Must we stop and smell the flowers?

Apart from passive receptivity, I have had no more opportunity to experience perfumes than any other nose in the average crowd. And even in that chaos, the scents seem to be equally admixed with whatever else clings to us -not all of it encouraging. But I have to believe that the ability to notice different smells, let alone be repulsed or attracted to them, must serve more purpose than merely warning us off things that might be harmful. Why dedicate an entire organ just to avoid rotting carcasses or to pick pleasing flowers -as socially useful as that might be?

Indeed there may be an entire chemical vocabulary entrusted to smells, that enriches the umwelt of the otherwise utilitarian world of the animal kingdom. Given our common origins, why would we be any different?

Of course, except for their behaviour, animals are unable to communicate what they are reading in the odour, and until the very recent identification of olfactory receptor genes, even variations in humans were, by and large, a mystery. And yet, their importance is signalled by the finding that these genes appear to constitute the largest gene family in all the mammalian genomes.

The problem, perhaps, has always been in the attribution. As with animals, if we don’t know that odours are responsible for an action, we wouldn’t think to credit them. If a dog, for example, marks a spot after smelling it, we have no idea what that means. Does it merely suggest that the dog simply likes whatever it was it smelled, or something more? Is the dog leaving a message other than ‘I was here, too’?

You see the difficulty: an odour may engender an action, but neither the signal nor the response can be reliably categorized as anything other than a generic stimulus/response. And given the size of the olfactory receptor gene family, a purposeless, or motiveless reflexive response seems unlikely.

So, how have we made use of this prowess historically? Well, for one thing, we have used odours, to mask odours -a rather recursive, circular activity, it seems. The fact that bathing, at one time was frowned upon -or perhaps difficult to achieve with any regularity for other than the wealthy- usually demanded olfactory disguise amongst those not similarly handicapped. The need to remedy the resultant smell, in itself suggests a nascent awareness of a message, camouflaged as it might be in societal norms.

And, think of the now discredited Miasma theory: that many diseases -the Bubonic Plague springs to mind- were caused by ‘bad air’: smells, in other words. One can certainly understand the conflation of the odour of, say, rotting meat and sickness that might follow ignoring the message inherent in its telltale reek, with the idea that the smell itself might be the cause. Only when germs were identified, and -in the absence of germs- not the air around them, did the idea of smell become merely an indicator, not a cause of disease.

But there’s a hint of a more useful and atavistic function of odours in the discovery of its importance in the initial bonding and identification of human mothers with their newly born offspring. I suppose it should have been obvious for millennia, though: an orphan lamb is often rejected by an unrelated lactating mother unless the strange lamb is made to smell like her.

So, where am I going with this? Well, first of all, the findings of a recent study [lead author Casey Trimmer, PhD] published online in advance of print in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190430164208.htm

‘Humans have about 400 different types of specialized sensor proteins, known as olfactory receptors, in their noses. One odor molecule can activate several different olfactory receptors, while any given receptor can be activated by several different odor molecules. In a process that remains to be decrypted, the olfactory system somehow interprets these receptor activation patterns to recognize the presence, quality (does it smell like cherry or smoke?) and intensity of millions, maybe even trillions, of different smells… Small differences in olfactory receptor genes, which are extremely common in humans, can affect the way each receptor functions. These genetic differences mean that when two people smell the same molecule, one person may detect a floral odor while another smells nothing at all… Because most odors activate several receptors, many scientists thought that losing one receptor wouldn’t make a difference in how we perceive that odor. Instead, our work shows that is not the case…  A change in a single receptor was often sufficient to affect a person’s odor perception… olfactory receptors in the nose encode information about the properties of odors even before that information reaches the brain.’

Why the receptor complexity if odours are mainly simple social adjuncts? Or, is there more going on than meets the nose? Obviously we seem to have less appreciation of the panoply of chemicals around us than, say, the average dog, but because we do not ‘smell’ them with equal facility, does that mean they have less of an effect on us? As we have begun to appreciate in terms of mother/infant recognition, not all odours reach conscious awareness. Not all smells are nameable.

