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A visit to the dunes that inspired Frank Herbert's 'Dune'

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Over a hundred years ago, giant sand dunes threatened to overwhelm parts of Florence, Ore. These dunes snake along the coast for over 50 miles, and some are taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza. And that sand moved. It buried roads, even houses. When writer Frank Herbert saw the dunes in 1957, he was inspired by the awesome power of the sand. A few years later, he published his science fiction novel "Dune."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DUNE")

ZENDAYA: (As Chani) My planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low. Rolling over the sands, you can see spice in the air.

DETROW: Denis Villeneuve's latest adaptation of the book came out earlier this year, earning nearly $180 million in its first weekend at the box office. As for the dunes which inspired the book, well, today they're disappearing. For NHPR's podcast, Outside/In, Justine Paradis follows in Frank Herbert's footsteps to meet the people trying to save the Oregon dunes.

JUSTINE PARADIS, BYLINE: When I started reporting the story, it felt like everyone was telling me there was one person in particular I should really be talking to, Dina Pavlis.

DINA PAVLIS: One of the deals I have with the neighbors is if you take people out, you don't have them advertise this location. So...

PARADIS: Sworn to secrecy.

PAVLIS: Yeah. So you're sworn to secrecy. I'm taking you to my secret spot.

PARADIS: OK.

PAVLIS: Dina calls herself an amateur naturalist, but the more I got to know her, the more I came to see just how much of an ambassador for these dunes she is.

PAVLIS: That's why I moved here. You know, it's the love of my life, the dunes. So - well, my husband, I guess, is the love of my life. Don't let him - don't tell him I said the dunes were the love of my life. They're the second love of my life, well, the third because my daughter first. Husband, daughter, dunes - that order.

We're going to have to do a little exploring to get through.

PARADIS: It's a bit of a hike to get there, but eventually we reach a place that really does look like the world of Arrakis, the world of Dune.

PAVLIS: I mean, the way I would describe this is we just have a vast, wide expanse of sand, rolling dunes. I would call this rolling dunes.

PARADIS: These dunes are National Geographic cover photo material. The hills look like ocean breakers.

PAVLIS: So this area here, what you're looking at is a bunch of dead trees, right? We call it a ghost forest, ghost trees.

PARADIS: The ghost trees are poking out of the sand at the crest of the dune. They appear maybe 10 feet tall, but really, they're 60, 80 feet tall. They're just almost totally buried by the sand.

PAVLIS: We're walking on treetops right now. These are the tops of these trees.

PARADIS: Like Dune's Arrakis, this is not a place empty of people. Humans have lived with the dunes for a long time.

PATTY WHEREAT PHILLIPS: There's a site actually not too far from here. Out in the dunes was a small village, and sometimes it's uncovered, and artifacts are exposed. And at other times, it is completely buried, and you would never know that a village had ever been there.

PARADIS: That's Patty Whereat Phillips (ph). She's an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. And she's a language teacher for the tribes.

PHILLIPS: Along some of the creeks that flow through the dunes, people had fish camps there every year. The moving sands didn't bother them. They'd just come in and put up with it for a few weeks while they would set up and be fishing for migratory salmon and lampreys.

PARADIS: And then what happened?

PHILLIPS: Disaster.

PARADIS: It's a familiar story. European settlers had a very different relationship to the landscape. With the opening of the Oregon Trail and the draw of the Gold Rush, the number of white settlers in the area grew, leading to conflicts over land, fish and basic rights. To settlers, land should generate value through farming or through timber. They didn't want to build temporary camps on the sand. They wanted permanent homes there. So all that movement of sand and water, that was frustrating, to say the least. We decide to head outside to check out a spot where we can get a good view of the dunes. Patty's colleague and fellow tribesmember Jesse Beers drives the truck. He's got bundles of dried plants on his dashboard.

JESSE BEERS: Yeah. Yeah. It's got some sweetgrass, some cedars, some white sage.

