Built on shifting sands

20th August 2004 at 01:00
In favour of the long summer holiday is the fact that it enables weary staff to completely clear their minds of educational matters and return for the new session refreshed and raring to go.

After a hard year, these were very much our thoughts as we headed for Chatham, Cape Cod this summer. The Cape is a beautiful, Jimmy Stewart, kind of American idyll - all white clapboard buildings, lighthouses, golden beaches and blue sea and sky.

Three miles off shore is a long sand spit, wide enough for summer houses to be built on it and now divided into North and South Beach. Locals told us of the famous "Chatham Breach".

The sand spit used to be continuous until a hurricane in 1987 forced the sea through the middle of it to disastrous effect. A town meeting decided sea walls must be built, and the state approached the federal government.

The word from Washington was not encouraging: oceanographers would decide what should be done. This led to a huge environmental donnybrook.

Apparently sea walls couldn't be built in front of sand dunes as environmental policy was to allow the national seashore to develop naturally; however, if your house was in front of a sand bank, you could build a wall and even get federal funding. How could you tell a sand bank from a sand dune? It was all down to the size of the grains of sand which made up the beach in front of your house. Predictably tourism v locals v environment was the fierce basis for debate.

Then a strange thing happened. The oceanographers got their data together and calculated that a "breach" could be expected every 140 years, almost to the day. In time it would heal and then the whole process would be repeated. Nature compensated in different ways: mussel beds where previously there had been none, easier access to the fishing grounds.

Apparently, despite the best efforts of federal and state government to control what happened in Chatham, and the bitter local feuding, with hard work and goodwill, it all turned out for the best in the end.

I sat on the beach and pondered. Central and local government continually seeking to change, shape and develop; locals doing their best for the community; researchers repeatedly changing their minds; everything turning out for the best in the end?

Yes, it was good to escape the world of Scottish education.

Sean McPartlin. St Margaret's Academy. Livingston

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