Endlessly Drifting

Of Lives Lived…and Driftwood

“Across the narrow beach we flit, One little sand-piper and I; And fast I gather, bit by bit, The scattered drift-wood, bleached and dry, The wild waves reach their hands for it, The wild wind raves, the tide runs high, As up and down the beach we flit, One little sand-piper and I.”

Celia Thaxter, 19th-century American poet and writer

After the cold weather of winter set in, I read countless posts on Facebook or overheard people discussing how many days were left until spring.

It perplexes me—there exists a large group of people who are actually wishing an entire season away—and, in a way, wishing time away.

Without the cold, snow and ice of winter, the beauty and rebirth of Wisconsin spring could not exist. In winter we shed the past and in spring we celebrate the rebirth of our beautiful county. But the transition from winter to spring can be a very tricky one, with snow still falling in early May at times. It makes you realize how our perception of seasons is immaterial and that perhaps we should simply embrace what Mother Nature brings our way.

The shoreline is a wonderful place any time of year. But in spring, it is always a more special place for me. The storms of November hammer the shoreline and deposit treasures, which lay dormant through the winter and are fully revealed in spring. Tree limbs, trunks and roots have a way of making a journey from land to water and then once again back to land where they are rediscovered and given a new life.

Driftwood is very special to me…it reminds me that, in this case, trees live and grow majestic and then die…but that they do not just go away. Some lay peacefully in forests, slowly decomposing while providing habitat to animals. Others are cut and become beautiful homes (especially those hand-hewn beauties) while yet others warm a family during the winter days or chilly summer nights.

Those that grow on the shoreline ultimately give themselves up to the mighty power of the lake/bay. As they fall, they drift in the lake, are hammered by waves, are displaced from their origin and find new life…eventually on the shoreline somewhere else. Those who find both the inner and outer beauty of driftwood irresistible covet these treasures.

After churning in the water, the wood is stripped of bark and lays itself bare for all to see. Its time in the water, and repeated—and often violent—encounters with the shoreline, ultimately leave a smooth and almost-polished treasure. The wood loses it natural color and turns a special silver-gray—no different than the effects of aging on our own hair. This transitional process is what ultimately makes the piece of wood “live” again—a natural cleansing, if you will.

This is analogous of many of our lives, no? It is often the difficult situations we encounter that cause us to grow the most and become who we were always meant to be. We must repeat lessons in life until we finally get what we were supposed to learn…then the universe allows us to move on. Like driftwood, we, too, are polished by our “beatings” and deposited on the shorelines of our lives to live life differently.

I began this article with a poem filled with simple joy by American poet and writer Celia Thaxter. That passage always brings a smile to my face. I find many moments on hikes, shoreline walks, or vacations on the beach in Captiva, Florida, when the young, innocent Brian jumps from within me, and whose footprints I can almost see before crashing waves wash them away. For I, too, treasure the moments flitting on the beach collecting driftwood, seashells, sea glass or simply sharing a private dance, albeit modern and awkward in my case, with a sandpiper.

In Florida and other coastal states, individuals walk the beaches in search of shells or sea glass. Their treasures find homes in lamps, on shelves, as gifts, or inspiration for a beautiful piece of art. Whatever it may be, they do so as it becomes a lasting display of a memory, of a moment in a time when something simple caught their eye and found a place in their heart. They display these items so all who visit may see their beauty and perhaps feel their transitional power.

Nevertheless, what I find interesting is each beachcomber looks for something a little different. It reminds me that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

On the Great Lakes our eyes are peeled for shells mostly so we can avoid cutting our feet on them. For us freshwater folks, driftwood is the prize.

How do you display your piece of driftwood? Do you simply place it in a garden, at the end of your driveway…or do you create something with it? I have seen some incredible pieces of art created from driftwood of all sizes, from fireplace mantels, to planters, to polished, stained and finished wall hangings. Each and everyone one is different in its own way because it comes from a once living and unique tree that grew and transformed in many ways depending on what Mother Nature cast its way.

I can tell you that there are going to be some mighty great finds come spring, if what I have seen on my shoreline ice hikes remain land bound, and not cast back into the bay for another season of tumbling.

It makes me wonder what has yet to make its way to the shoreline as it lays frozen in the bay and how the ice shoves will change its current shape. Bob Kayser, longtime landscape architect at the Peninsula Players, must have loved his time on the shoreline because his legacy lives on in the Players’ property, where driftwood that caught his eye found a new home in the various gardens. There even hangs a driftwood sign bearing the Peninsula Players name above the old scene shop door that has found a new life.

At times, we have all felt like driftwood. I have never read a more poignant analogy to driftwood than in the analysis of Dave Pelzer’s book A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive.

In the epilogue, Pelzer creates an explicit metaphor out of a piece of driftwood that he observes as he stands on the shore of the Pacific Ocean. The wood is thrown up on the shore and then dragged back by the tide into the ocean. It has an “odd, twisted shape. The wood is pitted, yet smoothed and bleached from its time in the sun.”

The wood reminds him of his childhood. He, too, was pushed around by larger forces. It was as if “some immense power were sucking me into some giant undertow.” But unlike the driftwood he observed, he was able to break free. The implication is that individual human life is not controlled by larger forces; it does not have to drift helplessly; individuals can take charge of their own situations.

This spring, as we look at new life emerging from the forests, gardens, orchards and shorelines, remind yourself that life is about transitions. It is my hope that the transitions you have survived in your lifetime have left you unique, polished and beautiful.

Find the beauty that is life and celebrate it by walking the shoreline and hunting for a piece of driftwood that speaks to you. Take it home…provide it with a new space to shine and be cherished and admired so that you and those who see it may remember that life is beautiful.