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This summer's beach reading -- a book about the beach

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, May 30, 2005

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Duke professor Orrin Pilkey has written a book that ought to be in the suitcase of every person headed for a beach vacation this summer.

Pilkey is well known to beach front property owners as the man who wants to keep them from protecting their beach related investments by asking such questions as, “But why should we pay a huge price to save the property of a small number of people who were so ignorant or arrogant that they built right next to an eroding shoreline? Aside from this philosophical problem, the next question is, why should we pay through our federal government to bail them out of the consequences of their imprudent actions? Why don't they pay to hold the shoreline in place?”

Even if the beachfront homeowners were willing to pay the full price of protection themselves, Pilkey is known for insisting that the best policy in the management of shorelines is to let nature take its course—letting the beaches migrate in response to rising sea levels. He says, “The biggest single threat to beach survival is shoreline armoring. Construction of seawalls and groins always leads to the loss of beaches in the next generation or two.”

Why would people want to read a book by someone who fights against the beach re-nourishment projects that repair their favorite beaches and even suggests that their beach houses or high-rise motels or condos ought to be demolished?

Here is why: “How to Read a North Carolina Beach: Bubble Holes, Barking Sands, and Rippled Runnels” by Pilkey and coauthors Tracy Monegan Rice and William J. Neal, is a book about how beaches work. It is an “inside story” of where these ribbons of sandy islands and shores came from, how they sustain themselves, and what goes on inside and on top of them. It is a book for people who walk along beaches and sometimes look down and wonder what they are seeing, whatever their position on beach re-nourishment and seawall construction.

Where did all the sand come from? Why is some of the sand on the beach so black?

What causes the “swash marks” that sometimes mark the beach with a series of wavy lines running roughly parallel to the water? Why is there such a variety of patterns of ridges that form on top of the beach?

Why does the sand sound like a dog barking when we put our heels down in it?

Some of us enjoy the beach without knowing much about what is going on around us. But just as knowing the names of plants enriches a garden visit and just as knowing something about the artists in a museum enhances the pleasure of seeing their work, knowing a little more about the beach can add a dimension of enjoyment to our vacation there.

For instance, knowing why some sand is dark colored gives a clue to the source of the sand. The black sand patches contain minerals, which according to Pilkey, “indicates that the beach sand originated in the Piedmont Province, meaning that the sand was transported more than a hundred miles—and sometime more than three hundred miles—before it reached the beach.”

As we might correctly guess, the uneven “swash lines” on the beach mark the far points that waves reach as they travel up the beach. But what leaves the marks? Pilkey tells us that the advancing wave picks up sand as it moves to the shore and then deposits it as its water seeps into the beach sand. He explains, “The slight difference in grain size and composition between the floaters and the regular beach sand is one reason that swash marks stand out in relief.”

On the other hand, the ripples on the beach surface can be caused by either waves or wind. Anyone who takes time to examine beach ripples finds that there is a rich variety of patterns. Pilkey gives his readers guidance that can help them figure out how particular sets of ripples were formed. Ripples created by wind action can be found on the upper beach, above the highest swash line. Pilkey gets specific. “They line up parallel to one another, perpendicular to the direction of the latest winds, with the steep face in the direction of the latest wind.”

Pilkey explains why sometimes the sand “barks” or “sings” when we walk across the beach, and sometimes it does not. “In order for the sand to sing, all of the grains must be of similar size…. [And] there must be no organic matter between or on the grains.”

Pilkey’s detailed explanations make the beach seem like the surface of an ever-changing painting. Like the sand paintings of Tibetan monks, which are destroyed soon after they are completed, the beauty of Pilkey’s beach is enhanced by its impermanence. Look carefully; what is here now will be gone in a moment.

And, Pilkey would certainly add, “It will be more beautiful if you will leave it alone to be what it will be.”


D.G. Martin is the author of “Interstate Eateries” a handbook of home cooking places near North Carolina’s interstate highways—available through Our State Magazine. He is the host of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs on Sundays at 5:00 p.m. Special UNC-TV programming on June 5 and 12 will preempt NC Bookwatch. The guest on June 19 will be John May, author of “Poe & Fanny” and on June 26, Walter Turner, author of “Paving Tobacco Road.”

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This summer's beach reading -- a book about the beach

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