Can you remember the last time you discovered a book by chance and it totally reoriented your thinking about a subject? I can.
Last summer I stayed in a cabin overlooking Falcon Cove on the North Oregon Coast and inspected the owner's excellent small library. One title intrigued me, and I pulled the book from the shelf. Four hours later I finished it and knew I would never look at the ocean or beaches the same way again — which is saying a lot, since I hit the sand with my dog at least twice a day near my home in Newport and have written more about Oregon's legacy of publicly owned beaches than any other writer, dead or alive. I also knew I would have to rewrite a 50,000-word manuscript about Oregon's ocean beaches that I had thought was ready for prime time.
Waves and Beaches: The Dynamics of the Ocean Surface by Willard Bascom is a classic of natural science. I own the 1980s revised and updated edition, but the book first came out in 1964. It is currently out of print, but I found my used copy at Powell's for a little over 10 bucks.
Waves and Beaches begins: "Is there anyone who can watch without fascination the struggle for supremacy between sea and land?" Well, no, not if they are even remotely sentient and actually manage to visit the beach every now and then and really look at what is all around them (without an iPod in use, I might add).
Until reading this book, I thought I was noticing everything at the ocean's edge. As it turns out, there is much more to understand about the sand I walk upon and the waves that hypnotize me. For starters, I had no idea mathematics played such an interesting and elementary role in the motion of waves or the slope of beaches.
Limited editorial space here prevents me from a complete summary of Bascom's 365-page book, but he basically examines everything related to waves and beaches and explains them right down to their tiniest tumble or, literally, grain of sand.
One of the utterly fascinating benefits of reading this book is learning the names of features I've seen a million times but didn't even know had names. Take, for example, the various marks on the beach made by retreating tides: swash, backwash, rills, cusps, domes, pinholes, ripples. I can't say I'm now obsessed with identifying everything I see at the beach, but a bit more knowledge of the natural world isn't such a bad thing in life. In fact, a lot more might save the planet.
In Waves and Beaches, Bascom writes simple and informative, yet beautiful, sentences like: "Waves are undulating forms that move along the surface of the sea." Or try this one: "A beach is an accumulation of rock fragments subject to movement by ordinary wave action." And my favorite: "Beaches are ever-changing, restless armies of sand particles, always on the move." Bascom might have considered himself more of a scientist than a writer, but he knew how to construct metaphors and slyly present them to readers:
A wonderful time to observe…is early in the morning, especially after a high tide. Often the air is still and pleasant light fills the sky. The beach is clean and virginal, the night's waves erased the human marks of the previous day.
Bascom was obviously a gifted man of science who saw beauty and assurance in the formulas and equations of the waves. Without reading his book, I would have never known such precise things do exist. When I ramble the beach, I like to think of love, loss, rebirth, and a little evolution. I also smell and touch. In other words: poetry, not math! But math is good, too, at least the way Bascom presents and explains it in this masterpiece that every serious beachcomber has got to read.