The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating

“The velocity of the ill, however, is like that of the snail.”
– Emily Dickinson

The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey is a beautifully written book interweaving her experience with chronic illness with her life co-habiting with a snail. Perhaps my own chronic illness gave the book a certain poignancy but I couldn’t put it down.

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The book had been on my wish list for so long that I had forgotten what it was about until a post over on Bimblings reminded me. Read the book but also read the post, both are excellent, high quality pieces of writing.

Back to Wild Snails… Each chapter is snail sized, perfect for those of us with brain fog or hands which don’t like to hold books. It is scattered with quotes from others as well as quotable phrases from Bailey.

“When the body is rendered useless, the mind still runs like a bloodhound along well-worn trails of neurons, tracking the echoing questions: the confused family of whys, whats, and whens and their impossibly distant kin how. The search is exhaustive; the answers, elusive… Given the ease with which health infuses life with meaning and purpose, it is shocking how swiftly illness steals away those certainties.”
– Bailey

Unable to get out of bed, a friend brings her some flowers and a snail from nearby woods, something I’ve recommended before as a way of connecting with nature when you can’t leave your house. Friends have come bearing gifts of conkers, acorns, interesting looking leaves but so far no animals!

Hiding

“The tiny, intimate sound of the snails eating gave me a distinct feeling of companionship and shared space.”
– Bailey

I suspect that anyone who has been unable to leave their bed or house for long periods of time knows the feeling of loneliness, of enforced solitary confinement and for Bailey, the snail would alleviate some of this additional pain. But more than that, the snail would teach her and guide her like a mentor. Watching the snail “provided a sort of meditation; [her] often frantic and frustrated thoughts would gradually settle down to match its calm, smooth pace.”

Snails

In between her reflections on the snail and her own life, are interesting facts, for example her particular snail possessed around 2,640 teeth in it’s tiny mouth. And a snail’s world is painted predominately by smell, taste and touch. In learning about the snail, she sees herself:

“I learned that snails are extremely sensitive to the ingestion of toxic substances from pollution and to changes in environmental conditions, such as temperature, moisture, wind and vibration. I could relate to this, as my dysfunctional autonomic nervous system made me sensitive to these things as well.”

To see ourselves in a mirror, and to see others experiencing similar feelings, is incredibly helpful in coming to terms with our illnesses and our new way of being in the world. I think, to some extent, my animal spirit posts have given me something of this. They are vessels for self reflection but they are also companions in facing shared difficulties, alone but together.

““I am going to withdraw from the world; nothing that happens there is any concern of mine.” And the snail went into his house and puttied up the entrance.”
– Hans Christian Anderson

I devoured The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating in much the same way as Bailey’s snail ate it’s way through letters and envelopes. It is a short, small book, filled with poetic observations and for me, is the type of nature writing I aspire to. There is an ordinariness in it. She is not exploring remote, far flung places. She is not at a microscope. She is someone who could easily be me, or you. But through the snail, she found herself a way of coping in a challenging situation.

“In a March 2009 article in the New Yorker, Atul Gawande wrote, “All human beings experience isolation as torture.” Illness isolates; the isolated become invisible; the invisible become forgotten. But the snail… the snail kept my spirit from evaporating.”

By the end of the book, her health has improved but she remains ill, keeping the snails teachings with her; “lots to do at whatever pace I can go. I must remember the snail.”

Climb Mount Fuji
O snail
but slowly, slowly
– Kobayashi Issa

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Otter Country

Otter Country by Miriam Darlington is a tale of her quest to see otters in the wild.  It weaves her journey with facts as well as drawing in reflections and experiences of other otter writers, in particular Gavin Maxwell.  She visits the site of his home as part of her search and, it seems, to pay homage to an author who’s ottery writings had a huge impact on her.

