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.