Beach on a Passed-over Frontier
Thoreau wrote the beauty of swamps. I write here of another desolate beauty – one more marked by humans. To call it a “beach” is to domesticate it, however, to masticate its roughness into a proper vision of loveliness made just for us. It is not made for us, nor we for it. This place of which I write is a sand-whipped and wave raked waste.
It frightens me a little, for many reasons. Each time I go there to run the sand has been reshaped; each bar is a bar newly made; each rippled depression will be gone in the next tide; each stream of stranded tidewater cuts a different gash back to the sea from the ones cut yesterday. I run close to the waves. Thin sheets of water glaze the sand soundlessly, a silent beginning to brutal tons of noise falling for now just yards out. Facing into the wind as I run north my ears holler with it, my eyes are buffeted with it. I see the six smoke stacks of the Tonghsiao power plant standing stolid to the north, against the wind. But the sight does not steady me. Only a few kilometers away, the stacks blur in the blue wind and the surf, they blink like lighthouses or ships wallowing.
When I turn back south my ears go quiet. I run with a ghostly current of blowing sand. As I near the southern end of the beach a cement wharf and sea wall cuts my vision of that horizon. It is fortress-massive, buttressed by giant jacks of poured cement. But even as these 8 foot high weights brunt the force of the waves, they also draw the water under them, the way one’s feet sink slowly the longer one stands in waves. A subterranean string of pools has collected under these piled behemoths. And I notice too that the cement surfaces below the high tide mark are blooming, encrusting, eroding, even as they settle. When will the wall itself list? Sucked down? Pulled in?
Running across the shifted, scalloped face of the sand I have a miniature feeling of the Lewis and Clark party’s wonder and fear. My eyes graze the pitted, stream-cut surface of the sand for crossing points, out to the smooth swelling sands next to the waves. Circling back to the south it is all completely foreign; I zig-zag baffled through the thousand tiny ponds and rivers, feet sinking in unexpected soft spots, until I happen across my footsteps from earlier. With this microscopic mapping, like a bush pilot looking down at a vexingly Byzantine tundra, I am disoriented. Then I glance up at the size of the thing rolling across the horizon, and this mapping, picking and choosing, loses meaning. My tiny tracings will count for nothing next time I come. I imagine the thrill of the party moving ant-like across the back of the slumbering continental animal, the horror of being always lost (even when they knew their coordinates), always on the outside, in an ever-shifting landscape that did not know them. I imagine too those moments when wonder swept across those nagging fears, when they would lift their eyes from worried reading of the land’s treacherous Braille and have their eyes blown open, helpless, pinned back by the magnitude of the world swelling up around them. I feel it.
But why do I imagine these men and not others? Why do I not imagine Sacagewea? Because they were at the head of the white north American empire of which I am heir, and whose farthest western point during the Cold War was Taiwan, this beach where I stand. Now it is a faded frontier. American capital has since swept beyond Taiwan like a tide, into China, but the empire is much more troubled for all its increasing size. I am programmed by the ideology of my youth to identify with them and their exploration, even if I know it now as reconnaissance for conquest and butchery, just as I still recall the picture of Sam Houston creeping off to read Homer’s Odyssey by himself as a boy, flat on his belly in the woods (which I copied once, in the woods behind my house, reading of Erik the Red and the landing at Iceland). These heroic, post-World-War II fantasies I imbibed greedily as a lonely boy. I have grown past these men and rejected their roles as servants and symbols of an empire, but the feeling those cherished scenes provoked will never die in me. I feel it, the wonder and terror and utter loneliness, in miniature, here on the port side of this old American battleship off the coast of China.
Armies of men no longer matter. That age is past. Heroism of individuals in conquest is superseded. Beyond the sand dunes stands a fortified guard tower, abandoned. Its gun slits are partly bricked up; fleshy plants grow out of its crevices; its top is piled with stones. Men no longer matter. China no longer threatens amphibious landings. They are a relic of World War II. Its missiles and economic power are the new invader, to be countered by computers, technicians, finance capital, networks, cameras, robots.