Have just read about imagery in nature writing, I chose two pages at random and picked out the similes and metaphors:

The land is ribboned with water… surfaces glossy with wet… web of lines that link ditches… a lattice of hazel… clouds loosed… wind bashes reeds and bends them into a whistling chorus… a frog shimmering as if varnished with water pings away and becomes a wet leaf among other wet leaves… I creak inside… a world slick with water… a rainbow seeps in… release my binoculars… a slab of grey water… moorhens bicker… mallard mischoreograph landings… rain on the roof is a thousand pattering fingers… a ragged battalion of cormorants… sagging skeleton of a drowned tree… the water surface is zinc… starlings begin their pouring flight… they are a flickering brown stream…

Within these two pages we also find an evocative description of the water that our narrator is looking out onto:

“The water changes from moment to moment.  It is grey, it is ruffled, it is polished pewter or a mirror holding the sky and bouncing light in every direction.  I am mesmerised as it furs with the lightest shower of rain, ripples beneath coots or bends under the weigh of a swan.”

Despite only being 52 words, we are filled with a detailed sense of the scene and the characteristics of the water.  Water as a changeable entity is something we find a lot in poetic writings about lakes and rivers.  It is endlessly the same and yet always changing.

The description of the water as a mirror holding the sky is such a beautiful image, I’m envious of her ability to describe the world she sees and the action within it.  The idea of the frog pinging away and becoming one with the wet leaves, the starlings with their pouring flight, echoing the water below them as they stream through the sky.  Even without the allure of the otter, I think Darlington could easily draw readers in with her captivating imagery.  That said, otters were the reason I picked up the book in the first place…

And that is because otters are amazing!  And as far as creature specific nature writing goes, we find them in Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, The Wind in the Willows and the internet phenomenon, I Am Otter.  Turning to poetry, we have Ted Hughes’ An Otter and Dog Otter by Kevin Saving amongst many others.

As a bit of an aside, the otters that pop up in memes and cute videos are most often sea otters whereas the kind we have in the UK are Eurasian Otters.  Instead of living in the sea, they move between land and fresh water, without which they would become dehydrated.  They also need fresh water to clean their fur and maintain its waterproofing.

Whilst the otter rock stars of the internet appear cute and cuddly, they are actually quite ferocious, they are serious predators, they are after all wild animals who need to survive.  They were one of the earliest mammalian carnivores to evolve and have a powerful bite.

To search for otters in the UK is quite a challenge.  Whilst numbers are on the rise, they got close to extinction in the 20th century.  But it is not necessarily population size which makes them tricky to find.  They are one with their world, they slip between water and earth with graceful ease, without impact and without notice.  They appear and disappear as if by magic, slipping away unseen.  This can, at times, make the book a little frustrating.  After all, I chose a book about otters with the hope of actually finding one lurking between the pages.

When reviewing the book, John Lister-Kay said:

“You don’t have to be an otter fanatic to love Darlington’s book… Otter Country is proper nature writing, revealing as much about the writer’s obsession with otters as of the animal itself and leaving us in awe of both”

Who isn’t an otter fanatic?!  As nature writing, Otter Country is a great piece of work.  She provides beautiful imagery, an interesting reflection on the watery landscapes she finds herself in as well as considering the otter in literature.  My only criticism is that it is titled Otter Country and whilst she is writing well about the home of the otter, I wanted more actual otters…  The nature of the otters means they are elusive and this is reflected in the book but I think the title sets the reader up for something that they aren’t going to get.

Nature Writing Dissected: The Doe’s Song

I think it was a few months before starting my nature and writing project that I read The Doe’s Song by Leath Tonino and it nearly moved me to tears – quite a feat.  It stuck with me and remained powerful when reread.

When I started to read Writing About Nature: A Creative Guide, I found suggestions for exercise which included looking at other people’s nature writing.  I thought of The Doe’s Song and handily rediscovered my printed copy when I was tidying up.  Whilst the guide suggests well known essays by well known authors to turn to for the exercises, I wanted to stick to something which had resonated so strongly.  I knew this could only be The Doe’s Song or some of Rachel Carson’s work, and I had already peered intently at the writing of the latter.

