PROPOSING (“Will you…”)

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


I sent out my first feelers for my new book, Learning to Surf, yesterday.  I thought it might be fun to share the often frustrating, but always exciting/nerve wracking process of trying to sell a book with you, my few intimate friends.  It is a time defined by anxiety and uncertainty.  The goal is to enter into a good marriage with a publisher and, if you don’t mind me pushing the metaphor, to eventually procreate successfully.  And like most marriages, it usually starts with a proposal.

Unlike the last go-round where I spent a couple of years getting my book proposal together (see my Walking the Edge proposal below) this time I just wrote the book and sent a short synopsis, more description than proposal really.  As usual, and as with any proposal/synopsis, parts of the description are bullshit.  But most of it isn’t.  I really believe in this new book but then again what kind of idiot would spend four years of their life on something that they didn’t believe in?

Why am I posting this at the same time I’m sending it out to publishers?  First, because of my new compulsion to share everything on-line, which is simply an extension of my old compulsion to share everything off-line (even before there was a line).  Quick aside here: I’m afraid this compulsion to make everything into a story has been passed down in my genes too.  The other morning I was hiking at Carolina Beach State Park with my daughter, Hadley, who is seven.  We saw two deer and then, a little while later, found ourselves looking up at a great horned owl in a dead oak.  The owl looked a little like our old Maine coon cat Sukie, and we just stared at it for a while, and at the swamp behind it, a swamp that looked milky, bluish, fading back between the trees and their gnarled roots.

Finally, Hadley broke the silence.

“I’m going to write a book about this,” she said solemnly.

Oh good lord help us, I thought.  Here we go.

“About what?” I asked.

“About an adventure where we—me and you–see two deer and an owl.”

And what could I say to that?

“Me, too, probably” I admitted.  “Me, too.”

(Tangent off the tangent: I write quite a bit about my daughter, though hopefully not in a sappy way, but enough so that my wife, who is mostly absent in my pages, suggested I subtitle the book “Confessions of a Single Father.”)

* * *

Anyway, back to the second reason I am posting, which is less compulsive and personal.   I’m posting because students and other young writers are always asking about these practical-type things that go into selling books.  And well they should ask.  Many don’t realize that a lot of nonfiction is sold by a proposal and a relatively short sample of writing.  The first time I heard about this was when the writer Brady Udall told me he had just sold a book based on a few pages.  I, who at that point made sure that everything was perfect and done before sending anything out, couldn’t believe it.  One depressingly practical reason for proposals being superior to actual books, at least as far as selling them, is that a lot of people at the press s you have submitted to have to “read” the work they are considering buying.  Since many of these people are trained as businessmen, not editors, it is easier for them to read a description of what a book might be than to actually read the book itself.   You may have developed a nice little reputation in some corner of the lit world but must of these folks won’t know you from a hole in the wall, so they need some obvious signs, not writing but writing about writing, to tell them what is what.   Hence the proposal.

One problem with the “proposal” system is that few people really write that way, that is few writers go through the rational step-by-step process of making an outline, deciding what a book is about, and then setting logically and Spock-like to writing the book as outlined.  For most of us things proceed much more gropingly than that. “If I know what I’m doing I can’t do it,” wrote Joan Didion.  “Good writers make outlines; great writers throw them away,” is another quote I like on the topic (who said it?).

I’ll admit that when I first heard about this proposal thing I thought it was a great idea.  You mean they’ll give me money before I write the book?   But when I wrote my first proposal, an older writer warned me that he never worked that way, and that sometimes “they” liked the proposal but not the book.  He told me a horror story or two about proposal’s being accepted and books never appearing.  But how often could something like that happen, I must have thought.  It turned out the answer was pretty often.  In the years since both my wife, Nina, and I have had the experience of having the proposal embraced and the eventual book rejected, and in my case, this meant returning a whole lot of money I no longer had, many years after it was given to me.  So there are dangers.  But at present it does seem the prevalent system for selling nonfiction.

Finally, you will notice an element of braggadocio in the writing below, if not in the proposal itself then in the biographical info that follows.  This is not just because I am a naturally boastful person (I am), but because it fits the proposal genre.  Think college applications.   The goal is to sound like a good guy/gal while also saying everything good about yourself that’s possible.  “Heck, this little Nobel Prize….”  It might have been more tasteful not to include the bio and blurbs, but less helpful, too.

So, to repeat and clarify, below you will find the current description of the new book, which will accompany the book itself when I send it out.  Below that you will find the proposal for the old, bigger, more New York-y book.  (Feel free to steal parts of it:  I hope it works better for you than it did for me.)

* * *

Learning to Surf:

One Man’s Search for Balance in an Uncertain World

Learning to Surf is the story of one man’s attempt to place find balance in an uncertain and shaky world, and to make sense of the shifting landscape that he has chosen to call home.  In 2003 my first child was born and I moved my family from Cape Cod to coastal North Carolina.   As a new father in an unfamiliar land, I worked to place myself through learning the natural history of the coast—the birds, the islands, the storms—and struggling to make sense of my new life as a teacher, writer, and parent.  At times there was a sense of desperation to this struggle—as when I used my Northern cross-country skis to ski the Southern beach—but there was also joy in exploring the novel worlds of dolphins and surfers and pelicans.

The stage for this internal drama was the external world of the coastline.  To live on the coast, the edge between land and water, is to live a life of uncertainty.  “Firm ground is not available ground,” wrote the poet A.R. Ammons.  He was speaking specifically of beach grass, which has trouble finding purchase in the shifting sand, but also of the difficulties that anyone or anything–a mollusk, a lobsterman, a homeowner–has in living by the sea.   Learning to Surf is both a personal and natural history of my life by, and explorations of, the coast.  Starting on Cape Cod and moving to Carolina, the book details my attempts to make a home in a world where the sand is always shifting.  That idea of shifting sand, uncertain ground, and rising waters serves as a central metaphor for the deep personal sense of uncertainty of those years.  In this way the book, though steeped in the natural history of the coast, is also a story of fatherhood and displacement, a story of animals and birds and nature.

The story begins on Cape Cod in the aftermath of September 11th, where my world was shaken not just by the falling towers but by the death of a close friend, Elena, who was only thirty-nine.  That winter I sought solace on the beach.  As a nature lover, I believed I had found my ideal match on Cape Cod, particularly the bracing winter Cape after the tourists left, where I watched whales breach and coyotes roam and the blazing white seabirds called gannets dive.  In fact I had just written a book that ended with the claim that I would “stay on Cape Cod forever.”  That book would have strange consequences: some professors at a Southern University would read it, like it, and offer me a job.  It was a job I might have been able to refuse had it not been for another event that shook my life to its roots: my wife giving birth to our first child, my daughter Hadley.  On Cape Cod we had survived as freelance writers, but now the idea of a salary and health insurance seemed sensible and alluring.  And so in August of 2003 we joined what my neighbor on Cape Cod, the great nature writer John Hay, called “the national symphony of rootlessness and displacement,” and moved to a small beach town in coastal North Carolina.

That first fall in Carolina I tried to teach myself to surf, an event that served as a metaphor of balance for my new life, and that gives the book its title.  I suddenly found myself in a strange new world, a world of fatherhood and pelicans and y’alls, of blazing heat and overt Christianity (“Play Hard, Pray Hard,” read a neighbor’s bumper sticker). I was displaced and rootless, like so many Americans, but determined to learn my new place using the tools of my old.  Those tools included studying the animal life around me, not just the birds and dolphins but the growing hominoid that was my daughter and gradually getting to know the natural history of my new home.  My heart burst with love for Hadley, but those were also days of heat and chaos, and placing her in our un-air conditioned Honda Civic felt, as I write in the title essay, “like sliding her into a kiln.”  The early chapters of the book focus on my attempts to make some sense out of senselessness.  I did this not just by surfing and learning about the nature of my new coastal home, but by taking field notes on my daughter (and some foxes), and finally by discovering that, with the right wax, I could use my cross country skis on the beach.  I also toured my new home state with the renowned coastal geologist, Orrin Pilkey, who described for me an even more uncertain world of hurricanes and rising sea levels, and who, as we observed million dollar houses that the ocean had begun to swallow, told me that, if current sea level predictions hold true, we could, “Kiss our barrier islands goodbye.”

