"Prehistory," says beachcomber and journalist Bonnie Henderson in her introduction to Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris, "is written in refuse." And so are the habits of contemporary humankind, along with all the animals that share our environment. For Henderson, who spent several years regularly walking mile 157 of the Oregon coast as a member of CoastWatch, the detritus that washes up onto shore -- a dead bird, an old shoe, a glass float -- is an excuse to play archaeologist and storyteller, to uncover the history of a specific piece of trash and in the process string together a series of vignettes about the Pacific Ocean and our relationship to it.
Henderson's concept is interesting and her writing is quite good, but her overall technique -- the loosely connected vignettes -- never managed to rivet my attention, as much as I wanted it to. Strand approaches being memorable, being a book to which you might compare others, but never quite arrives at the moment of revelation -- or whatever you might want to call the feeling that a really great work of non-fiction can bring on.
There are, however, some astounding moments. For instance, with the help of a serial number, a series of phone calls to Nike and a group of scientists who specialize in studying ocean drift, Henderson traces the multi-year journey of a Nike athletic shoe (the Havoc) from its birthplace in a Chinese factory to its place in the sand of the Oregon coast. In the process, she provides food for thought on topics such as container-shipping, typhoons, and the floating, twice-the-size-of-Texas trash pile known as the Eastern Garbage Patch. The same chapter also contains the incredibly cinematic image of 29,000 bathtub float toys that wind up "lost" at sea for 11 years: the duckies and froggies eventually hit the coasts of Iceland, Scotland and other North Atlantic countries, but only after they spend 5 years slogging through the frozen Arctic.
On her website, Henderson mentions John McPhee as an influence, and I can hear echoes of his narrative voice throughout Strand, not to mention the fact that Henderson has adopted his technique of shadowing experts in whatever field she investigates. What Strand lacks is an attention to pacing, as well as the strong character-building that much of literary non-fiction (particularly McPhee) depends on. That being said, Strand is well-written and thoughtful enough that I'll keep an eye out for whatever Henderson does next.