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Footprints in the Sand

The footprint is an ancient sacred symbol. Some believe it represents the memory and the teachings of the masters, and while the masters are gone, their teachings — their footprint — remains. In dream lore, following footprints in a dream can be symbolic of following in someone else’s path in life. Footprints can also relate to historical events, such as the first footstep on the moon.

The discovery of a set of 1.5 million-year-old human ancestor footprints in Ileret, Kenya, has shown the earliest direct evidence of the modern human style of walking upright. Other ancient footprints have been found at two sites on the South African coast, dating as far back as 120,000 years ago. In addition, footprints near Australia's Willandra Lakes have been dated to 20,000 years ago.

Recently, National Geographic reported the rare find of a large trove of well-preserved footprints left in the mud between 5,000 and 19,000 years ago has been discovered at Engaro Sero, nine miles from the Ol Doinyo Lengai (Mountain of God) volcano, on the southern shore of Tanzania's Lake Natron. This area has traditionally been a place of pilgrimage for generations of Maasai, who travel there for their god Engai, to pray for rain, cattle and children. Researchers think that ash-laden mud washed down the slopes of the volcano to form the mudflats these ancient peoples walked through. Within a matter of time, the mud dried and preserved the footprints, which then became buried by another ash flow 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. A shell found in the mud above the footprints placed them at somewhere between 5,000 and 19,100 years old.

In contrast, the beach footprints I photograph daily may only last for seconds, depending on the tides. Since I became a street photographer on the beach, shooting footprints has become part of my days' work, photographing my Liquid Abstracts series. As with all my Liquid Abstracts work, the tides determine the type of footprints I'll be capturing. Some days, when the tide is high, the sand becomes loose, and the footprints are less defined and quickly obliterated. Other times, when the tide is low, the beach becomes glassy smooth, and the footprints are crisply defined and may last seconds longer.

That magic time before sunset, during low tide, allows for reflections from the setting sun to bounce off the smooth surface of the sand, enhancing the footprints with vivid colors. But if it's cloudy, the footprints will be gray.

Although all of my beach footprints will be erased by the tide during its daily cycle, I am able to preserve them — not with a layer of volcanic ash, but with my camera, my own digital footprint.

Photos: © David Björkman — Solana Beach, California