The book’s first section is called “Close to Home,” and these chapters detail the gradual process of learning a new place, and regaining my balance as a father, teacher, and lover of nature.  Many of these chapters were written as individual pieces, while I tried to make sense of my new world, and some of these pieces have already made a mark in the world.  After the title piece, “Learning to Surf,” was published in Orion magazine, I traveled to the Museum of Natural History in New York to accept the John Burroughs Award for the year’s best nature essay of 2007.   Meanwhile, “The Dreamer Did Not Exist,” originally published in the Oxford American, was collected by Dave Eggers for Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2008.  Perhaps more unique—and I hope a selling point for the book– is my inclusion of “Skiing the Beach,” a video essay that has been watching by over 12,500 viewers on Youtube.

* * *

The second half of the book is called “Larger Circles.”  Here I begin to broaden what I mean by “home,” re-defining myself as a creature, not just of Cape Cod or Carolina, but of the American coasts.  This re-definition begins on the shores of Alaska, and marks a time when I start to travel in larger circles.  It also marks a shift from the personal to the political, as I begin to tackle the larger issues of living on the coast, including sea level rise, hurricanes, erosion, wind energy, and overdevelopment.  But there is one vital difference between these chapters and most “environmental writing.”  One of the failures of environmentalism has been the way that it can seem like something detached and separate from our lives.  My chapters, even when they deal with something as large as global warming and sea level rise, always grow out of the personal.  And they are rooted there so that the reader can see how leading a life in the natural world also implies leading a political life.  For instance, my continued travels with Orrin Pilkey, and speculations about the fate of America’s coasts is rooted not just in science but in the fact that I just happen to live on a barrier island myself.  Likewise when I travel from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia, stopping to interview Jim Gordon, the president of Cape Wind along the way, I also take a dip in Walden Pond and reflect upon my own environmental evolution, from someone who once swore “Not in my backyard” toward a new consciousness of how we must keep a stricter ledger of our uses of energy, of what is gained and what is lost.  This is also the technique I also use in “Beyond Flipper,” which is framed by a kayak trip to South Carolina and my growing concern for our threatened local dolphins, a concern that grows not out of vague “environmentalism,” but out of the fact that they are my neighbors.

My travels culminate in a trip to another island, this one a chunk of glaciated bedrock named Manhattan, again with Orrin Pilkey as my traveling companion.  Orrin gives me a tour of what the future underwater city, a modern Atlantis, might look like if the more extreme predictions came true.  But once again, I balance describing the very real threat of sea level threat with an exploration of why we all– not just Sarah Palin and company–have the right to be somewhat skeptical about global warming.   The chapter includes a history of the idea of skepticism, beginning with Montaigne, and my own attempts to balance being skeptical with learning all I can about the very real possibility of coming disasters.

Having expanded, I contract.  That is, having explored many islands along the coast, I explore one close to home, kayaking out to camp on Masonboro, the undeveloped island near my home in Carolina that I often visit with my daughter, and an island that will surely be underwater by the end of the century if Orrin Pilkey’s predictions hold true.  This uncertain island without a future is where we all live, but especially those of us who have chosen to make our home along the coast.  One thing living by the water has taught me is that one of the true challenges of living on the coast isn’t to try and control what can’t be controlled, but to learn to live in uncertainties.  After all, we all live on uncertain ground.  We all try our best to make a home before it is gone.

The next chapter, “Learning to Talk Bird,” circles back to the earlier themes of death and birth, focusing on not just my father’s death and my daughter’s continued growth but on my love of birds.  It is a return home, a return to themes that will continue in the as-yet-unwritten last chapter.  This chapter is the most ambitious yet, and will hopefully distill my belief that the personal and political, the close-to-home and outward-seeking are all bound up together.  The chapter will be called “Home Economics,” and it will tell the story of the trip I will take in mid-June from Carolina to the Gulf to see the results of the oil spill.  My goal will be to see the ecosystem of the Gulf as a complicated whole, that is, to try to see it, even in its current desperate state, as a naturalist. The job of the naturalist is to make connections and that is what this last chapter will be all about.  Not just the obvious connections between the car I will be driving and the oil gushing out of the well, but deeper connections between the way we live and the consequences for the natural world.  This chapter will connect the dots between the Gulf’s intensified storms and our need to consume, between our rising water and our use of fossil fuels, between our love of wild places and our hunger to both extract what those places hold and live near those places.  There is no place in the world where these connections are more apparent than in the Gulf, with Katrina as its recent past and oil as its present.

Home will be the theme of my epilogue, as I continue my trip to the West Coast.  The trip will take me to Tor House, the famous stone home of the poet Robinson Jeffers in Big Sur, before I head back to Carolina.  There the book will conclude with my family finally buying a home by the sea (it is in the works right now).  In this way the conclusion will balance out the first chapter, “Homeless,” which told the story of Elena’s death after 9-11.   My family will move into that new home with a sense of deep relief and a feeling that our wanderings have ceased for a while, but with no false belief that we will be there “forever.”  We have left that illusion behind.  There is no cabin in the woods and hurricane season is coming.  The best we can do is take solace in the joys of this uncertain life of the coast, riding on waves that we know will break soon enough.


I am the author of six books of nonfiction, including Sick of Nature and Return of the Osprey, which the Boston Globe called a “classic of American Nature Writing,” and chose, along with the Book of the Month Club, as one of the top ten nonfiction books of 2001.  My essays have appeared in many magazines and journals including The New York Times Magazine, Best American Nonrequired Reading, Outside Magazine, The Georgia Review, American Scholar, Orion,  The Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, The Harvard Review, and the 2006 Pushcart Prize Anthology, for which the essay “Benediction” was selected. In April of 2007, I won the John Burroughs award for Best Natural History Essay of the year, and was cited at the award ceremony as being at the forefront of a new generation of writers who meld techniques of memoir and New Journalism with insights about the natural world. In 2008 my essay, “The Dreamer Did Not Exist,” appeared in Best American Non-required Reading, edited by Dave Eggers, and in September of that year my essay on teaching and writing, “Those Who Write Teach,” appeared in the Sunday New York Times Magazine. I have taught Environmental Writing as a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, and am now a Professor of creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where I am also the founder and editor-in-chief of the Ecotone, the national journal of environmental writing.

Recently, I have turned my attention toward on-line endeavors.  My website, “Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour,” is barely a month old but has already been cited, and quoted on many blogs and websites, including “Paper Cuts,” the literary blog of the New York Times Book Review.  My video essay, “Skiing the Beach,” which has been included in this collection, has now been watched by close to 13,000 viewers.  Finally, my passion for finding new writing about place and the natural world is also reflected in Ecotone.  The journal was recently nominated, along with just three other magazines, for the UTNE journal award for Best Environmental Magazine, and work from the journal has been chosen for many anthologies, including the Pushcart Prize and the Best American Short Stories edited by Salman Rushdie.

(And now, for you brave souls who are still with me, the old proposal:)


Exploring the Fate of America’s Coasts


Walking the Edge is the sweeping story (yikes!) of one man’s journey around the United States.  The book takes readers along on a journey that will open their eyes to the ways that our coasts are changing, and to the ways that human lives along the coast are changing, too.  I want those readers to come with me as I follow the water, first up and down the East Coast, then along the Gulf of Mexico to New Orleans, and finally up the West Coast from L.A. to Alaska.  And I want them to join me in putting together a larger picture of the great changes occurring along our coastlines as we explore the fate of our country’s shore.

Walking the Edge is something entirely new, the first of its kind: an environmental road book.  Like Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie and William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, it will provide the vicarious pleasures of an epic trip around the United States, but it will do so from a new and unique perspective.  When I first conceived of the idea for the book, it made sense that I would travel around the United States rather than through it Kerouac style.  Coasts were what I knew best: I had always lived on edges, those overlapping places in between that aren’t one thing or another, that are always in flux.  Not only that: I had long studied the natural history of the coast, written books about it–love songs with science, really–and over the years I’d talked to many prominent scientists about the dramatic ways our coasts are changing.  So why not tie all I’d learned together with a momentous personal adventure while trying to create an overall picture of the fate of our country’s coasts?

