The car was packed lightly as we drove to the ocean. Just towels, water bottles and a couple of buckets and spades. In the back seat, our two girls were fighting over the solitary pair of goggles we had remembered to bring. But we were happy. It was school holidays. We were going to the beach.
We arrived and the sky above us was so thick with blue it was as though we could wrap ourselves in it. It had been a long, wet summer. The wettest start to a year ever in Sydney. The children had barely made it to the water all season, but in the lingering afterglow of summer we hoped to grasp a last chance at a swim. The girls ran through the sandy path cutting the bush scrub towards the ocean. Blue water, white water and golden yellow sand.
Get out of that water, it could make you sick
Then I smelled something. Not that fresh salt sting, but something foul. There was something in the air. Something in the water. I called my friends over: something was wrong.
Back! Out of the water! we called. The parents have to check something.
The children stood barefoot on the sand, already slathered in sunscreen and wearing rashies covered in dinosaurs or flowers, goggles pressing into their foreheads and bouncing as they watched the waves roll ashore.
The four adults huddled together, looking at a NSW government water quality website. We zoomed the map in on where we were; red diamonds, red diamonds, red diamonds. All around us the water was polluted. Run-off from the historic, catastrophic floods that had battered the east coast, we suspected.
My mother had always told me salt water was a cure for sickness. Sea water could fix rashes, stings – all manner of slings and arrows. It was an Australian cure (even doctors would prescribe sea air and salt water for good health). So clean and good and pure was this water, it could heal.
And now, I would tell my own daughters and their friends the opposite: Get out of that water, it could make you sick.
We define ourselves as a country by our summers. By the oppression and freedom of the long hot days, by our squinting under the light.
Central to that understanding of ourselves as a nation basking in the sun is the role of the beach. It is something beyond our famed surf culture, extending to all of us, even those who might not consider ourselves “beach people”. Conflicts over beaches take on a greater symbolism because we all understand the role of the beach in our national imagination; take our shared horror at proposals to privatise beaches (anti-egalitarian!) or riots over who can access them.
Max Dupain’s Sunbaker 1937. Photograph: Max Dupain
The idea of the beach as a place of rest, recreation and health is epitomised in images which have become a form of shorthand for Australia. Max Dupain’s monochromatic Sunbaker, of an anonymous man at rest on the hard sand, or Charles Meere’s Australian beach pattern, featuring a beach crowded with children and adults at play; these are images baked into the national consciousness because, while sanitised, glorified representations of the beach, they reflect something we all know or understand.
And nowhere is the beach more entwined with our ideas of a uniquely Australian experience than in childhood.
In his memoir, Land’s Edge, Australian author and chronicler of the coastline Tim Winton writes of his suburban upbringing – the sprawling quarter-acre blocks and accoutrements of suburbia. “When I dream, when I remember, when I doze into reverie, I don’t see the picket fences and the Holden in the driveway,” he writes. “Because in my memory of childhood there is always the smell of bubbling tar, of Pinke Zinke, the briny smell of the sea. It is always summer and I am on Scarborough Beach, blinded by light, with my shirt off and my back a map of dried salt and peeling sunburn.”
The shocking chill of the first ankle in the ocean. The weightless pull of a wave as we float up and over it, the glorious power of the wave as we dive through it. We know that cleansing, enlivening feeling of trudging out of the shallows of the water, hair slicked back, wet skin catching the breeze as we rub the salt water out of our eyes.
Generations of Australians have navigated it, hold it in their memory as something good and theirs. But the memories today’s children are forming of the beach, of summer, are fundamentally different from those of Australian children before them.
The first time I took my daughter to the beach, it was early spring 2017. She was about six months old. We sat in a beach tent and stared out at Bondi’s shores. We were not local, but taking her to the ocean for the first time felt like the beginning of a gift. It was as if to say: “Here, you Australian child! Welcome to this refuge, this playground, this beauty. This is now for you.”
‘Beach closed: dangerous conditions’. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/EPA
In the four and a half years since, that gift I thought I was giving her has not materialised. The gift that was my own Australian childhood – schlepping from the dusty suburbs to the refuge of the beach – would not be hers. And while we talk about the losses of climate change as a future threat, we have failed to see what, for this generation of young children, has already been lost – the surefire promise of a beach you can swim in at summer.
These have been my daughter’s five summers:
Her first was one of heatwaves, and in Sydney some places recorded their hottest days in nearly 100 years. She was still so little, and susceptible to that heat. We spent those days indoors, keeping the heat out.
Her second summer included the hottest January on record. Again we shielded.
There is no normal summer in her memory, or the memories of multitudes of young Australian children
Her third summer was Black Summer. At her daycare, they kept the children inside because the air was no longer safe. We did not go to the beach because the ash from trees burning tens of kilometres away turned the shallow water black. She learned, wrote into her forming brain, that sometimes the air is not safe to breathe.
Her fourth summer was defined by Covid. Her fifth summer by extreme, endless rain, unprecedented floods, polluted water and pandemic.
There is no normal summer in the memories of multitudes of young Australian children. What to the rest of us has been an aberrant few years has to this generation been their whole life.
Of course, yes, we have been to the beach and it has not been polluted. We have made it there when the heat hasn’t been too great, or the weather too wet. There will be in the memories of children today buckets of sand, salt water in their eyes and the delight of white water crashing into their bodies under a blue sky. But there will also be another memory, rotting away at the first. Memories of stinking beaches, black water, red suns. An understanding of these things as the way of summer.
There is a classic children’s book, Magic Beach by Alison Lester, which is able to be recited by memory by many Australian children and parents. It interweaves the everyday magic of the beach with the imaginary, an ode to the beach as an endless playground. It begins:
“At our beach, at our magic beach we swim in the sparkling sea
Surfing and crashing and splashing the waves, shrieking and laughing with glee.”
As I watched my girls at the polluted beach, shouting at them to keep out of the water, Lester’s words drummed in my head like a nasty tease.
And then it occurred to me with the force of a fist to the stomach that for our children, this is just what can happen at the beach, in the summer. It is not an aberration. It is what they know now.