As part of our Sharing Nature project, over the past fortnight we asked you to share your photos on the theme ALONE. There wasn’t a clear favourite, but the photos that resonated with many of you featured a single figure on an empty beach.
Anna Posafalvi captures the feeling really well in her photograph. She says “Being alone in the face of the chilling water, the strong waves, and the forces of nature, you are constantly reminded that this is not completely right; that we are social creatures”. But, at the same time, “being alone is sometimes so beautiful and soothing”.
The beach, and especially the deserted island, is perhaps the ultimate symbol of human isolation. From Desert Island Discs to Castaway the challenge is about more than survival in the wild - it's about coping with being alone.
The beach plays a vital role in the iconic story of Robinson Crusoe.
At first the shipwrecked Crusoe searches desperately for companionship, then, having resigned himself to being alone, his reaction to finding a mysterious footprint in the sand is momentous:
I was exceedingly surpriz'd with the Print of a Man's naked Foot on the Shore, which was very plain to be seen in the Sand: I stood like one Thunder-struck, or as if I had seen an Apparition; I listen'd, I look'd round me, I could hear nothing, nor see any Thing, I went up to a rising Ground to look farther, I went up the Shore and down the Shore, but it was all one, I could see no other Impression but that one...
And that’s the thing about the seashore. The water washes away evidence of previous visitors. When there‘s no one around, the wide horizons seem to go on to infinity, emphasising the fact that, for a while at least, you really are alone in the face of nature. This can make you feel isolated and insignificant but, as Ana says, it also has a positive side. It's the difference between being alone and feeling lonely.
In their book The Handbook of Solitude, Robert J. Coplan and Julie C. Bowker suggest that solitude can be highly therapeutic, improving self-esteem and clarity. Maybe that’s why so many of us seek out the beach when we need a break from our daily lives.
For generations hermits and scholars from every culture have sought to escape worldly distractions, in pursuit of the freedom to follow their thoughts wherever they may lead. And the beach is also useful metaphor for that experience, as Isaac Newton so poetically put it:
I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
The single figure on the beach, like being ALONE, represents a contradictory experience: feeling insignificant and isolated, yet ultimately free of all constraints.