“Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere.”
– Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson is best known for her work raising awareness of pollutants in our ecosystems but this overlooks her work before this; her beautiful love songs to the ocean, her biographies of the sea.
“Not until the end of her life did she write the work for which she is now known [Silent Spring]. Before then, she had always thought of herself as a poet of the sea.”
– Jill Lepore
I do not intend to write a biography of Carson, other people have done that and done so well. Instead I hope to introduce you, dear reader, to her work about the sea and her poetic turn of phrase. Essentially, I hope to inspire you to go ahead and read beyond Silent Spring.
The writings of Carson merge the factual with the poetic. She has a beautiful way with words and I devoured The Sea Around Us in two days (very quick for me these days).
“If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
– Rachel Carson
Her books on the sea cover the creatures that live there as well as the creation of the oceans, how way tides came to be, how islands are formed, how the currents change and merge… They are detailed and evocative although they must be read within the scientific context of the times, we know a lot more about the sea today.
Her writings offer an accessible insight into a world that most people knew little about. Bridging the gap between the scientific community and the general public, her work remains a model for nature writers today.
She had four major books, three of them writing about the sea and the fourth, the one she is best known for, Silent Spring. Her first book was Under The Sea Wind which was made popular following the publication of The Sea Around Us in 1950.
Under The Sea Wind is a semi-fictional tale which focuses on birds, mackerel and eels and takes the reader through the landscapes as she follows their lives. Fiction allows her to move through the world, following the cycles of these animals, in a way that non-fiction couldn’t. It lets her create situations in which she can share the factual information in a more readable way.
Despite being fiction, Under The Sea Wind apparently only contains two words of dialogue and one named human. This is truly a tale of nature and this is reflected in how she chooses to name her characters. Without naming her protagonists, it would be a hard story to follow, but she retains her scientific integrity by choosing them based on the scientific name of the species or, where that isn’t going to work, by turning to descriptive names.
All of Carson’s work shows a genuine understanding of nature, and Under The Sea Wind gives us a flavour of how earth and air and water come together in the dance of life. Where she doesn’t know, or can’t find out, the reasons for certain behaviour of her characters, she uses the word perhaps; maintaining her scientific rigour whilst offering up suggestions.
I could easily fill this post with poetic quotes from Carson, but I won’t. I would like, however, to touch on The Sea Around Us. It is a beautifully written book that shows Carson as writer, as scientist and as environmental activist and shows there is no conflict between the three, seemingly very different roles.
I read the 1961 revised version of The Sea Around Us and this included updated science as well warnings about the future of the ocean.
“Although man’s record as a steward of the natural resources of the earth has been a discouraging one, there has long been a certain comfort in the belief that the sea, at least, was inviolate, beyond man’s ability to change and despoil. But this belief, unfortunately, has proved to be naïve.”
– Rachel Carson
Like all good nature writers, Carson spent a lot of time in the field. She loved the sea and this intimate knowledge of, and relationship with, the coast is clear in her writing. But she doesn’t tie her readers to her seashore. In Under The Sea Wind, she names her locations in such a way as to make them relatable to almost anyone, such as the generic ‘Sandy Shore’.
Carson’s rich, detailed writings make for excellent reading and I would highly recommend them. In case you hadn’t guessed, this post is pretty much a love letter to her books on the sea…!
- The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
- A short biography of Rachel Carson
- The right way to remember Rachel Carson, New Yorker
I think The Power of One Voice, a documentary about Carson, would be really interesting but I don’t have the $30+ to buy it. The trailer was interesting though: