Book review: ‘The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea,’ by David Helvarg |

Book review: ‘The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea,’ by David Helvarg

Editor’s note: Book reviewer Karina Wetherbee shares her photos from a recent trip to San Francisco and Big Sur on the California coast to help illustrate many of the points David Helvarg explored in his recently released book.

It is no surprise that California has long been a destination, both for business and for recreation, as much of the massive state can boast a unique coastline and a dynamic and historic relationship with the ocean that laps against its craggy outcroppings. Author and environmental activist David Helvarg contemplates that very subject in his book, recently released in paperback — “The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea.”

“What is it about California, the most populous of the United States, and the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest body of water, covering one-third of the planet, that creates such a powerful crosscurrent of culture, risk and reward, history, economy and mythology?” The question he tackles is broad, but his analysis of the answer is detailed and multifaceted, served up as a real tribute to the state’s identity, with its ever-morphing beauty and perpetually resplendent coastline.

As Helvarg recounts his travels along the length of his beloved state, he shares his analysis of the contemporary coastline of California, as well as those same locales as notable points within their historical contexts. Given that the majority of California’s shore is rugged and rocky and subject to rough weather and large waves, he is “amazed how, after centuries and millennia of human impact, habitation and dumb decisions, there remains a wealth of wildlife on and off the water.”

This vibrant cohabitation of man and wild nature is a reoccurring theme throughout the book, which is unsurprising, as Helvarg is a fierce advocate for the conservation and protection of coastal and ocean habitats. As he follows California’s history from its earliest days, when the indigenous tribes dwelled and fished along the shore, and continues through time to the bombardment of expansionism as Manifest Destiny set the stage for the inevitable overuse and abuse of resources, it is encouraging that he still sees hope for the future of California’s coastal ecology.

In California’s earliest days, the Mexican-American War undoubtedly changed things for the state’s future, but it was the quest for gold that perpetuated the most transformations, as California exploded in population and then reeled from the subsequent overutilization of resources. Native tribes paid dearly, as did the fragile ecosystem. Some of California’s most iconic species were nearly driven to extinction, and Helvarg is quick to point out that any recovery remains precarious with the current growing climate and population concerns.

As examples, Helvarg highlights great whales and shark species, the beloved sea otters and elephant seals, the famed sea lions of Pier 39 in San Francisco Bay, vulnerable abalone and sea birds, as well as the giant kelp forests that provide crucial habitat all along the coast.

Most striking is his methodical linking together of these diverse members of the fragile ecosystem of the “golden shore.” The mesmerizing fronds of the verdant forests of kelp provide crucial habitat for the once abundant abalone, which is a pivotal staple for the sea otters, which were once hunted to near extinction for their fur. The otters, in turn, are an essential food source for the elephant seals, whales and sharks.

With so many balls that need to be juggled at the same time in order to truly allow the ocean to recover, Helvarg outlines the necessity of nature reserves, which California has gone to great lengths to create. The state has also succeeded in establishing a public coastline following many decades of activism. The people of California understand that the reasons the state is so loved will only continue if they resist development of its most crucial asset — its stunning shoreline.

Nonetheless, Helvarg says, protecting the coast remains a constant political ballet, but it’s one conservationists persist in fighting and winning. The biggest foe — for everyone on the planet, really — remains the changing climate, and as the oceans warm up, the impact on California’s coast — and inland — will be significant, with changing storm patterns exacerbating drought cycles and the real dangers of sea level rise. He describes the increased analysis of the effects of climate change on the waters off California as a bit like analyzing a crime scene while the crime is still being committed.

Helvarg remains hopeful, though, saying, “California’s ocean waters are historic, cultural, legal and literary phenomena bonded to the very DNA of the state.” His book comes at a time when leaders in the green revolution need to emerge. He sees California as one of those vanguards of the counterrevolution against humanity’s own hubris.

“If crisis is opportunity, then with our present-day economic morass, political gridlock, and vast and salty environmental threats, California has rarely had such a historic opportunity.”

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