Sunday, November 09, 2008

Three on the Beach!

Our books today form a triptych of nature-writing united by a common scene: the Atlantic seacoast of North America, from Maine to the Florida Keys. This amazingly beautiful and diverse range has been attracting appreciative onlookers and trudgers and canoe-ers since humans first encountered it, and always it tends to bring out good, clear-headed, even flinty prose. The Pacific coast has its adherents too, of course, but its face is much more uniform than the Atlantic – there’s a lot less craggy individuality to attract craggy, individual prose stylists.

Our first book is The Edge of the Sea, the 1955 bestseller by Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring kick-started the entire ecology movement. In The Edge of the Sea, she focuses exclusively on the intertidal world all along the eastern seacoast, the weird margin between truly-sea and truly-land. And as usual, her spare prose is deceptively poetic:

Tidal pools contain mysterious worlds within their depths, where all the beauty of the sea is subtly suggested and portrayed in miniature. Some of the pools occupy deep crevices or fissures; at their seaward ends these crevices disappear under water; but toward the land they run back slantingly into cliffs and their walls rise higher, casting deep shadows over the water within them. Other pools are contained in rocky basins with a high rim on the seaward side to hold back the water when the last of the ebb drains away. Seaweeds line their walls. Sponges, hydroids, anemones, sea slugs, mussels, and starfish live in water that is calm for hours at a time, while just beyond the protecting rim the surf may be pounding.

The pools have many moods. At night they hold the stars and reflect the light of the Milky Way as it flows across the sky above them.

As a longtime wader of tidal pools (sometimes to the consternation of my companions over the years), I can attest to their unending wonders, especially when you walk down to the beach at night (being careful not to come afoul of the skunks who invariably do likewise) and crouch next to such a pool long enough to see the various and wondrously strange activities that go on there. But then, Carson finds the wondrously strange in virtually everything she writes about, and she relays it all to her readers:

The ghost crab, pale as the dry sand of the upper beaches it inhabits, seems almost a land animal. Often its deep holes are back where the dunes begin to rise from the beach. Yet it is not an air-breather; it carries with it a bit of the sea in the branchial chamber surrounding its gills, and at intervals must visit the sea to replenish the water.

Our next book 1979’s The Wild Edge by amateur naturalist and seasoned journalist Philip Kopper, who likewise sets about exploring the entire eastern seacoast and the wildlife to be found there, including a puzzling species that congregates seasonally in vast numbers. Kopper is at a loss to explain the mating habits of this species:

There is no correlation between copulation and seasonal, meteorological, or temporal conditions, although mating commonly occurs at night. Despite their enormous numbers and reported frequent coupling, actual monozygous reproduction rates suggest high sterility. Sexual activity among individuals of the same gender occurs in highly localized sites. As many as 4,000 males have been observed massing on summer nights along one mile-long stretch of inner dune on Fire Island and engaging in inevitably fruitless behavior (there is no satisfactory biological explanation for this activity which is rare elsewhere in the natural world except among a few marine mammals like orcas and dolphins).

Rhetorical flights like this crop up regularly in multi-page bursts, and they alone are worth the price of the book (metaphorically speaking, of course – this book, like its two companions and most great nature-writing, is almost certainly out of print). Kopper is that best of naturalists: the kind who don’t suffer fools gladly:

But then the Red Cross also suggests [for victims of heat-stroke] that after undressing the victim the First Aider should use “a small bath towel to maintain modesty.” (Gentle reader, dear friends, passing strangers: if anyone ever finds me felled by heat-stroke and wastes any time on “modesty,” I’ll expire from apoplexy at such rank stupidity. Don’t worry about fig leaves in potentially fatal situations. If a spare cloth is available, use it as a sponge. Delay meaningful treatment too long and the victim will have a sheet over his head soon enough).

We go from such high spirits to more somber matter in our third title, George Reiger’s 1983 book Wanderer on My Native Shore, which, though full of good writing and fascinating biological tidbits, consistently strikes a conservationist tone similar to that found in Wildlife in America, and similarly depressing:

Although the Chesapeake still produces an average annual yield of 125 pounds of seafood per acre, every day approximately 400 million gallons of municipal sewage are dumped into it. And although more than 200 species of fish feed and spawn in the bay and nearly 75 species of waterfowl and waders winter on the Chesapeake, an average of 800 tanker oil spills occur each year, and deleterious chemicals from dozens of nonpoint sources increasingly infiltrate the bay’s ecosystem.

Reiger’s canvas is as broad as Carson’s and Kopper’s, although he concentrates on the Chesapeake more than the other two do (justifiably so, as any of you who’ve spent any time there will agree – Michener was right to devote 1000 pages to it, and there’s a great natural history book exclusively dealing with it, one whose title momentarily escapes me but which I read years ago with great delight). And, it must be said, he has an eye for the sadder details:

Yet, because Delphinus [delphis, a pelagic dolphin] is an offshore species, marine mammal colors rarely see its life colors. And because it lives, and therefore usually dies, far from land, relatively few Delphinus ever wash ashore for salvagers to work on. No more than an average of one Delphinus a year comes ashore between Maine and Florida, and that’s, perhaps, just as well. Watching a great whale expire on a beach is sorrow enough. Watching an animal electric with life and color yield its energy to the sucking sands can devastate the human spirit.

All three of these books come generously illustrated, as all good natural history books should, and all three ultimately celebrate the world of the waves. I’ve spent so much of my life walking, exploring, and just sitting and reading in that world that I couldn’t help but love these books, each in its separate mood. But even if you’re aquaphobic or landlocked or both, you’ll like them too.


Sam said...

As a person who can joyously testify to the grandeur of the Atlantic coast, from Cape Henelopen to Provincetown at least, I second every word of this wonderful post! (Especially the words about the Carson book, which I've read and much enjoyed. Her book "Under the Sea Wind" covers some of the same terrain and is also much recommended!)

Sam said...

I second what I just posted!

steve said...

geez, Sam, get over yourself!