Some perfume manufacturers maintain that their products contain pheromones (chemical signals) which might activate aphrodisiac-like behaviour in humans, but so far the evidence is tenuous, to say the least. Given our common evolutionary history with animals who do produce and react to pheromones, and our own incredible biological investment in olfactory receptors, however, I suspect it is just a matter of time before similar chemicals and effects are identified and utilized in us.

What brought this whole subject to mind, though, was a titillating article in the Smithsonian Magazine about Cleopatra’s perfume: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/may-be-what-cleopatra-smelled-180972854/

‘Back in 2012, the archaeologists uncovered what was believed to be the home of a perfume merchant, which included an area for manufacturing some sort of liquid as well as amphora and glass bottles with residue in them… The researchers took their findings to two experts on Egyptian perfume, Dora Goldsmith and Sean Coughlin, who helped to recreate the scents following formulas found in ancient Greek texts.’

And, no, there’s no proof that what was recreated was what Cleopatra used -in fact, ‘It’s believed she had her own perfume factory and created signature scents instead of wearing what would be the relative equivalent of putting on a store-bought brand.’ But still, it’s a smell that Cleopatra might have worn…

There’s a legend that she believed so fervently in her perfume’s allure that she soaked the sails of her royal ship in it – so much, in fact, that Marc Antony could smell her coming all the way from shore when she visited him at Tarsus.

There’s got to be something in that: where there’s smoke there’s fire, eh?

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow

What is Time, if not a river flowing ever onwards from now -or from an ill-remembered ‘then’ to the same now? Of course, we all know the quotation attributed to Saint Augustine: What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know – but that doesn’t get us very far. It neither allows events to be situated in time, nor allows us to appreciate its passage. Perhaps that’s unfair to ask of a denizen of the fourth century -saint, or no- but an orderly historical conception of time’s progression began long before his birth.

To more fully acknowledge the extent of time, one must be able to measure it -not so much mechanically, as calendrically. And, as Paul J. Kosmin pointed out in an article in Aeon, ‘from earliest recorded history right up to the years after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the late 4th century BCE, historical time – the public and annual marking of the passage of years – could be measured only in three ways: by unique events, by annual offices, or by royal lifecycles. https://aeon.co/essays/when-time-became-regular-and-universal-it-changed-history

‘In ancient Mesopotamia, years could be designated by an outstanding event of the preceding 12 months’ -presumably this would make the time frame more easily memorable. The more distant in time events occurred, the more difficult it would be to appreciate any surrounding context. And it would be meaningful only to those living in the country, or region, so unless forced by conquest or a shared natural disaster, uninterpretable by others.

Finally, though, ‘In the chaos that followed the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon in 323 BCE, all this changed. One of Alexander’s Macedonian generals, who would go on to win an enormous kingdom stretching from Bulgaria to Afghanistan, introduced a new system for reckoning the passage of time. It is known, after him, as the Seleucid Era. This was the world’s first continuous and irreversible tally of counted years. It is the unheralded ancestor of every subsequent era system, including the Christian Anno Domini system, our own Common Era, the Jewish Era of Creation, the Islamic Hijra, the French Revolutionary Era, and so on… For the first time in history, historical time was marked by a number that never restarted, reversed or stopped… Most importantly, as a regularly increasing number, the Seleucid Era permitted an entirely new kind of predictability… to confidently and accurately conceive, name and hold in the imagination a date several years, decades or centuries into the future.’

So, no matter what else happened, the year and all that happened in it was stable -and traceable. Nowadays that may not seem so amazing, but if you think about it, the perception of time itself changes when that happens: ‘Every event must be chained to its place in time before it becomes an available object of historical articulation. And the modes by which we date the world, by which we apprehend historical duration and the passage of time, frame how we experience our present, conceive a future, remember the past, reconcile with impermanence, and make sense of a world far wider, older and more enduring than any of us.’

