Hester Blum, Associate Professor of English at Pennsylvania State University, reflects on detritus, ocean-bound ephemera, and being swept out to sea by a rogue wave. Her new book, The News at the Ends of the Earth, examines the rich, offbeat collection of printed ephemera created by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century polar explorers as they wrestled with questions of time, space, and community.
I was swept to sea by a rogue wave the day after I first held a copy of my new book. Both incidents were unexpected.
I was in California for an event on women and the polar regions, speaking along with a poet/polar naturalist, an artist/deep sea researcher, and a full-time polar explorer. I didn’t expect to receive copies of my new book for another couple of weeks. As my talk slides were being loaded in the auditorium on UC Davis’s Polar Day I saw with surprise that a university bookstore representative was setting up stacks of my book next to the poet’s and the explorer’s latest volumes. The copies had been shipped directly from the printer—the press did not even have their own copies yet, the bookstore rep told me. I was beside myself with delight and surprise, and asked the explorer take a picture of me hoisting it, smiling so broadly my eyes crinkled nearly shut.
The News at the Ends of the Earth: The Print Culture of Polar Exploration studies the newspapers and other printed ephemera that polar-voyaging sailors produced in environmental extremity, in oceanic circulation, at the margins of the terraqueous world. All of my academic writing and a good portion of my day-to-day thinking is about the ocean, even though I am no sailor. After the polar event I unexpectedly found myself with free time, and rented a car to drive to the Sonoma coast north of Marin County. What better way, I thought, to reflect on the years the polar book had taken me to research and write than to commune with the sea and the nonhuman world on a rocky coast. I took my binoculars (I am new to birding, with the zeal of the convert) and a change of clothes in case it rained on me.
I drove out of the flat, rectilinear agriscape of the Central Valley and through electric green hills topped with tors and resembling the English moors. When I reached Highway 1, the storied California coastal road, I stopped for a lunch of fries and oysters, briny and bracing. After Bodega Bay the highway hits the sea, and I saw breakers for the first time on the drive. I planned to spend the day driving slowly north, stopping at beaches along the way to look at birds, walk, possibly write a little, maybe even see seals. I stopped first at North Salmon Creek Beach to try to spot the snowy plovers that nest on the beach. I took off my sneakers at the bottom of the steps leading down from the parking lot on the cliff, and tucked them behind some driftwood on dry sand.
The Sonoma State Beaches are rocky and variable. The estuary at the mouth of Salmon Creek was alternately calm and afroth. Down the beach, visitors had built driftwood structures on wider spits of sand. Where the coastal cliffs jutted farther out the sand was only a few feet wide. My head was down, beachcoming above the waterline, when an unseen tidal surge drenched my leggings, which I didn’t want to get wet. Eyes on the water, I told myself, you know better than to turn your back on the sea. I picked up a palm-sized bit of driftwood, shaped marvelously like a sand dune in its ridges, whorls, and shifting peaks.
The surf was rough, insistent, foaming. I walked back toward the estuary and the parking lot so I could continue my drive up the coast—I’d only really just begun, and could see that farther north the rocks and surf were even larger and more dramatic. At the base of the stairs to the lot, near where I had stashed my sneakers, I stopped to look at the birds settling on the estuary’s sand banks. There were a number of different kinds of gulls, and I wasn’t sure if I was observing the snowy plover as well. I walked a few feet down the beach, amid more rocks, and stood with my binoculars to my eyes, a dorsal turn away from the sea, on a stretch of sand well above the waterline.
Without warning the sea was suddenly up to my thighs, my waist, my chest. Later a man told me that he was screaming at me to look out, but I did not hear him. I struggled to keep my feet but the water churned and rose and was soon well over my head, maybe ten feet high, carrying me away down the beach and smashing into the rocks at a terrible pace. I tried to keep feet first, not let my head tip forward. Again and again I hit jagged rocks, no smooth edges of erosion, no driftwood softness. The water roiled with debris, brown and dirty and filled with wood and oceanic detritus. It carried me down the beach and started pulling me into the mouth of Salmon Creek. Only later did I realize how lucky it was to be pulled in (even if against rocks) rather than out, as by a riptide. I swallowed sand and kept clutching for the binoculars that were harnessed to my back. After what felt like a very long time I was able to touch the bottom again, even though the sea kept me from getting a foothold. I could see a number of men scrambling down the cliffside toward me, waving their arms.
