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Chatham Edition 06/28/2012, Page 1
Book Uses North Beach As Focus Of Shoreline Conflicts
by Debra Lawless
For most of us, during these hot lazy days of summer, Chatham’s beaches represent relaxing getaways, worlds of sun and sea and sandcastles.
For environmentalist and nature writer William Sargent, though, the beach is the uneasy, unsettled border between two worlds. He aptly describes this in his new book “Beach Wars: Ten ThousandYears of Conflict and Change on a Barrier Beach” (Strawberry Hill Press, 2012). His topic here is mainly Chatham’s North Beach – lately the scene of rapid erosion and battles waged to save the precious beach camps.
“What I really wanted to show is how important beaches are as natural barriers to protect the mainland,” Sargent said in a recent e-mail interview from his home in Ipswich. (He divides his time between there and a house in Orleans that his parents bought in 1946.) “Also that they are constantly changing and will do so faster as the seas rise more rapidly. So the geological change often drives the human conflicts over how beaches should be used and enjoyed.”
Chatham residents know only too well what it means when that natural barrier is broken. “It was a sad and wrenching experience for Chatham when a ‘new’ inlet broke through the barrier beach in 1987,” Sargent writes. “The town was engulfed in chaos and lawsuits as people tried to build seawalls and revetments to protect their mainland properties.”
Many will recall that as the coastline north of Chatham Light eroded, the national press watched as house after house fell into the water. New waterfront properties were created. In April 2007 another break during a storm on Patriot’s Day caused crowds to gather at a North Chatham town landing gazing out at waves cresting where they had never crested before. “Camp owners spent close to half a million dollars moving their homes multiple times before they too were swept away by the whims of Mother Nature,” Sargent writes. Last spring officials of the Cape Cod National Seashore removed five camps from North Beach Island, breaking the hearts of families who had occupied those camps for generations.
In the past Sargent, who turned 65 on June 1, has written extensively about Pleasant Bay – its ecology and horseshoe crabs and the effects of the 1987 breakthrough. In 2007 he wrote “Just Seconds from the Ocean: Coastal Living in the Wake of Katrina.”
He boasts that since college (he graduated in Harvard’s class of ‘69 with Al Gore) he has never lived more than a mile from the shore. This new book, which he worked on for over two years, reflects his wide-ranging interests. In time, he ranges from 10,000 B.C. to March 2012. And a glance at the chapter titles will give an idea of the dizzying range of topics he takes on here: “Never Trust a Bipolar Pirate,” Henry Beston’s “Outermost House,” rumrunners, Monomoy in 1958, a nude beach in Truro in 1974, piping plovers and erosion. A few storms Sargent surveys are the Blizzard of ’78, the Perfect Storm of ’91 and Hurricane Noel of 2007. He also chronicles shipwrecks.
Sargent’s thinking about the coastline has evolved. While in 2004 in “Storm Surge” he looked at storms as the bringers of destruction, in 2009 in “Sea Level Rising” he saw the rising sea level as the culprit. In “Beach Wars,” “I wanted to put it all together but also look at the more subtle role that things like proxigean tides [tides when the moon is nearest the earth] play as predictors of erosion events,” he says.
Gracing the cover of “Beach Wars” is a painting by Thomas Hart Benton showing two people in foul weather gear trying to save two people struggling in swirling water. In the background one small house is floating in the water while a second sits at a strange angle in the towering waves. The sky is black.
Benton painted that frightening scene, Sargent tells us, after the artist and his son plucked a New Yorker Magazine writer and his wife from Stonewall Pond on Martha’s Vineyard during the Hurricane of ’38. Now there’s a storm that changed the coastline of much of the East Coast, especially Rhode Island.
“As soon as I saw the Benton painting I knew I had to have it for the cover,” Sargent says. “Often after I give talks, people will come up and tell me their personal stories about the 1938 hurricane.”
Sargent dedicates his book to the people of Chatham “who have learned so much from living on and beside this ephemeral and everchanging barrier beach” in this, the town’s tercentennial year. The book is copiously illustrated with black and white photographs, maps, charts and pencil drawings by Sargent’s wife Kristina Lindborg.
Copies may be purchased from local bookstores or at Strawberry Hill Press. See Strawberry Hill Press tab above. Thanks!!