You Never Get What You Expect

Since I was just a wee small library girl, one of my very favorite parts of going on a trip, no matter how far or near, how short or long, has been the ceremonial choosing of the books that will go with me. So for a mid-January trip to the Oregon Coast, what should I take?

I pretty much had to take the book for February's book group--the pressure was on and I'd been procrastinating. And then, because resistance is futile, I threw in Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris by Oregon author Bonnie Henderson.

We arrived in Manzanita mid-afternoon, settled in, had an early dinner, and revved up the fireplace. There was a brief moment when I contemplated doing the responsible thing and diving into my assigned reading. Then, as I held a book in each hand, I got a delicious whiff of salty air and heard the roar of the ocean just outside. I went with Strand. It is a wonderful thing to have the perfect reading for a trip.

Back in '95 Henderson began volunteering for CoastWatch, a program of the Oregon Shores Conservation Coalition that monitors changes, natural and unnatural, on every inch of Oregon coastline. Volunteers adopt a mile of coast and agree to walk it at least four times a year, briefly reporting on changes they notice. She and a good friend walk their adjacent miles together, one bringing the sandwiches, the other the cookies. They begin to refer to themselves as Forensic CoastWatchers as they talk about what they find as they walk. And what they find is just the beginning of the story. It's Henderson's bloodhound spirit for the answer to "why is it here on the beach?" that makes the book so fascinating.

Some of what I learned from Strand is that:

Those thousands of little purplish-blue jellyfish washing up is something that happens every year.

Dead sea birds are everywhere. If you don't see them, you're just not looking.

The primo time for beachcombing is at high tide on a stormy night.

Japanese glass floats on the beach are an almost unbelievable treasure find here, but in Japan they're nothing special. Even less than nothing special.

Minke whales may be the most common whale off the Oregon Coast. That's right--Minke.

Container ships lose their cargo often, more often than they'd like you to know, and it sometimes washes up on NW beaches.

There is a sickeningly large floating "island" of all kinds of garbage in the North Pacific known as The Patch.

Henderson's writing has been likened to John McPhee, whom I worship. If that gets you to read this book, then that's great. But if you're not a McPhee Phan, please don't let that keep you from reading Strand. I would ask you this: Do you love the Pacific Northwest beaches? Good enough. You'll need to read this book. The chapters are short enough to be totally accessible yet include enough detail that the amateur science/nature geek in you will be totally satisfied. I was. Like a good shipwreck story? There's that too.

"Ultimately," Henderson says, "it was the stories I prized the most. Everything on the beach has one--every discarded bottle, every dead seabird chick. Even when you can't get the whole story, the quest becomes a story in itself. And in the end those are the best stories anyway."

Epilogue: I was at the coast for four days and finished Strand in three, although with no distractions it's definitely possible to do it in one. Did I start that book for the book group? No. Did I have guilt about it? Yes. But in classic English major fashion, I burned through it the day before our meeting. It was good. But Strand was great.

Bonnie Henderson will be reading from Strand at the Hollywood Library on Monday May 18th, at 6 p.m. Learn more about her work at her website