Silent Spring: A Legacy

“We can never forget the power of impassioned, informed voices sharing their stories of place, bearing witness, speaking out on behalf of the land they call home.”
– Terry Tempest Williams on Rachel Carson

Whilst I feel that Rachel Carson should be remembered for her lyrical writing on the sea, there can be no doubt that her book Silent Spring has had a huge impact on how we see, and treat, nature.

The Power of One Voice, which I mentioned in my first post about Carson (and got to see because of a kind stranger), looks at Carson’s life, her sea books and the legacy of Silent Spring. She is described in the film as a scholar, a storyteller and a voice of mother nature.

In writing Silent Spring, Carson essentially kicked the hornets nest. At a time when science was god, to question the use of chemicals was revolutionary. She did not call for a complete ban on pesticides and chemicals in agriculture, instead she asked questions about the misuse and abuse of them. She asked about the impact they were having and urged the country to er on the side of caution. There was no knowledge about the dangers of products like DDT and other pest controls, and no one had researched the impacts they could have on plants, animals and humans.

But what was becoming clear is that there was a huge impact. Wildlife and livestock were suffering, bird populations were being decimated and insects, crucial for agriculture, were being destroyed.

Despite the severity of the environmental impact, it was with the introduction of human health that Carson really drew attention. The idea that what we do to nature, we do to humans by extension was a radical concept at the time. By introducing the general public to the interconnectedness of life, she made people sit up and look closer.

“We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.”

Carson advocated the use of biological controls instead of chemical controls or at least the use of specific and tested pesticides. And it’s important to note that most pesticides don’t work. Mutations occur making the pests resistant to the toxins and you have to wipe out the entirety of a population which is nearly impossible. You may have a short term gain but long term, pesticides will fail you.

If we look to the impact of Silent Spring, we find that it revitalised the environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US in 1970. But we do not seem to have fully absorbed the messages. We have not adopted caution and we are still using vast amounts of chemicals which build up in the ecosystem. We are just using different chemicals…

If we look at the book in terms of literary skills, we see that Carson has taken on a huge challenge. She has set out to explain complex and scientific issues to a general readership and needs to do so with enough emotion and passion that it raises reactions but not so much that she compromises her reputation as a truthteller.

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings… Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change… There was a strange stillness… The few birds seen anywhere were moribund: they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus… of scores of bird voices there was no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

By using birds as messengers, Carson has skilfully brought messages from the insects and river life to human ears. She has chosen an environmental indicator that we are all familiar with, and which has an audible and visible presence in our lives, whether we are in the city or the countryside. Birds are universally recognised and bring home, literally, the impact that pesticides were having. Additionally, there is a large population of bird watchers who had noticed changes in bird life and who could add weight to the voice of Carson’s message.

Like her books on the sea, Carson has created, in Silent Spring, a powerful account of a complicated issue and yet manages to present it in a poetic and inspiring way. Not content to only be a writer or only a scientist, Carson had a foot firmly in each world and synthesised the two beautifully.

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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

Rachel Carson, beyond Silent Spring

“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…!

Links

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: