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The Human Shore

November 29, 2012 | By David Skinner

Before Hurricane Sandy surged up the East Coast and through many Long Island towns I know from growing up in Queens, I received a review copy of The Human Shore by John R. Gillis (University of Chicago Press). Gillis directed two NEH summer seminar institutes here in Washington, DC, where, he says in his acknowledgments, he discovered the riches of the Library of Congress photo collections from which he drew a handful of images for his book. 

One of Gillis’s major points is that we have become increasingly attached to the waterline. “Coastal populations have increased about 30 percent in thirty years,” Gillis writes. And “today, what has been termed the coastal zone, constituting only 15 percent of the US land area, is inhabited by 53 percent of the US population.” Worldwide, the picture of humans clinging to the shoreline is just as dramatic: “Half of all the globe’s peoples now live within one hundred miles of an ocean.”

I am a little haunted by passing references Gillis makes to old coastal settlements where inhabitants escaped rising waters by canoe. Then again, I am also haunted by stories my New York relatives tell of people swimming out of their homes. And who isn’t, even now, haunted by images of Katrina?

But there is so much fine writing--journalistic, historical, literary, and otherwise-to help us reflect more deeply on the awful reality of natural destruction. The poet Christopher Merrill, who is on the National Council for the Humanities, recently drafted a starter list of literary works that might be consulted.

The poet Christopher Merrill, who is on the National Council for the Humanities, recently drafted a starter list of literary works that might be consulted.