Walking the Edge will be a hybrid, part road trip, part memoir, part exploration of coastal science.  On the one hand I will always seek out the best scientific minds and the people at the center of coastal controversies as I learn all I can about the shore, but on the other hand I will talk to whomever I run into, beachcombers and owners of miniature golf courses and captains of whale-watching boats, on beaches and harbors and in bars.  It is these smaller moments, and my own quest to make sense of the fate of our shores, that will drive the book, and the larger conclusions will grow out of that personal odyssey.  While the book will tackle big environmental issues—what does it mean to live by the water when the water is rising?—I will avoid donning the eco-prophet’s robe or letting the book devolve into environmental screed.  I–like most people–have grown weary of dire environmental warnings that often seem far away from the affairs of my day-to-day life.  But at the same time I, again like a lot of us, have started to make connections between our warming land and our need to consume, between our rising water and our use of fossil fuels, between our love of wild places and our hunger to extract what those places hold.  The book follows the coast but it also follows me as I begin to make those connections, and one of the goals of my journey will be discovering just how my own life connects to the greater life of our shores.

The fact is that I live by the ocean too, and the book will also be a love song to the threatened coast, a celebration of the people, birds, weather, and animals that gather on the edge between land and water. I want to combine the innate drama of a large journey with a painterly eye for detail, creating sketches of the vibrant but often threatened life of the animals we share the shore with.  Turtles, fish, dolphin, and birds are always present on the coast, and I will weave their lives into my journey.  The nature of the beach is the nature that most people know, and that natural history is part of my adventure.

But while the book will be large in scope, it makes no sense to try to write about every town I drive through or every beach I explore.  Therefore I will employ the technique of synecdoche, that John McPhee has used so well in his writing about geology and geologists, making particular places, and particular encounters, stand in for the whole.  Unlike McPhee, however, my chapters will each have a personal thread that will be woven in with the places and ideas I encounter.  So, for instance, in the first chapter, when I am witnessing the uncertainty of the always-changing shore, and observing the plight of both dolphins and the fishermen who sometimes mistakenly catch them, I am also considering what it means for me, and my fellow beach-dwellers, to live on an overcrowded coast.  The second chapter tackles what a seven foot sea level rise would really mean on the Outer Banks and in New York City, as I walk the beaches and city and talk to experts about its future.  As I travel farther north, from Cape Cod to Maine to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I will focus on issues like how we build by the shore and how we get and use energy along the coasts.  I understand the appeal of living by the water as well as anyone, but how can we live close to it without destroying what we love?

One of the books chief aims is to make the abstract come alive.  Instead of talking about “renewable energy,” the wind entrepreneur Jim Gordon and I will walk the shore near where his controversial wind turbines may soon be planted.  Instead of pontificating about the shortfalls of FEMA and our emergency preparedness, I will listen to a family left homeless by Katrina as I travel into New Orleans.  While it is vital for me to seek out experts, it is just as important to talk to the people who actually live on or near the water.  As the sample chapters demonstrate, I am by nature a plunger-inner, always ready to jump on a boat, or camp out on the beach, or talk to anyone, both MIT professors and lobstermen.  Armed with my micro cassette recorder and journal, I have already gathered many tapes full of talk from the first leg of my trip, and have discovered, as William Least Heat Moon did before me, that people aren’t just willing to talk, they are very good at it.  I will always push myself to make the larger issues personal and immediate, to understand rising sea level, for instance, not just because we read some facts about it, but because we are walking along an Outer Banks beach where the sea is swallowing homes. My goal is to see the receding glaciers as I walk along Alaska’s north shore, and to feel the intensification of storms as a hurricane races toward me.



Every road trip needs a sidekick, and I think I’ve got a good one.  Over the last year I have befriended and begun to travel with one of the country’s leading coastal geologists, Dr. Orrin Pilkey.  Dr. Pilkey is a Duke University Professor Emeritus of Geology and he has introduced me both to many coastal issues and to many of the country’s top coastal scientists.  More importantly, for the book, Orrin is a character.  Short, gruff, bearded and burly, he will play the role of wise man and wizard, but also, increasingly as the book goes on, of friend.  Orrin is also a great contradiction—gruff, blunt, always-hungry, opinionated and capable of blurting out anything, but also brilliant.  He is an ideal traveling companion–funny, open, and easy-going—and he never shies away from controversy.  In fact, once you spend some time with him, you begin to realize that Orrin likes pissing people off.  Long regarded as a kind of coastal prophet, Orrin Pilkey has battled against building close to the shore and against the construction of sea walls, groins, and jetties, claiming that these human intrusions lead to potential disaster through the destruction of the shore’s first line of defense–its beaches.

Orrin will not travel the whole coast with me, but will join me at certain points for certain legs of the trip, and he will always act as a touchstone, someone I can call and bounce my evolving ideas off of.   He is a great connector of things: of the disastrous consequences of having over fifty percent of our population living on a narrow fringe that constitutes only 17% of our land mass, just as the shoreline is eroding and the sea level is rising and coastal storms, including most obviously Atlantic hurricanes, are becoming more violent.  Long before others did, Orrin Pilkey saw this combination of forces as the recipe for disaster that it is.  Orrin’s long-time rallying cry has been “Retreat,” advocating that we move back away from the shore.  His cry has clearly been ignored as more and more of us rush to build near the water.

“It simply makes no sense to build on our shores, right in the line of hurricanes,” he said to me recently.  “And it makes less sense to re-build once a storm takes the buildings out.  It’s a form of societal madness really.  I can’t put it any more strongly.”

Orrin will help clarify debates that sometimes get muddied in the popular press.  For instance, he makes no claims to a greater frequency of hurricanes—this remains cyclical—but believes, along with most of the scientific community, in the increased power and intensity of storms, due to the warming waters.   Lately, Orrin’s warnings have taken on an even greater urgency considering recent reports on sea level rise.  The latest UN report by the  Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC), signed by 2,500 scientists in 2007, claimed that we can expect a sea level rise of up to two feet over the next century, but the report is by almost all accounts conservative, not factoring in the recent predictions of rate increase in the ice melt in Antarctica and Greenland.  Orrin’s own estimates, like Jim Hansen’s of NASA, are more on the order of a seven foot rise by the end of this century.

“If it really does get to seven feet we aren’t going to be worrying about a few beach houses,” Orrin said on our first trip.  “We are going to be worrying about Boston and Manhattan.”

So far Orrin has accompanied me on a trip to the Outer Banks and has flown up to meet me in Manhattan. When we walked the Outer Banks we saw houses that were literally under water at low tide, and he explained how human efforts to defend the coast with jetties, groins, and sandbags destroy the natural ebb and flow of sand, an ebb and flow that works to protect the land during storms.

“Beaches are what protect the shore,” Pilkey said.  “But since we are focused on saving the buildings we build walls.  And walls destroy beaches.  What geniuses we are.”

In New York, Pilkey and I stared down into the World Trade Center site and considered the fate of lower Manhattan, which, if one is to take a seven foot sea level rise seriously, would be two feet under water.   He pointed toward the Hudson and the Atlantic beyond.

“One big storm from the right direction,” he said.  “And we’ll forget all about Katrina.”



I have already traveled the first leg of the trip, along the Carolina coast by kayak, then north to New York City and Maine and Nova Scotia, and back south to Cape Cod and New Jersey.  During the course of these travels, and during the early work of writing up my notes, I have thought long and hard about what Walking the Edge is, and what it is not.  It is not a work of pure journalism, and it is not a dirge of environmental doom.  While Orrin Pilkey will teach me, and the readers, about coastal issues, it is not just an “issues book.”  It is instead a deep personal journey of exploration, of expanding oneself by encountering the wonders of the coast, while also learning more about the dangers that threaten those wonders.  And it is an invitation to readers to come along on this eye-opening journey and see a coastline they have never seen before.

Walking the Edge will be grounded by my explorations as well as by my encounters with coastal scientists, geologists, fishermen, tourists, locals, friends, and whomever else I run into or seek out along the way.  My companions will all have their differences, but will share a common connection to and passion for the coast.  The book–and I–will keep an open mind.  My goal is to present not proselytize.

