Learning from the writers of the sea

This post could be epic and uncontrollable*, it could look at all the ways people have written about the sea and try to unpick what works and what doesn’t.  But that would end up being a book in itself.  Instead I’m going to focus on Rachel Carson, particularly The Sea Around Us, and Sy Mongomery who has a number of nature writing books to her name but the one I’ve just read is The Soul of an Octopus.

I’ve chosen to think about Montgomery alongside Carson because the works are very different.  If we think about The Soul of an Octopus with The Sea Around us, we’re looking at two different sea topics – that of a particular species and that of the sea itself.  The books were written at different times and whilst only 60 odd years apart, our knowledge of the sea and her inhabitants has changed a lot.  Because of these differences, I am not seeking to compare the writings.  Instead I want to look at the strengths of both of them and try to unpick what makes them good examples of nature writing.

There are some obvious starting points which both have in common, crucially I think, is the scientific knowledge to write about their topic.  This doesn’t mean you need to know everything, but you need to base your work in fact.

Rachel Carson

Carson writes in a lyrical, poetic fashion, conveying her love of the sea through her enthusiastic choice of language.

Her book Under the Sea Wind is a fictionalised account of animals’ journeys through life and through the landscape so it makes use of different techniques to The Sea Around Us.

Under the Sea Wind uses narratives which are interwoven in a non linear form, instead cycling through the year much as nature herself does.  She focuses on particular species, and by doing so she is essentially creating biological biographies for her characters and succeeds in bringing them to live despite the limitations imposed by choosing a non verbal cast.

The characters can’t speak so the third person narrator helps us to understand what’s going on and provides the scientific content.  She also uses human language, such as talking about what food a fish loved best or that another fish had changed her winter plumage.  This is nudging towards anthropomorphism which is not highly thought of in scientific communities but it does make the animal characters more relatable and Carson seems cautious about over humanising her characters.

Think about what you don’t include as much as what you do.  For example, talking about Under The Sea Wind, Carson said:

“The fish and the other sea creatures must be central characters and their world must be portrayed as it looks and feels to them — and the narrator must not come into the story or appear to express an opinion.”

As such, we see human impact only through the eyes of her characters.

When it comes to language, Carson has a skill which lets her synthesise beauty and knowledge and still maintain a poetic voice.  She mixes a scientific fact based language with descriptive adjectives and nouns and in doing so, she provides specific, objective information with aesthetic details.

Somewhere I read that in writing about the sea, Carson aims to help her readers fall in love with it as much as she has.  In Under The Sea Wind she introduces us to the creatures we come to love and in The Sea Around Us, she guides us to a deeper relationship with the sea itself.

In both books, the sea features as a character in her own right but in The Sea Around Us, she stands centre stage.  There are creatures and plants interspersed but the real drama surrounds the entire ocean.  She creates powerful, memorable images for her readers which capture the imagination as well as put us in awe of nature.  Where she wrote biographies of animals in her first book, here she writes a biography of the sea.

I wasn’t expected to be mesmerised by an account of the creation of the oceans or how the tides developed.  How could anyone turn this dry science into captivating prose?  But Carson does.

“She made of waves a romance, whence they came, how they came, why they were the shape they were, how they bring “the feel of the distant places” interwoven with solid scientific data.”
– Ann H. Zwinger

Her words fascinate and entrance us.  Moving us and leading our eyes to see new things and our hearts towards a deeper understanding of the waters that surround us.  Her careful attention to detail and the pleasurable language and turn of phrase help to create this beautiful poetic prose.

“this combination of science and scintillating prose provides fascinating insights into the mysteries of the tides”
Billy Mills

What we don’t see in The Sea Around Us is “anecdotes of the kind that editors often suggest to “bring warmth” to the page” (Zwinger).  For Carson, the sea is the star, it is the focus rather than being a backdrop for her observations and opinions.  She speaks of the sea with metaphors and imagery but she does not place herself, or any narrator, in the words.

At the risk of overquoting, I think Zwinger sums up what I love about this book when she says:

“It is so beautifully written and researched, filled with enthralling descriptions of the sea.  It rattles no swords, is not strident or aggressive or confrontational.  Its potency lies in the charm and skill of the writing, its erudition and rich organisation of facts, and in its personal reticence – how quietly it captivates our attention.  Before we know it we are charmed into learning about the wonders of the ocean, then into a deep awareness of not only their health but how it affects that of the whole natural world.”

