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At the beach, soaking up sun and natural wonders

two people sit in lawn chairs on the beach
Lina Tran
Beachgoers enjoy the sand and sun at South Shore Park in Milwaukee.

I meet Hannah Wagie at South Beach Park in Port Washington. We don’t even make it past the parking lot before she notices a butterfly. Its upper wings are streaked with orange and black, like a tiger. And the underside of its wings are all warm browns and grays, with spots that look like eyes.

The butterfly floats up to greet her and lands on her finger — just one of the many wonders that Wagie hunts for when she’s at the beach. Wonders that she says you can train yourself to notice. And wonders that enrich your experience of the world around you.

“When I’m at the beach, I’m often looking for fossils,” Wagie says. “Fossils are everywhere. People should know this! You can just sit down and dig. And you can find fossils everywhere.”

a hand holds up rocks that contain fossils over a lake
Lina Tran
Fossils are everywhere, Wagie says. "You can just sit down and dig, and you can find fossils everywhere.”

This is what Wagie does at the beach: She zooms in, observes, uses all her senses. She says she prefers the rigor of the school year to endless summer days. So when she’s at the beach, she likes the structure of paying attention.

“It does give me a sense of mission, a purpose,” Wagie says. “I realized, as I walk down a beach or trail, even if it’s really familiar, that it’s different every time I go. And I’m different every time I go. But you only notice that if you’re looking closely at what’s around you.”

Hannah Wagie stands on a beach and smiles
Lina Tran
Hannah Wagie, a chemistry professor at Wisconsin Lutheran College, says you can train yourself to notice wonders in the sand and shore, wonders that can enrich your experience of going to the beach.

That’s what I wanted to talk to Hannah about. What kinds of things can we learn from a walk on the beach? Of course, she is a chemistry professor. So she has some knowledge about the beach and Lake Michigan that makes even the sand between our toes seem special. (We’re both wearing sandals.)

“Sand is made up of a variety of things,” Wagie says. “But largely, it’s comprised of silica, which is the mineral form of the molecule silicon dioxide, mixed in with the sand.” We use silica, melting it to make glass for windows. Some tiny creatures also find the stuff useful: They eat it. Cyanobacteria eat through the silicon dioxide, scavenging for things like iron and manganese. Diatoms also use the silica to build intricate exoskeletons.

“If you were able to look really closely at sand under a microscope, you would not only see little jagged pieces of quartz and silica,” Wagie says. “You would see these intricate patterns made of glass. It’s like a glass house that [a diatom] makes for itself.”

And all this stuff is constantly on the move. The sand you take a nap on, the stuff that gets stuck in your shoes and hair — over millennia, they were eroded from the bedrock.

“Wind and waves abrade the rock and create little pieces of sand, which is what washes up on the shore,” Wagie says. “The sand is always moving. It’s always being renewed.”

Heavy rain can speed things up. It’s something we can see now, as climate change brings more intense precipitation to the Great Lakes. A couple years ago, there was a landslide in Port Washington. Rain had soaked the mud and clay until it was too heavy for the bluff to hold. It was on North Beach, one of Hannah’s favorite spots on Lake Michigan. She and her kids went to another park, up on the bluffs, to check out the landslide from above.

“The reddish clay tumbled on the bluffs and just completely wiped out the path,” she remembers.

seagull and human footprints on a sandy beach
Lina Tran
The beach contains all kinds of footprints — stories about who's walked the beach before you.

Going back even further in time, the bedrock that gave rise to sand was formed by volcanoes.

“In order to get these little pieces of sand that we see on beaches today, glaciers came through and carved out the basins for the Great Lakes,” Wagie says. “Those little pieces of rock that got eroded by the glaciers are what we see as sand. We are only here because [glaciers] carved out this place for us.”

Wagie says she didn’t always experience the beach this way. She grew up in Wisconsin, enjoying the lake like her kids do now, scrambling on bluffs and splashing in the water.

But now, her walks are focused. She’s contemplative, observant. She notices what’s changed. And has her eyes out for things she maybe has never seen before. She searches milkweed plants for caterpillars and hunts for agates, gems that contain bands of color, painted by the lake.

a close-up of a small fish and pebbles on a sandy shore
Lina Tran
Wagie says enjoying the beach with focus and observation gives her a sense of mission. And, even small discoveries and wonders enrich her experience of the sand and sun.

For her, things shifted when she was in graduate school, getting her PhD in chemistry. In the middle of science training and starting a family, life slowed.

“Trying to get outside with my children just resulted in me having to slow down,” Wagie says. “I think that’s really when this world of science all around me opened up.”

Hannah’s kids are also teaching her new ways to see the water. A couple years ago, after they’d all gaped at the wreckage of the landslide, they came back down to South Beach. As they hunted for fossils on the beach, Hannah’s daughter made an observation that no one had ever seen the rocks they were exploring before. They are new every time we come, she thought.

“It’s just fascinating to think that a pebble that you pick up on the beach may never have been viewed by a human before it had been unearthed, from the depths of the bedrock on the floor of the lake,” Wagie says. “Even though it’s ancient, it’s new.”

After Wagie and I say good-bye, she walks back across the beach to the parking lot. I notice while she’s walking, her eyes are trained down, on the sand. Who knows what she might see?

Learn more about the discoveries you can make on the beach in an essay Wagie wrote: Exploring the Wandering Dunes of Lake Michigan.

Lina is a WUWM news reporter.
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