A Brief Book Review: The Voyage of the Sanderling: Exploring the Ecology of the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Rio by Roger D. Stone

In my infinite quest to find books about travel and sailboats void of the fetishization of colonialism, imperialism, or eurocentrism, I dove deep into this novel which I purchased in a quaint bookstore called Westsider Books in the Upper Westside of New York City. While Stone, who recently passed away this year, makes some good structural points and undeniably valuable ecological observations, he does lack in my opinion in contextualizing a lot of the issues he observes on a broader global-capitalist scale. For example, he speaks of the damage done in ecosystems from Reagan-era policies, laissez-faire based systems, and post-colonial ruins, but doesn’t link those issues to the larger image he observes. While on a personal level, the time spent looking at my two favorite spots Mount Desert Island (specifically Swan’s Island) and Tarpaulin Cove outside of Woods Hole MA was exciting and just the specifics I was looking for in a book like this— it was also technically fallacious. Being able to dive deep into the spatial geographies that only a sailing boat can encounter deep in the Caribbean provided me with a more specific understanding of the layout of the Caribbean than I’ve ever read about before. Yet where Stone fails is where he stops. He speaks of the legacies of colonialism and then ends his sentence. He summarizes the struggles locals are going through on specific islands and then stops his sentence once again. Or even worse, assigns it to some moral failing or temptation that must therefore make their failures their responsibility. While he possesses the framework to link the detailed observations he makes of the ecology and people he experiences with the violent legacy of a history of colonialism, he rarely draws them together. And while the idea that he was exploring Columbus’s first landing point might have merely been a geographical excuse to explore certain islands, marinas, and coves, he never educates his reader on Columbus’s true legacy. While I can assume that he knows the true violence, as writers, we must spend as much time engaging with our own personal interests in texts as educating our readers on the true historicity of spaces. 

I was really interested in the observations he made about local-based and driven protective initiatives and how he oftentimes found them to be more practical and successful than ones pushed forward by the government. But once again, he mostly stopped at that conclusion and didn’t continue to develop a theory onto why that crowdsourcing and mutual aid was successful. It could have been a great conversation on the need for governmental regulations on environmental protects… that in places that lacked governmental structure or infrastructure local communities have proven enormous value in creating informal self-guiding regulations… that these are practices we as white Westerners can learn from those that we have marginalized and that we look down upon… But he didn’t. He made assumptions on people in Haiti saying that if they could just resist Western influences they would succeed, rather than questioning the enormity of the Western influences themselves on individuals already marginalized by centuries of exploitation. Little racist slip-ups definitely dated this book but I truly tried to read past them because a lot of his ecological observations were fascinating to someone who knows less about that topic. Yet we can’t deny his presence as a white man intersecting himself into ecologies that have existed for thousands of years. How could his opinion of a couple of days ever match up to their embedded roots I wonder? Even when he referenced local experts he not once mentioned interaction with an indigenous person who might have an educated rooted in the knowledge of his ancestors rather than a Western educational degree. This perpetuated a sterilized narrative that scientists, especially those that observe communities that are not their own, continue to produce. 

In defense of Stone, he did make some good criticisms especially after his trip to Cuba when he wrote,

“If the United States can trade and exchange tourist with all sorts of Communist nations that are our deadly political enemies I wondered, why should it be that difficult for us to communicate with the Cubans on a basic people-to-people level? Surely we have more in common that the ivory-billed woodpecker, a large North American species long thought to have gone extinct but recently rediscovered in a remote corner of Cuba and of great interest to U.S. ornithologists”

(153).

Obviously, I don’t believe any Communist nations should be our “deadly political enemies” and that if we are to be enemies with anyone it should be countries that violate human rights like Israel or Saudia Arabia with which we have immense relationships. But that was a great passage where he linked culture and ecology— a thing I wish he continued in all of his observations. 

This book would have been truly valuable if it had been an orthography or written scientifically organized observations on the ecology of the Atlantic Coast from those that know it best: the local indigenous communities. Of course, he could have included his own observations but by not including indigenous narratives that would not only reveal the effect of colonialism on the environment but on the people existing in the environment, his accounts were inevitably inaccurate. Ultimately, stories like his will always fail unless they fight back against that white-savior, eurocentric, sterilized, colonizing trend of “adventure-tales.” While I picked up this book to read about a great sailing journey which I always love, and, the geographies of the Atlantic Coast that fascinate me to no end— I was frankly let down by Stone’s inability to address his own whiteness. This story wasn’t really Stone’s to tell. In my opinion, he should have used his privilege and his sailboat to record the stories observed by those who actually know the areas. That certainly would be a book worth reading. 

Pictured: book cover (only one image included because of lack of clear images available)

Published by ellakotsen

student at Bryn Mawr College

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