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Old Junk
H. M. Tomlinson, 1922


The Dunes

THE dunes are in another world. They are two miles across the uncertain and hazardous tide races of the estuary. The folk of the village never go over. The dunes are nothing. They are the horizon. They are only seen in idleness, or when the weather is scanned, or an incoming ship is marked. The dunes are but a pallid phantom of land so delicately golden that it is surprising to find it constant. The faint glow of that dilated shore, quavering just above the sea, the sea intensely blue and positive, might wreathe and vanish at any moment in the pour of wind from the Atlantic, whose endless strength easily bears in and over us vast involuted continents of white cloud. The dunes tremble in the broad flood of wind, light, and sea, diaphanous and fading, always on the limit of vision, the point of disappearing, but are established. They are soundless, immaterial, and far, like a pleasing and personal illusion, a luminous dream of lasting tranquillity in a better but an unapproachable place, and the thought of crossing to them never suggests anything so obvious as a boat. They look like no coast that could be reached.

It was a perverse tide on a windless day which drifted me over. The green mounds of water were flawless, with shadows of mysteries in their clear deeps. The boat and the tide were murmuring to each other secretly. The boat's thwarts were hot and dry in the sun. The serene immensity of the sky, the warmth and dryness of the boat's timbers, the deep and translucent waters, and the coast so low and indistinct that the silent flashing of the combers there might have been on nothing substantial, were all timeless, and could have been but a thought and a desire; they were like a memorable morning in a Floridan cay miraculously returned. The boat did not move; the shore approached, revealed itself. It was something granted on a lucky day. This country would not be on the map.

I landed on a broad margin of sand which the tide had just left. It was filmed with water. It was a mirror in which the sky was inverted. When a breath of air passed over that polished surface it was as though the earth were a shining bubble which then nearly burst. To dare that foothold might precipitate the intruder on ancient magic to cloudland floating miles beneath the feet. But I had had the propriety to go barefooted, and had lightened my mind before beginning the voyage. Here I felt I was breaking into what was still only the first day, for man had never measured this place with his countless interruptions of darkness. I don't know whether that mirror had ever been darkened till I put my foot in it. After the news I had heard on the quay that morning before starting out, news just arrived from London, the dunes were an unexpected assurance that the earth has an integrity and purity of its own, a quality which even man cannot irreparably soil that it maintains a pristine health and bloom invulnerable to the best our heroic and intelligent activities can accomplish, and could easily survive our extinction, and even forget it once supported us.

I found an empty bottle among the dry litter and drift above the tide-mark, sole relic, as far as could be seen there, of man. No message was in the bottle. The black bottle itself was forlornly the message, but it lay there unregarded by the bright immemorial genius of that coast. Yet it settled one doubt. This was not a land which had never known man. It had merely forgotten it had known him. He had been there, but whatever difference he had made was of the same significance now as the dry bladder-wrack, the mummied gull near by, and the bleached shells. The next tide probably would hide the memento for ever. At the time this did not seem an unhappy thought, though the relic had been our last witness, so enduring was the tenuous brightness of the place, the shrine of our particular star, the visible aura of earth. We rarely see it. It is something to be reminded it is not lost; that we cannot, whatever else we can do, put out a celestial light.

Above the steep beach a dry flat opened out, reached only by gales and the highest of the spring tides, a wilderness of fine sand, hot and deep, its surface studded with the opaque blue of round pebbles and mussel shells. It looked too arid to support life, but sea-rocket with fleshy emerald stems and lilac flowers was scattered about. Nothing moved in the waste but an impulsive small butterfly, blue as a fragment of sky. The silence of the desert was that of a dream, but when listening to the quiet, a murmur which had been below hearing was imagined. The dunes were quivering with the intensity of some latent energy, and it might have been that one heard, or else it was the remembrance held by that strand of a storm which had passed, or it might have been the ardent shafts of the sun. At the landward end of the waste, by the foot of the dunes, was an old beam of a ship, harsh with barnacles, its bolt-holes stopped with dust. A spinous shrub grew to one side of it. A solitary wasp, a slender creature in black and gold, quick and emotional, had made a cabin of one of the holes in the timber. For some reason that fragment of a barque was more eloquent of travel, and the work of seamen gone, than any of the craft moored at the quay I left that morning. I smoked a pipe on that timber--for all I knew, not for the first time--and did not feel at all lonely, nor that voyages for the discovery of fairer times were finished.

