The beaches of the world have always been a unique place on Planet Earth: the place where sea and sky sometimes assault, sometimes caress the land. In many areas of the world, beaches are a great source of natural beauty and recreation for humans and much coveted dwelling sites. As a result, beaches and beach boundaries are among the most developed regions of the world, and, unfortunately, high on the list of the most abused.
In Against The Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches, author Cornelia Dean, science editor for the New York Times, introduces us to the life cycle of beaches. On one hand, we see the natural processes whereby a natural beach forms, grows and migrates, receives and recovers from injury and, at times, dies. On the other, she tells the story of the caged beach -- one whose life is altered by human intervention, impacts generally not beneficial to the beach's long-term well-being.
The book begins with an account of that Great Galveston Hurricane which struck the Texas city a century ago. The chapter describes how the storm and later the protective sea wall changed forever the nature of Galveston's miles of beach.
Next, Dean writes of the natural processes which shape a beach. She paints a picture of beaches as living entities rather than static piles of sand. Dean shows us that, given time, most beaches will recover from storm damage if left alone and allowed to self-repair.
Beaches are unique. Why not invest in a beach house rental where you can read this delightful book. How about a Jamaican vacation rental? Or maybe rent a beach house closer to home, but with more beach privacy than a hotel room.
However, when humans add "protective" devices, the health of the beach often deteriorates, even under normal conditions. The story of human intervention, which dominates most of the book, focuses on how beaches are treated in the United States (although I am sure that similar practices are undertaken on beaches around the world wherever civilization encroaches). Thus, the focus and narrative changes from scientific to strongly political as she relates how local residents and businesses look to various levels of government to make time and beach sand stand still.
Ms Dean has done a commendable job in balancing the two stories: natural process and human engineering practices. However, the focus on the book does lean more on how "we Americans must reconsider our attitude toward our beaches." Hence, the subtitle. So, if you are looking for an in-depth natural history of beaches, you may want to add another book to your reading list -- but finish this one first.
If you have an interest in coastal development, Against The Tide is a must read. In fact, I find it as powerful a document on the pitfalls of coastal development as Marc Reisner's book Cadillac Desert, which speaks clearly about the abuses of western US water development and river control projects.
I enjoyed the book on its many levels. The descriptions of beach processes, natural and otherwise, are among the most lucid I have read. The political story is also written clearly and with a concise, flowing narrative, laying out the facts so that the reader may decide what course of action is best for the continued beauty and enjoyment of America's miles of beaches.
If you love beaches, Against The Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches by Cornelia Dean offers a passionate account of the crisis facing America's coastline and what can be done to protect its beaches.
Keith C. Heidorn, PhD, ACM
THE WEATHER DOCTOR
1 February 2000
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