Of course that’s not to imply the ancients had no concept of travelling through time, but with only remembered time posts as a guide, it made the journey more fraught -more circumscribed. And for many, it must have seemed like they were confined in a room whose walls were events they may not themselves have witnessed. Kosmin quotes a paragraph written by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgård about the introduction of numeric time that describes it nicely: ‘It was as if a wall had been removed in the room they inhabited. The world no longer enveloped them completely. There was suddenly an opening … Their glance no longer met any resistance, but swept on and on through more of the same.’ We take the view for granted.

I remember visiting my grandmother in her final days in hospital. She was approaching her 100th year, and becoming increasingly lost as she wandered along the ever winding trail she’d taken through time. It was often difficult for her to pin down the order of some things, and yet her memory of other details seemed impeccable.

She recounted tales about her early life I had never heard before, but at times they seemed metaphorical -believable only in translation. She meant well, but I suspect that because she found dates elusive, she was trying to compensate with word pictures, and comparisons to tell her story. And then, like pre-Seleucid times, she would necessarily tack her story to past events.

When, ‘Do you remember when…?’ didn’t work because the incident was well before my time, she would resort to things like ‘When your mother was a little girl…’ or ‘The year Joe and I got married…’. Then, with no need to worry about correction, she would recount her version of what had happened.

I found it a delightful, albeit opaque, excursion along her personal timeline, but one I could never even hope to verify without considerable effort. Her description of their journey across the country to the west coast on a ‘pioneer train’ as she called it, was a good example.

“Whenever the train would stop to pick up water for the engine,” she said, “ it was our signal for the men to jump off the cars and search for firewood…”

I remember her eyes twinkling at the memory. “There were stoves in each car for cooking, so while the men were away, the women would rummage around in their trunks for the rice and beans we were told to pack for the trip.”

I remember being surprised at them having stoves on a moving train -I come from a railway family, and I’d never heard of such a thing. “When did you travel across the country, grandma?” I remember asking her, thinking maybe she meant the train would stop long enough for people to cook at the station, or wherever.

Her eyes looked inward for a while -whether to remember, or relive the experience, it was difficult to tell. “I remember seeing soldiers wandering around on some of the platforms, so maybe it was during the war…” And she shrugged.

That didn’t sound right. “But grandma, soldiers would have been going to the east coast -to Montreal or Halifax -not west to Vancouver…”

Her eyes cleared for a moment and she sent them to reprimand my face for its expression, all the while shaking her head at my inability to follow her story. “The soldiers didn’t get on our train. They were waiting for the next one, G… Try to pay attention, eh?” she added and then sighed like the woman I used to visit when I was young.

I shrugged, embarrassed for doubting her. “So, I suppose that was early in the First World War,” I said, mostly to myself, I suppose. I was trying to establish a time frame that made sense to me -a picture that I could pass on to my own children about her life.

Her eyes, though, were the real storytellers, and at times they seemed impatient as they watched from their increasingly bony redoubt. “I don’t remember the year, G, but you asked me to describe our journey across the country; the year’s not as important as the story, is it?”

Then, she smiled at the scolding and the grandmother of my childhood returned briefly. “You have to open a book to see what’s in it -the cover it’s wrapped in is irrelevant…”

I think my grandmother would have done just fine without the encumbrance of the irreversible tally of counted years.

Words, when there aren’t any

Here’s a thought: What are you thinking – right now? Can you describe what is happening inside your head at any moment you are asked? If you can, is it in a decipherable stream of words… or in something else? And, further, if it is something else, then how could you ever describe it in words?

When I consider such a subject, I find that I am reminded of the Buddhist koan that asks the disciple to imagine the sound of one hand clapping. It is an endless labyrinth in which it is also too easy to think of Dante’s Divine Comedy in which he describes what is inscribed on the entrance gate to Hell: Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

But you see what is happening already: a flight of ideas, some of which can be described in words after the fact, and yet the journey -and indeed, the destination- are fluid, and wordless. Much like watching a Fellini film in a darkened movie theatre, and then emerging, confused, into a noontime street outside where different rules, different realities apply.