The technique I will use is one that has stood me well in past explorations.  In recent years my particular combination of personal and natural history, of humor and essayistic musing, and of deep seriousness and fun, has been recognized nationally through prizes (John Burroughs Award for Best Nature Essay, Pushcart Prize, Best American selections, etc..) and exposure in ever-larger venues like the New York Times Magazine and the New York Times Book Review and NPR’s “All Things Considered.” What I am trying to do with this book is to take this proven technique and put it to use on a larger stage.  In the past my books have dealt with smaller “regional” places and smaller issues, Cape Cod and ospreys for instance, and have been published mostly by smaller presses.  I see Walking the Edge as a bigger book, a book about America and where we are heading, and a book that has the potential to win some large national prizes and, more importantly, connect with a large audience.

I understand that in the current publishing climate, Walking the Edge, has to be more than a book.  As I travel, I plan on keeping a blog from the road, sponsored by Ecotone, the magazine I edit, that will follow my journey.  We are also launching a daily eco-blog that will put my brand of environmentalism on display.  Each stop will be recorded on an on-line map and will include film segments and podcasts from whatever beach I am exploring.  For instance, during my kayak trip study from North Carolina to Charleston, South Carolina, I wore a “helmet-cam” to film my adventures with dolphins, and the National Resource Defense Council will be posting the film of that trip on their website.  The idea is to involve more people in the adventure and to bring people along on the trip.  Meanwhile the public radio station in my hometown of Wilmington, N.C., has expressed interest in producing a show based on my dispatches from the road.  My radio experience includes segments on “This I Believe,” Leonard Lopate, On Point, and several other national shows.  Just as I am connecting individual places by traveling the coast, I hope to later return to those places to engage the local media with radio and print interviews.


My book will have some similarities to other classic travel narratives that are also threaded with natural history, like Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat Moon (Little Brown, 1982), and Ian Frazier’s best-selling Great Plains (FSG, 1989), with its combination of adventure, humor, and research.  Another comparable book is John McPhee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning Annals of a Former World (FSG, 1998), in which he travels across the fortieth parallel, dramatizing his encounters with geologists while making a complex subject like geology fascinating.  McPhee’s book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction.  “Understand the fragment and you will understand the whole,” he writes.  As I mentioned above, I will employ a similar technique of synecdoche, making individual scenes represent the larger issues.

Like Frazier and McPhee, I will take a large subject and make it entertaining and comprehensible, but my book, unlike theirs, will be driven by a personal quest.  Interwoven with both personal and natural observation, it will focus more on the journey and will be stylistically distinct.  And of course, unlike those books, mine will focus on America’s coast.

Though my book will not be a science book, the story of my adventure will act as a Trojan horse for the latest science.  Unlike books like Field Notes on a Catastrophe by Elisabeth Kolbert (Bloomsbury 2006) and The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery  (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006), I will not lead with global warming but slip the subject into the narrative.  I think we are all weary enough of the words global warming to not want to be hit over the head with it yet again.  My challenge is to make the rising seas a vital part of the story without having the topic overwhelm the book.

As for the larger science of coastal geology, I hope to be the first to bring much if its scientific insights to a larger audience.  Though there have been other books about rising sea level, or increasingly intense storms, or population on the endangered coast, no one has ever woven together all these ideas to create a full natural history of our coasts.  In fact, coastal issues are an underreported aspect of global warming, despite Katrina and its aftermath.  The one book that best describes the science behind Orrin Pilkey’s warnings is Cornelia Dean’s Against the Tide: The Battle for America’s Beaches (Columbia University Press, 1999). But her book, published pre-Katrina in 1999, could not take advantage of the latest scientific studies and breakthroughs on sea level rise, development trends, and hurricane intensification.  Furthermore, none of these science books are written in a way that make the issues immediate, engaging, and personal, which is what Walking the Edge will do.  My job is to make the science human, immediate, and personally relevant.





Walking the Edge is a tour, not just of the coast, but of the issues that are now pressing, with ever increasing urgency, on coastal towns and cities from Nags Head to Manhattan to Seattle to Homer, Alaska.  We have all heard about these issues—sea level rise, increasing intensity of storms, overdevelopment, threatened beaches and wetlands—but no one has put the whole picture together. The fact is that few people understand how dramatically and quickly life is changing on our coasts.  My challenge will be to take these larger issues and weave them into the book, to take the science of the coast and make it feel real and relevant.

Walking the Edge will be unique–part travelogue, part paean to life on the water’s edge, and part inherent environmental warning about the potential repercussions if the latest scientific predictions about our coastlines hold true.  By dramatizing local encounters and local beaches, I am certain that an engrossing picture of our coasts will emerge.  My goal is to create a portrait of this country by creating a series of portraits of life on its edges.

While the journey in the book’s title will be a physical one that reaches from New England to Alaska, it will also be an intellectual and emotional one.  I believe that this is an important book for our time, as sea level rises and storms intensify, and that I am the one to write it.  For the last fifteen years I have written about the country’s coast, producing award-winning essays and books, and I see this adventure as the culmination of that work.  Furthermore, the time is right.  The island where I live in North Carolina has been hit during the past few years by increasingly violent storms, and with each new hurricane season a new potential Katrina is brewing.

For me this journey is the culmination of a lifetime spent living by, studying, and writing about the shore.  Henry Beston’s great adventure in the classic nature book, The Outermost House, was to spend a year by the sea in a one-room cabin.  My own adventure is to travel the shore, and to see the country in a way that it has never been seen before.  I believe that by doing so I can create a book that dramatizes vital coastal issues, issues that will become ever more vital as the world warms, while simultaneously providing a great, vicarious adventure.  The intellectual excitement will come from using all the current science to make connections, to put the larger puzzle together, creating a complete portrait of our threatened coast.  But the vicarious thrills will come from the trip itself.  The reader will join me on an epic adventure, not just along the water, but toward a new understanding of where our coastal world is heading.




The book begins with a trip from my home in southeastern North Carolina down the coast to the lowlands of South Carolina.  I will travel by kayak, paddling down the Intracoastal Waterway with a good friend and a guide.  The focus here is on both the dying fisheries and the animals they sometimes catch in their nets: dolphins.  I will visit the small fishing village of Varnomtown to talk to the men who practice the art of gill netting as well as describing the dolphins we see along the way.  One of the greatest sights on the coast is that of dolphins sea-serpenting in and out of the water, perhaps only topped by an occasional lucky view of these beautiful animals throwing themselves into the air in wild shows of exuberance.  Dolphins, as well as being wild, inspiring, and delightful, are our day-to-day coastal neighbors.  As Ann Pabst, a marine mammalogist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, puts it: “The fact is that no other large wild animal regularly lives so close to man.  It’s like sharing land with a grizzly bear.”

As I paddle down the coast I will interview experts and locals alike.  These encounters will be woven with sightings of bald eagles, cavorting dolphins, and the wild goats of Goat Island.  The chapter will demonstrate my attempt to look at both sides of the issue, to talk to all those involved without any obvious or knee-jerk environmental reaction.  The fact is that the dolphins and the fishermen are both threatened, and as more and more of us crowd the coast the greater challenge will be maintaining a sense of neighborliness.  With so many interest groups, and so many species, laying claim to the shore, the pressing question will be “how can we all live together?”

(As a footnote I should add that I wore a helmet camera during this part of the trip and got many great shots of dolphins and fishermen.  The highlights of that film will be edited and shown on the National Resource Defense Council’s website.)



This chapter will serve as an introduction to my trip, to the basic science, and to Orrin Pilkey, who is a Duke University Emeritus Professor of Geology and the country’s preeminent coastal scientist.  Together Orrin and I travel the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a stretch of barrier islands that Orrin regards as a kind of front lines in the coming war at the shore.  Here I introduce many of the topics that will be central to the book.  Orrin is opinionated and brash, as well as hugely respected within his field, and the coast he reveals is a precarious place, not a playland, a world always in movement with sand shifting, islands migrating, towns disappearing and waters rising.  As Orrin points out, what most people think of as static real estate is in fact a fluid landscape that can change almost completely with a single storm.

We begin our journey on the Outer Banks, traveling up to the town of Corolla, famous for its wild horses that roam freely in the dunes, and then down to Nags Head, where we stay in a Comfort  Inn that is gradually falling into the sea.  As Orrin stands below the hotel, his eyes gleaming, he points to the six foot long sandbags that lie heaped up in great piles in a futile attempt to prevent the hotel’s submersion.  What sandbags and other defensive measures ultimately do, Orrin explains, is to undermine and destroy the beach, and to cause massive erosion to whatever beach lies downshore.  The sandbags give the place the look of a warzone, and as we travel down the North Carolina coast together we witness dramatic examples of homes that seem to have migrated out to sea and towns that have been pummeled by great storms.

