'Against the Tide' -- King Canute was right


"Against the Tide: The Battle for America's Beaches," by Cornelia Dean. Columbia University Press. 336 pages. $24.95.

If you can see the ocean, the ocean can see you."

This cautionary comment by eminent beach geologist Orrin H. Pilkey, as quoted in "Against the Tide," sent a shiver down this shore-dweller's spine. And it should. When you live within earshot of the sea, your house is built on a shifting foundation. You have two choices: accept that your perch is impermanent, or fight the forces of nature in a battle that at best, will be a costly and endless stalemate.

Cornelia Dean, science editor of the New York Times, has written a workmanlike description of the ongoing struggle to turn back the tide on America's beaches by pinning down our shorelines -- defying their essential nature, a continual dance of destruction and renewal. By her account and many others', engineering aimed at protecting property rather than beaches has done more harm than good, seldom halting erosion and more often hastening it at enormous and continual cost to taxpayers.

This is not new information, as Dean notes, and she has trouble making some of her material seem fresh. After a whiz-bang description of a lethal 1900 flood in Galveston, Texas -- a nonfiction "Nuclear Train" opening, the standard gambit in books of this sort -- she moves into a fairly technical account of the unintended consequences of "armoring" shorelines with sea walls and jetties. This material was better covered by Pilkey and co-author Katharine K. Dixon in their authoritative and deliciously vitriolic 1996 book, "The Corps and the Shore."

Dean's new tale picks up pizazz midway through, as she tackles the livelier topics of hurricane and nor'easter damage and skewers problem-plagued beach renourishment projects, including Ocean City's in Maryland. There is a delightful account of barefoot beach scientists gleefully conducting erosion research in the teeth of an approaching storm in Duck, N.C., which makes up for the early slogging.

Of the three options available -- armoring, beach rebuilding and retreat -- Dean favors retreat as the only sensible approach. At the very least, she argues, shore-dwellers should understand the natural forces they're fighting.

She is right, of course. Anyone with an investment in the beach -- including anyone who pays taxes, which subsidize practically all attempts at erosion control -- should learn what we're up against. Dean's book is as good a place as any to start.

It's also wise to reconsider the old fable of the ant and the cricket from a new perspective. Aesop sided with the ant, but you don't see many ant hills at the beach. The cricket's philosophy -- stockpile little, sing while you can, and know that your time is short --seems the appropriately humble choice for those risk-takers who choose shoreside life.

Heather Dewar has covered environmental issues since 1989, first for the Miami Herald and later, as the Washington, D.C.-based national environment correspondent for Knight-Ridder Newspapers. She became The Baltimore Sun's environment reporter in December.

Pub Date: 06/06/99

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