It happened again, didn’t it? Right now -the activity inside my head somewhere… I have just attempted to describe it in words, and yet there weren’t any while it was going on… But nonetheless it was happening. If we can remember them, dreams can be like that sometimes, can’t they? Wordless, and yet often transcribable; there is usually an emotional overlay, and yet is it just that when we emerge into the daylight reality we struggle for descriptors if we are asked to remember. Is consciousness merely the translator, hired for the job?

I suspect these ruminations are not common in our everyday lives that expect to be able to explain something -everything?- when asked. It is, after all, the mandate of Science to subject the world and everything in it to scrutiny. But can we ever hope to describe our interior machinations in words, if the world in there is not primarily verbal? If journeys inside are not even always pictorial? Evocative? Is there even a language that does not depend on features we would characterize as consciously recognizable? Translatable? Can we, in other words, understand our minds? We all want to, don’t we…?

Despite the fascinating venue, even deciding where to start any such attempt eluded me. There was an article in a BBC Future article, that started me wondering again, though: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20190819-what-your-inner-voice-says-about-you

Kelly Oakes, a freelance writer for the BBC, starts out by suggesting, ‘Interrogating what’s going on inside our own minds doesn’t seem like it should be a difficult task. But by trying to shine a light on those thoughts, we’re disturbing the very thing we want to measure in the first place.’ She goes on to describe the attempts of the psychologist Russell Hurlburt at the University of Nevada to get around the questions we ask about our inner thoughts which obviously prompt us to translate the inner activity into words -and hence reporting more as inner speech than is actually the case. So, he uses a technique he calls Descriptive Experience Sampling (DES) which involves carrying a device that beeps randomly but only occasionally throughout the day. That is the prompt to tune into whatever was in your mind just before the beep. At the end of the day, you are debriefed and are expected to describe ‘what form it took: words, pictures, an emotion, a physical sensation, or something else.’ And, not surprisingly, it varies.

It’s not ideal, I suppose, but it does attempt to characterize something evanescent and amorphous and translate it into meaningful categories. But even if we were to concentrate on one form of activity -inner speech- there are still imponderables that have to be sorted out.

Is it an inner dialogue, or monologue? Indeed, how could it be a dialogue with only one brain involved? Or, for that matter, to whom would a monologue be addressed? Maybe Freud, with his Ego, Id, and Superego divisions of the unconscious was on to something…

But, Oakes mentions a description written by someone after they had recovered from a stroke, that is both existentially chilling, and yet also helpful in understanding some of our inner processing: ‘After neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor recovered from a stroke she suffered aged 37, she wrote in My Stroke of Insight [my italics] about what it was like to experience a “silent mind” without inner speech for several weeks: “What a daunting task it was to simply sit there in the centre of my silent mind…’ It wasn’t just the absence of words that was occurring, it was the absence of anything. Although I haven’t read the book, I assume that her mind was also empty of -what?- pictures, emotions, sensations -even identity. So maybe you either get everything -the melange- or nothing.

I find that a really sobering thought, for some reason. That in our brains -our minds– the way we process input from the outside –or activities happening on the inside- is more a jumble than a formula. I’m sure it doesn’t actually work that way, but just like it’s difficult to accurately render a poem, a metaphor, or a Weltanschauung into a different culture and language, there are similar problems in translating the inner language into the outer one we need to use.

In our constant quest to understand, and master the unknown, I sometimes wonder if we expect too much of our questions. But maybe that’s just my outer voice that speaks -the one that translates for the me that lives inside. How do I know if it’s even on the right path?

Perhaps it takes a poet to interpret what’s really going on. My mind drifts to the words of Kahlil Gibran: For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

The colour of truth is gray

It’s back again… Well, actually I suppose it never left. We still seem to be obsessed with the genderization of colours -as if it were an established biological given; as if it were as obvious as handedness, or as necessary as the assignation of gender at birth. ‘Pink is for girls and Blue is for boys’ -its self-evidence is once again being called into question; it seems an endless, pointless cycle.

