Obviously, Key West is an island. That fact, coupled with its semi-tropical climate, dictates nearly every aspect of life. People have had to modify the island in order to live on it, but the elemental forces are never far away. The natural rhythms inform everyday experiences to a much greater extent than in many other parts of the country. Daily tides delineate the working lives of fishermen and tourist boat captains alike. There’s a nightly festival on the waterfront just to celebrate the beauty of the sunset. Hurricane season, lobster season, rainy season, tourist season… the list goes on, but they are all tied to predictable events over which we have no control. Nowhere is that more apparent than the beach on the southern side of the island.
The landscape of that beach was wild, changeable and raw. That was not where you went if you were searching for the white sand beaches of the tourist brochures or the lush paradise of Old Town gardens. No, this beach was exposed and honest, both brutally ugly and heartbreakingly beautiful. It had been neglected and restricted for decades and vagaries of the tide meant that all manner of detritus would wash up after a storm, but it also escaped the Disney-fication of so many other parts of the Keys and that gave an authenticity to my relationship with it.
Key West is a chunk of ancient coral roughly four miles by two miles. It’s sheltered by the world’s third largest barrier reef. This reef has protected the island from hurricanes and tropical storms, and makes the water near the shore more placid than you would expect. Of course, no pounding surf means no eroding of rock and shell. No erosion means no sand. What sand there was on the large public beaches had been imported from elsewhere. I heard that the Bahamas were a favorite source.
That all means that you didn’t lie on my beach with a book and a cool drink. No, this was a walking beach, a standing beach. The shore consisted of worn rock, slippery with algae and seawater, which formed small tide pools full of crabs and snails and fish. The variety and abundance of life in the tide pools came nowhere near that of the Pacific Northwest pools, but that made the discovery and observation of those things even sweeter. When the tide was out, the beachcombing was excellent with sea glass abundant and conch shells not uncommon. There were also worn bricks from the old sea wall, bits of broken pottery, and feathers from the cormorants or pelicans. When the tide was in, the rocks disappeared and you stood on the edge of the earth with the waves lapping or pounding, depending on the mood of the sea. This was the time for contemplation, for expanding your awareness and thinking big thoughts.
Despite not being a tropical paradise, the beach was a strongly sensory experience. The water had a tangy, salty smell that was a little musty when the wind came from the south and washed up sea grass and jellies. You could taste it sometimes, when the air was thick and heavy, and you inhaled it when the late summer winds drove the waves to crash on shore. Your skin would feel tight and your lips would taste salty with sea spray and sweat. What sand there was as gritty and course, contrasting with the dark slipperiness of the rocks that threatened to drop you on your tail at every step. There was no way to keep your hair contained and it quickly became a snarled mess. Visiting that beach was a messy business all around, but that was part of its charm. Coming out of cool, clean buildings to experience something different, something more.
I think the sky was more powerful to me than the sea, though, and as changeable. Sometimes the sky was a blanket, so close I could reach up and pull it around my shoulders. Other days, it was so impossibly, dizzyingly far away that I became hyper-aware that the rock beneath my feet was the only thing keeping me from falling into the stars. Yes, the sky was usually blue, but the word was meaningless against the reality. It was green, grey, turquoise, lapis lazuli, navy, indigo, cerulean, and a thousand other blues for whom names have never been invented. At night, oh! The sky was velvet and diamond or so clouded no light shone anywhere. The sky never lied. Learning to read the clouds and the wind, the color and the clarity was easy once you started paying attention and it was easy to pay attention when your daily experience was so closely tied to the weather.
It’s odd that when I think of the landscape of this beach in Key West, I don’t think of plants at all. There were coconut palms that lined the road between our house and the beach, but they served mostly as green windsocks, helping to indicate the direction of the winds. There were some stubborn low-growing succulents above the high tide mark, and they did produce beautiful little flowers from time to time. No, the landscape here was all hard: rock, water, sky. The raw, bareness of the place made it easy to pay attention to the big things without the distractions of flashy beauty. And when you did find a sheltered place, like a tide pool or the lee of a rock, it was more magical for its fragility.
I know that people like comfortable places; I like comfortable places. Every so often, though, there needs to be a space for the elemental, those things that don’t bend to our will or even acknowledge us at all. I would hope to see more landscapes that incorporate honest wildness, places where a landscape can be itself and people must find a way to move in synch with it, even for a short while. That type of connection brings a humility and an expansion unlike any other. I just need to sit back and think about the beach in Key West to recover some of that connection even now.