympathy, but yet shall not melt into the indistinguishable mass of humankind. I shall think my own thoughts and feel my own emotions and possess my individuality unviolated.
But it is good at the eve of such a day to feel and know that there are men and women in the world. That feeling and that knowledge are mine at this moment, for on the shore, far below me, the fishing-party have landed from their skiff and are cooking their scaly prey by a fire of driftwood kindled in the angle of two rude rocks. The three visionary girls are likewise there. In the deepening twilight, while the surf is dashing near their hearth, the ruddy gleam of the fire throws a strange air of comfort over the wild cove, bestrewn as it is with pebbles and seaweed and exposed to the “melancholy main.” Moreover, as the smoke climbs up the precipice, it brings with it a savory smell from a pan of fried fish and a black kettle of chowder, and reminds me that my dinner was nothing but bread and water and a tuft of samphire and an apple. Methinks the party might find room for another guest at that flat rock which serves them for a table; and if spoons be scarce, I could pick up a clam-shell on the beach. They see me now; and—the blessing of a hungry man upon him!—one of them sends up a hospitable shout: “Halloo, Sir Solitary! Come down and sup with us!” The ladies wave their handkerchiefs. Can I decline? No; and be it owned, after all my solitary joys, that this is the sweetest moment of a day by the seashore.