A Visit to the Seashore

The Coast    by Joseph J. Thorndike

St. Martins Press 1993, xix + 233 pp.  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

    Here is a travelogue, a trip along the Atlantic coast of the US, from Quoddy Head Light at the northern end of Maine to the southernmost point of Key West. It visits most of the seashore in between, and though it appears like a continuous voyage, in fact the book was stitched together from many separate trips, each contributing one or more chapters. Those chapters can be read individually too, making it a good choice for a leisurely, stop-and-go reader.

    The story flows easily and pleasantly--as may be expected from a co-founder of the "American heritage" magazine--picking up interesting locations and tidbits of history. Thoreau's walk around Cape Cod is retraced, for instance, and his observations are compared to what one finds today. Much space is also devoted to wildlife and fishing--telling us (among other things) that the little sandpipers running around Florida's beaches may well be the same as are seen (at a different season) at Cape Cod, one stop on their annual migration, which continues far, far north.

    One observation runs through the entire book--evident at almost all the locations visited--that the US seashore is overloaded by the exploding population in its immediate vicinity. During the past century, much of the shoreline has become fenced-off private property, and fishing has depleted the ocean and reduced its productivity. In Maine there was a time when well-off students brought to school sandwiches with meat loaf, while "the poorer children ate lobster." Not any more. The National Park Service gets high marks for its efforts to save the shore, undermanned and underfunded as it is. But the task is too big.

    Furthermore, the ocean lapping at the sands refuses to be subdued. Cape Cod is being chewed away at about 3 feet per year: it is actually a relic, deposited by the glacier of the last ice age, as is Long Island. Some day Cape Cod will disappear altogether--not soon, for sure, but meanwhile its sands are constantly shifting, and over the years peninsulas become islands and small islands disappear. Stone seawalls may protect properties behind them (for a while, at least), but they hasten the departure of sand from their ocean side. Stone "groins" extending into the water may perhaps collect sand (at least on the side facing the off-shore current)--or they may not, but if they do, it is often at the expense of neighboring beaches.

    The many people who have overloaded the shore have also endowed it with a rich heritage of stories, many of which can be found here. The story of King Phillip's war, in which the Indians of Rhode Island were wiped out by early British settlers--an act of genocide now commemorated only by a small monument, giving the view of the perpetrators. You read of the colony planted in 1587 on Roanoke Islands, at the Outer Banks, a colony which soon vanished. Also of the life of plantation slaves on the sea islands off Georgia, documented by a young English lady who found more than she had expected. There is the story of Spanish treasure ships sunk off Florida, and of the railroad built by an enterprising developer across the Florida Keys, all the way to Key West. It served faithfully from 1912 until the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, which wiped out great parts of it. And much, much more, about the decline of the Chesapeake, about the great rivers of Florida and about Cape Canaveral, now a first-rate refuge for wildlife. Thank God for space rockets!

    As books go, this one is old, and much may have changed. It was published in 1993, when rising global seal levels were not yet a visible public concern, though the process was well underway. The seashore remains a nice place to visit, though I would think twice before building a home next to it, and probably could not afford such a site, anyway. But if I do, I promise to keep the beach open to casual visitors, as a common heritage. As the book tells, that was already demanded by ancient Roman law.


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Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .

Last updated 25 February 2007