The sands of Arrakis are closer than you might think.
Arrakis, Dune, desert planet — the setting for the sci-fi epic coming to movie theaters this week is a planet of sand inhabited by water-starved warrior zealots and 1,000-foot long worms.
“Dune” is the latest movie adaptation of Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel of the same name, and its story was first inspired by encroaching sand dunes around Florence.
“Dune” will open at Roseburg Cinemas on Friday.
Herbert’s “Dune” is a tale of intergalactic feudalism, vendetta and political intrigue set in a far future where a mind-bending drug found only on Arrakis is the only currency that matters.
The book’s masterpiece status has much to do with the themes it explores, from what makes one a human being to how religious forces control societies. But its foundational theme is that humans shape, and are shaped in return, by their physical environments.
“It’s been my belief for a long time that a man inflicts himself on his environment, that is Western man,” Herbert said in a 1969 interview about “Dune. “One of the purposes of this story is to delineate the consequences of inflicting yourself upon a planet, upon your environment.”
From Oregon to Arrakis
Herbert was born in 1920 in Tacoma, Washington. He served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and attended, but did not graduate, from the University of Washington.
He returned to journalism and worked for the Seattle Star and the Oregon Statesman, one of the newspapers which merged in 1980 to form the Salem Statesman Journal.
Herbert in the 1950s, then a journalist, planned to — but never did — publish an article about a U.S. Forest Service project to hold back sand dunes encroaching onto highways near Florence. By planting acres of beach grass, those federal agents tamed the dunes.
“It started up here in Florence, Oregon,” Herbert said in the interview.
“I’m always fascinated by something that is seen in miniature and can be expanded to the macrocosm,” Herbert said in the interview. “Sand dunes are like waves in a large body of water, they just are smaller. People treating them as fluid learn to control them.”
In the interview, Herbert said the dunes got his attention and inspired him to research deserts and desert cultures. He began to imagine “Dune,” a story of a desert planet and its inhabitants’ generations-long aim of transforming their home into a water-rich world.
Herbert weaved into his story the things he learned about practices of peoples living in the Arabian, Kalahari and Mohave deserts and the desert origins of Abrahamic religions.
The result was one of the world’s best-selling science-fiction novels. The original “Dune” sold around 20 million copies, and Herbert wrote five sequels before his death in 1986.
David Lynch, in 1984, wrote and directed the first “Dune” movie, a box office bomb that film critic Roger Ebert called “an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.”
The Sci Fi Channel, now Syfy, aired the three-part miniseries “Frank Herbert’s Dune” in 2000 and produced the sequel miniseries “Frank Herbert’s Children of Dune” in 2003.
The newest “Dune” arrives in theaters Friday and on the streaming service HBO Max Thursday. Directed by Denis Villeneuve and starring Timothée Chalamet, Rebecca Ferguson, Zendaya, Jason Momoa and Javier Bardem, the reviews have been generally favorable so far, but how wider audiences will welcome their return trip to Arrakis remains to be seen.
‘Dune’ in Florence
Florence is bringing these themes into focus as it celebrates the “Dune” release.
“Our understanding of the planet does not always keep up with our actions, and I think ‘Dune’ and Frank Herbert have a lot to say about that,” said Meg Spencer, director of the Siuslaw Public Library District, which keeps a collection of Herbert’s research materials.
The library district and City Lights Cinemas until Nov. 4 are hosting the Frank Herbert Dune Celebration, a collection of screenings and “Dune”-related discussions and events.
Penny Merritt, Herbert’s daughter and a current Florence resident, donated her father’s research materials and other “Dune”-related items to the Siuslaw Public Library District. Collection items are now on display at the library and theater as part of the celebration.
Merritt also connected the library district and the theater with Herbert’s grandson, Byron Merritt, a consultant on the new film. The library district and City Lights Cinemas produced a short introductory film starring Byron Merritt that will be screened this weekend.
“He talks about the power of the book and everything that it covers from politics to religions to ecology — everything involved with it and why it’s a such a global phenomenon,” said Jared Anderson, City Lights Cinemas education director.
Other Florence events celebrating “Dune” include a presentation by the Oregon Dunes Restoration Collaborative and library’s regular virtual book club will discuss the themes and meaning of “Dune.”
Beach grass today
European beach grass planted along the Oregon Coast to control meandering dunes did its job. Migrating dunes swallowing roads and towns is no longer the trouble it once was.
“It’s certainly a benefit around our communities and it keeps, for the most part, houses, roads and infrastructure in general from being buried by sand,” said Armand Rebischke, Siuslaw National Forest restoration botanist. “For us humans, it was quite a benefit.”
Controlling the dunes allowed for commercial and residential growth on Oregon’s coast, but the naturally dynamic environment was dramatically altered by dune stabilization.
The dunes that inspired “Dune” still can be visited today. The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, 40 miles of coast between Florence and Coos Bay, is a popular destination for hiking, beachgoing, off-roading and camping, among other activities.
The beach grass planted to protect roads and towns outcompetes native plants and spread rapidly. Stable dunes encouraged the development of wetlands and forests where there were sandy plains, changing native plants and animals natural habitats.
“The biodiversity of the immediate foredunes and other areas infested by the spreading beach grass, we’re seeing a pretty huge decline of native species,” Rebischke said.
Coastal restoration efforts are underway across Oregon aimed at returning habitats to a more natural state. But restoring natural dunes likely will be a multi-generation project.
“We’re seeing some success,” Rebischke said. “We’re trying some new techniques. Other folks have been doing this kind of stuff, but not on a really large scale.”