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Our Beaches

Posted on 04 May 2012

The Sands of Time

web col (gambino) beach shot

By Richard Gambino


Back when Latin was the language of learning, scholars made a distinction between natura naturata, nature at any given moment (a “snapshot” of nature), and natura naturans, nature in motion, as it always is, even when we don’t perceive it to be so.

As I walk our ocean beaches today, I think back to previous times e.g., May 2009. Then, I photographed a large pathway of erosion in front of the Shadmoor Preserve, east of Montauk Village. A bluff and beach there were being devastated by a stream-sized deep rivulet formed by the tides carrying a great deal of sand to the ocean.

Each spring and summer, the ocean tides bring sand to our beaches from sand banks lying offshore. And each fall and winter, the tides tend to take sand from our beaches, dunes and bluffs out to the banks. But in the long term, more is removed from our coasts than replaced. Not to mention hurricanes, which can shrink beaches fast. “Time” is not only “the enemy of man,” it is also the enemy of the South Fork’s ocean shorelines.

Efforts to change this are ultimately futile. For example, for eighteen years I had a small summer place overlooking the ocean on Dune Road in Westhampton Beach. In 1970, I watched long groins (a.k.a. “jetties”) of massive boulders being installed at right angle to the coastline from east of my location to a point east of the Moriches Inlet — an area later dubbed “Westhampton Dunes.” As I and others predicted, over years the groins trapped sand in the prevailing tides, moving east to west, from the offshore sand banks, and greatly built up the beach in front our homes with groins in front of them. At the expense of the beaches to the west of us to Moriches Inlet, the area of Westhampton Dunes, as some of us also predicted. And in the 1980s we watched beach houses there swept into the surf that came more and more inland each year as the beaches there diminished. To paraphrase what Lucretius said 2,200 years ago in his On The Nature of Things: The laws of nature control all, so best not to try to mess with them.

You see, the oceans have been rising since the glaciers of the last ice age began to melt, some 20,000 years ago. In fact, that ice carried the earth, sand, stones and boulders that formed the glacial moraine that is Long Island. (Ice ages and periods of global warming alternate in cycles in geological history.) If you look at a nautical chart (map) of our coasts, you can see the edge of the area covered with ice during the last ice age — now the “continental shelf,” far beyond today’s beaches. That much seawater was locked up in glaciers. (Then, as now, seawater evaporated, leaving behind its salts, then came back to earth as rain and snow. The Wisconsin Glacier that formed Long Island was more than a mile high.) Fact is, most of the ocean beaches enjoyed by people on the South Fork just 100 years ago are now gone, their sites today underwater.

The ephemeral nature of both our beaches and our footprints on them makes me treasure all the more the earth and the preciousness of life. But for some people, it brings just sadness. This takes us to the sands of human psychology, which are trickier than our coasts. But that’s another story, about something else that’s only natural.


RICHARD GAMBINO for eighteen seasons loved to fall asleep at night to the rhythmic sounds of sea meeting sand.

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