There have been many attempts to link gendered colour preference to Weltanschauungen, genetic atavisms, and of course, persistent, market-savvy fashion manipulation (even I attempted a commentary in a previous essay: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2013/12/06/nature-versus-princess-nurture/) -but none seem adequate explanations for its persistence in our culture. Indeed, those studies that have sought to resolve the issue seem to have canvassed opinions from predominantly western cultures. And apart from the probable sampling bias, there are other factors that likely come into play, as suggested in a 2015 article in Frontiers in Psychology: ‘… red symbolizes good luck in China, Denmark, and Argentina, while it means bad luck in Germany, Nigeria, and Chad (Schmitt, 1995Neal et al., 2002). White is a color of happiness and purity in the USA, Australia, and New Zealand, but symbolizes death in East Asia (Ricks, 1983Neal et al., 2002). Green represents envy in the USA and Belgium, while in Malaysia it represents danger or disease (Ricks, 1983Hupka et al., 1997).’ In other words, ‘this variation in the symbolism of color could lead to variation on color preference between cultures.’ We’d best choose our colours carefully.

But, I suppose what got me interested again in this perpetual, gendered debate was a rather lengthy and thoughtful article (extracted from her book Gender and Our Brains) in Aeon by Gina Rippon, an emerita professor of cognitive neuroimaging at Aston University in Birmingham, UK: https://aeon.co/essays/is-pink-for-girls-and-blue-for-boys-biology-or-conditioning

I have to say I was lured into reading the entire article when she quickly introduced me to the dreadful concept of ‘gender reveal’ parties. They apparently come in two varieties: in one, the pregnant woman for whom the party is held, does not know the sex of her fetus as do the organizers (the ultrasound sex, by agreement, has been sent only to them) -it is guarded in a sealed envelope as is the colour motif; in the second variety, the mother knows and reveals it with all the appropriately coloured hoopla at the party.

And why, apart from the puerile attempts to colourize the event, do I find it so disagreeable? Well, as Rippon suggests, ‘20 weeks before little humans even arrive into it, their world is already tucking them firmly into a pink or a blue box. And… in some cases, different values are attached to the pinkness or blueness of the news.’

I also read further, in hopes that the author had some convincing insights as to whether the colour assigned to each gender was biologically or culturally determined. Unfortunately, the evidence she cites seems able to support either -or neither- side. One study, however, did make some progress in resolving the problem: ‘American psychologists Vanessa LoBue and Judy DeLoache tracked more closely just how early this preference emerges. Nearly 200 children, aged seven months to five years, were offered pairs of objects, one of which was always pink. The result was clear: up to the age of about two, neither boys nor girls showed any kind of pink preference. After that point, though, there was quite a dramatic change, with girls showing an above-chance enthusiasm for pink things, whereas boys were actively rejecting them. This became most marked from about three years old onwards.’ This suggests a cultural rather than biological explanation: ‘once children learn gender labels, their behaviour alters to fit in with the portfolio of clues about genders and their differences that they are gradually gathering.’

But why, then, the cultural preference? There was recently what may be an Urban Legend suggesting that at one time, the gendered colour preferences were actually reversed and ‘that any kind of gender-related colour-coding was established little more than 100 years ago, and seems to vary with fashion, or depending on whether you were reading The New York Times in 1893 [pink for a boy]… or the Los Angeles Times in the same year [pink for a girl].’

But, at least in our current milieu, the issue is not so much the colour as what it has come to suggest, consciously or not: ‘Pink has become a cultural signpost or signifier, a code for one particular brand: Being a Girl. The issue is that this code can also be a ‘gender segregation limiter’, channelling its target audience (girls) towards an extraordinarily limited and limiting package of expectations, and additionally excluding the non-target audience (boys).’

