The Seashell Nebula

The Seashell Nebula

Continued from An Artistic Encounter With Nature

I return to Chesterman Beach every year now. It always surprises me that the house still isn’t there, that she is nowhere to be seen. I look up from the beach, expecting to see her, there at the top of the rocks, cradling a steaming mug of tea in her hands.

Every now and again, I Google the name she offered that day. No search has ever returned a mention of a folk artist from British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. Nor do any of the many gallery curators I’ve met these past few years recognise her name.

No surprise there. And I’ve grown surprisingly nonchalant about it. I learned everything I needed from her that day, enough to send me on the path meant for me.

I come back here because… well, because this is the place I first began to really see the world, the world in its full breadth and width. It’s where I began to find beauty everywhere, and where I began to discover ways to tease that beauty out in photographs.

There is no place else quite like this little cove at the South end of Chesterman Beach. I’ve never found anywhere with this delightful sprinkle of pulverized seashell, nor the gentle brush of waves which paints so many patterns of exquisitely simple complexity on the canvas of sand. I can stand in one place and the waves treat me to an endless array of beautiful arrangements. In just an hour, I fill up memory card after memory card.

As the years have gone by, my Seashell Series of photographs gained critical and public notice, so the trips here have enriched my finances nearly as much as they have enriched my vision, my spirit. Every time I come, I see deeper and deeper into the beauty.

A lot of years have passed. I’m old now. If I want to stay on the beach for hours, I bring a chair, and a tripod, no longer quite so nimble and tireless in my pursuit of beauty. But where I once needed to shoot hundreds of frames to find 10, I came to need just 10 to find 10.

This time… this time, I haven’t shot a single image. It’s my last afternoon here. The tide’s coming in. The sun getting low, and weak. I don’t have much time left.

And yet, I’m unperturbed.

It’s not for lack of seeing. The waves brought me more beauty than ever before. But, this time… beauty is not what I’m here for. Not that I have any clue just what that is. I’m not sure what I’m here to shoot. A voice, deep inside, says “not this one, Patrick.” I guess I know what I don’t want. And so, I stay my finger on the shutter release. Waiting.

The waves come in, and wash away. They come in, and wash away. Always bringing change to the sand, to the grains of shell. I can see them, the bits of shell, individually, rolling with the gentle flow of water, or tumbling with a stronger wave. I see time in them, I see the crab carapace and mussel shells they once were, see the crab prying open the mussel, and eating it. See the seagull, capturing the young crab in its beak, flying it dozens of feet aloft to drop onto the rocks, cracking its shell, exposing its flesh.

Cycles of life in a grain of shell I once thought was nothing but sand.

So I look closer at the sand, and see a beach before life, the look further back, to see a land before water, and further to see a sky before land. Further back, there is only dust, circling in a vast disk, circling the gassy mass, slowly heating up at its center. And when I look back into the beginning of it all, there is an implosion, into which all matter gathers, shrinking, shrinking, shrinking in volume, until it becomes nothingness, and everything blinks out of existence, even time.

I take a breath, then, and find that same grain of shell, watch it begin tumbling with an incoming wave. Thousands of them are tumbling, and rolling, like a dance, guided by forces greater than they, and yet always creating patterns, intricate and delicate, strong and brutish, whole swaths of grains swept up in a tide, moving as one, inexorable, unified, single-minded — each grain, its own path — yet in unison with all the other grains. And in all this motion, I see the great sweeping gestures of human history, see the totality of human existence, and how each individual being plays their part, has a role, makes their own choices, yet is confined in those choices by the forces of consciousness and unconsciousness which guide us — and drive us — on paths we believe to be of our own choosing. Sometimes, they are, but never so much as we believe, never so much as we rationalize.

The wave recedes, and all the grains come to rest. No longer beings, they become stars, celestial things. Gases. Dust, in deep interstellar space. I see into them, see past them. See into the deepest reaches of the universe, beyond the point to which the light of the Big Bang has been able to reach. Far enough that it seems like touching infinity. And from there I look back, all the way back, and find the one star beyond a nebula of stars, and gas, and dust. The one star which is the sun, my sun, casting light upon a small cove, on an Island, in an Ocean on a very small blue planet. And I am back on that beach, looking through the viewfinder at the grains of sand and shell that are that nebula. Infinite depth in a layer of shell restlessly shifting across the sands of endless time.


I release my breath, along with the shutter.

Another wave comes in, and the Seashell Nebula is gone.

A tear traces down my cheek, catches the sun, twinkles like a star that no one can see, not even I. I begin to think the thought that comes to me as a whisper in my ear, “Yes, that’s the one, Patrick.”

I feel the hand on my shoulder, feel the brush of a braid against my cheek. Her scent is on the breeze.

“Print that one,” the voice continues. The voice I remember as if it were only yesterday I last heard it. “Many will see its beauty, but a few will see its true gift: that beauty — all beauty — has meaning. Some will know the meaning. In time, others will come to know. And they will all touch infinity, just as you have.”

The whisper trailed off, and then the hand was gone, the braid drawn away. Her scent faded on the breeze. When I turned to find her, to thank her, there was no one there.

I am done here. I have followed the path I set out on decades ago to its end. So I begin to pack up the camera equipment. Prepare to make my way back to the rental car and drive away. I think, for the last time.

Packed, I look up the rock face to where I know a house once stood. Where an enigma invited me: come, understand the universe. There’s a sign there, one I hadn’t noticed before. The land is for sale.

Of course it is.

South Chesterman Beach
British Columbia, Canada

Taken during travels, July 23, 2015

A response to this week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge, which is Closeup.

You will find a gallery of images shot at Chesterman Beach in a gallery at the bottom of An Artistic Encounter With Nature.