I am halfway through the creative guide and so far I have been steered through journals, essays, writing process, openings and closings and word pictures.  So it is through the lens of these aspects that I inspect and dissect The Doe’s Song.

The essay opens with a striking image – a deer being hit by a car.  From this, we know right away that this is likely to be an article about people, cars and deer.  All of this is revealed in the first four words.  It is an in media res opening, that is, it starts in the middle of the action.

Like much of the essay, the opening paragraph involves a lot of repetition.  The deer is referred to as “the deer” (as opposed to he/she/it) throughout, the phrase totals seven uses in five sentences.  In the second paragraph we discover “she was a doe, not sure how old.”  Still in the first paragraph, we find “fell back down to the pavement” used twice to end the first two sentences which emphasises this point.  Following these two sentences, we start to find more descriptive language with a simile comparing the deer’s broken leg to a scarf.  As the author notes, “the whole thing took maybe thirty seconds, a minute tops” and so it’s appropriate that we find here a short first paragraph.

The second paragraph introduces us to the author and in some ways, the structure echoes that of the first paragraph. The first two sentences include a lot of repetition: “when she slammed the brakes we slammed the brakes.  We saw the deer try to stand and we saw the deer fall and we saw the deer rise and run.”  This architecture is found elsewhere in the essay, both in terms of the repetition and the use of and where one could have chosen to use commas instead.

In contrast to this scene of a car accident and the injured doe, we are it was a “soft evening” when a deer was “struck with the force of rockfall and lightening”, and these phrases repeat as the essay continues.  We find this contradicting image repeated and the tension between the suburbia and the wild enhanced because of it.  We hear of spots of blood in the same sentence as children laughing and playing.  The death of the deer is part of this everyday life where homework and fine houses co-exist with pain and suffering.

The third paragraph is where we see another construct that the author repeats.  It, almost ironically, is the repeated use of “I will repeat that” as a way to emphasise key points.

“It was the kind of place where deer are hit every day.  I will repeat that: every day… I looked inside the chipmunk.  I will repeat that: I looked inside.”

“Do you think it will be okay? Do you think it will live?” are another couple of sentences which are woven throughout the essay.  It is a version of these which form the first narrative and go on to form most of the narrative.

Towards the start of the essay, we are introduce to the idea of a song for the deer and it continues to weave it’s way through, from our narrator standing over the injured doe to the American Indians thanking the deer for their gift to the final song.

The author has chosen a non linear timeline which allows him to incorporate memories from different times in his life as well as the anecdotes of others.  This adds flesh to the opening incident and allows the author to expand on themes and ideas whilst remaining within the twenty four hours between opening and closing.  This keeps the initial incident fresh but provides space for discussion of bigger ideas.

Like in most nature writing, we find specifics which make the words come to life.  Instead of a bland list of roadkill, we are told of:

“the early dow in the Adirondacks, the second with her neck snapped back, the skunk whose white stripe was red, the mash of porcupine…”

Part way through, we return to Jennifer on the same day as the accident.  We are shown a domestic, everyday scene but, with the words “nobody mentioned the deer”, we are reminded that the doe hangs over these characters, a ghostly presence, unspoken but unforgettable.

For me, the most important diversion from the doe of the title is the recollection of rescue work in the wilderness.  The heavy realisation that sometimes you can’t save people, sometimes you can’t help them.  This is a difficult concept to accept and one that requires you to process things.  The whole essay feels, to me, like the author processing the opening incident.  A way of clearing things up for himself, a way of accepting that there was nothing he could do for that deer.  Throughout the essay we are offered coping and processing techniques.  There is the cataloguing of pain through the list of road kill.  Getting on with the everyday such as preparing food and watching TV.  Facing things head on: “Often I’ve sat on the ground and forced myself to be still, to inhale, to look hard and long.”  With the wilderness anecdote we are shown the importance of discussion in processing things.  Another story shows the beauty of ritual and honouring the dead – the Navajos sing to the deer as it is dying and apologise through ritual.