Of course, as Rippon points out, the fact that Pink may be a signifier of what is acceptable to females, allows it to bridge the gender gap: colour a toy truck pink, and it becomes acceptable for a girl to play with it. Unfortunately, the other side of the permission can be that ‘pinkification is all too often linked with a patronising undertow, where you can’t get females to engage with the thrills of engineering or science unless you can link them to looks or lipstick, ideally viewed through – literally – rose-tinted glasses.’ And viewed through prevailing stereotypes as well, I might add.

And yet, what determines what constitutes a ‘boy toy’? Is it what the child sees -or what their parents and grandparents saw in the world in which they grew up? In the world today, women drive trucks, operate diggers, become doctors and lawyers -not just secretaries, teachers, and nurses.

There is also a danger to pandering to ill-conceived remedies, of course. Take Rippon’s example of the STEM Barbie doll (STEM -for the older, more naïve readers like me- stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics -traditionally male-dominated fields, apparently): ‘efforts to level the playing field get swamped in the pink tide – Mattel has produced a STEM Barbie doll to stimulate girls’ interest in becoming scientists. And what is it that our Engineer Barbie can build? A pink washing machine, a pink rotating wardrobe, a pink jewellery carousel.’

Only in the penultimate and last paragraph of the article does Rippon come close to answering the question on the reader’s lips from the beginning of her 4500 word document: ‘It is clear that boys and girls play with different toys. But an additional question should be – why?… The answer to these questions could lie in our new understanding of how, from the moment of birth (if not before), our brains drive us to be social beings – to understand social scripts, social norms, social behaviour – to make sure we understand the groups we should belong to and how we can fit in… our brains are scouring our world for the rules of the social game – and if that world is full of powerful messages about gender, helpfully flagged by all sorts of gendered labelling and gendered colour-coding, our brains will pick up such messages and drive their owners to behave ‘appropriately.’’

Perhaps Rippon is correct, but I wonder if it’s more accurate to say that we were stuck with gendered colours; I think there is room for hope: what the child sees when she looks around is changing. So I am instead inclined to the view of André Gide, the French author who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947: ‘The colour of truth is gray,’ he wrote.

May we all be free to mix our own colours…

A Day at the Beach

I like to go to the shore from time to time, albeit a different one than encircles the island where I live. After a summer of relative peace, I long for the rough and unpredictable weather of the extreme west coast of Vancouver Island, with its waves that shoulder their way along rocks, or crash headlong into others that dare to stand their ground. I like to stare into wind that has picked up strength and salt along its thousand mile fetch and tries to force me to turn away. The roar of breaking waves and a gale howling through the bending foreshore trees is an anodyne to my usual existence -and yet the turbulence is, like everything else out there, unpredictable.

Sometimes though, no matter the season, the sea is relatively calm. Sunlight strokes the surface of the waves and sparkles off the jagged surface of the massive, dark igneous rocks that bulge like warts from the sandy shore, or squat like castle walls to guard the line of anxious, hunchbacked trees that watch kyphotically from a safe distance inland.

On days like that, I pretend to scramble effortlessly over the craggy rocks, very aware that I am no longer in my salad days, and that my balance, adequate for mainland forest roots and level trails perhaps, is sometimes hesitant and disoriented with the constant motion of the nearby roiling tide. And the tidal pools embedded in their stone enclosures, each with miniature versions of marine life safe from pounding seas, distract me enough that I misjudge the distance to nearby footholds and teeter on the brink of trauma.

Of course, I seldom seek the safety of my hands, because that’s not how a younger me moved along the rocks; some things -like age, and pride- do not allow for compromise, so injury is always just a step away.

I imagine that’s why I remember a trip there last year so well. The day was flawless, and the waves merely licked the shore-chained rocks like puppies in a kennel greeting visitors. Usually damp and foreboding, the outcrop beckoned me from the storm-tossed log redoubt along the shore and I scrambled up the nearest crag without a thought. It had been a year since I had last attempted a run along them -a year further away from youth, a year to forget my waning judgement.

Of course I fell, but at least I made it further along them than last year before I scraped my knee and twisted my ankle. And, as I lay writhing on the sand, I decided I had fulfilled my pilgrimage for another year, and limped painfully back to the logs.

