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Waves and Surf


From: The Outermost House by Henry Beston

Chapter 3:  “The Headlong Wave” written in 1928.


Every mood of the wind, every change in the day’s weather, every phase of the tide – all these have subtle sea musics all their own. Surf of the ebb, for instance, is one music, surf of the flood another, the change in the two musics being most clearly marked during the first hour of a rising tide. With the renewal of the tidal energy, the sound of the surf grows louder, the fury of battle returns to it as it turns again on the land, and beat and sound change with the renewal of the war.


Sound of surf in these autumnal dunes – the continuousness of it, sound of endless charging, endless incoming and gathering, endless fulfillment and dissolution, endless fecundity, and endless death. I have been trying to study out the mechanics of that mighty resonance. The dominant note is the great spilling crash made by each arriving wave. It may be hollow and booming, it may be heavy and churning, it may be a tumbling roar. The second fundamental sound is the wild seething cataract roar of the wave’s dissolution and the rush of its foaming waters up the beach – this second sound diminuendo. The third fundamental sound is the endless dissolving hiss of the inmost slides of foam. The first two sounds reach the ear as a unisonance – the booming impact of the tons of water and the wild roar of the up-rush blending – and this mingled sound dissolves into the foam-bubble hissing of the third. Above the tumult, like birds, fly wisps of water noise, splashes and counter splashes, whispers, seething, slaps, and chucklings. An overtone sound of other breakers, mingled with a general rumbling, fells earth and sea and air.


Here I do pause to warn my reader that although I have recounted the history of a breaker – an ideal breaker – the surf process must be understood as mingled and continuous, waves hurrying after waves, interrupting waves, washing back on waves, overwhelming waves. Moreover, I have described the sound of a high surf in fair weather. A storm surf is mechanically the same thing, but it grinds, and this same long, sepulchral grinding – sound of utter terror to all mariners – is a development of the second fundamental sound; it is the cry of the breaker water running its way ashore and dragging at the sand. A strange underbody of sound when heard through the high, wild screaming of a gale.


I am, perhaps, most conscious of the sound of the surf just after I have gone to bed. Even here I read myself to drowsiness, and, reading, I hear the cadenced trampling roar filling all the dark. So close is the Fo’castle [the name of Beston’s house on the beach] to the ocean’s edge that the rhythm of sound I hear oftenest in fair weather is not so much a general tumult as an endless arrival, overspill, and dissolution of separate great seas. Through the dark, mathematic square of the screened half window, I listen to the rushes and the bursts, the tramplings, and the long, intermingled thunderings, never wearying of the sonorous and universal sound.




From Among the Isles of Shoals by Celia Thaxter

All through the day the ominous quiet lasts; in the afternoon, while yet the sea is glassy, a curious undertone of mournful sound can be perceived, -- not fitful, -- a steady moan such as the wind makes over the mouth of an empty jar.  Then the islanders say, "Do you hear Hog Island crying? Now look out for a storm!"  No one knows how that low moaning is produced, or why Appledore, of all the islands, should alone lament before the tempest.  Through its gorges, perhaps, some current of wind sighs with that hollow cry.  Yet the sea could hardly keep is unruffled surface were a wind abroad sufficient to draw out the boding sound.  Such a calm preceded the storm which destroyed the Minot's Ledge Lighthouse in 1849.  I never knew such silence.  Though the sun blazed without a cloud, the sky and sea were utterly wan and colorless, and before sunset the mysterious tone began to vibrate in the breezeless air.  "Hog Island's crying!" said the islanders.  One could but think of the Ancient Mariner, as the angry sun went down in a brassy glare, and still no ripple broke the calm.  But with the twilight gathered the waiting wind, slowly and steadily; and before morning the shock of the breakers was like the incessant thundering of heavy guns; the solid rock perceptibly trembled; windows shook, and glass and china rattled in the house.  It is impossible to describe the confusion, the tumult, the rush and roar and thunder of waves and wind overwhelming those rocks, -- the whole Atlantic rushing headlong to cast itself upon them.  It was very exciting: the most timid among us lost all sense of fear.  Before the next night the sea had made a breach through the valley on Appledore, in which the houses stand, -- a thing that never had happened within the memory of the oldest inhabitant.  The waves piled in from the eastward (where Old Harry was tossing the breakers sky-high), -- a maddened troop of giants, sweeping everything before them, -- and followed one another, white as milk, through the valley from east to west, strewing the space with boulders from a solid wall six feet high and as many thick, which ran across the top of the beach, and which one tremendous wave toppled over like a child's fence of blocks. Kelp and seaweed were piled in banks high up along the shore, and strewed the doorsteps; and thousands of the hideous creatures known among the Shoalers as sea-mice, a holothurian (a vivid, shapeless mass of torpid life), were scattered in all directions.  While the storm was at its height, it was impossible to do anything but watch it through windows beaten by the blinding spray which burst in flying clouds all over the island, drenching every inch of the soil in foaming brine.  In the coves the "yeasty surges" were churned into yellow masses of foam, that  blew across in trembling flakes, and clung wherever they lit, leaving a hoary scum of salt when dry, which remained till sweet, fair water dropped out of the clouds to wash it all away.  It was long before the sea went down; and, days after the sun began to shine, the fringe of spray still leaped skyward from the eastern shore, and Shag and Mingo Rocks at Duck Island tossed their distant couds of snow against the blue.

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