BOOK REVIEW: “Driftwood Forts of the Oregon Coast”  by author James Herman
Review by By Patrick Newson
(Watch out!) The rain washes timber downstream, through the forests and seaward to churn and polish construction material for James Herman’s new book, Driftwood Forts of the Oregon Coast. Within, beach detritus, as a subject and medium, exists as a playfully utilitarian opportunity to showcase years of collective architecture known as forts—those temporary structures people keep building, rebuilding and sharing. Each fort is a unique amalgam of “found” material and intention. But there are rules (guidelines, at least for contests): use what you have; fasten it together naturally; tide and time must have touched the material; work together: all elements Herman has employed not only in the construction of a master ten-year (tenure) fort, but also in the composition of his book.
Like the forts themselves, which flavor the Oregon Coast with a pioneering spirit, the visual field of each page often features several elements abutting each other, supporting each other in a dynamic, malleable, and never-repeated fashion. By wedging photographs, illustrations and poetic musings between informative diagrams, hand-drawn maps, and comedic interjections, Herman secures all the components in a beautifuly porous, multi-functional refuge, “a home and keeper of things. Living and breathing…the great already worn shelter…a hand-me-down homestead.” The book, floating narratively south along the shore from the beaches of Astoria to Florence, documents this collaboration between man and nature under the premise that “the action of taking something already existing and building something new out of it is just as authentic as building from scratch.” With each turn of the page—like the tide—readers encounter a fresh look at the material, which appears in a uniquely haphazard way, replicating the experience of combing the shifting wrack line on the beach in search of something unexpected. The arrangement shows that human hands and natural elements have re-shaped and repurposed the material over time, and that’s kind of the point.
Of course, the book isn’t entirely a folk-art aggregate. Herman’s stated purpose—to provide a travelogue and guidebook regarding ocean-side ephemera—is handily presented in the form of beach-specific chapters and a detailed “how-to” section. From beach to beach, different forts are classified, discussed, and deconstructed (sometimes literally) to illuminate each of the components that go in to this sort of building. A brief personal essay recounts Herman’s own fort construction experience at a South Beach, Oregon site before it was disassembled to be reused for future forts. Finally, all the knowledge is lashed together with a series of illustrated instructions for each type of structure—lean-tos, to rotundas, to burners—all different, all unique, but similar in function and intent: to invite, shelter and protect.
Although rich in literary, architectural, and political history—especially in the praise of Oregon lawmen who worked to preserve the beaches for the public— the jockular nature of several passages somewhat prevents the book from being a critical investigation. Instead, it functions better as an opportunity to draw attention to the subject and invites the reader to engage with it in non-traditional ways. If anything, Driftwood Forts of the Oregon Coast is like the support pole for an A-frame design offering itself up as a good starting point for the addition of more slats and branches. Herman encourages (and instructs) his readers to build on what he has created: the idea that each of us can be an integral and formative part of the art we encounter each day.
Driftwood Forts of the Oregon Coast, by James Herman. 2014 Nestucca Spit Press. 180-pages paperback.
Catch the author’s tour date…
July 12 Siuslaw Public Library Florence, OR 1:00pm
July 15th Powell’s Books (Downtown) Portland, OR 7:30pm
July 17th Seaside Public Library Seaside, OR 7:00pm
July 19th Connie Hansen Garden Lincoln City, OR 7:00pm
July 22nd-30th Maker Faire, Detroit, MI
Aug 2nd 1st Annual Driftwood Fort Festival The Coast, all day