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The Coast

March 2023
1min read

A Journey Down the Atlantic Shore

by Joseph J. Thorndike; St. Martin ‘s Press; 233 pp.

In a series of trips taken over a number of years, Joseph J. Thorndike traveled the entire length of the Atlantic shoreline from West Quoddy Head in Maine to Key West, Florida. One of the founding editors of American Heritage , Thorndike brings to this account of his journeys all he knows of previous travelers, including the artist Winslow Homer, who summered at Prouts Neck, Maine, and guarded his privacy by planting a sign in his garden: SNAKES, SNAKES, AND MICE .

The author walks Cape Cod in the imagined company of Henry David Thoreau and visits Georgia’s Sea Islands, remembering the English actress Fanny Kemble, who arrived there in 1838 with her husband of four years, the owner of a local rice plantation. It was her first look at the system of slavery that supported her, and what she saw horrified her.

Today more than half the population of the United States lives within an hour’s drive of this coast, and everywhere Thorndike goes he finds overdevelopment, erosion, pollution, and loss of wildlife. Although his dismay is heartfelt, his wry humor never fails him. “People now grown who had the good fortune to read Marguerite Henry’s book Misty of Chincoteague when they were young,” he writes, “and who formed a mental picture of a little old-fashioned fishing village where a wild silvery pony found a happy home are in for some measure of disillusionment. . . . Unless you are in urgent need of sandwiches, Cokes, sunscreen, or rock and roll tapes, drive through Chincoteague without stopping.”

Surveying the harm we have done to the coast, he writes, “The best to be said is that we have stopped doing some of the worst things.” Thorndike salutes the efforts of the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and various local groups that have found ways to preserve sections of the shoreline. And occasionally he reminds us that all was not paradise even before the developers arrived.

Here is John James Audubon, writing to his wife the day he failed to capture an ibis specimen: “Here I am in Florida, thought I, a country that received its name from odours wafted from the orange groves, to the boats of the first discoverers, and which from my childhood I have consecrated in my imagination as the garden of the United States. A garden where all that is not mud, mud, mud is sand, sand, sand; where the fruit is so sour it is not eatable, and where in place of singing birds and golden fishes, you have a species of ibis that you cannot get when you have shot it, and alligators, snakes, and scorpions.”

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