I staggered out of the water, finally, as the surge started to recede. I was 50, maybe 100 yards down the beach from where I had stood. Three men met me and held me up, kept asking if I was okay. “That was so stupid, that was so stupid, that was so scary, I should know better” I kept repeating at them. I was embarrassed to have been swept away. “Can you walk?” one asked me and I looked down and saw that my feet were lacerated and bleeding from a number of places. Yes, I could walk. I felt numb, no pain. I felt for my pockets, made sure my keys were still there. I moved toward where I had left my sneakers and did not see them. My ears were packed with sand. I could not open a passage. Where were my shoes? One shoe was down the beach against the cliff face. No sign of the other. I sat on a log, then stood. I spotted my other sneaker hooked on a piece of driftwood. I wanted to get off the beach before another surge found me.
I started a slow, dripping pace up the railroad tie steps. People just arriving looked at me with concern. A man at the top of the steps offered me water to rinse my cuts and I told him that I had some. He said he was a surfer and had been watching the water to see if it was too rough to go out—that the waves were 10 to 16 feet that day, and that the surge when the outer waves met the estuary was very unpredictable. He was the one that had screamed out to me when the rogue wave came in. Later I read that the spot is known for attracting distant groundswells and for its “meaty beachbreak.”
I wanted to get to the car and put on the dry jeans and t-shirt I had brought. I was astonished by the amount of sand on me, in my clothes. The wave that swept me away must have consisted of more sand than water. It was as if I had poured buckets full of wet sand down my shirt, my pants. I stripped to the skin standing in the parking lot. I couldn’t get the sand off. I shuffled into my pants and rolled them high above my battered feet. I still didn’t feel the cuts or the bruises already purpling my ankles and toes. I poured water on my cuts and drove barefoot to a convenience store to get first aid supplies. I hobbled across a parking lot of sharp gravel without my shoes. Looking down at the blood I was treading on the store floor, a woman told me to go to the fire department and see a paramedic. At the fire department I was confused and instead of ringing the bell I used the emergency call box, which called 911 and routed me to the dispatcher. I had a hard time explaining that I was standing outside a fire department and just wanted to be let in.
My phone was dead, of course, cracked and flush with salt and sand. It is very hard to be in a strange place without a smartphone. I thought about driving straight back to Davis, over two hours away. I was compelled instead to go a little farther up Highway 1 to find a café or a place to sit and recover. Ten miles north of the beach that beached me I saw hundreds of baby harbor seals on a long spit of black sand, rolling and slapping and raising their heads and tails while lying sideways, as if they were gray-speckled croissants. The surf rolled over them without incident. I watched the seals for a while through my binoculars, now blurry impossible to adjust, its moving parts packed with sand. I then drove back toward Davis, navigating blind, until I hit a familiar highway.
The book I newly held in my hand the day before being taken up by the sea is about ephemera, detritus, the forms of communicative media that polar explorers created for their own amusement and in order to document the inner lives of their expeditions. These materials, which I call polar ecomedia, also document the inner life of climate extremity. Polar ecomedia includes comic shipboard newspapers, playbills, and mock-formal menus, printed and passed around by fellow shipmates trapped in the ice of Arctic and Antarctic winters. These bits of expeditionary social media haven’t registered within popular histories of polar exploration in part because of their transitory nature—they are rare, fragmentary, satirical. Polar sailors used them as ways to pass and mark time and entertain themselves. And as I argue in The News at the Ends of the Earth, polar ecomedia also are means to reckon with the ephemerality of human life in climate extremity.
Polar exploration is no joke, whether in the nineteenth century or today. Arctic travel is scarcely more safe now than in Sir John Franklin’s time. I know this, and not just from my research on the new book—an Arctic expedition I’m slated to join in July has been postponed two summers in a row for reasons that echo historic expeditionary challenges. (Last year’s ship ran aground in the Gulf of Boothia; you may have also read the news recently about a Norwegian cruise ship that had to be evacuated in stormy seas.) And the ocean, above all, is no joke—I know this too. How could I have washed out so easily? I thought vaguely that this was a punishment for the luxury of a day all to myself on the coast. Or the inevitable letdown after the rush of seeing my book in print and spending the afternoon with ego-ideal polar women.
My phone is now trash, although I still have the piece of driftwood I picked up in Sonoma, seaside detritus. It was only a few days after a windstorm in central Pennsylvania (where I live) had brought a very large branch down in our backyard. The branch fell perpendicularly to the ground, and the force of its impact drove a six-foot length of wood into the yard, erect as a hurled lightning bolt. My husband wanted to cut it up with the other downed branches for firewood, but I asked him to leave it in place, embedded, as a plinth. Itself storm detritus, the branch lance spared our family, safely inside as it fell.
Not until the next day, writing this, did I realize I had lost my hat to the sea, an orange hat with a whale on it. It was from Channel Islands National Park, where I had traveled last year—for research, alone, to commune with the sea, and to think and write about “female Robinson Crusoes,” women who are castaway.
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