The beach grass set me thinking. My dear friend and companion waded into Lake Michigan, an expanse of water with no visible opposite shore, which allows the watcher to lose oneself in the watching. Waves lapping his ankles, he watched the water. It was a moment too private to join, and my own thoughts needed a privacy of their own, so I investigated the flip side of the shoreline, where sand meets flora.
Beach grass, specifically Ammophilia breviligulta, covers the shifting, unsettled sands of the shores of the Great Lakes and the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a deceptively sturdy grass that prefers the physical stresses of wind and water to the peace it would find just a bit further inland. I’d grown up seeing the grass but giving it little thought. On public beaches it’s often behind a rope of fence, accompanied by a sign telling visitors to stay off, since the grass slows the erosion of the sand, and thousands of feet trampling it would quickly undo this valiant dune preservation act. Because of the signs, or because for the last sixteen years, my beach-going has been filled with carrying young children and their belongings and keeping my eyes water-ward, counting heads and wondering if more sunscreen needed to be applied. It’s not been the type of beach-going that allowed for botanical study or metaphorical musings.
This trip allowed for both. Intermittent conversation on our walk down the shoreline permitted plenty of time for the privacy of thought, and his look out encouraged my look in. The grass struck me as absurd. Sure, grass reduces erosion. Roots hold soil into place, thus preserving the substrate and the plant itself. It’s mutualism of a sort, with both benefiting each other. But this grass, so scattered, seemed woefully insufficient for the job of holding tons of sand in place. Sure, it’s a sturdy blade, but it’s hardly a densely packed plant, like the grass of a prairie. How could this work?
Closer inspection revealed a web of roots just below the surface of the plants on flat ground and above ground in the wind-worn spots. Thick and tangled and deeply fixed, these roots told a story of strength and permanence that the blades had not revealed. I pushed at pockets of sand around the roots, watching the sand flow a bit then stop when contained by a knot of roots. Again and again I pushed and watched. Burying my hands into the sand, I felt the depth of these roots, holding blades to land and sand to shore with a silent and hidden ferocity.
Breviligulata can tolerate being buried under three feet of sand with no ill effects. Instead of killing the plant, burial encourages the rhizomes (runners, by which the plant propagates itself) to reach upward. Being buried alive make the plant stronger and increases growth. And those delicate appearing blades? They are well-adapted to the wind and drying conditions of dune life, managing to stay sturdy in conditions where other plants would perish. Strength under stress above and below ground. More than strength. Growth.
Watching the sand run and stop in the tangle of roots, feeling the strength of the blades and roots between my fingers, I thought about my kids. While parents are hopefully always their kids’ strength and stability source, that job comes to center during upheaval and trauma. When life runs evenly, this is a largely unconscious job, since the mere presence of a relatively sane and kind figure in the normal breezes of life is enough to center most children. But when the winds pick up and blow the sand beneath their feet, the work of steadying a child becomes a full-time preoccupation. During the too-many years of the disintegration of my marriage and changes on their other home front, the sands shifted, and my children needed overt stabilization from me.
I realized I was their beach grass. I did it overtly, keeping existing routines in place and creating new ones for our changed family. I did it silently, sleeping next to children weary of change. And like the beach grass, when I, too, was covered in sand and sorrow, three feet under, I survived, and so did they. The ground held, or most of it did. And I, like the beach grass, grew stronger, reaching vertically from the roots that held the ground in place.
I don’t know how the beach grass feels about it, but being a constant source of stability is straining. I mean, I manage the sane and kind part fairly well, but since those hardest years, I find myself on guard for storms and wondering when I can let some sand shift under their growing feet. Sure, some shifts on its own. Friends move away. Scores on tests aren’t as hoped. Big brothers grow into grown-up interests, and little brothers approach the hormonal storms of puberty. Through it all, I’ve tried to remain steady, keeping routines in place and bringing a deep stability to our family system.
But a mom can shift the sands, too, working more, encouraging independence, and even finding love beyond her offspring. I’ve introduced change with hesitant steps, often fearing the reactions of kids who do not like one grain of sand to move. So while watching the grass sway and the sand stay still, I contemplated the changes ahead and the sands that would most likely skid out of place as a result.
Feeling the catch in my throat telling me tears were coming, I returned my eyes to the water. My dear companion reached down to the water and watched it run through his fingers before returning to the shore. The catch relaxed, and I felt the stabilizing presence he offers to me, his roots meeting my roots as we move forward together. We’ve both been buried, and we’ve both come out stronger. My boys, too, have begun to grow their own deep roots and can more often stabilize themselves. So the winds will blow. I’m betting we’ve enough beach grass among us to hold our ground in place.