Book review: ‘Saved by the Sea,’ by David Helvarg
Special to the Daily
Most people’s first encounter with the ocean is a memorably visceral one. Often, it is the sound of the waves, pulsing and thrashing against the shore, in a rhythm akin to the beating of a heart. For some, it is the briny smell, the unmistakable odor of the primordial soup of life that lingers and folds itself into the subconscious. Perhaps, for others, it is the beckoning horizon, the unmoving line of seemingly infinite possibilities. For author and activist David Helvarg, it was all this and much more.
In his recent book, “Saved by the Sea: Hope, Heartbreak and Wonder in the Blue World,” Helvarg reveals, in an achingly personal telling, his lifelong love affair with the ocean and all the wondrous life it holds. And though currently he is the founder and executive director of Blue Frontier Campaign, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the planet’s oceans, and therefore deeply involved in the nuts and bolts of the watery world, he has long been mesmerized by the sea and all its tempting beauty and hazards, though his career meandered far afield and far inland, into war zones and political landscapes.
He is a self-proclaimed ocean addict, having evolved into a fiercely passionate advocate for what he considers an underrepresented part of the Earth when it comes to conservation. Calling the planet “God’s blue marble” instead of “God’s green earth,” Helvarg says it is harder to be moved to protect what can’t be easily seen, and much of the ocean’s threatened inhabitants dwell far beyond the sight of policy makers and environmental crusaders, deep beneath the waves and far away from the shores.
But, he writes that what happens along those shores has a profound impact on the creatures of the sea and the water that provides them with a home. This, in turn, is having an increasingly measurable influence on the livelihoods of people who depend upon the ocean for survival. And he reminds us that, ultimately, all life on Earth is deeply reliant on the health and constitution of the world’s oceans, in general, from their crucial roles in the water cycle that generates the weather around the world, to the profound impact of ice melt in the polar regions and the potential for increased methane levels in the atmosphere as a result.
His own upbringing, buoyed by a teacher who instilled in her students an understanding of the value of the seascape just behind the school, gave him an early respect and a love for the sea. The swampy wetlands along Long Island became his playground, and it was there that he grew up around what he classifies as the two sorts of water people, the “Club” kids and the “Dock” kids, and he was happy to be a part of the second group, for he feels the free and often dangerous hours he enjoyed along the water as a youth were crucial to the shaping of his love for nature. The “Club” kids, he felt, suffered — as they do today as another entire generation, growing up with “nature-deficit disorder,” removed as they are from the messy and smelly parts of the sea.
Coming of age in the turbulent 1960s, Helvarg was deeply moved by a sense of urgency to right society’s wrongs. Being an avid reader, he discovered marine biologist Rachel Carson’s legendary environmental treatise “Silent Spring,” which spawned environmentalism as a lasting movement into the 21st century. And though Helvarg originally centered his activism on the Vietnam War, he ended up in San Diego, where he became deeply enamored of the ocean and as outspoken about its survival as he was about the war.
With life rolling along, he found himself stepping out of the role of political activist and into the role of “truth-teller,” gaining work as a war reporter that took him all over the world. It was in this capacity that he segued to environmental activism, and it was his own personal love of the sea that fine-tuned his focus.
“Saved By The Sea” is much more than a plea to become an active participant in determining the health of the oceans. Helvarg seems compelled to reveal as much about his own love affair with the sea and even more so with how those motivations led him along his own life’s journey of love, loss and heart ache. He writes with a tender vulnerability that is deeply moving, and the reader can’t help but experience some of that love that Helvarg expounds upon so earnestly.
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