Eugene Weekly : Books : 10.23.08

Where We Came From
One mile along the coast opens the world
by Suzi Steffen

STRAND: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris, nonfiction by Bonnie Henderson. OSU Press, 2008. Paperback

Human blood plasma bears “a striking resemblance” to ocean water, according to a Dartmouth chemist, which may explain why some of us can’t get enough of the smell of the sea. Even the Oregon Coast, rocky and rugged, heartbreaking and shipbreaking, exerts a magnetic pull on most Oregonians. 

Some, like Eugene author Bonnie Henderson, return over and over again — not simply for weekends in rental houses, not simply for hikes, but for the sake of the coast itself. In 1995, Henderson joined CoastWatch, a volunteer arm of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition that asks its members to adopt and take careful notes on changes on the coast. Her years of closely observing the sandy beach of Mile 157 transform into a gentle, beautifully written series of disconnected vignettes in Strand. The book opens with hand-drawn maps, one detailing just where Mile 157 stands: near Tahkenitch Creek and Tahkenitch Lake, in between Florence and the Umpqua River, in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. 

One mile of coastline. Not so much to care for, right? Not something that could ignite worldwide travels? Wrong. Henderson, who travels to Japan to find out more about the formerly ubiquitous glass fishermen’s floats (now collectors’ items, causing treasure-hunting of a rather distasteful sort) and to a Reebok factory in Shenzhen, China, seems to have some sort of unlimited expense account (surely not from OSU Press) combined with a bottomless curiosity about the things that turn up on her stretch of land. The history of WWII, glass factories in Japan, international shipping, violent storms, currents and wind in the Pacific — it’s all here. Those chapters of the book provide jaw-dropping descriptions, paragraphs of sensory impressions that wash over a reader without particular urgency.

But higher waves await in several other chapters. Henderson describes herself as an “amateur naturalist,” yet her tales of dead common murres and minke whales provide such a compelling look at the ecology of the ocean that this reader, at least, nearly decided to head back to school for degrees in marine biology. Then there’s the piece de resistance, a truly prodigious feat of reporting and writing, in chapter five, “The Sanak.” Fishing boats run into trouble all of the time in Oregon waters, and fishing’s a dangerous livelihood. Or so almost anyone who reads an Oregon paper in the winter comes to understand. But this chapter, in which Henderson recreates a 1983 shipwreck, tosses readers into the challenges, the joys and the absolute despair of trying to make a living from the fickle, treacherous deep. 

The disconnected chapters add up to a complex, heartrending picture of the ocean, the people who work on it and the creatures affected by everything humans choose to do. Henderson doesn’t preach. She paints pictures, illustrating that what washes up on the shore mixes the amorality of the Pacific with the flotsam and jetsam of human intentions. The ocean, salty and tangy as blood, filled with organisms that our plastic waste may destroy, brings the world to Henderson’s mile of sandy coast ­ and readers may fasten on her words, riding their current to share her passion for the sea and all who share in its chemistry.

Henderson reads from Strand at 7 pm Tuesday, Oct. 28, in the Knight Library on the UO campus.


Poet Ted Genoways reads, 8 pm 10/23, Knight Library, UO. Madeleine Albright reads from Memo to the President Elect, 7 pm 10/23, Bagdad Theater, Portland. $15, includes book. Mia Kirshner, with artist Joe Sacco, discusses I Live Here, 7:30 pm 10/28, Powell’s on Burnside, Portland. Betty Roberts reads from With Grit and By Grace, noon 10/29, 142 Knight Law, UO. David Sedaris speaks, a benefit for Literary Arts, 7:30 pm 10/31, Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. $30-$60. Henry Jenkins (Art and Storytelling in the Age of Media Convergence) speaks on “Talking Snowmen, Moose Stew and the 3 a.m. Girl: New Media, Popular Culture, and American Politics 2008,” 7:30 pm 11/3, 180 PLC, UO. Ed McClanahan reads from O the Clear Moment, 7 pm 11/4, Living Learning Center Performance Hall, UO. W.S. Merwin speaks, 7:30 pm 11/6, Newmark Theatre, Portland. $12/$15.