Popular Science Monthly/Volume 42/December 1892/To Tie a Rope of Sand



MORE than twenty years ago I was one of a great company of children who labored with wooden spade and pail on the beach at Long Branch. Never a corps of sappers and miners worked more industriously or more vainly. A mighty force, unhindered, or rather strengthened, by night and storm and winter, worked behind us, not merely leveling at a touch our tiny forts and mounds and trenches, but laughing at the utmost power and skill of wiser heads and stronger hands. Like Old Age, in the Norse fable, so persistent, so resistless, advances that mighty engineer, whose molding shaped our continent.

Is continent-making at an end? Did you think, O builder of hotel and cottage and esplanade, that Old Ocean had surrendered, and was under bonds not to invade the strip of white sand which borders man's territory?

When I plied my tiny spade in the Long Branch sands, a broad beach stretched below the bluff, while, above, a generous strip, mantled with beach grass, extended to the wide drive. To-day the drive is only broad enough for the easy passage of two vehicles, on the very verge of a ragged bluff. Along the top of this bluff runs a railing, originally intended to define a footpath now ruined by the breaking of the bluff. It is not now possible for any but an athlete to walk outside the rail from one end of the beach to the other.

This is merely one sample of the New Jersey beaches. All are "cut up" by every storm. Year by year the danger to property from extensive floods is increasingly apprehended. In September, 1889, the sea overran almost the entire coast of New Jersey, causing great destruction of property and some peril to life. A few landholders have at last reached the point of thinking that "something ought to be done."

In several European countries the danger from incursions of the sea has long been the theme of history and song; and with this is joined the menace from the sand dunes which, forming in many places the vanguard of ocean's forces, may by man's industry be converted into the guardians and ramparts of the coast.

In Germany, Denmark, Holland, France, and parts of Great Britain those stories of drowned cities, of convents and churches whose bells the waves are said to toll in time of storm, are not the fairy tales they seem to us, but solid history, or at worst credible tradition, the framework of poetry and unending romance, Heine sings:

"In bright moon-glances rests the sea,

The waves' soft murmur falling;
So heavy is my heart in me,
The ancient bard recalling—

"The ancient bard who sadly tells
Of cities lost in ocean,
Where sound of prayers and peal of bells
Rise through the waves' commotion.

"The ringing and the prayers, I wis,
Avail the cities never;
For that which once deep-buried is,

Returns no more forever."

Lovers of Hans Christian Andersen will recall a pathetic tale of Jutland, ending in an ancient church submerged by whirling sand from the dunes on the shore of the Baltic. This was no poetic invention. "Near the beginning of the last century the dunes, which had protected the western coast of the island of Sylt, began to roll to the east, and the sea followed closely as they retired. In 1757 the church of Rantum, a village upon that island, was . . . taken down in consequence of the advance of the sandhills; in 1791 these hills had passed beyond its site, the waves had swallowed up its foundations, and the sea gained so rapidly that, fifty years later, the spot where they lay was seven hundred feet from the shore."

"The most prominent geological landmark on the coast of Holland is the Huis te Britten, Arx Britannica, a fortress built by the Romans, in the time of Caligula, on the mainland, near the mouth of the Rhine. At the close of the seventeenth century the sea had advanced sixteen hundred paces beyond it."—Marsh, The Earth as Modified by Man's Action.

"At Agger, near the end of the Liimfjord, in Jutland, the coast was washed away, between the years 1815 and 1839, at the rate of more than eighteen feet a year. . . . The sea is encroaching generally upon the whole line of the coast."—Ibid.

Facts like these have driven the Governments of Denmark, Prussia, Holland, and France to a careful consideration and study of the subject; and in all these countries a system of coast improvement has been adopted. This system does not imply a conflict with Nature, but rather a return to her earlier plan.

