Thursday, August 21, 2008

If You Go To the Beach, You're Going to get Sand in Your Bed

It was not the worst house we’ve ever rented. In some ways, it surpassed the houses where we stayed on Pawleys Island in the 70’s. This house had air-conditioning, practically unheard of in a rental then. It had a dishwasher. We washed and dried by hand. It had a washer and dryer. We either went to the laundromat or wore dirty. And this house had a microwave, which, in the early 70’s, had been invented but nobody owned one.

This house, on another South Carolina beach, was surrounded by a little grass, a lot of ants and a whole lot of sand, which, because the house sat flat on the ground, made its way into the house, and even our beds, with regularity, and the house broom didn’t get much rest.

Here in Aiken, on the edge of the sandhills, we fight another battle with sand. Peaches, watermelons and peanuts love sandy soil, but most other garden and landscape plants need more nutrients than it provides. Sandy soil is good for plants that don’t like wet feet, but hard on plants that need a lot of water, so we must constantly amend with humus and other organic material.

But Sand is what makes the beach a beach, I think. A rocky beach should be called something else. Sand is “nature’s true grit,” says Todd Ballantine in his wonderful book about beach ecology, “Tideland Treasure.” .

Three things make up our beach sand, he says. Quartz is weathered from Appalachian granite and was transported here by ancient rivers. Ground up sea shells are calcium carbonate pulverized by sea surf. The final ingredient is detritus from plants, animals, plankton skeletons, fecal pellets and bacteria. Sand feels gritty, as opposed to silt, which is smaller grained and feels smooth. Sand feels especially gritty when it’s rubbed between the bottom sheet and your bare legs.

It was only a short walk across the sand dunes to the beach from our house. Sea Oats are the most plentiful plants on the dunes. They are the seashore’s indispensable “amber waves of grain” with creamy panicles on six foot stalks that bend in the intense beach wind. A wild relative of the oats from which oatmeal is made, Sea Oats are there for more than just decoration. These Sea Oats send roots deep down into the dunes and help hold them in place.

Other beach grasses populate the dunes as well. Bitter panic grass, broomsedge, nutgrass, and the nasty, foot-puncturing sandspur help keep the dunes from blowing away.

Besides the sandspur, other shore plants have developed thorny defenses against marauding herbivores. Horse nettle, Solanum carolinense, is close kin to our garden tomato (the same genus) and is familiar to Aiken gardeners as an irritating yellow flowered, thorny spined plant that pops up regularly in our flower and vegetable beds.

Other spiky plants that grow wild on the dunes are also grown as ornamentals in xeriscaping. Yucca has sharp, pointed leaves that grow in a rosette shape with a tall candelabra of white flowers. Prickly Pear cactus pops up here and there and bears a flower and a fruit that can be made into jelly.

Closer to the ground, yellow flowering Evening Primrose still blooms along with wild Morning Glory. One of the most prevalent beach plants and one that that we don’t seeing growing wild in Aiken is the round leaved Beach Pennywort. And there’s smilax, of course.

All these plants have adapted to grow in the sand in the hot, windy, salty conditions that exist along the shore. If it weren’t for them, the dunes would blow away or wash away and eventually the houses would too. We wouldn’t have our yearly family vacation, where the big boys can go fishing and the little boys can dig a hole to China and fill it with ocean water.

So it wasn’t the best house. Most mornings began with the chirp of two-year-old Elliot calling, “Mammommy! PopPop!” and ended with a quiet night on the porch with his big brother who’s now four and fascinated with sea turtles. “Look, grandmommy, the moon looks like a seashell.” Angel voices. What’s a little sand in your bed?