items of driftwood
I live a mile or so from the sea, which means that although I do most of my adventurous walking in the mountains, just a little way inland, we also often walk along the seashore. Some time ago we also began taking a couple of bags with us to pick up small pieces of driftwood to feed the fire. These are mainly irregularly shaped pieces, worn by the waves and the shingle into fissured shards of the trees they came from, or smaller pieces worn smooth by the same process. They make elegant piles on the hearth and, well-seasoned, burn well, sometimes with a blue flame from the salt in them. But we soon moved on from this to taking our estate car as near as we could to particularly good spots and filling it with larger pieces of wood and have now extended our capacity further by buying a small electric chain saw to cut up even bigger pieces when we get them home.
So now it is not so much a matter of picking up wood on a walk as incorporating a walk in a wood-gathering expedition. This has almost replaced the need to buy-in logs and all we need is a small amount of coal to keep the fire burning. This also means that we go more often and so have become more familiar with the inhabitants of the tide line: the waders foraging on the shore and the gulls dipping into the crashing waves as they roll onto the beach.
But on a recent visit all was silent. The beach was covered with sheets of ice and not a bird was to be seen. Today, though, was different. The gulls swooped overhead and oyster catchers stood in the foam of the waves that ran across the sand. On the cliffs huge icicles hung down, but dripping in the slow thaw. As the temperature rose there were shifts in the cliff face. Lumps of earth fell away and a huge boulder came crashing down onto the shingle shelf above the edge of the sand at the high tide line.
This is a coastline in transition. Five thousand years ago a forest grew on what had previously been marsh. Then the waters returned and all the beaches north and south of here have the remains of trees buried beneath them and sometimes exposed, as at Borth where the semi-fossilised stumps are often visible sticking out of the sand at low tide. The legendary expression of this fact is the story of Cantre’r Gwaelod a land lost beneath the waves. As the cliffs erode and water levels begin to rise perhaps some of what is now standing against the coast – the leisure centre, the caravan park and miles of cliffs – will be washed by waves running in relentlessly over fallen rocks, bricks and mortar.
In the meantime we’ll carry on going to our favourite beach where two currents meet and pile up rows of seaweed, driftwood and other debris along the side of the estuary of a small river that meets the sea here and brings down tree branches and other items onto the beach from inland. The wood we take, if left, would rot and release its carbon into the air, and we only accelerate the process by burning it. We also remove from the beach much natural and manufactured timber such as fence posts, bits of boat and other unidentifiable items. Perhaps it is naïve to believe that burning this instead of coal or electricity will do much to delay the onset of climate change that may eventually make the beach a ‘lost land’. But it keeps us in touch with the pulse of life at the edge of the ocean and also keeps our midwinter hearth burning bright.