The sand-hills on the Prussian coast, up to the middle of the last century, were wooded to the water's edge. Old geographers, writing of the Netherlands, mention vast forests reaching to the sea. Of the fate of a Prussian forest we have the following record:

"A great pine forest bound with its roots the dune sand and the heath uninterruptedly from Dantzic to Pillau. King Frederick William I was once in want of money. A certain Herr von Korff promised to procure it for him if he could be allowed to remove something quite useless. He thinned out the forests of Prussia, which then, indeed, possessed little pecuniary value; but he felled the entire woods of the Frische Nehrung, so far as they lay within the Prussian territory. The financial operation was a success. The king had money; but, in the material effects which resulted from it, the state received irreparable injury. The sea winds rush over the bared hills; the Frische Haff is half choked with sand; the channel between Elbing, the sea, and Konigsberg is endangered, and the fisheries in the Haff injured. The operation of Herr von Korff brought the King 200,000 thalers. The state would now willingly expend millions to restore the forests."—Das Buch der Pflanzenwelt.

It is estimated that about one million acres on the Atlantic and Baltic shores of Europe have become, since the destruction of the forests, a moving desert of sand dunes, rolling inland, burying the fertile soil, and rendering the land barren by the sand showers sprinkled over it; while, following the landward roll of the dunes, came the resistless march of the victorious sea.

The endeavor, then, of these threatened countries has been to regain, by slow degrees, the protection of the forests so rashly destroyed. First, a breakwater or dike is constructed—occasionally a mere plank fence—against which the sand from the beach soon forms long rows of dunes. These sand-hills, usually the enemies of the land, being thus hindered from drifting inland, are impressed into the service of the land, and become its coast-guard against the invading waves. The second step is to plant them with beach grass, or some other sand-loving plant, to bind the sand together, and, by the succession of growth and decay, finally to form a soil.

"We are accustomed to regard sand as utterly barren, but the plants native to the coast sands of Prussia have been enumerated by naturalists, whose estimates vary from 171 to 231 varieties. Of these one of the most available is the Arundo arenaria (marram), which thrives only in sand and in the salt air of the beach. This in time serves to prepare the soil for larger plants.

In France 100,000 acres of dunes have been reclaimed by planting. In that country the maritime pine (Pinus maritima) has been planted with great success. It does not, however, thrive close to the sea. The ailantus, a tree common enough in our land, and certainly sufficiently tenacious of life in our streets and fields, is a sand-loving tree. I have seen an abandoned cellar choked with healthy ailantus trees, and have known them to spring up from the root after being cut down and rubbed with salt! It is probable, then, that if it will grow on the beach it will hold its own against the ocean or any other enemy.

Finally, forests, and even vineyards and pastures, cover the space once resigned to the barren sand. "Every seed that sprouts binds together a certain amount of sand by its roots, shades a little ground with its leaves, and furnishes food and shelter for still younger or smaller growths. A succession of a very few favorable seasons suffices to bind the whole surface together with a vegetable network, and the power of resistance possessed by the dunes themselves, and the protection they afford to the fields behind them, are just in proportion to the abundance and density of the plants they support."—Marsh.

To return to our own country: It is said that the dunes of Michigan thirty years ago were clothed with trees, where now the sands are constantly shifting, and the lake beach changing with the action of wave and wind, while the lake level grows lower year by year. The sands of Cape Cod were formerly covered with beach grass, whortleberry bushes, and a peculiar species of dwarf oak. Dr. Dwight, in his Travels, speaking of a beach in Massachusetts, says:

"Within the memory of my informant the sea broke over the beach which connects Truro with Provincetown, and swept the body of it away for some distance. The beach grass was immediately planted on the spot, in consequence of which the beach was again raised to a sufficient height, and in various places into hills."

At Sea Girt, N. J., there is a strip of beach covered with cedar bushes. These have raised a natural dike. The sand, blown up the beach, is caught by the bushes and arrested, forming a long irregular bank of considerable height. The hollows behind this bank, protected from the surf, from the sea-breeze, and from destructive sand showers, could readily be reclaimed, fertilized, and made productive. For some years clover has been planted just above another part of the beach, and has produced a heavy crop. Those who, not many years ago, first beheld with wonder beautiful rose bushes and honeysuckle vines springing from the sands at Ocean Grove, will think little of the difficulty of covering these sands with vegetation sufficiently strong to withstand the inroads of the encroaching sea.

Thus, as the slight chain forged by the swart elves securely bound the savage wolf Fenrir, so may his brother, Jörmungund, the great ocean monster, be bound by a rope of sand.