From North Carolina my family and I drive north to Cliffside Park, New Jersey, where we spend the night at the apartment of my in-laws.  The theme of this chapter is sea level rise.  My first morning in Jersey I get up at dawn and pull on a backpack and kiss my wife and daughter goodbye.  Rising sea level would not be felt in the heights of Cliffside but I hike straight down to the town of Edgewater, which would flood if the waters rose.  As I hike down, I study a colony of parrots, descendents of the original birds that escaped from a pet store shipment years ago, and when I reach the water I take a ferry over to New York.  From the ferry I have a view of a vulnerable New York, the buildings rising up like pieces on a chessboard while downtown seems to slump into the water.  After I get off the ferry, I walk down to the Chelsea Piers, sticking to the coast as I make my way to where the towers once stood.

Below the Brooklyn Bridge I meet with Orrin Pilkey, who has flown up to tour Manhattan with me. The question that we ask in this chapter is a specific one: what would a seven foot sea level rise mean for New York City?  Considering that much of lower Manhattan is no more than five feet above sea level, the results would be dramatic and as we tour the city we consider the possibilities of subways turned to waterfalls, submerged streets, and a storm–with massive storm surges aided by sea level rise–that could make everyone forget Katrina.  Much of the effort of this chapter will be to truly imagine what it would look like if the seas rose and a major storm hit New York, but as I do this I will also grapple with language, specifically the tendency of those who write and talk about the environment to frame things in apocalyptic terms.  Is there a way to talk sanely about environmental threats without devolving into screed or doomsaying?

From downtown Orrin and I travel up to NASA’s Goddard Center for Space Studies.  There we speak with Vivien Gornitz, a research scientist who focuses on how sea level rise would impact New York, and who is helping put together the climate change report for the Mayor’s recently-formed task force.

It is day of grim predictions but it ends on a happier note.  Orrin heads for the airport while I meet my wife and daughter atop the Empire State building.  From there I look down at the vulnerable city below, laid out like a map.




From New York I drive to Cape Cod, where I drop off my family before continuing north to Nova Scotia.  When this chapter begins I am standing on the shore in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia, watching birds called gannets dive into the surf.  I have just spent the night on a beach below massive cliffs and waterfalls and the wind is blowing so hard that my tent ripples like a flag.  Birds are everywhere: bald eagles and herons and mergansers, and, best of all, gannets, the diving bird I have come to love in Carolina and on Cape Cod.   These birds are wild expenders of energy, and the site leads to a consideration of how birds, and homo sapiens, use wind and energy by the shore.

Thinking about energy, I flashback to my last day on Cape Cod, when I had lunch in Hyannis with Jim Gordon, the millionaire president of Cape Wind.  Cape Wind is the company at the heart of the wind power controversy on Cape Cod, and for almost a decade now Gordon has been attempting to plant 130 wind turbines out in Nantucket Sound.  My take on the so-called wind farm is complicated by my love of the Cape, but one of the movements of the chapter is toward a realization that alternative energy is vital for our coasts.  Jim Gordon and I walk the beach and something he says sparks my thinking: “We need to connect the dots.”  He means connecting our energy use and the rising seas but his comment also gets me thinking about other connections: between energy and new weather patterns and over-development along the shore.

As I travel through Nova Scotia I try to connect the dots.  I leave the spectacular gannet beach and drive from the sublime to the ugly.  I head into the town of Sydney Mines, which has been cored and left a shell by coal mining.  Here is non-renewable energy at its worst: empty row houses stand along the water and I learn the town’s depressed history from a retired policeman named Keith in Michael’s Bar and Pub.

“There were no jobs left you see,” Keith tells me.  “Other than funeral directors.   There was a big call for those.”

My trip ends at the Bay of Fundy whose tides hold more power than all the world’s freshwater rivers and streams.  Plans are underway to tap that power through turbines that will provide enough electricity for 100,000 homes per day, but what strikes me is not just the power but the suddenness and extremity of the tides.  The chapter ends as I hike out along the wrack line, far from any town, staring down at the great red-rimmed bowl that is the Bay of Fundy.  I am surprised when I turn a cliff corner and see a small cabin perched like an aerie atop a bluff, then shocked when I see a wind turbine turning on its roof.


In this chapter I return south to Cape Cod and focus on architecture and how humans choose to live near the water.  The uncertainty of life by the coast is reflected in my own attempts to live by the water.  To live by the sea my family has occupied a unique ecological niche, renting during the off-season in North Carolina and then drifting from house to house on Cape Cod each summer.  Like mollusks, lobsterman, and shorebirds, we have accepted the uncertainty of the coasts so that we can gain the advantages.  On Cape Cod we first house-sit in the home of a former professional football coach, and I collect more examples of the uncertainty of living by the shore as I travel to the spot of Henry Beston’s Outermost House, which floated out to sea during the famous nor’easter of 1978.  I also travel to Chatham where the sea has just broken through the outer arm of the Cape and dragged a dozen houses into the sea.  There I run into some carpenters who are heading out kayaking and who talk about what it means to live in a place where the geography is always changing.  After they push off, I travel to a nearby harbor and hitch a ride out to the inlet where the ocean broke through.

The chapter also includes a drive up to Cambridge to talk with the country’s foremost expert on the intensification of storms, MIT professor of meteorology Kerry Emanuel.  As expected, he provides the science behind the new, stronger hurricanes, but also gives me some unexpected insight into building along the coast.  He describes how the insurance industry long allowed people to build next to the shore without taking the financial risk.  Then he says something that makes my ears perk.  He describes what he calls the historical “natural human ecology” of the coast.

“The natural human ecology of the coastlines tends to be a few castles or mansions built very solidly that will withstand anything nature has to throw.  But only a few–everything else is sea shanties.  Which the normal person would just go to for a weekend.   These shanties or cottages are disposable and people don’t put anything of value in and don’t insure.  Every now and them they get wiped out and that’s to be expected.  It’s the same all over the world….it’s very democratic.”

In other words, through most of human history people expected their coastal homes to be occasionally destroyed.

As the chapter continues it is propelled by questions about homes and architecture, on how we have chosen to live by the shore and especially the massive amount of building over the last two decades.   How do we live by the shore?  How have we lived in the past?  How will we live in the near future?  As I travel I will tell the history of coastal development and deforestation, from the settlements of the Pilgrims to now, a time when trophy homes dot the coast.  What does it really mean to develop these coasts, to create a new suburbia by the sea, especially in a time when the seas are rising?  What happens to the culture of the coast when only the wealthy can afford to live by the water?  One thing that coastal history makes clear is that the recent flurry of development is an anomaly.  Until recent years most human beings have always had the good sense to build their homes away from the shore.  Sea captains on Cape Cod, for instance, recognized the ocean for the uncontrollable force it is, and so built well inland.  Over the last decades that has changed: in recent years more than half of all construction in this country has been coastal construction.  But most people moving to the shore don’t recognize that the coast is a threatened world.  Not long term or theoretically threatened, but actually and immediately.  What has always been true is now more true.  On the coastal edge, property lines can be submerged, houses can be toppled and set afloat, and high tide can happen in your living room.

As the chapter ends I head to Maine, where I visit the Bush home at Walker Point in Kennebunkport, ending my New England home tour in style.  In Kennebunkport a local cab driver points me toward the Bush family home on Walker’s Point, and says, “Sometimes Old Bush comes out and waves.”  I expect to be critical of the large ancestral manse by the sea, home of a family that made its fortune through oil, but, to my own surprise, I find the house strangely beautiful.

From Maine I head down the coast, stopping at the famous Vanderbilt house, The Breakers, in Newport, Rhode Island, and then on to the world’s largest trophy house on Long Island where I swim on the home owner’s billion dollar beach.




This chapter will describe my journey down the shores of New Jersey and through Delaware and Maryland to the shores of the Chesapeake Bay back to North Carolina.

