Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Winter Beach!

Our book today is Charlton Ogburn's 1966 classic The Winter Beach, in which he explores and ruminates upon the various Atlantic seacoasts and their characters (if you follow the 'natural history' tag, you'll find a number of other books on the same subject - I've been updating and increasing the tags on Stevereads, to make the rich bounty of previous rants more readily available!). Ogburn was what is known as a "character," as can be seen immediately in the fact that he's the only writer I've ever heard of to dedicate his book to lichen:

To the granite and the kelp, the dunes and the surf, the gulls, the pitch-pines and the sea-oats ... and to Vera.

I don't know who that "Vera" is, but if I were her and read that dedication, I'd be a little ticked.

But the book is pure gold, as perfect an example of classic amateur natural history (a genre much celebrated here at Stevereads) as you're likely to find, although the unsigned illustrations throughout are almost perfunctory in their blandness. Fortunately, it doesn't matter, because Ogburn's prose is so enjoyable a mixture of scientific fact and sweeping epiphany - just the mixture you want in a natural historian, and harder to pull off than it looks. When he talks about the forces that make a beach happen in the first place, for instance, he has all his facts at hand - but you can easily feel his nerdy wonder coming through:

The power of breaking waves is almost incredible. According to a publication of the U.S. Navy Hydrographic Office, twelve-foot breakers exert up to 1,755 pounds of pressure per square foot, those of eighteen feet up to 2,370, while break-waters in the Bay of Biscay have to be built to withstand 4,120 pounds per square foot. To top that, twenty-foot breakers running onto the west coast of Scotland before a strong gale registered over 6000 pounds per square foot. A mere babe six feet high would wallop a poor little limpet with a blow of over four and a half pounds.

And he can break into digressions at the drop of a hat, which is another quality you want in such a writer, no matter how dorky it is:

Fortunate are the inhabitants of islands and peninsulas! The ocean is a great reducer of the seasons, a radiator in winter, a refrigerator in summer. To warm up water requires three thousand times as much heat as it does to warm up the same amount of air to the same degree. During winter, the ocean slowly releases the heat it stored during the summer. Sea water of between 35 degrees and 45 degrees feels icy indeed, but the breeze that comes off it is temperate compared with an air mass surging down out of Canada in January.
Ogburn visits winter beaches from Maine to the Outer Banks, spending time on Long Island and Cape Cod and always noting the austere beauty of the sea in winter, a beauty which I heartily concur is entirely more rewarding personally than the warm opulence of summer. And nowhere is this more apparent than on the winter beaches I came to know very well one season years and years ago: the beautiful island of Nantucket, where Ogburn puts in an obligatory visit and notes that the entire island is under the lee of the ocean - no furthestmost inland corner is free of it:

The wonder was that the land should have [any] clothing of vegetation. Small white pines planted along the highway two miles from the shore were sered from salt spray, which is said to blow clear across the island. (That it does so is easy to believe. Even a four-mile-an-hour zephyr has been found to carry microscopic droplets half a mile while salt spray driven by hurricane winds will completely destroy foliage as far as ten miles inland.)

Ogburn's book is meaty and engrossing, a perfect companion for beach-combing excursions or completely sedentary mental excursions on sunny summer porches. My own little copy is lumpy with the dried sea-foam of many beaches, and when I open it, I sometimes catch the random scents of dune and grass long gone. And the book functions as a keepsake in a different way now as well, since Cape Cod and the islands - along with all the other places Ogburn visits in The Winter Beach - are almost certainly doomed by the climate changes the 21st century will see.

But they'll always exist in these seacoast-books I keep bringing up here ... and in memories, where the gull-cries are always urgent, the windblown sand helps you recall your own contours, and the brawling surf pushes you free of time.

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