John Gillis is known in our part of the world as a Gotts Islander, one of the year-round island communities that went extinct during the early part of the 20th century. But to many others in the rest of the world, Gillis is known for his tireless efforts to focus the academic community’s attention on a new category of environmental history, which might be called Blue History, the study of our oceans and shores.
Gillis’ new book, The Human Shore, is stunning in its reach and sweep of history, geography, anthropology and archeology. His thinking and his ability to make connections across vast bodies of knowledge is inherently ecological. As an islander, he knows in his bones that all things are connected.
Gillis’ thesis is simple—for the past 160,000 years, humans have evolved in close proximity to littoral, or shore-side habitats. Ecologically speaking, we are a littoral species. But Western civilization has mostly ignored our saltier roots, preferring instead to treat the rise of agriculture as the pinnacle of pre-industrial life.
Gillis, however, proposes that it is our pre-history of fishing, shell fishing and game keeping at the shore and strand that enabled our leap into plant and animal domestication.
The Biblical Garden of Eden, our Western creation myth, helped implant the idea that agriculture is what has been the basis of our civilizational success, rather than maritime exploration and commercial trading, which he suggests is why and how people populated six of the seven continents of the world over a few tens of thousands of years before agriculture even appeared.
But it is Gillis’ recap of the history of the world’s shorelines during the past century that provides his most arresting observations. As development patterns shifted from maritime and commercial to agricultural and industrial enterprises, he writes, one western society after another turned its back on its coasts. Coastal towns fell into long periods of neglect. They became run down, unsafe; the haunts of drunks, pimps, prostitutes, thieves and worse.
Then when we began rediscovering our waterfronts, we imposed terrestrial, Cartesian mindsets on what had been ever-shifting boundaries between land and sea.
Worse yet, we chose to view the landscapes—or seascapes—as a blank screen on which to project our romantic yearnings. As civilization encroached on lands around the world, writes Gillis, the pristine had no place to go but to sea. In late 19th century the sea became the prime locus for danger and adventure, the ultimate rite of passage for inland boys to affirm their manhood, a la Captains Courageous and all that.
We built structures along our shores and beaches—to keep nature at bay, an interesting turn of phrase. The Atlantic City boardwalk, Gillis tells us, was originally built to keep beach sand and wrack out of hotel lobbies, but it also became a safe place to look out to sea and back, reassuringly to shore—to see and be seen, above the riff-raff on the beach.
Then as beach culture became mass culture, after World War II, beaches became more democratized—and who can forget the Drifters, an East Coast R&B group, singing about summer idylls “Under the Boardwalk”?
We use beaches to stop time. Suspended between past and future, beaches are the world’s favorite place to do nothing. Gillis quotes the German novelist Witgold Sebold, who writes about beach bathers as those who “just want to be in a place where they have the world behind them, and before them nothing but emptiness.” Earlier romantics, Gillis reminds us, had preferred the rocky shore as a fearsome place to experience the sublime, but today we seek gently sloping beaches protected by shark nets and lifeguards, where clean white sand is brought in by the truck-load.
These are places where one turns one’s back on the world and on history itself. As landscapes become consumer experiences to consume, they are no longer places with a history and meaning.
In Gillis’ mind, our new waterfronts are, excuse the phrase, watered-down imitations of real places. Gillis recounts the horrifying example of those fishing villages in Scotland on a “fisheries heritage trail,” where commercial fishing no longer exists. Coastal tourism planners chose them precisely because fishing is absent. These planners suggest, “the maritime landscape is attractive only in the past or at a distance”¦for its grittiness is inconvenient for middle class consumption.”
Hopefully, Maine’s fishing villages, along our still working waterfronts, can escape the dull homogenization of so many other waterfronts around the world, where the shorelines have been barricaded, armored and de-natured and where experienced is manufactured like a ride at a theme park, where beach sand is carefully manicured to create the impression of timelessness and the whole environment becomes one giant illusion.
Like Jonah, Gillis has been swallowed by the whale and returned to warn us what our future looks like if we don’t come to our senses.