In New Jersey, I visit Asbury Park and spend the night at the Tropicana in Atlantic City. The next day I will meet with Sue Halsey, aka “Doctor Dune” a New Jersey coastal planner and coastal advocate who will give me a tour of New Jeresy on a busy summer weekend.  She will show me the jetties and groins and other armaments that have been used in the century-long war at the Jersey shore.  Though most people know nothing about it, this a war at the shore that has been going on for a century.  In that war, armaments—walls, sandbags, jetties—have been used to block the rising sea.  Most people think it is just common sense to build these walls to protect ourselves.  But what most people don’t know is that it is the beaches that really protect us and that often these walls destroy the beaches.  In this particular war, our defense is our greatest weakness, often destroying exactly what we hope to protect.

“New Jersey was really a giant science experiment,” Orrin Pilkey told me.  “New Jersey was the home of some of the first vacation spots and one of the first places to arm their beaches.  Thanks to New Jersey we learned that any sort of hard stabilization—sea walls, groins, and jetties—was very damaging to the beach.  We learned that the damage occurs just by building something fixed by the beach—could be a highway, for instance. The problem of beaches is that they are eroding and always moving.  The beach tends to move toward that fixed thing and get narrower and narrower and narrower until it disappears altogether.”

As I continue down the Jersey coast and beyond I will explore our understandable but often self-destructive attempts to “arm” our beaches against storms and erosion.  On some level this is a philosophical, as well as practical, issue, as human beings attempt to take what is essentially a fluid changing landscape and make it definite and controllable.  What happens when a fluid dynamic comes up against a fixed wall?  And why is it that we are so attracted to the fixed, even when it is deadening and self-destructive?  Here is the place where I would like to explore some of the deeper philosophical implications of living by water.  We are uncomfortable with uncertainty but uncertainty is what the coast offers us. “Firm ground is not available ground,” wrote the poet A.R. Ammons.  These words aren’t a bad motto for living on the shore.  Of course there will be some irony to this thought as I will be staying the night at the fortress-sized Tropicana casino in Atlantic City.

From New Jersey I will travel south through Delaware and Maryland, dwelling for a while on the great marshes of the Chesapeake Bay.  The Bay will provide the perfect counterpoint to the artificial (and ultimately destructive) protection that armaments provide, since marshes play such a key role in the way the land deals with hurricanes, and the Chesapeake is home to our greatest marshes. From Chesapeake I will head back to North Carolina, where I will spend the day on Ocracoke Island, one of the most pristine beaches on the East Coast, with Alton Ballance, whose family has lived on the island for ten generations.  As the chapter ends I will meet up with Orrin Pilkey and head to the famous Hatteras Lighthouse, which, thanks in large part to Pilkey’s advocacy, has been moved inland away from the sea and eroding beach.



What role do laws and regulations have when it comes to living by the shore?  What sort of nightmare would you have if you did away with all laws and let people do whatever they wanted, whatever they thought was in their self-interest, when it came to building?  The answer to this question can be answered practically, not theoretically.  The answer is Florida.  

From Georgia I will travel down into Florida, which Orrin Pilkey calls “a pure outlaw state” with regard to coastal development and other environmental issues.  Florida accounts for a quarter of the seasonal homes in the United States and hundreds of miles of the state’s beachfront are lined with just the sort of high rises that Pilkey warns about, creating not just a possible disaster but an inevitable one.  These are buildings that cannot possibly be moved back, the way smaller buildings on other coastlines can.  “It staggers the imagination,” Orrin Pilkey says.  “The utter impossibility of responding to sea level rise in the state where it will have the greatest impact.”

Recently, I asked Pilkey if there was a chance we might be looking at possible “future Katrinas” in Florida.

“Each place is different,” he said.  “And each storm is different.  Take Katrina for instance.  Katrina was Katrina for very specific reasons, for instance the direction it came in from and its duration.  But in a general sense we are going to have a lot more Katrinas because we have a lot more development close to the shore.  You’ve seen that we’re ripe in North Carolina, but Florida is an even more obvious target.  Florida has long been an outlaw state with regard to coastal management.  When you put highrises right next to the beach it is just a question of when, not if, disaster will strike. For instance, there’s a major disaster waiting to happen in the Florida Keys, because you won’t be able to evacuate everyone. The same is true in Tampa and St. Petersburg.  A storm hit there in the 1800s that left parts of those cities under ten to twelve feet of water.  Imagine that happening now with no way to evacuate millions of city dwellers.”

Together we will explore these threatened places, the Keys and Tampa and St. Petersburg, and I will detail the history of dramatic storms in those areas.  A vital resource in Florida will be Hal Wanless, a friend of Pilkey’s who is the chair of the geological sciences at the University of Miami.  Wanless has seen and written about the many threats to Florida’s coasts, including the damage that so-called “beach nourishment” has done to Florida’s coal reefs. But while I will talk to scientists, I will also be wide open, walking this fragile coast with local characters and developers as well as environmentalists, trying to give a sense of Florida in all its comic excess, a state that seems to have made it official policy to consciously evade and ignore the potential for coming disaster.

I will end the chapter in the Florida panhandle where I will visit Seaside, a planned coastal community.  People are quick to criticize Seaside, where The Truman Show was filmed, as being a pre-planned fantasyland, not based in economic reality.  But the fact is that the architects attempted to create a whole community that has access to the beach, as opposed to giving into the type of crowded beachfront design that is inevitable when so-called economic reality prevails: the wealthiest people, and largest houses bully all others away from the shore.  Seaside will give me an opportunity to explore alternate visions of coastal development, and the history of those alternate visions.




From Florida I will travel along the ravaged Gulf Coast.  Waveland, Bay St. Louis, and Dauphin Island will provide examples of extreme erosion and storm impact.

These are some of our most fragile coasts and some of the places that will be most impacted by the warming and rising seas.  The Mississippi coast is also where Orrin  Pilkey first became interested in coastal studies.

“My parents went through Hurricane Camille in 1969,” he said.  “And I went down to Mississippi to help bail them out.  My father and I were so impressed with the power of that storm, and the destruction it caused, that we decided to write a book together.”

I will let Pilkey describe that hurricane, and will make that my starting point for a brief history of Gulf hurricanes, a discussion that will lead to speculating on future storms.  Of course these speculations will all lead back to Katrina.  The Gulf is the natural place to explore the latest science on hurricanes and the overall heating of the oceans.  It is worth noting that 2005 gave us not just Katrina, but three of the six strongest hurricanes ever observed. This will also be the place for an up to date consideration of ice melt in Greenland, Antarctica, and the Arctic and will lead to a discussion of the threat of storm surges.  The storm surge for Katrina was 8.2 meters, or 27 feet above sea level in some spots, which makes it the worst recorded storm surge in the United States.

My approach to New Orleans should provide one of the book’s dramatic peaks.  My plan is to come down the Mississippi by kayak, and to see the city anew as the watery lowland it is.  I will weave through the marshes and present a natural history of these protective ecosystems.  One of the clearest lessons that Katrina can teach is the role of marshes in protecting our coast.  When the city of New Orleans recently brought together a team of international scientists to study the disaster, their spokesperson was Han Wanless, Orrin Pilkey’s friend (who will have been introduced in the Florida chapter.)   Wanless and the other scientists concluded that due to dredging and resource extraction, river sediment was being lost at the rate of 120 tons a year.  That river sediment was exactly what supported the growth of marshes and other natural defenses.  “Without it New Orleans will continue to be transformed from a city into a small island vulnerable to even the smallest storms,” Wanless says.  The extraction of river sediment is a startling example of how self-interest and short-sightedness transformed a landscape and left it vulnerable.  In urging the city to put a stop to the dredging and drilling, Wanless told the governor: “You have a choice.  Be bold or start packing up shop.  To Governor Blanco, I say, be bold.  Your children’s children will thank you.”

My kayak trip will lead to the city itself.  I will spend several days exploring the water’s edge and talking to those who survived the flooding.  My goal is create a great kaleidoscopic picture of a city devastated by both nature and human greed and bumbling.

