On Some Recent Books About the Ecology and History of Beaches

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AMERICANS MAKE APPROXIMATELY 400 million visits to the beach each year, according to the United States Lifesaving Association. This summer, they arrived in droves up and down the coasts of the Atlantic and Pacific, the Gulf shores and Great Lakes, along bays, rivers, and offshore islands. Despite all the Republican bromides about “coastal elites,” the entire country is pretty coastal. Coastline counties account for only 10 percent of land mass in the contiguous United States, and yet 40 percent of the US population lives on the coast, where the country’s economic activity is concentrated. Nearly every imported good flows through some 360 commercial seaports, generating massive federal, state, and local tax revenues in the process. A sprawling blue economy includes trade and cargo, but also national defense, mining, utilities, transportation, fisheries, research, and “the ocean-based tourism and recreation sector,” which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) credits with employing more people than “the entire real estate industry, as well as more people than building construction and telecommunications combined.” The coasts aren’t for elites, but rather for large swaths of society — old and young, rich and poor, white, Black, and Brown — that live, work, and play on the edges of the land.

And yet, the more coastal we become, the shorter-lived the coasts are. Marin County’s Stinson Beach, a draw for surfers and day-trippers (my own family included), could disappear by 2050, the San Francisco Chronicle reported this January. NOAA puts sea level rise at an estimated 10 to 12 inches by 2050, warning that flooding will wreak havoc on critical infrastructure and communities farther inland. South Florida, the poster child for sea level rise, will have to find a way through intensifying hurricanes and massive erosion if its famous beaches are to survive. At this summer’s UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, the tone was grim. “We must stop destroying the life support systems of this planet,” Peter Thompson, the Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean said, “and restore humanity’s relationship with the ocean.”

When something recedes into history, it can become easier to recognize or define. Two centuries ago, when Europeans left the countryside in search of new opportunities promised by the Industrial Revolution, the natural world started to look different from the crowded city street and mechanized factory floor. You can see this newfound appreciation for “nature” in the rise of landscape painting. Artists such as J. M. W. Turner found in nature a source of wonder and even awe, just as nature was starting to slip out of reach. Perhaps a similar phenomenon is happening with the world’s coasts.

With climate change portending the end of the shore as we know it, there’s more writing than ever about it. Each month marks the arrival of important new books about beaches, coasts, bodies of water, even sand. These “beach reads” aren’t the novels people bring on vacation, but books that raise questions about the very idea of a beach vacation. Taking a few notable (if partial) examples, Robert C. Ritchie’s The Lure of the Beach: A Global History (UC Press, 2021), Jamin Wells’s Shipwrecked: Coastal Disasters and the Making of the American Beach (UNC Press, 2020), Jennifer Lucy Allan’s The Foghorn’s Lament: The Disappearing Music of the Coast (White Rabbit Books UK, 2021), Sarah Stodola’s The Last Resort: A Chronicle of Paradise, Profit, and Peril at the Beach (HarperCollins, 2022), and Obi Kaufmann’s The Coasts of California: A California Field Atlas (Heyday, 2022) highlight some of the ways that scholars, journalists, and other writers are responding to the warming of the world’s oceans and the challenges of sea level rise. However varied, all of these books build on a shared premise that the coasts have a history — and that history may soon be gone.

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Like most environmental writing after World War II, this crop of beach reads can trace its origins to Rachel Carson. With its lyrical storytelling, The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, changed perceptions of the world and ocean history. Rather than dark and unknowable, the sea was for Carson, a marine biologist, the key to understanding life — human, animal, and otherwise. Narrating the ocean’s origins and exploring the delicate ecosystems teeming under the surface, the book became a national bestseller and the basis of an Oscar-winning documentary (although Carson was unhappy with the film and never again sold rights to her work). She followed it with The Edge of the Sea (1955), which moved from the watery depths onto the rocky shores of New England, like the creatures she described. Her editor at Houghton Mifflin envisioned a field guide for “every cottage, picnic basket, and beachrobe pocket,” and yet for Carson the shore wasn’t about leisure. It was the stage for the drama of evolutionary struggle. The book was another bestseller.

But then Carson’s Silent Spring, appearing in three parts in The New Yorker in 1962, eclipsed everything else she wrote. Focusing the nation’s attention on the dangers of DDT and other synthetic pesticides, the book inspired congressional hearings (at which Carson testified, dying of breast cancer) and a new grassroots environmentalism. Amid mounting opposition to industrial waste and air pollution, terrestrial concerns took over. Nature became synonymous with “green”: forest conservation, the protection of wild lands. Carson’s call to the shore, for environmentalists to occupy it “mentally and imaginatively,” faded into the background for nearly five decades.

