Excerpted from “California Against the Sea: Visions for Our Vanishing Coastline” (available Sept. 26, 2023) by Rosanna Xia. Reprinted in the Los Angeles Times with permission from Heyday Books, © 2023.
The sea has long inspired a human attraction, perhaps even a compulsion, to be as close to the edge as possible. Its sheer power captivates us, even on its most turbulent days, and we can’t help but dream of calling the shore our own. To be out by the surf, to sense the very limits of where land can go, to feel the rise and fall of each wave like our own breath is to reckon with a force so alive it feels otherworldly. But the ocean is not “out there” beyond the shore, it is upon us, carving away at the coast each day despite our best efforts to keep the water at bay. We thought that with enough ingenuity we could contain the sea, but the rising tide is proving otherwise.
Studying this confluence of land, people and sea has kept Gary Griggs busy for much of his life. Seventy-six years old, with a shock of white hair and a long stride, Griggs has spent decades examining every inch of the California coast. An oceanographer, coastal geologist and longtime professor at UC Santa Cruz, he has a way of explaining erosion with the excitement of someone who’s seeing everything for the first time. The coast is always, has always been, changing, he likes to say. Every high and low tide brings new surprises.
On a quiet foggy morning in early March 2020, the tide was going out when Griggs set off for a stroll in Capitola. Reminiscent of an idyllic village on the Mediterranean, with pops of vintage California, this colorful little beach town on the northeast shore of Monterey Bay amuses him every time he swings by. The buildings and shingled cottages are bright pastel, the waterfront dotted with cafes and patio umbrellas. Palm trees and art galleries line the streets downtown, where tourists stop for trinkets and ice cream. On an old wooden wharf that juts 800-some feet into the water, kayakers can step from a tiny dock and paddle out to sea.
Griggs made his way to a set of townhouses that had been planted right on the sand, reportedly one of the first condominium complexes to have been built on the coast. Purple, pink and teal, with whimsical rococo plasterwork, the Venetian Court homes are an indelible snapshot of 1920s California. Steps from the wharf, they serve mostly as private vacation rentals today. A low concrete seawall — so low you could sit on it — is all that holds back the sea…
Image at Top: Partial Pier Failure at Concrete Ship © 2023 Kim Steinhardt
“Just as the coast defines the liminal world between land and sea, so too does Rosanna Xia’s remarkable book exist in the overlap between development and erosion, between geological forces and human desire, between our ambitious past and our tenuous future. It’s viscerally urgent, thoroughly reported, and compellingly written—a must-read for our uncertain times.”
– Ed Yong, author of An Immense World
“In the midst of the climate crisis, can the people of California treat the rising Pacific Ocean as something other than an adversary? In California Against the Sea, Rosanna Xia argues persuasively that such a transformation is not only possible but already underway, inspired by lessons from deep history and the recent past. Rigorously reported and beautifully written, this book is a crucial guide to the future.”
– Michelle Nijhuis, author of Beloved Beasts: Fighting for Life in an Age of Extinction
“Fans of Xia’s work for the L.A. Times will recognize her virtuosic blend of propulsive boots-on-the-ground storytelling, explanatory reporting, and genuine curiosity and love for place. A profound and timely exploration of humanity’s various and shifting relationships to coastlines and the forces that shape them by one of the great environmental reporters working today.”
– Lisa Wells, author of Believers: Making a Life at the End of the World
Also read an earlier comprehensive article by Rosanna Xi that is a precursor of the book:
“The California coast is disappearing under the rising sea. Our choices are grim”