As a kind of epilogue to this chapter, I will curl around the coast to Gavelston, Texas, a place that, a century before Katrina, suffered a fate like that of New Orleans. For the people of Galvelston, Ike was a reminder of their history and those who refused to leave during the storm were in many ways re-enactign that history of denial.  In the summer of 1900 Gavelston, which was then a thriving port town, was struck by a storm that remains the deadliest hurricane in United States history, killing twenty percent of the city’s people and destroying all of its buildings.  The town responded by vowing “never again” and constructing a massive sea wall.  But the wall ultimately acted, as Pilkey and others predicted, by destroying Gavelston’s beaches, its natural buffer and protection, setting up last year’s disaster when hurricane Ike struck and destroyed the city again.





In 2003, approximately 153 million people (53 percent of the nation’s population) lived in 673 US coastal counties, an increase of 33 million since 1980. California serves to demonstrate, like no place else, the mad rush of people who want to live near the water.  Los Angeles County, for instance, accounted for the greatest increase in coastal population in recent years, and the combined population increases in San Diego, San Bernardino, Orange, and Riverside Counties accounted for 12% of the total U.S. coastal population increase.

My trip will start on the Baja peninsula, an area that Steinbeck made famous and one of great natural abundance, of breeding gray whales and sea lions and vaquitas (harbor porpoises, the world’s smallest aquatic mammals).  I will then proceed to Malibu, to the home of Dave Rotman, a childhood friend who is now a movie producer.  Dave rents the home of Cheech Morin of Cheech and Chong fame, a house that sits perched atop a cliff along with other homes of celebrities, as if they were all daring each other to dive in first.  Malibu is the perfect place to address the illusion and fantasy of living on the edge, with homes teetering above the ocean in a land of mudslides and hurricanes.  I will walk that beach with my childhood friend and his “prayer partner” at his new age church, a passionate beach-lover named Ida Ljungqvist, who also happens to be 2008’s Playmate of the Year.  I will talk to both Ljungqvist and Rotman about the dreams that brought them to the coast.

Eroding cliffs and great clusters of development highlight the 1,100 miles of California coast.  While there are many examples of houses falling to erosion in the East, none can quite match what California has to offer.  I will walk the coast with the geologist geologist Gary Griggs, author of the Living with the California Coast, who describes his state as both “geologically young and tectonically active.”  Earthquakes set entire cliffs sliding and landslides take homes with them.   Highways end abruptly, roads dangle above the water.  Because of the cliff-like coasts, sea level might not seem as obvious a concern, but as the sea rises it will have incalculable impact of higher tides and storm surges on California, where more people are rushing toward the water than anywhere else in the world.

I will focus on the crush of population, and the way that the dream of seaside living, so appealing to so many of us, actually serves to both cripple the coast and undermine the dream itself.  From Malibu I will set out on a bike trip up the Pacific Coast Highway, camping near the water along the way.  My destination will be Big Sur, specifically the former home of Robinson Jeffers, the great environmental poet. When Jeffers moved to Big Sur he found a primal wilderness that seemed to reflect his own wildness, but he predicted that soon humans and homes would be crawling over his primal land.  He was right of course.  The Hawk Tower, a stone watchtower Jeffers built with his own hands, now sits amidst a suburban grid, an irony that is apparent all along the coast.  It is a common enough pattern.  We move toward the beautiful only to destroy its beauty.





As I move into Northern California and head to the Pacific Northwest I will focus on man’s impact on marine life, exemplified by the plight of Pacific salmon.  The Northwest has always been a place of wild natural abundance and great coastal variety, of lagoons, estuaries, bluffs and beaches, and varied animal life from sea lions to orcas to octopuses.  But salmon have become the totem fish for the environmental battles of the area and I will walk the coasts of Oregon with Freeman House, a man who worked for a decade as a commercial fisherman before becoming a salmon activist.  During the end of his time as a fisherman, watching the stocks deplete, House said that he knew “how the last buffalo hunters must have felt.”  Since he quit fishing, Freeman House has thrown himself into work for the Mattole Salmon Group and I will show how his intense local activism has made a difference in the face of considerable odds.

Which is not to say a happy ending is looming.  At the moment, the salmon fisheries are at a historic low point: last May the entire salmon fishery was closed to both commercial and sport fishing from Seattle to and San Diego.  Boats are still sitting unused, a $290 million loss is expected, and the Western States are seeking disaster relief from congress.  While Freeman House has fought for the survival of the fish he is, for obvious reasons, sympathetic to the plight of fishermen and I will talk, not just to activists, but to those whose livelihood depends on a fish that is becoming more and more scarce.  In contrast to House, I will walk a section of Oregon with Derrick Jensen, a true “environmental extremist” whose non-conciliatory politics have been a flash point to the salmon battles.

The salmon story ties into my larger story of the country’s coast in an unexpected way.  For years agricultural run-off, dams, and pollution were added hurtles in the salmon’s epic migration upstream back from salt water to fresh.  But now the warming waters themselves are creating a hurdle that the fish may not be able to surmount.  Waters have heated up in rivers and streams, creating an unsuitable habitat for salmon, but a larger root problem is the warming Pacific Ocean, which produces less food for salmon.  Scientists have also begun to explore the changes of acidity in the ocean, due to absorption of  greenhouse gases, which is having catastrophic effects on marine life.  Salmon are emblematic in both their dying numbers and there role as a “totem,” in House’s words, in the environmental fight.  But salmon are just part of the larger food chain and their diminishment has already had a direct impact on other animals, including the famous orcas of Puget Sound that rely on the salmon for food.

To experience the place for myself, I will hitch a ride on a salmon fishing boat and then kayak in the Sound alongside the orcas.  Hugh Shipman, a coastal ecologist, and Jody Bourgeois, and Earth Science Professor at the University of Washington, will be my guides to the Sound and the chapter will end with us witnessing the great spectacle of orcas in the bay.





In this chapter I will travel along Alaska’s coast.  Obviously I will not travel the entire coast since, including bays, fjords, and islands, it stretches over 45,000 miles.  Once again I will employ the technique of synecdoche, letting the smaller sample represent the whole.  To do this I will visit Shishmaref and Kivalina, two subsistence communities on barrier islands on Alaska’s west coast.  These two communities offer the most dramatic examples of aggressive coastal erosion in the entire United States, to the point where they have been forced to up and leave, deciding to relocate to the mainland.  The reasons the communities are being swallowed by the sea are tied directly to global warming: melting glaciers, degradation of the permafrost, and rising sea surges.  I will walk these shores with a friend, Rich Chiparone, who owns a company installing commercial wall coverings.  Rich recently described for me the irony of a recent job his company took on, covering the walls of a new school being built with government funds in Shishmaref.  “Of course the weird tension of pouring millions into a school that is soon going to be under water pervaded everything,” he said.  “There’s really no place to move the village.  They need a site with water deep enough to get supplies barged in and much of that coast is too shallow.  One of the things they need shipped in is oil for heating their homes.   There they are right next to all that oil and they can’t get any for themselves.”

Shishmaref and Kivalina will allow me to provide a dramatic counterpoint between areas of pristine development and the impact of warming that is driven by oil consumption.  As I have in earlier chapters, here I will show both the joys of the coast—never wilder than here in Alaska—and the despair.  Here is where everything ties together: this is the coast our oil comes from that powers the cars that warm the world that melts the ice that once formed the coast.  As I move north this is the obvious place to report the very latest science on the melting of the ice caps and glaciers.  I will talk at length with Dr. Owen Mason, University of Alaska anthropologist and author of Living with the Coast of Alaska. I will visit the towns of Shishmaref and Kivalina with Dr. Mason to observe glacial melting.  Orrin Pilkey warned that the trip could be a dangerous one.

“When you go don’t expect to find any hotels,” Pilkey told me.  “Just bears and pissed-off Inupiats.”

This chapter will be both a celebration of wildness and a warning cry.  I will end on the North shore when I walk between the spot where Will Rogers died and the town of Barrow.  My final walk on that northernmost coast will be a chance to put together the puzzle pieces I have gathered and to see the country’s coasts as a whole.

From Alaska I will fly back to Cape Cod, to my first beach, where I will thread together all I have learned about the fate of our coasts.

  1. vers libre writes:

    Revise “with” in next-to-last line of my previous comment to read “without.” Pardon the drinking that resulted in such a mistake.

