In the early summer of 1957, Frank Herbert, age 36, took a plane to Florence, Oregon. He had sold a handful of science fiction and adventure stories and now aimed to report on the expansive and unique dunes in the area. He sent a proposal to his agent called “They Stopped the Moving Sands.” Throughout the 50s, the US Department of Agriculture implemented a new technique that would keep the dunes from drifting into the coastal town. Herbert’s proposal cast the issue of dune control as a titanic conflict, a “fight that men have been waging since before the dawn of recorded history.” The dunes colonized all in their path, moving, he wrote, “like ocean waves—except that they move as little as twenty feet a year instead of twenty feet a second.” Waves of sand swallowed “whole cities, lakes, rivers, highways.” The theaters of war included Samar in the Philippines, Peru and Chile, Egypt and Israel.
Dunes are works of kinetic art, marshaled by nothing more than the wind, a rival species that has mastered time and now competes for space. Our lifetime is nothing to that of a dune.
The agent replied that the proposed article was “fairly limited in appeal.”
Herbert never wrote that piece, but at least he was able to work the material into a novel. A common remark about Dune is that it was a response to changes in the country’s environmental consciousness. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published a year before Herbert’s book. “Human individuals are treated as ecological tools [in Dune],” he wrote to his agent in 1963, “so what this adds up to is that we’re looking at science in a different way.”
Dunes sustain a complex web of organisms. The ecologist William S. Cooper described the same dune control project in a monograph for the Geological Society in 1958. The strategy started with the planting of grass, which was “merely the first step in the process. It is followed by the planting of other grasses and herbs, then of shrubs, and finally trees, both native and introduced.” The planted ecosystem was meant to mimic a natural dune forest, with layers of vegetation structurally reinforcing each other, holding the sand pile in place.
These two outlooks on the natural world, command and control and ecological complexity, work well together. The Oregon sand dunes started in the Canadian Rockies, roughly six thousand years ago. The rocks from this range were pulverized into sand and washed out by the Columbia. The ocean dredged the sand up in its currents and tides, and the wind blew the sand back toward the coastal forests of the northwest, where it settled into modest hillocks, into little valleys around the tall grass (which turn to quicksand in the winter), into the classic dune figures with their graceful slopes and snaking ridges. Oregon has the best dune diversity on the west coast.
Over thousands of years, the sand buried the trees. These piles were ornaments to the landscape—the settlers thought as much because they weren’t good for anything else. After the Indigenous people were displaced, the hills further inland were stripped bare of timber and scorched bald by fires. But no one touched the trees that grew on the dunes, being low in quality and inconveniently placed. Yes, even Oregon’s sand dunes can bear forest.
If the dunes were counted out of providence by the first settlers, the Romantics who came afterward could have drawn stanchions around them and sold paintings to celebrate their purity, as they did for anything that was beyond conquest. It may feel wholesome to celebrate unspoiled wilderness like that but all it really does it swap out one form of consumption for another. If the Romantics could have taken acid on the beach we might have dunes and their forest crowns as the image of the sublime rather than craggy mountains and churning oceans.
My favorite is a 200-foot crested dune in Cape Kiwanda, Oregon, a beach that is otherwise not too astonishing. From a spit of rock, where the dune has made its home, it runs southward in a gentle concave. The sand is too hot, the sea too cold. Rivaling the dune is Haystack Rock, a sea stack far enough away to appear under a hint of blue haze. Such geological wonderment is a bonus for a coastline already celebrated for being entirely public and for distinguishing Oregon from Idaho.
One hot autumn day in 2012, I looked at you looking at the dune; it was crying to be hiked. People trickled up its slope in thin lines, like iron filings laced around a lodestone. We started out for it, walking by several dead seagulls, messy piles of bones, beaks, and feathers, salt-stained to yellow.
Our feet sank with every step while kids flew down past us on boogie boards. You didn’t have as much stamina then, but you were trucking on. My kneecaps were swimming in lactic acid. By the time we got halfway you had taken off your green flip-flops. You were a perennial flip-flop wearer; even in the fall and winter rains they took you through campus puddles, and your bare feet were always the first to dry.
Then we crawled over a headland of mudstone. The air got noticeably cooler. A surfing contest was underway and the announcer’s voice on the PA rang out with a new purity. We had made it.
I stole away into the dune forest while you picked out a cozy spot in the shade. The shrubs and grass felt cold and rubbery where I stood to piss. The sand darkened from yellow to brown, and the warmth it absorbed sank lower among the grass roots. You got us a perfect view of the whole cape. Haystack Rock was a black protrusion from a deep blue bowl. You had your tote bag in your lap, kept free of any sand. We watched people surfing, flying kites, going about their lives. Beauty is a notion handed down to us, but no feeling felt more personal than this one. While I got out the weed you brought, you told me about the essay by Alfredo M. Bonanno you’d been reading. You let me load your small glass pipe because you trusted me to measure out the pot more moderately. We sat quietly and shared the toke, your head on my shoulder, the Pacific giving off shimmering light.
Then I heard three words in my mind. This won’t last. Every moment is haunted by the knowledge of its disappearance. I clasped the parched hands of my grandmother whenever I visited, dimly aware that the final one would come, and indeed it did. And this moment has already disappeared. The dunes and the shore will disappear. Peoples and cultures stand to disappear as the sea level continues to rise. We can make a dozen species disappear every day.
So why did it seem as if the next day would unfold just like the last one in obliterating sameness? The coal will keep burning, the winds will keep blowing. If we, in our advanced world, were all responsible together, it was like saying none of us was responsible separately. No ruptures, no revolutions. If and when the new order of things would make its appearance, I didn’t know if I could face it, could move past what felt wrong and ossified, yet also like home. This won’t last—but that’s what people have been saying for generations.
Maybe I was working too hard on it, and that was why I walked away from the activist game, after the police moved in and the city park was cleared of tents. A thought isn’t a dune, big as I can imagine, glacially covering the world. It could be the sand flowing down the slope in sheets or streams or little drops, or a single grain, picked up by the wind, landing in my molars.
You were next to me and you were also approaching the curved horizon of the sea, about to vanish. I thought I felt stunted because I didn’t want to leave that place, but that was where I should have started—there, toes in the sand, poised before the fall.
Frank Herbert, Brian Herbert, and Kevin J. Anderson. The Road to Dune. New York, 2005.
William S. Cooper. Coastal Sand Dunes of Oregon and Washington. Boulder, reprinted 1966.