Most times when I come here there are couples, shoeless, slogging across the sand for wedding photos. They have parked with the photographer and his assistant just behind the heaping dunes and struggled up and over to the sandy waste. They jump stoically at the same time, hands, clasped, smiling, backs to the waves. They stand ankle-deep in water, beaming, maybe the last time they will ever do anything so foolish as to get their clothes wet with sea water. They recline, embracing, next to a heart drawn by the assistant in the sand. They run through the poses like calisthenics under the direction of their baseball-capped trainers. Knowing how wild this place is their cute acts seem absurdly out of place to me, like a child tittering and climbing on a bear’s knee and tweaking its glistening nose. The beaches they invoke are the beaches of movies, humanized places tamed enough that love can placidly bloom, uninterrupted by a looming earth. They are not this fierce place, this unsentimental, wracked fringe. But the photos clip and crop this volatile power, tucking it into the background of the little human romance of agency and will.
Today the wind is so strong it overwhelms its place in the background, and the photographers are not here. The barge just offshore near the harbor to the north is quiet as well, no smoke of dredging smudging the sky. They are building another cement port there, for fishermen to scour the sea for disappearing fish. A lone man with a dog works at a partly buried net on a bar. As I near, the dog watches me, and I him, keeping a good distance and piece of water between us. Finally the man gives up and gets up off his knees. The net, like all the others, is caught for good. The local government is also trying to make the new harbor a tourist spot, and there are basketball courts and a bathroom on the barren paved space behind the port. The shrubs are pitiful counterweights to the sun.
Behind the port highway 61, raised above the rice fields and block houses on cement pillars, makes a sharp curve inland. Its lights blink on as evening falls. Some of the pillars have drawn grafitti artists, who have painted demonic faces or illegible, exploding names. A proper artist has painted lotuses and carp. Brief ads are spray-painted: “heavy work, rock breaking 092893820,” “divorce 067833490.” Standing atop the dunes and looking back toward the highway, temples’ curving eaves and riotous colored dragons rise above the houses. One stands unfinished, naked cement, reinforcing rods poking out everywhere. Its name is already in place though, four large lit yellow signs hung across the top, a red character in each. It is vulgar in its mass, height, and craven maximalization of size, bloating a traditional form with reinforced cement.
The highwater mark at the front of the dunes is a litter of relics human and natural. Worn bleached tree trunks, thick braided ropes, Styrofoam floats, buoys, flip-flops cracked with exposure, nets in tangled masses. And across the water-worn plain the clean obliteration is broken here and there by a rustling plastic bag, or snack wrapper half-buried, crinkling spookily in the wind. Most days tiny crabs have created spokes of sand balls radiating from their holes, an aerial view of forests and Hobbitt’s glades as I run across it.
As the world system headed by the United States creaks and snaps, I feel it all keenly in this volatile margin where man’s brutal industry and nature’s relentless forces meet. This helps explain why this beach makes me uneasy: its savagery metaphorizes and foretells the savagery of the system in turmoil. The wind blowing my mouth and eyes open are the winds of rising food prices and inflation. The sand whipping around my ankles are the rootless peregrinations of the world’s poor, selling years of life and youth for a few dollars a day in faraway places (I see the Indonesian and Thai laborers here, ignored, clustered around their little stores on Sundays). The scavengers recovering buried nets or digging up crabs or picking plastic bottles from the flotsam are the other armies of poor folk who stay home, living off the detritus of the system. In these times, Taiwan, a bobbing boat of 23 restless millions, foretells the unsettled world better than most places. And this beach feels more like today’s world than anywhere else in Taiwan: a future of violence and want broods in the clouds offshore, even as a silver plane or two carries the rich high above, and on land, the accumulative system can never stop tearing up and tearing down, cementing, incinerating, wiring, demolishing and laying waste. Food prices shoot up, yet farming is still held in contempt, and fertile fields are cemented into houses, temples, warehouses, and factories, growing crops of money far faster than farmers can. After all, there is no contest between the meager wages of the hungry poor and the pools of luminous liquidity in which the rich loll, bathing.