  2. vers libre writes:


    Just a note (for all to see) to say thank you for making it out to Carolina Beach State Park this past Saturday afternoon. Thanks to your appearance and tips, we saw the painted bunting. And as in we I mean my far more experienced lady friend, Ms. R.L. Lovely. While I was tending to a pressing call of nature, Ms. Lovely caught the bunting on a low-hanging branch—bobbing, flapping, and chirping. She watched that crazy thing through her binoculars for something close to two long minutes of infinity. And just before that we caught an extravagant and remarkable 30-second show from the strikingly beautiful swallow-tailed kite—a first for both of us (I could have sworn just recently to have seen the snow bunting at my feeder), and an amazing sight considering that—apparently at least—only rare individuals make it that far north. [A question, good sir of Carolina Beach State Park: Have you ever seen a like-minded kite in them parts?] Thanks too for the tips on the DO NOT ENTER BUT MOST DEFINITELY ENTER route. We made it, and what an extraordinary walk along the flip-side of the Oak Toe it was. My companion and I felt blessed to have had the day we did, and in many ways, we felt like it would not have been possible with you. So thank you, good sir. And what of this particular post I know not.

    vers libre

  3. Jess Robert writes:

    Some rich and timely material here. I can’t wait for the book and can imagine using it in one of my classes! Thanks for this l o n g educational post.

  4. Rebecca writes:

    you have one reader sitting here waiting for the book now…

  5. John Jack writes:

    I’ve investigated and contemplated syntheses of narrative arts for a top down approach in order to grasp big pictures so I can use them as accesses to microcosms. One of the questions raised by my nonfiction professors, intentionally or otherwise, was what do fiction and nonfiction share in common big picture-wise? The question has been running around in my brain unresolved for some time. I was told fiction and nonfiction share creative and literary devices for engaging reader interests. What devices?

    Nonfiction by and large doesn’t satisfy my hungers for a good story. Something falls short in a lot of nonfiction I read that deeply engaging stuff has in abundance. I called the missing quality wabi-sabi because I didn’t really understand wabi-sabi at the time either. Something in the plastic arts having to do with transience. Whatever that means.

    Can nonfiction have a plot the way fiction can? is the next question I asked. Gustav Freytag (Technique of the Drama) locates tension as the second dimension of plot movement. Causation as Aristotle saw it as the first dimension. Surely, fiction depends heavily on plotting. As Norman Friedman puts it, the purpose of a plot is to stimulate emotion. From a more mechanical notion, plot is a series of causally related events, at least calculated to be stimulating, if not well-chosen so routine events can be looked past without remark, everyday daily living activities, routine bodily functions, other events not central to the ones undergone. I don’t see a reason nonfiction can’t have a plot.

    Freytag further divides tension into empathy and suspense. Empathy in part from audience resonance with a character/narrator/author’s persona, traits and personality, and audience resonance and empathy in the main with a narrative persona’s insuperable dilemma. Suspense from artfully posing what-will-happen questions and artfully delaying answers, and keeping outcomes in doubt until a bitter end, favorable or unfavorable outcomes. Of course, causation’s counterparts are cause and effect.

    Causation and tension seem sufficient plot attributes for Freytag. Not me. Something’s missing. Finding missing things calls for intuiting gaps and bridging them logically. Freytag’s Pyramid presupposes graphing plot on a Cartesian grid, causation over time the horizontal axis, tension the vertical axis. I intuited, if there are two dimensions to plot, there must be a third. I encountered three-dimensional graphs in geometry and algebra. (Robert A. Siegel exposed me to Freytag’s Pyramid, and a graphical representation of conflict that marked a trail head leading toward an answer for what the third axis might be.)

    A conflict fork poses two ways an outcome, stakes, motivations, and/or choices might compel a plot forward. Like a forked river. Life or death, rags or riches, acceptance or rejection, and so on. Conflict seems contributory to causation and tension. Conflict is a pendent pendulum swinging between polar extremes. A pendulum in motion experiences little or no change. What then is the force that compels change?

    I found answers in chemistry and medical science. Narcan is an opioid antagonist. It neutralizes heroin and such in the bloodstream. I imagine a junky would find heroin a useful anti-antagonist antagonist to counteract the effects of Narcan.

    In chemistry, antagonists are two or more compounds added together that change into other compounds. Baking soda and hydrochloric acid cautiously mixed together become table salt, water, carbon dioxide, and heat. Both original compounds are unequivocally if not irrevocably transformed. The elements remain the same: sodium, chlorine, carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Antagonism as the forces of change then is the third axis of plot I’ve located.

    An antagonist doesn’t need to be a nemesis or a villain in order to compel change. An athlete’s coach, a writing mentor, a parent, a boss, an acquaintance, anyone, or anything for that matter antagonize change. Internal antagonism too, perhaps motivated by external forces, but not necessarily so.

    Antagonism’s counterparts are problem and purpose, conflict-like in diametric opposition, sure. But they can be caused by the same force, like desire. A desire for money is both a problem to be resolved and a motivating purpose.

    Where I’m getting at by a roundabout way is nonfiction I like has a discernible plot. I feel it. Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, for example, the insuperable dilemma is a young adult existential crisis caused by an identity crisis. Wolff reinvents himself seeking an identity he’s comfortable with. Inciting crisis, moving to a new locale wanting to be someone else; tragic crisis, reinventing himself as a make believer; resolving crisis, he realizes he doesn’t have to complete his identity so much as establish an independent self-identity he can live with and build upon. No great transformation, per se, but an irrevocable, unequivocal change. I felt rapport with Wolff from the very beginning, too. Resonance and empathy and suspense from a shared insuperable struggle with self-identity. Ongoing life’s antagonisms keep me in a similar state of identity flux.

    I sampled Sick of Nature at Google Books. The title struck a chord. It gave me an expectation of a private insuperable struggle oriented around humankind’s relationships with nature. I felt the title made a promise to privately explore the seemingly irreconcilable dilemma of environmental consciousness insuperably challenged by an insatiable need for nature to unquestioningly accommodate humanity’s every need, want, and desire. I was enticed onward looking for that connection, almost but not quite satisfied enough to seek out a copy of the book for more in-depth reading.

    I wanted to experience a personal crisis of conscience, a crisis of self-identity, the same kinds of crises I have when I see tar balls on a beach and know my thirst for convenient energy is vicariously responsible, and a privately, publicly shared global responsibility.

    I wanted to experience small crises of self-serving and self-sacrificing motivations (problems and purposes) causing setbacks and letdowns impeding reconciliation, experience a debate between a cartoon demon on one shoulder saying never mind, no one else really cares anyway, and a cartoon angel on the other shoulder saying not caring has dangerous historical precedents and potentially disastrous outcomes, and experience small discoveries making headway against a flood tide of contention toward a reconciliation.

    I wanted a tragic crisis to top out and result in a life-affirming climax epiphany. I wanted a resolving crisis coming to a conscious, responsible accommodation for closure. I wanted to find a reconciliation I can share and live with. I wanted to know I’m not struggling alone with my conscience.

    Please, if I’ve trespased, forgive me.

  6. Dave,

    I am not all that tech savvy — I don’t see a button to contact you by email or anything — so I am just going to comment and hope you see it. I am an editor at Grove/Atlantic. One of our smart sales reps saw a tweet by Ron Charles about this post and alerted me to it. I think the book sounds interesting and would love to read it. When you say sending out feelers I can’t tell if you are talking about sending the book to your agent or approaching publishers directly or what, so maybe you have an agent who is going to be submitting the book, in which case he/she can do whatever they want, but I just wanted to let you know that I’d be interested to take a look. Good luck whatever the situation is. (If you want to contact me you can Google my name and my email address will come up. I don’t suppose it would be a good idea to post it on this comment, lest spammers snap it up.)

    Jofie Ferrari-Adler

  7. Randy Ricks writes:

    “On the Road” with Charles Kuralt was always one of my favorite news programs to watch on TV.

    Charles died in 1997.

    David, I think you should be hired by CBS, helmet cam and all, to be the next
    Charles Kuralt.

    Your travels, insights and commentaries can make-up the next generation’s version of “On the Road.”

    So maybe your voice isn’t quite as deep and made for broadcasting as Charles’s was,
    but I still think you’re the man for the job.

    ( I only made the comment about your voice to show that I’m trying to be objective here, and not just tooting your horn.)

    Keep aiming high. This book rejection is merely a pebble in the road!