A few years ago, I was working on a story about the 19th-century “discovery” of the beach by Europe’s middle classes — who flocked to places like Brighton and the French Riviera, aided by the expanding railroads — and called John Gillis, a historian and the author of the groundbreaking book The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History (2012). Gillis, who died last December, brought to life Carson’s belief that history couldn’t be understood without studying the shore. “The beach has been cordoned off and made into an exception in nature,” Gillis told me. “It never has inherent value but is always on the edge of the sea or the land.” In the popular imagination, the beach is elemental, like the purest expression of nature. Never mind a few centuries of human development.

Among the new(ish) books serving as correctives to this erasure is historian Robert Ritchie’s The Lure of the Beach, a cultural history of the seaside resort that brings capitalism to the shore. Ritchie follows aristocrats and then the urban masses to the coasts of industrializing England, the birthplace of beach tourism, where the shore was reinvented as an escape from the frenzied pace and supposedly unhealthy conditions of modern life. Anxious about their well-being and viewing their disconnection from nature as the source of their problems, city dwellers actively sought invigorating ocean breezes and the “therapeutic” effects of cold seawater (doctors advised swimming, taking plunges, and even drinking it to treat a long list of ailments). With the first resorts came innovations like the bathing machine for women, a contraption resembling an upright coffin on wheels, to safeguard feminine propriety. Victorian lifestyles and real estate interests then conspired to turn the beach into a popular weekend and holiday destination. Jane Austen’s final, unfinished novel Sanditon (now a period drama on PBS Masterpiece) skewers life in a fictional seaside resort town. Austen hardly could have imagined that a few decades later, visitors to New York’s Coney Island could buy “authentic” sand in a bottle and ride a rollercoaster over the Atlantic. By the early 20th century, the beach had become a fetish — its imagined attributes (pristine, natural, salubrious, and fun) regarded as the answer to all that ailed modern men and women.

In Ritchie’s telling, this transformation was led by Europe’s elites and expanding bourgeoisie. But according to Shipwrecked, a remarkable disaster story by historian Jamin Wells, there was another driving force behind the remaking of the 19th-century littoral. Maritime disasters, a regular event on the Atlantic seaboard, “unleashed a torrent of public and private energies that turned the coastal frontier into the modern beach,” Wells writes. Shipwrecks killed crew, destroyed property, and racked up massive financial losses. As more precious cargo sank, local officials and others (ship owners, insurers) intervened in ways that literally tamed the shore. New Jersey passed a “wreck law” in 1806, regulating rescue and salvage efforts and criminalizing the theft of “stranded property.” Other states followed suit, hoping to bring order and unity to coasts that were deemed lawless and too dispersed.

Lighthouses, navigation buoys, and foghorns were put in place to mitigate shipwrecks, while greater US customs enforcement spurred the construction of new stations along the East Coast. The United States Life-Saving Service, the precursor to the Coast Guard, was formed officially in 1878. But change was also about cultural sensibilities, Wells shows. Stories about shipwrecks proliferated in the press and created an aura of drama that drew intrigued tourists to the beach. As more of them flocked to wreck sites, or simply to enjoy a sunny stretch of sand, officials arrived with infrastructure and cleared the coasts of rotting vessels, flora, and fauna. This is how the beach was remade into a “‘pristine’ American playspace,” Wells writes, “devoid of the detritus of past disasters.”

Perhaps it’s only a musicologist that hears change before seeing it. Jennifer Lucy Allan’s The Foghorn’s Lament comes from her PhD dissertation on the foghorn, a modern steam-powered machine designed to warn ships and their sailors of the craggy, fateful rocks jutting out from the shore. Installed at lighthouse stations, harbors, and piers, the foghorn replaced bells, guns, cannons, and other ad hoc solutions intended to prevent ships from crashing. The engine-driven horn, with its blasts of compressed air, became a defining feature of many of the world’s coasts by the end of the 19th century. The foghorn’s blare robbed those living in its vicinity of sleep and caused near madness. Earwitnesses described howling beasts.

Allan’s interests lie in the sound of the foghorn and its relationship to weather (fog) and place (the coasts). She mourns the foghorn’s disappearance as GPS technology renders it obsolete (except in San Francisco, where it bellows under the Golden Gate Bridge). There’s ambivalence in Allan’s account, but not enough. The foghorn, a piece of the modern coastal apparatus, is a product of the industrial economy, its vast shipping lines and colonial predations — to say nothing of the harms inflicted upon marine life, especially whales and dolphins, by noise-polluting steamships. At one point, Allan writes that foghorns belong to “an infrastructure of violence but offer salvation to anyone at sea, not just those out to conquer.” But the world the foghorn helped create isn’t a safer one — and this is nowhere as evident as with the receding coasts.

For Sarah Stodola, a journalist and seasoned travel writer, the beach isn’t foggy but sunny and idyllic. It’s also so culturally powerful that it has remade entire economies and ecologies from Hawaii and Mexico to Bali and Vietnam. Written as a “corrective and warning,” The Last Resort is a chronicle of historical continuities and environmental consequences. Just as Ritchie’s bourgeoisie escaped to the 19th-century coast, today’s beach is a place apart. Europeans once ventured farther (often into their colonial empires) in search of uncrowded, “unspoiled” beaches, and now Western tourists do the same, pursuing more remote and secluded destinations. “[T]he most coveted shorelines are the hardest to reach,” Stodola writes, tallying the environmental costs.

