George Reiger, an editor at Field & Stream magazine, had a first-rate idea for a book: a portrait in words of "the 28,673 miles of Atlantic shoreline" that would be both a description of its ecology and a personal memoir. As he writes in his preface:
"While 'Wanderer on My Native Shore' is a guide of sorts, it is something less in order that it may be something more. It is about marine ecosystems, but it is also about people, since we are now the dominant ingredient in every marine ecosystem. I want the reader to wonder about what man has wrought as well as to be able to identify many of the sea and coastal plants and animals with which we associate. Since 'Wanderer on My Native Shore' is designed for reading rather than a dusty slot on a reference shelf, I have kept statistics, footnotes and bibliography to a minimum without, I hope, sacrificing anything in the way of clarity or accuracy."
It is an exceptionally appealing idea, and an exceptionally difficult one to pull off. In order for a portrait such as this to succeed, its author must provide a narrative thread that gives the reader the illusion of accompanying him on a journey; he must make the reader understand and see the changing environment as that journey progresses; he must have the ability to describe unfamiliar flora and fauna in ways that the lay reader can understand; and he must write prose sufficiently attractive and literate to make the journey pleasing.
Unfortunately, the most that can be said for "Wanderer on My Native Shore" is that its intentions are good; the depth of Reiger's love for the seashore and the sincerity of his concern for its future are appealing. But the book has no narrative movement at all, it conveys precious little feeling for the various places it describes, and its prose is utterly without grace. It's a book that I came to with genuine interest and eagerness, having considerable personal knowledge of and affection for many of the places it depicts; yet within only a few pages I realized that getting to the end would be a job of work.
There are some things that Reiger does reasonably well. He has accumulated a great deal of information, much of it interesting and surprising: That "the entire northeastern coast . . . stood roughly a mile higher a million years ago," for example, or that "during the past century, an average of 450 acres of land per year have disappeared beneath the waters of the Chesapeake." He does the required business on flora and fauna with clarity; his descriptions of southern New England's bald-faced hornet and greenhead fly are particularly sharp, and he writes about whales with none of the sentimentality currently fashionable in environmental circles. He has a sophisticated appreciation of the relationship between man and nature:
"The concern is not that man alters the environment. After all, nature does that continually. But while nature always acts within the logic of its own imperatives, man simply doesn't know very much about what he is doing. He thinks he is dredging a marina or creating landfill for a housing development, but he invariably does the littoral equivalent of opening Pandora's box. Because man is a single-minded animal absorbed by immediate pleasures and profits, he rarely considers the dozens of chain-related consequences generated by even a single morning's work."
But in its misuse of "continually" (it is evident that Reiger means "continuously") that passage is all too typical of the imprecise and at times ungrammatical prose in "Wanderer on My Native Shore." Reiger misuses "presently" and "hopefully." He's guilty of the occasional howler, my own favorite being his description of how a single "falconlike seabird will swarm down." Singulars and plurals buffalo him over and again: "The waste products . . . is flushed," "none have yet," "Foremost among these was a railway builder and a bevy of satellite real-estate promoters." The text is absolutely riddled with gratuitous exclamation points ("These animals are fortunate to live solitary existences in offshore waters. They are delicious to eat!") that suggest nothing so much as a teen-aged girl confiding breathlessly to her diary.
In his acknowledgements Reiger generously and graciously thanks his editor; but as these and too many other examples indicate, there is not much evidence that the manuscript of "Wanderer on My Native Shore" ever made the acquaintance of an editor's pen.