PARADIS: After we arrive, we climb a broad set of wooden stairs to a viewing platform. It's beautiful. But the dunes, they don't really look like dunes. They look like a forest.

Yeah. I mean, looking at this, I'm actually kind of shocked. It's like I had seen pictures of the dunes and, like, you can kind of see the extent of them looking off to the south here. But it's amazing how much beach grass and forest is covering these dunes.

PHILLIPS: Yeah. I mean, it looks a lot different than when Frank Herbert was here. What would that be? Almost 70 years ago. The dunes have changed a lot in a fairly short time frame.

PARADIS: In 1908, after failed attempts at farming in the dunes, President Teddy Roosevelt put much of them in the charge of the USDA's Forest Service. The Forest Service wanted to fix the dunes in place by planting two non-native species. First, European beach grass. Then, a couple years later, a hardy shrub called Scotch broom. As they took root, the landscape began to transform. Native plants like seashore bluegrass and pink sand verbena have struggled. Other species that rely on the sand, like the Siuslaw hairy-necked tiger beetle and the endangered western snowy plover, are rapidly losing habitat. At the spot where we're standing, the Forest Service estimates 75% of what was once open sand is gone - 75% - replaced by grassy meadows, wetlands and evergreen trees.

BEERS: And pretty soon you're going to come up here and it'll talk about dunes on the sign and you won't see any dunes. You'll see forest, which is awesome in its own right, but it's not the dune ecosystem, so...

PARADIS: Today the U.S. Forest Service has reversed course. Instead of planting grass, now they're trying to get it out. But if European beach grass gets buried by sand, no matter, it will push up through it. If you burn it, it usually comes back stronger. Even spraying with herbicides has mixed results. The problem is the beach grass becomes essentially a wall, blocking sand coming from the ocean.

PAVLIS: There is no new sand coming in here because it can't get here. So this process is in essence halted out here.

PARADIS: This again is Dina Pavlis. She says that the efforts to fight the grass do make a difference, but to really save the dunes, it would involve bulldozing many of the new forests that have grown up along the coastline over the past century. But ironically, those forests have become the new home for another species, a threatened woodland creature which moved in after it lost its habitat further inland - the coastal marten, which looks like a tiny weasel and is frankly adorable. So now a local plan to cut down those trees to save the dunes is not an option anymore.

PAVLIS: It's messy. The whole thing is messy because we've messed it up. You know what I mean? But I think, like, well, what about the beetles? And what about the other rare animals that are out here? Like, do we not care about them? So are we just going to let all of those disappear to protect one animal? I don't know the answer to that. And by the way I'm saying it makes it sound like I have an opinion, but I honestly don't know what the answer is.

PARADIS: In Frank Herbert's "Dune," the major powers are fighting for control of the desert on the planet Arrakis because this desert is the only place in the system that produces a resource called spice. But some have a dream of transforming the desert into a paradise, to slowly capture water and terraform the planet. These are competing visions for what the planet should look like, much like what is happening here on the dunes which inspired "Dune." Dina herself has actually never read or watched any of the adaptations of "Dune," but she's basically living many of its themes.

PAVLIS: Science fiction has a way of somehow always predicting the future. And really, in a way, what is happening here is what they wanted to happen, right? The goal was to create a forest. It's just that now we have a different viewpoint, right? So what changed, I guess, is the viewpoint. Because we see the outcome is not what we thought we wanted.

If you want to walk just for 5 seconds this way, I can probably show you a few native plants.

PARADIS: OK. Yeah.

PAVLIS: Right here with these runners. This is the coastal or beach strawberry or coastal strawberry.

PARADIS: Do you eat the strawberries?

PAVLIS: Oh, my God. They're so good. This year, they'll be early, I think, because we've had a lot of rain, so maybe...

DETROW: Justine Paradis reports for the podcast Outside/In from NHPR. That's Outside slash In. The full version of the story is available in their feeds and at outsideinradio.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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