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Life Sciences
Northwest Explorer

The World Washes Up On An Oregon Beach

Reviewed by Hilary Kemp

Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris

by Bonnie Henderson

216 pp., Oregon State University Press, 2008

If the people of the world are divided up the way Bonnie Henderson, author of Strand, suggests – into those drawn to mountains, desert, or ocean shore – then like her, I belong to the tribe of the coast.

But a further subdivision is in order: the beachcomber culture in the Pacific Northwest is a far cry from the bikini-drenched shores of California or Florida. A day spent on the Oregon coast with Henderson, searching for sand-encrusted treasure in a westerly driving rain, might not appeal to those beach-lovers who worship the ocean while baking, face-down, on big striped towels.

My first view of the former was during a graduate school interview. The decision to attend the University of Oregon in Eugene was cemented on a windy, pebbled beach not far from "Mile 157," the one-mile stretch of central Oregon coastline that acts as a geographic anchor for the six stories in Strand.

Since 1995, Henderson has patrolled Mile 157 as part of the Oregon conservation program CoastWatch. And what she's found washed up on her adopted shoreline has turned her into a treasure-hunter, of sorts. But it's not the objects themselves that fascinate her: "Ultimately it was the stories I prized most. Everything on the beach has one – every discarded bottle, every dead seabird chick. Even when you can't get the whole story, the quest becomes a story in itself. And in the end, those are the best stories anyway."

Though Henderson claims there's "nothing extraordinary" about her adopted stretch of coastline, her quest to track down the origins of ocean-wracked debris transforms her unremarkable piece of coastal real estate into a portal through which exotic shores can be glimpsed. What gets washed up onto the pages of Strand, an anecdotal beachcomber's adventure book, is a cast of characters, history, social commentary, ecological insights, and most importantly, the thrill of discovery.

Though each of the stories in Strand begins with a specific beachcombing find, the book's true subjects are the parade of collectors, naturalists, and artisans consulted by the author. These are people who have spent a lifetime focused on – one might say, obsessed with – a single topic.

With their collectibles, specialized knowledge, and skills, these ad hoc experts are both eccentric and accomplished. One has groupies. Another takes meticulous counts of dead birds – counts that are used as raw data for scientific publications and evidence in court. Still others are bona fide scientists, who have built a career on cataloging lesser-known whales or using hockey gloves to track ocean currents.

What they have in common is passion. Giving in to their impulses has yielded the kind of expertise that only comes with years of deliberate focus. Strand provides proof of principle for an unspoken thesis in letting childlike wonder drive adult pursuits.

Strand is also a book about serendipity and the thrill of hunting for treasure. Whether searching for glass floats in the dunes or whales at sea, a tension exists between the all-too-common experience of failure and the truism that you find what you are looking for. "Once you look," says Henderson after completing dead-bird-counting training with a zoologist, "it's hard not to see dead birds." One of the most memorable images in the book is of car headlights scattered on an Oregon beach near dusk, probing the gathering mist for signs of glass in the sand.

But just finding something isn't enough; Henderson seeks to understand what she finds. Whereas her subjects collect statistics or objects, for Henderson, it's all about the plot: how did this item end up on this beach?

Not unlike the dozens of scientists and hobbyists that she interviews, Henderson is single-minded in her determination to find out exactly which ship's burnt hull has breached up from the sand or what species of animal keeps eggs in a case that resembles nothing so much as a woven grass purse.

Her investigations take Henderson across oceans to a Japanese fishing village, to a shoe factory in Hong Kong, to a score of marine stations, and then back in time to re-create ocean voyages and understand intercultural influences. Along the way, Henderson weaves in ecology and current events, putting every find into its human and natural context.

Although Strand can be classified as a series of detective stories, the episodes are less Law and Order and more Sherlock Holmes. The pace in Strand ebbs and flows. While the story about a boatwreck is tight and suspenseful, carrying the reader headlong towards the shore, the investigation into the origin of glass floats bobs beyond the breakwater, leisurely making its way across half a decade.

Though mostly a pleasant exercise in giving myself up to the author, the pace slows to a painful crawl at points, notably, at the beginning of the chapter tracing the origin of a size 11 Reeboks Converse. The paragraphs are long, full of facts and details that almost completely arrest the flow of the narrative. Which is a shame, since the promise of finding ocean-traveling shoes, made in the preface, was what drew me in in the first place; the shoe is such a fertile metaphor.

Persistence pays off, however; a break in the case reveals the identity of the shipping vessel that might have been carrying the washed-up running shoe. The story suddenly surges forward, giving a breathless account of a super-cyclone, and recreating in mesmerizing detail the fight of a huge shipping vessel with monster seas. When the storm has passed, leaving behind shipping containers smashed open, their contents strewn on the now-calm water, the denouement has all the lyricism of poetry; in short, the shoes get their due:

"Havocs freed from their boxes ... would have heeled over until only the soles were visible, floating just above the sea's surface, black footprints spreading out across a night-black ocean. The wads of tissue that had been hand-stuffed into each toe would become soaked like little sponges, and the two white shoelace ends would be dangling from the knot wad, drifting just below the surface and waving slightly, like jellyfish tentacles."

Despite some beautifully rendered storms at sea, Strand isn't really a page-turner. If you're a fan of car chases and thrillers, Henderson's book may leave you shivering on a deserted sand dune, wondering where you are and how you got there. But for lovers of nature writing, this series of stories about the origins of beached debris is a satisfying and thoughtful meditation on human and natural history, and the complex web that ties us to other cultures, other species, and the physical world.

This is a book best savored one piece at a time, late at night in an easy chair with a cup of tea, a well-stoked fire, and a heavy rain pelting the windows. Then again, while the best beachcombing is to be had in a storm, there are treasures year-round: "you never get what you expect." So go ahead, even if it's a hot windless day in August, lie down on that big striped beach towel, let the sand run through your toes and have a wander through Strand.

Hilary Kemp is a postdoctoral fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

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