The Seacoast Reader

The Seacoast Reader – Review

Sarah Richardson

Edited by John A. Murray. THE LYONS PRESS, 1999, $30; $17.95 PAPER.

THE STRIP OF SAND WHERE LAND MEETS SEA EXERTS an extraordinary hold on ordinary humans. By the year 2000, demographers estimate, 80 percent of Americans will live within an hour’s drive of a coastline. Most people love the shore without having any idea how beaches are formed, and few may fully appreciate how building near the shore alters beach ecology. But Cornelia Dean, a science journalist, does know. Her new book, Against the Tide, explains what happens when we love beaches too much.

Over the past century, coastal geologists have come to understand that beaches come and go with a logic of their own. Human practices profoundly disrupt this process. When rivers are dammed, forcing runoff into concrete washes, we lose the sediments that replenish coastlines. When we build close to the shore, we not only risk ruin by storms but also disturb the forces that permit sand to accumulate and redistribute naturally. The long-settled coast of New Jersey, for example, has been struggling to maintain its beaches for nearly a century. Building seawalls in the hope of saving homes from encroaching fides and storms ultimately doesn’t work because the beach is starved of natural sand. And while structures called groins–designed to alter currents and trap sand–may save one stretch of beach, they so disrupt sand flow to neighboring beaches that somebody else ends up without the sand. Naturally, this massive redistribution of sand, often running into hundreds of thousands of cubic tons, is not easy to study, let alone to alter or even reasonably predict. One researcher says that it’s probably easier to go to the moon than to understand the physics of the near seashore.

Dean’s story is grim and often repetitive. It also can be tedious, but she clearly loves her subject. On that score, her sentiments are much in tune with another, far more accessible beach book–The Seacoast Reader, a wide-ranging collection of essays. The powerhouse of the bunch is Barry Lopez’s description of the stranding of 41 sperm whales on an Oregon beach in 1979. He reconstructs the scene–the onlookers who marvel and grieve, the scientists who study and dissect, the park personnel who must police the site and dispose of the corpses. And his images of the dying whales are unforgettable: the moist breath from the blowhole, the large purple eyes, the extraction of a fetus 15 feet long.

A piece by Nancy Lord describes a day spent fishing for a living in Alaska. Like Lopez’s, the article tackles real-life problems far from the shopworn rapture that nature essays catalog. She and her partner haul fish from the nets, often wing with seals for their catch. The work is hard and the yield is not plentiful. At day’s end, she scrubs dried fish scales from her arms. “Better than gold stars,” she writes, “they’re the medals that remind us how we live with fish.”

The book contains other surprises, like Mark Twain writing about a trip to Hawaii, or Daniel Duane on surfers trying to catch–and survive-monster waves. On the whole, these are private, life-affirming epiphanies, while Against the Tide describes a far more conflicted relationship to the coast, comprising as much fear, pride, and frustration as wonder. (Dean’s opening chapter on the hurricane that flattened Galveston in 1900–this country’s deadliest coast disaster–and the Herculean effort to rebuild the town, is worth the price of the book.) Despite their differences, these two volumes share a longstanding human tradition of devout nature worship and an awareness that what we most relish, more than the sting of salt air or the caress of sand, is the play of forces far beyond our control.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Discover

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group