Today we traveled from the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB) in Charleston, Oregon to the nearby sand dunes. The Oregon dunes cover about 40 square miles and stretch along the Oregon coastline between Florence and Coos Bay. The sand dunes seem to roll away in every direction, with groupings of shore pine trees and tufts of beach grass everywhere. The dunes themselves can reach up to 500 feet in height. While we were there it was very windy and the sand was blowing. It almost felt like you were being sand blasted at times. We used sand boards to slide down the sand faces just like snowboarding.
I was very excited to go on this field trip from the first time I heard that we might be going because I love the Dune books by Frank Herbert. You might wonder why the dunes in Oregon would have any connection to my favorite book. Half a century ago, these dunes bore a more menacing aspect, as the sand encroached within feet of railroads and highway as well as destroyed forests, vegetation, and even threatened local water supplies.
In 1957, Frank Herbert, a Seattle journalist, learned about an attempt to stop the movement of these dunes. The United States Federal government planned to plant 300 acres of European beach grass near the Siuslaw River and Herbert immediately chartered a plane to go and see the dunes for himself. These seemingly unstoppable dunes inspired Herbert to imagine a faraway planet, consumed entirely by sand, with the effect of an overpowering barren land. A newcomer to the dunes might think that nothing could live or grow here, and that it was a true wasteland that was not fertile and never would be. That is not true. Many types of plants and animals live in and around the dunes. It is a special place that offers a different type of environment. We were making a lot of noise and having a lot of fun on the sand but many different types of birds were still flying around the dunes.
Today, the landscape that inspired Herbert’s sci-fi classic is in danger. The shallow root system of that European beach grass that was planted is a nonnative species common in coastlines of Europe and Africa. It did more than just stabilize the sand. It transformed the landscape and created natural barriers and, in the process, caused the decline of a number of native beach and dune species. Plans have been ongoing and are being newly implemented to try and migrate the effects of the European beach grass invasion. Its seem a little like Pandora’s box. It was easy to plant the grass but once planted it’s a lot harder to get rid of it.
I met Brian Herbert Frank Herbert’s son several years ago in San Francisco. He said of his father that, “My father emphasized a world view of living in harmony with nature,” and the dunes of Oregon started “him thinking more about man’s involvement in that relationship.” For Frank Herbert his trip to Oregon lead to new ideas, worlds, and opportunities. For us we have seen our world on land and at sea in a new way. Thank you, Dr. Lord and Moravian, for this amazing journey from the macro to the micro and back again.