Better Made of Wood than Plastic: Boardwalks

Certain things are better made of wood than plastic. I don’t know why this notion occurred to me, but I made a list. One of the items on the list was a Jersey Shore boardwalk.

After hurricane Sandy, which tore New Jersey limb from limb, boardwalks were being rebuilt up and down the Shore. A few years later, I was down in Belmar, walking on that town’s newly restored beachside promenade. I was dismayed to discover that the new planks were not made of wood at all, but some plasticized, composite material. With the choice of that material over wood, I thought that every sensory component of a stroll along the shore had been irreparably compromised.

The “boards” were molded with the impressions of a woodgrain pattern. The brown plasticized finish was completely uniform, because of course, they had never been trees. I hadn’t considered that part of the alluring rusticity of a Jersey Shore boardwalk was how seemingly ad hoc it was. It makes perfect sense that boardwalks would all have been ad hoc at first, but these sidewalks made of wood became one of the pillars of the beach resort archetype, with all of their wonderful imperfections. Knot holes, the odd crack or split, a loose nail, the weathering, the random nature of the discoloration and even the occasional appearance of a pristine replacement board are all part of the visual experience of the boardwalk.

Wooden boardwalks have a good sound. The boards were once alive. The sound they make when they vibrate is an echo of the life that produced them. The sound of footsteps on them varies depending upon whether you’re wearing sneakers, shoes with wooden soles, or no shoes at all. The pitch and duration of the sound varies according to the size of the plank, the idiosyncrasies of the grain and how securely it’s nailed to the frame. When taken together, the planks create an irregular surface that reflects the sounds of conversations, laughter and amusements in a peculiar way. Since the Shore is the only place where most of us end up walking on wood, it is the sound of the Shore once you step away from the ocean. Wood grows in the way it wants to grow. It follows its own rules and conditions. Plastic does nothing. It’s inert. It makes that kind of sound. It’s the sound of atoms forced to work together instead of having been created to work together. Once you hear the difference, it’s inescapably unpleasant.

The synthetic boardwalk felt wrong under my feet. The plastic planks respond oddly to your steps. When you’re walking on wood, it flexes and vibrates distinctively, especially when other people are walking on it at the same time. These new plastic segments just did not produce that sensation. The soles of my shoes didn’t grab this fabricated material in quite the same way as they grabbed wood. I found myself surveying my surroundings cautiously, like my schnauzer does when we put boots on him. I could only imagine how that stuff would hold the heat, if you wanted to walk on it without shoes.

It was winter in Belmar, so the heat question remained unanswered. What about the smell of it? In the summer, boardwalks have a smell. Think about wood being subjected to salty sea air and baking in the hot sun, day after day, for years on end. Perhaps the smell I’m thinking of is nothing more than wood in a constant state of decomposition. It’s not a foul odor per se, and it serves to define the sensory experience of the Jersey Shore even further. I don’t know what plastic boardwalks smell like when they bake in the sun. I can only guess that in time it’ll be a chemical smell, or worse.

I can contrast the wooden boardwalk with the synthetic one via all the physical senses except taste. (I’ve never tasted a boardwalk. Let’s set that aside.) But there is one more aspect of the contrast that I think overshadows everything else. When walking on the plasticized promenade, I felt metaphysically detached.

Walk Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” is one of my favorites. The poet documented what was then an ordinary experience, commuting across the East River, and used it to revel in a connection with every person in generations before and after his, enjoying that same experience in their own era. How powerful the poem is when Whitman invites the reader to connect with him across time, as him! There are volumes of lessons about humanity in that deceptively simple concept. The synthetic planks in Belmar might provide more resistance to the elements, but for me, they strip away the potential for many a Whitmanesque metaphysical connection.

The universal connection available to us on a wooden New Jersey boardwalk is not only one with the millions of souls treading north and south along the the ocean’s edge unbound by linear chronology, each one with their own sentimentality or ambivalence about this very New Jersey diversion, but with the ocean itself. If we examine our perceptions, the Shore presents a fascinating paradox. Every summer, the grand Atlantic is always there waiting for us, exactly where we left it the autumn before. We see it as a constant, even though it’s constantly changing, constantly in motion, in constant commerce with the beach. It could at once be viewed to represent both consistency and impermanence. Isn’t the wooden boardwalk then the perfect, albeit feeble, human reply? These iconic, precarious structures are always in a state of flux and renewal. Year after year, they are replaced by degrees, a board here, a board there, at all different rates. Part of its charm is its inherent impermanence. From that perspective, the use of plastic is just vanity (and no less impermanent). We should use the natural material of wood, if the ocean wants it, the ocean will take it. When it does, the disharmony of plastic in the ocean will merely re-affirm the arrogance and the ignorance of humanity, like it always does.

I could have walked all day in Belmar, but there would be no resonance of ever so many generations hence rising up to enrich me. For no Victorian dandy ever laid eyes on simulated wood, let alone set foot on it. The only resonances I felt were those of a cold factory floor on which these pieces were manufactured within some esoteric construction tolerance. The only humanity I could even imagine were people in business dress, arranged in a semi-circle in some town hall chamber, reviewing bids for alternate materials to be used in boardwalk reconstruction. These images seem to me a faulty analogue for the rapturous musings Whitman eternalized on the page.

Certain things are better made of wood than plastic. Boardwalks at the Jersey Shore are definitely among them. The Atlantic dragged a big pot during that hurricane, but some Shore points still have some wood left. I’ll stick to those.

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