Bay Nature magazineFall 2006

The Ocean

Book Review: Wave-Swept Shore: The Rigors of Life on a Rocky Coast

October 1, 2006

Wave-Swept Shore: The Rigors of Life on a Rocky Coast, text by Mimi Koehl, Photographs by Anne Wertheim Rosenfeld, UC Press, 2006, 179 pages, $39.95

This book is not quite what one might expect. The title and the stunning photos suggest that this will be, if not a field guide, then a more sumptuously produced and visually stunning work that still bears some family relation to a field guide. A book one might study to learn what species live where, how they reproduce, who eats whom, etc. But author Mimi Koehl, a UC Berkeley professor who specializes in biomechanics, has a different goal—to look at the harsh intertidal environment with the eyes of an engineer. How uniform are the effects of currents washing over rocks? (Not very; a few inches can mean a huge difference in wave forces.) How do mussels adhere to rocks amid crashing waves? (Shock-absorbing threads.) How do all these creatures endure, and exploit, the water that is forever sloshing over them? (Read the rest of the book for that one.)

Using very approachable language and clear diagrams, along with Rosenfeld’s photos, Koehl sheds a great deal of light on the forces experienced by kelp, mussels, sponges, barnacles, and all the other mostly small organisms that carpet the rocks along one short stretch of rocky coastline. Where that coastline is, the author doesn’t say. That is an enduring oddity of the book—the approach zooms in on one spot, but then never says where that spot is, as if this might be an idealized rather than a real coastline. Koehl’s language contributes to the abstraction—she speaks often of an unidentified “we” who investigate, experience, and visit the shore. Direct descriptions of specific experiences in specific places are virtually absent from the text. Luckily, Rosenfeld’s photos leave no doubt about the real, specific diversity and wonder of the intertidal habitat on our shoreline. In fact, the photos are so entrancing that I can’t help but wonder if the authors kept the location a secret to keep it from being overrun by zealous readers.

About the Author

Dan was editor of Bay Nature from 2004 until 2013, when he left to work for SF-based Stamen Design. He is now executive director of GreenInfo Network, a nonprofit mapmaking organization. A onetime professional cabinetmaker, he considers himself a lifelong maker of things and teller of stories. Dan has been working at the intersection of journalism and technology since, at age 16, he began learning reporting, page layout, and database design. His enduring interest in environmental issues crystallized into a career path in 1998 when he assisted former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass in a cross-disciplinary nature writing and ecology course at UC Berkeley, from which Dan received a Masters in English literature. In 1999, he became Associate Editor of Terrain, the erstwhile quarterly magazine of Berkeley's Ecology Center. In addition to editing and art-directing Bay Nature magazine, he was also Bay Nature’s chief technology strategist, fixer of broken things, and designer of databases and fancy spreadsheets. And he was even known to leave the office and actually hike outdoors.