Sy Montgomery

You can read an essay about Montgomery’s first meeting with an octopus on Orion.

Montgomery sets out to “defend the octopus against centuries of character assassination” and the blurb begins this work:

“[The Soul of an Octopus] explores the emotional and physical world of the octopus’ surprisingly complex, intelligent, and spirited creature: and the remarkable connections it makes with humans.”

Through my eyes, I have found this book to be primarily about the human experience of ‘other’, with the octopus proving a mirror to reflect back our attitudes and prejudices.

This is a book of characters, human and aquatic, that I grew to love.  Through them we see more ways in which nature can affect us.  There is a volunteer who finds the aquarium to be a comforting, healing place.  Another who worries a lot over the watery residents.  Some of the human characters are portrayed as feeling, or being, ‘other’ outside the aquarium, paralleling the theme of the octopus as other.  Within this watery world, those boundaries are breached and relationships are formed.

One of the things I really enjoy about a lot of nature writing is the connection between nature and humans.  This, as well as being a piece about octopuses, is a piece about friendship, about relationships.  I don’t think Montgomery’s book would have been even half as successful had she chosen to write about octopuses in general.  In choosing a few specific creatures, she has been able to personalise the experience and in doing so helps us relate to it.

I think the inclusion of more than one octopus also helps illustrate their vastly different personalities and the different ways they interact with humans.  Alongside her relationship with the octopuses, we see the affect they are having on the rest of her life.  I enjoy this widening impact of nature and how interactions with nature can change us.

In places emotional, in others humorous, this is an entertaining yet deeply moving love story.  Very early on, Montgomery lays out how most people feel about octopuses – slimy and monstrous – and from there she gently guides us through her experience, showing us, not preaching to us, why we too should love this remarkable creature. I think that gentleness, that guiding, is a quality of good nature writing.  It is easy to tell someone they should care about something, but much more powerful to show them why and to lead them on that journey of discovery.  The linear narration of the story is such that we are on this path of wonder with Montgomery and we see things unfolding in order.

Alongside this time line of deepening admiration, her use of poetic and sensual language soothes the reader into falling in love with these marvellous, characterful creatures.

The subtitle for one version** of the book is “A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness” and whilst we never delve deeply into consciousness, Montgomery touches on it in some interesting ways.  A much criticised wander into her experience learning to dive, to see an octopus in it’s own habitat, takes us to pondering about changing our consciousness whether it be through hallucinogens or simply by entering the ocean.  Visiting this other world changes our perspective and our perception and could have much the same effect as meditation when it comes to consciousness.

Montgomery’s work invites us to reflect on ourselves and our society, to think about beings which are so entirely different to ourselves and to appreciate a different kind of intelligence.

So, what to learn?

Although true of all good writing, it is worth highlighting, use adjectives, verbs and nouns.  Play around with sentence length.  Show don’t tell.  Use all your senses.

Think about structure.  For The Soul of an Octopus, a linear format seems to work really well but for Under the Sea Wind, Carson’s use of cyclical narrative echoes that of the creatures who are ‘telling’ the story.

Regardless of the topic, create characters which have depth and let the reader get to know them within an environmental context as well as a relationship context.  The entirety of nature is interconnected in one way or another and thus nature writing too should not focus solely on one aspect.  Characters need not be human, we can think of animals and plants as characters with roles to play.

Similarly, showing the writer within the writing helps the reader to see the impact nature has had on her, her life and her thinking.  However, omitting the human voice also has a role to play in nature writing, for example in Under The Sea Wind.

Include emotions alongside facts and inject with humour if it feels natural – don’t force in anecdotes as the editors Zwinger mentions suggest.

Attention to detail matters.  Know the names of species.  Firstly, it gives your writing more depth, but secondly, knowing the names of things means you notice the things more often.

Consider your aim.  Do you want people to love your topic?  Do you want to raise awareness of a particular issue?  Do you want to create an extended metaphor which reflects the state of humanity?

Develop your voice.  The writing styles of Carson and Montgomery are very different but both feel indisputably theirs.  Write authentically.

And as with all writing, read.


*Turns out it was inevitably going to be a pretty long post…!

**Mine has the subtitle: A surprising exploration of one of the world’s most intriguing creatures

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