The beach was remarkably empty for a sunny November day; there was only a mother watching her child run along the sandy beach, and an elderly couple strolling, shoes in hand, through the wave-wet sand from an incoming tide. I decided to sit and read in the still, warm sun.

I suppose I must have dosed briefly but I was awakened by a pair of eyes watching me from a nearby log.

“Is your ankle better?” asked a little voice when its eyes noticed mine were open.

I looked up to see the little boy, walking along a driftwood log towards me, his balance not at all in question. He couldn’t have been much more than 6 or 7 years old, and was dressed in baggy blue shorts, a dirty white tee shirt, and black running shoes. His rumpled auburn hair danced lightly in the onshore breeze.

“We saw you fall,” he explained when he was closer still, and jumped nimbly off the log to stand in front of me. “My mom wondered if you needed any help.”

I moved my ankle back and forth and it seemed to be all right. My knee was stiff, but I doubted it would be a problem, so I smiled and thanked him for asking.

He shrugged, but didn’t turn away. “You should use your hands when you climb those rocks, mister,” he said, after staring at me for a moment. “My dad taught me how to do it,” he added, in case I was puzzled how he knew.

I broadened my smile. “Does your family live here?” I asked, wondering if his mother had decided to come to the beach on her day off, or maybe just to wile away a morning while her husband was at work.

He nodded, but I could see his face change. “My dad is in the hospital in Vancouver, though…”

I waited for him to continue, but the subject seemed a painful one for him, and I could see him fighting back tears.

“Want me to show you how to do it?” he added, but more to change the subject than anything else, I think.

I nodded and watched him run across the sand towards the rocks, all the while waving at his mother. But then, just before he started to climb, he turned and signalled for me to join him.

“You have to look for hand-holds to grab,” he said as soon as I was at his side. “That way, if your foot slips, you won’t fall…” He glanced at me, very much the teacher in a class. “There,” he said, spying a perfect place on the rough surface for his fingers. “Try it.”

I obliged and he followed behind, pointing out new handles for me to grab.  We only stopped when we reached a little tidal pool in a recess on the ocean side of the rock.

“Have a look in here,” he said, kneeling down beside the pool. “See those dark things on the edge of the rock?” He reached down and touched one of them. “Those are mussels, and those little ones are barnacles,” he added, pointing to a cluster of small warty creatures.

“And look in the little pool.” He reached down into the crystal water, and attempted to touch some little fish, clearly delighted when they were too fast for him to catch.

“Come on,” he shouted, as he darted excitedly away and down the sea side of the rock. “I’ll show you the sea stars stuck to the edge…”

But before I could reach him, his mother appeared behind us, climbing nimbly up towards us from the sand. “I hope Chess is not bothering you,” she said, smiling like a proud mother. “He gets so excited on the beach.” She stared out to sea for a moment before continuing. “His father is a marine biologist,” she explained in a voice barely audible above the soft murmur of the wind and the gentle lapping of the waves against the rocky ramparts. “He always gets excited down here, so I think it rubbed off on Chester…”

She settled her eyes on my face for a moment and then sent them out to search the sea again. “His dad would be proud to think his son was so much like him…” And her voice trailed off as if it had been whisked away by the ocean breeze.

I thought of them when I came across an article in the Conversation that pointed out the value of the beach as a learning experience for children: https://theconversation.com/a-day-at-the-beach-deep-learning-for-a-child-121785

It was written by Lotje Hives, a Research Collaborator and Tara-Lynn Scheffel, an Associate Professor, both at the Schulich School of Education at Nipissing University. But, you know, I didn’t really have to read the essay -I didn’t need much convincing about the educational value a beach affords for parent and child alike.

I can still see Chester and his mother on that massive rock on Long Beach -the one scampering over the crags and gullies, poking his fingers into crevasses, and pointing excitedly at what he’d found, while the other, as still as an outcrop, watched him with undisguised pride.