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Going to the Beach and Coasts as Places

July 29, 2013

The summer vacation time is fast disappearing. From northwest Iowa, one has a ways to go to find a coastal beach at which to vacation–unless one counts lake beaches as coastal.

Going to the beach is a relatively recent thing as vacationing goes. (For that matter, so is vacationing.) If one can’t make it to a beach–or if one is looking for something to read while on a beach, you might consider historian John Gillis’s new book, The Human Shore: Seacoasts in History.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s fascinating review of the book–and discussion of Gillis–is in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education Review. You can read the entire piece here.

Gillis’s book is global history. Consider this:

Finding evidence in newly discovered ruins of homes along the marshy coasts of Wales and the huge shell-mounds, built by Ohlone Indians, that still line San Francisco Bay, Gillis argues that it was early humans’ engagement with the sea, not their activities on the savannah, that led to their divergence from primates. Echoing the Berkeley geographer Carl Sauer’s famous view that “the shore is the primitive home of man,” Gillis reminds us that on the shores of Africa, Eurasia, and the Americas alike, aquaculture predated agriculture. Long before our forebears planted wheat, they were setting aside areas for cultivating clams and shellfish. Scholars may disagree about what all this means. But Gillis shows how our historical underplaying of those muddy margins where land and water meet is manifested in the difficulty that our intellectual traditions, like our laws, have had in contending with places that don’t definitely belong to either land and sea.

Moving rapidly through the centuries, Gillis describes how the first Homo sapiens to leave our species’ East African cradle reached the Indian Ocean’s shores 125,000 years ago and then migrated north, across the Red Sea, as “coasting” people whose descendants, from there, moved along the shores of the Arabian Peninsula and on to the Indian subcontinent and beyond. Eventually they surrounded the Indian Ocean, turning its rim into a contiguous web of seaboard civilizations, crosscut and interlinked by shipping routes that have existed for some 5,000 years.

Describing the varied mythological traditions by which people everywhere came to distill their views about the sea, he notes the commonality of belief in land symbolizing order and sea chaos. Coasts, accordingly, were looked on as shifting zones of sharp rocks and deadly sirens: scary sites that belonged more to the realm of the god Oceanus than to the land. It was only as the old maritime empires became modern states (and tamed Oceanus, at least in mind, by dividing its contiguous mass into “seas” with their own names) that the modern urge to transform our shores’ terra infirma into territory, and thus to fix the frontier between order and chaos, grew ascendant.

For what considering coasts as places might mean in the present, consider this:

Whether made of sand or pebbles, beaches are formed by the movement of water. They are, by their nature, ever-changing. “No wonder our ancestors had no name or affection for them,” Gillis writes. Few examples so starkly illustrate our changing relationship to the shore as the fetishization of a once-worthless substance—white sand—and the billions of dollars we pour, each year, into keeping the stuff in place. Such efforts, along with the billions more spent on “fixing” coastlines in general (half of New Jersey’s shore is engineered in place) bespeak a larger contradiction of our era: that even as more of us than ever settle near the sea—some three billion people now live within 100 miles of its edge—we grow only more ignorant of its protean ways.

A similar disconnect is visible in the ways that our cities’ working waterfronts, once the haunt of stevedores and sailors, have been turned into maritime theme parks—New York’s South Street Seaport, San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Once working wharves, these sites are now for shopping and wave-gazing, mirroring our once-industrial cities’ evolution from sites for labor into shrines to conspicuous consumption.

Reconceiving our relationship to the shore in the way Gillis recommends is plainly sensible; translating that reconception into large-scale shifts in our behavior and policies is daunting. Stop building homes ever closer to the edge; protect and restore the coastal marshes and wetlands; redesign the levee systems. Those steps are necessary, but part of what slows their being taken is an ingrained recalcitrance that Gillis finds expressed in a term from Canada’s Prince Edward Island: “chasing the shore.” It was long used, Gillis writes, to describe poets or idlers who venture down to the sea for purposes other than hauling lobster traps or digging clams. He notes it in discussing the suspicion with which we have historically viewed activities on the shore as not at home in the rational world—and also to suggest how, in our hyperrational age, the shore’s lure has seemed only to strengthen.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 29, 2013 5:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Buffalo Doug.

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