I just returned from three days in Maine. My friend Katie is part of a family that has been going to the same hidden spot–Maine’s largest stretch of undeveloped shoreline–for four generations, and it is through her that I came to know and love this exquisitely unpopulated, shimmeringly pristine beach.

Everything here revolves around the tide chart. When the tide is out, the beach is wide and long, like a moonscape that has no end. Walking along the water’s edge, it is easy to believe you and your friends are the last people left on the planet. But when the tide returns, everything disappears completely. The expanse of sand is swallowed whole. And no matter how many times I have watched this slow rhythmic flow of water in and then out, in and then out, I can’t quite believe something could change that drastically, right before my eyes.

It is a beach of extremes. And being a person who has a natural proclivity to excess, I bonded with this place immediately. It is the place I think of when I long for peace. It gets carried around inside me the way Yeats described the lake water at Innisfree, a sound he could always hear inside himself, “on the roadway, or on the pavements grey.”

The eternality of that stretch of beach–or my imagined concept of it–was altered this weekend when Katie told us about a new and unexpected development. Last season a storm ripped out an entire area of the shore that had always been covered with beach grass. That event, plus others that may have contributed to it, precipitated a major change in the placement of sand. Like water, sand has its own kind of fluidity. When existing patterns in stasis are disrupted, it can carve a new cliff or leave the old beach altogether, exposing an underbelly of rocks and boulders too heavy to choreograph a migration of their own.

Of course the children of the children of the children of the families that first began coming to this place are questioning what might causing this. No one remembers the beach being so disrupted this dramatically. Is it global warming, or nature’s own hand cycling through a larger arc the way fires can clear a forest and rejuvenate the ecosystem? Is it a beach retaining wall that inadvertently disturbed the esoteric sand flow? No one knows for sure, but the concern is palpable.

I kept thinking about this business of sand, flow, patterns, predictability. I once heard Frank Herbert speak about the genesis of his infamous Dune sci-fi series. In that lecture he said the entire epic storyline came to him when he was living on the Oregon coast and carefully studied the life of sand. He became mesmerized by the complexity of its existence. I was young at the time and I didn’t really understand how provocative that one concept could be. I’m older and wiser now, and it is possible for me now to imagine how a legendary series of novels could emerge from that seminal observation of nature at work.

I was also reminded of what Robert Smithson said in relation to his Spiral Jetty project:

Time is always there gnawing at us and corroding all our best intentions and all our most beautiful thoughts about where we think we’re at. It’s always there, like a plague creeping in, but occasionally we try to touch on some timeless moment and I suppose that’s what art’s about to a degree, lifting oneself out of that continuum.

Schooled by sand, indeed.