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The Living Beach

by Silver Donald Cameron

You can’t pin down a beach, Silver Donald Cameron warns: beaches have places to go, people to see, things to do, and we’re the least of their worries. Cameron’s fascination with beaches has already taken the shape of a Canadian Geographic piece, a CBC Radio Ideas series, a television documentary, and a video, all under the title of The Living Beach. As a book it falls into a similar category as Wayne Grady’s recent The Quiet Limit of the World, about global warming and the North Pole: a gifted, eloquent generalist focusing scientific curiosity on the world’s mythic places, out of deep concern for where we’re headed. As Cameron’s title suggests, the book’s unifying image is the beach as an animate, intelligent entity. If this suggests some New Age shibboleth, Cameron demonstrates that the view is soundly based on evolving scientific knowledge.

The Living Beach circumnavigates North America from the shores of Cameron’s boyhood, South Beach in Washington State just south of Vancouver, to the Cape Breton beaches we currently associate him with. It touches down on various troubled beaches worldwide. Along the way we get some great yarns and a fund of facts to turn over in our minds like polished stones. We’re taken on a brisk tour of beach flora and fauna, and diverted with bits of beach miscellanea such as sand castles, Spanish horses, and shell-collectors. We learn about 100-foot waves and 400-foot tsunamis, gain a new beach vocabulary: pocket, baymouth, barachois and tombolos. We meet a cast of beach scientists, like the poetry-quoting Willard Bascom and the combative Orrin Pilkey.

Cameron’s most cautionary tales relate to the United States, and predictably Florida (although Miami Beach is a current success story). Canada comes off better – not because we’re more conservation minded, Cameron points out, but merely because the financial incentives to exploit are so far less compelling; only one of Canada’s eight largest cities is on the sea. What he points out most clearly is that when hubristic humans try to shape a beach to their own ends, the beach responds defensively and generally wins.

As he grapples with what’s behind evidently ingenious beach behaviours and muses on radical concepts such as legal rights for natural entities, Cameron offers some provocative, even unsettling hypotheses. Science may not yet have the answers, but the signs are clear: if people and beaches work together instead of against each other, we’ll both be around longer.