On the landward side of the dunes lies a cemetery I like to linger by before I turn the key in my scooter’s ignition to go home. There is the scent of spirit money burning in the temples’ furnaces. There is the odor of burning plastic and trash out back of someone’s house. There is a yelp of a dog chained somewhere, on a chain always too short. The graves are mounds, artificial hills making good feng shui for the deceased. Colorful little columns and mythical animals anchor the corners of the tiled space at the front of the mounds, which make a neat floor for worshippers laying incense or food offerings. At the left side of most tombs are sentry houses containing small statues of a white-bearded god, cheerily dressed, protecting the place. And at the front center of the mound is the tablet, inscribed with the names of the dead in gold. Atop the mounds bits of paper flutter in the wind, weighted down by stones. After Tomb Sweeping Day in early spring people pick up the old papers and put down new ones, some pink and blue, some pale yellow. All year they weather there, tattering, brittling, shredding, crinkling, fading.
While the tombs of the wealthy are rich with a carpet of grass, others are patchily vegetated. Wedged in among the better-off tombs in poached space are dirt mounds, unmarked even by stone tablets, with only an anonymous stone and memory anchoring the spot. Others were originally well-appointed but have since been abandoned and overgrown with brush, victims of a family feud, or the death of all of those who knew the buried. Here and there too are visible tombs whose families have dug up the bones for reburial elsewhere, in search of peaceable placement for angry old spirits and a new start for the living. These sites lay as they were left the day of the raid, holes gaping atop the mounds, blasted open like savage Caesarian births, empty, forlorn, forgotten but not erased, stone slabs broken in pieces on the tile floors.
In the evening air a pig shrieks, and I recall the stench of pig shit as I had arrived earlier. It makes sense to raise pigs here. In a waste land there will be fewer complaints of pollution, of blood and stink, of the polluting screams of the dying.
As I ride home, scooter echoing through the narrow lanes of the villages, I dream of Chinese attack, a dream spun out by these residents and chewed over and discussed for decades. I recall seeing a front page of the Apple Daily a few years ago, with a striking computer-touched photograph showing Taipei 101 being hit by missiles. An attack would release the tension of eternal indecision and replace it with terror and chaos, choice and absolute randomness. The world of stock markets, forever bobbing up and down on eddies of chance in little boats but never getting anywhere new, never reaching any commanding heights or conclusions, any peaceable ending nirvana or awful hell, nor any secular rupture of revolution or overthrow, no deshouke nor intifada, never getting anywhere but a repetition of the last election or playoff game, a hamster wheel of numbers undisrupted even by the carnivalic revelry of a symbolic human agency, deadens. Even devotees and initiates of the market cult worldwide hate its oppressive forever-ness, and drown it out with endless distractions. Hollywood churns out a steady supply of Armageddon fare, annual festivals of the Statue of Liberty obliterated or the White House beamed up, anti-valentines to the system. These longings for closure and renewal are always sold in censored form, captioned with heroic comebacks by the system’s heroes tacked on at the end.
On this beach I see the end is already here, and has been here a long time; I open my arms to it in despair and longing for rebirth. No matter how attached I am to life and familiar routine I cannot help imagining Chinese attack. It would only be a faster and more honest version of the self-cannibalization that industrialization and money breeding is. It would bring markets to a dead halt. It would bring blessed, frightful end, a breath, reflection. . . and dying. I imagine it here, in this fortune-telling moor, one of the awful edges of market civilization. Having been surpassed, it is sapped of the frightening vitality that now whips Shanghai and Bangalore, and lolls, bobbing, listless -- but still pounded by currents.