Now the dunes were close they appeared surprisingly high, and were formed, not like hills, but like the high Alps. They had the peaks and declivities of mountains. Their colour was of old ivory, and the long marram grass which grew on them sparsely was as fine as green hair. The hollowed slope before me was so pale, spacious, and immaculate that there was an instinctive hesitation about taking it. A dark ghost began slowly to traverse it with outspread arms, a shade so distinct on that virgin surface that not till the gull, whose shadow it was, had gone inland, following its shadow over the high yellow ridge, did I know that I had not been looking at the personality. But the surface had been darkened, and I could overcome my hesitation.

From the ridge, the country of the dunes opened inland with the enlarged likeness of a lunar landscape surveyed in a telescope. It merely appeared to be near. The sandhills, with their acute outlines, and their shadows flung rigidly from their peaks across the pallor of their slopes, were the apparition of inviolable seclusion. They could have been waiting upon an event secret from our knowledge, larger than the measure of our experience; so they had still the aspect of a strange world, not only infinitely remote, but superior with a greater destiny. They were old, greatly older than the ancient village across the water. Ships left the village and went by them to sea gay with the bunting of a first voyage, with a fair wind, and on a fine morning; and when such a ship came back long after as an old plank bearded with sea moss, to the dunes under which it stranded the day was still the same, vestal and innocent; for they were on a voyage of greater length and import. They had buried many ships; but, as time moved to them, all on the same day.

Only when resting on a knoll of one of the slopes, where the shadows of a tuft of marram grass above my head lay as thin black wire on the sand, were the dunes caught in part of their secret. There was no sound. I heard the outer world from which I had come only as the whistle of a curlew. It was far away now. To this place, the news I had heard on the quay that morning would have sounded the same as Waterloo, which was yesterday, or the Armada, which was the same day---wasn't it?--or the day before, or as the whistle of a curlew. Here we were outside time. Then I thought I heard a faint whisper, but when I looked round nothing had altered. The shadows of the grass formed a fixed metallic design on the sand. But I heard the whisper again, and with a side glance caught the dune stealthily on the move.

It was alive. When you were not attentive, some of its grains would start furtively, pour in increasing mobility fanwise, and rest instantly when looked at. This hill was fluid, and circulated. It preserved an outline that was fixed through the years, a known, named, and charted locality, only to those to whom one map would serve a lifetime. But it was really unknown. It was on its way. Like the ships that were passing, it also was passing. It was only taking its own time.

Secluded within the inner ranges were little valleys where, for a while, the dunes had ceased to travel, and were at leisure. I got into a hollow which had a floor of hoary lichen, with bronze hummocks of moss. In this moment of pause it had assumed a look of what we call antiquity. The valley was not abundant with vegetation, but enamelled and jewelled. A more concentrated,. hectic, and volatile essence sent up stalks, blades, and sprays, and with that direction and restraint which perfection needs. More than in a likelier and fecund spot, in this valley the ichor showed the ardour and flush of its early vitality. Even now it could shape like this, and give these dyes Chosen by an earth astringent and tonic, the forms were few and personal. Here you should see to what influences our planet is still subject. The shapes in that valley were more than coloured; they were rare jets of light, emerald, orange, blue, and scarlet. Life burned with an original force, a steady virtue. What is "good news"? It depends on the sort of evidence for which we look.

Just showing in the drift on the seaward side of the valley were some worked stones and a little brickwork. When the sandhill paused, it had almost covered a building where man once worshipped. I could find nobody afterwards who remembered the church, or had even heard of it. Yet the doom of this temple, prolonged in its approach but inevitable, to those to whom the altar once had seemed as indestructible as hope, must on a day have struck the men who saw at last their temple's end was near as a hint, vague but glacial, of the transience of all their affairs.

But what were their affairs? We should have to know them before we could regret the dry sand which buried them. The valley looked very well as it was. It showed no sign of failure. Over one of the stones of the forgotten altar was a casual weed which stood like a sign of success and continuance. It was as indecipherable as the stone, but the blue of its flowers, still and deep as rapture, surprising and satisfying as an unexpected revelation of good, would have been better worth reading for a knowledge of the heart from which could be drawn the temper and intensity of that faith.

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