The book’s title is a reference to an emerging consensus that the beach as we know it isn’t sustainable. “With sand that can’t be relied on to stay in place, and water threatening to inundate properties, developers may eventually find the current resort model untenable,” Stodola writes. But she isn’t immune to the pleasures of a beach vacation, and in the final chapter, she offers advice on how to do it better: prioritizing regional over global travel to reduce long-haul flights. For Americans, this means sipping drinks under an umbrella in the Caribbean, not the Seychelles. For resorts and developers, this will require a shift in marketing to potential visitors who are closer to home.

The Last Resort scrutinizes beachgoing on every habitable continent, focusing on the built-up Atlantic coasts in its treatment of the United States. In fact, much of the writing on beaches and coasts betrays an Atlantic bias, which is part of what makes Obi Kaufmann’s The Coasts of California, the fourth installment in his California Field Atlas series, an original contribution to the genre. In 639 pages, Kaufmann, a naturalist, writer, and illustrator, tackles the geography and ecology of California’s 840-mile-long Pacific coastline in immersive detail. Included in the atlas are narratives, colorful maps, inventories, and watercolor drawings. One chapter follows his trek along the half-completed California Coastal Trail, which he organizes into 24 different coasts, from lagoon estuaries and gray-sand beaches south of the Oregon border to arid San Diego, where urban sprawl threatens wetlands that are home to most of the region’s wildlife.

“There is no greater bellwether of our ability to reimagine and reengineer our home than along the coasts of California, where most of the human population of the state lives, and where its natural world is most threatened,” Kaufmann writes. Climate breakdown looms over the entire book, and the worst-case scenario appears on a map, captioned “California radically transforms: the Pacific inundates the Central Valley, the forests desiccate, the Mediterranean climate and the California Current are destroyed.” Indigenous traditions, which are referenced throughout the atlas, are presented as models for living on the coasts and with them. Native Americans who fished and whaled for centuries and used the beach for seasonal habitation saw the places between land and sea as life-sustaining, not timeless, empty, or static.

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For Gillis, the beach was a site of contradictions, where images of soft, golden sand have long belied reality. Groomed and often stabilized and maintained by sand imported from elsewhere, the modern beach is mostly artificial. Even the most popular destinations for paradise seekers, such as Hawaii’s Waikiki Beach and Jamaica’s Negril Beach, rely on imported sand. And while more resorts are trucking in sand to fortify their shrinking beaches, “sand mafias” are now stealing it. Because sand is used in the production of concrete, glass, asphalt, and computer chips, as well as in hydraulic fracking, criminal organizations have entered a sketchy sand business that is booming.

In 2020, just as Californians were taking to the beach more than usual, thanks to the ease of social distancing on a large expanse of sand, a UC Santa Barbara scientist discovered leaking barrels of DDT near Catalina Island. Half a million barrels of toxic sludge might sit on the ocean floor, according to reporting by Rosanna Xia. The Los Angeles coast has served as a chemical dumping ground for decades. EPA memos have recently become public, yielding a fuller picture of the damage. After World War II, just as beach culture spread along the southern California coasts, so did hundreds of tons of industrial and military waste: DDT, caustic solutions, radioactive material, and garbage. Carson’s warnings are thus more relevant than ever. “The big question now is whether the chemicals have been sequestered or embedded into the seafloor well enough to prevent them from remobilizing,” Xia says, “or whether they have been recirculating in a way that threatens human health and California’s marine environment.”

And yet, despite the toxic realities lurking beneath the sea’s gleaming surfaces, the act of going to the beach still seems like the most natural of activities for a California resident like me, even as I know it’s “a wholly modern invention,” as Gillis defined it. For centuries, not the beach, per se, but the shore was a source of food and temporary dwelling, mostly to be avoided on account of the shipwrecks, drownings, and natural disasters that happened there. It may once again become a place to avoid. In classical mythology, the wrath of the ocean is a perennial theme, and in more modern literary texts, fictional castaways like Robinson Crusoe confront destiny on the sand. Our species may end up doing the same. Only with the Industrial Revolution did the beach acquire its modern meanings: leisure, respite, and escape. And almost in concert, it became the site of the myopia of the Industrial Age. Writing in the opinion pages a decade ago, Gillis called out our beachgoing as a form of environmental neglect: “Beaches today are where we turn our backs not just on the world at large but also on our inland selves.” It’s where we’re blinded to what we have done. Now that the coasts are finally getting a history, they might not have a future.

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Daniela Blei is a historian and book editor based in San Francisco. She is working on a book about the past and future of six beaches located around the world.

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