“The most we can do is pause, pray, give thanks, apologize, make ceremonies, make them a part of the very life that kills other lives.”

The detour into dissection provides another way of coming to terms with death.  Through careful investigation, “the dead animal [brings] to life what can be so much jargon , so many diagrams on the page.”  Here the deer, whilst dead, still has a purpose, still offers something to the world.  And by unpicking layer after layer, we get to know a creature.  Over time, the dissected animal begins to decompose, in a similar way, over time, to how we hope our own pain will decompose, will become fertile and will give life to something.  In this case, the result of the trauma, over time, becomes this essay.

After the detour into dissection, the author circles out the idea of the accidental death, calling it slaughter and summoning up a more brutal version of the incident.  Here he asks us to consider “What if the doe is not a deer?  What if it doe is an aquifer, an ocean, the night’s very darkness?”  In doing so, he is pulling us into bigger world issues, into discussion of how man affects the world and what the consequences of this are.  This feels like it could, itself, be the ending.  An ending of rhetorical questions and philosophical ponderings.

But instead we return for the final time to Jennifer and her question: “Do you think that deer is going to die?”.  This potentially bleak ending transforms as we find our characters are able to laugh and make coffee.  The deer is not ok, but they will be.  There is hope.  The author sings “that gentle tune, the tune for the doe, the song of goodbye, which I still remember today, years later.”  And it is with this that we find ourselves left with an image which haunts both reader and writer.  There is a finality to the incident here, and a farewell.  We are not left with the heartache and pain of the deer, instead we are left with the reminder that life goes on.  We cannot help everyone.

March Resources

Books

TV

  • Blue Planet and Blue Planet II
  • Finding Nemo (of course!)
  • Chasing Coral
  • Free Willy

Internet

 

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The River Singers

I’m going to start moving away from the sea and into other bodies of water but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to return to the oceans as I take this meander. I’m, appropriately, letting the waters guide me, going with the flow and seeing where I end up!


“It reminded me of Watership Down because it’s a poetic story about a family of animals in danger who are looking for safety”
– Charlie, Age 9

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The River Singers by Tom Moorhouse is a compelling tale, and whilst it’s aimed at children, it warmed my heart as a 31 year old adult. It centres on a family of voles who live alongside the Great River and what I really enjoyed was the creation of the river as a character.

When our hero, Sylvan, first encounters the river he is exhilarated:

“She filled him with her vastness, her movement, her song. He felt the stirrings of hunger, the desire to dive, to twist, to flow with her.”

During this initial meeting between vole and water, Sylvan’s mother passes on words from her mother:

“Well, young ones, beyond this point lies Sinethis, the Great River. We are River Singers, Water Folk, children of Sinethis. We live by her ways. She takes our old and gives us young. She stirs our hunger, feeds us with grasses. She shelters us in her waters and burrows. She rises and dashes us. She sings with us a song as soft as thistles, hard as roots, deep as shadows, old as stones. We sing with her a song as quick as thinking, sweet as apples, brief as day. We are River Singers, and we are hers.”

What I love about this is that in a short paragraph we find water as life giving and life sustaining, water as death and water as eternal. These are themes that you can see at play elsewhere in the book and which weave together the wider river ecosystem.

There is some beautifully poetic prose in this novel and the interplay between Sylvan the voles and Sinethis the river is evocative:

“She is as old as stones and our song with her is brief as summer.”
– Sylan

“Flow with me. Be as I am. Be yielding but strong, swift and implacable. Flow with me. You will need to swim, to fight. But flow with me. This is my way.”
– Sinethis

“She sang in him [Sylvan], louder than she had ever been, her melodies twining deeply through his heart. She sang a song of savagery and peace, of raging torrents and burbling trickles, cataracts and calm. She sang of life, a strident tune, its notes strong, bright and gleaming. She sang of death, the notes muted, dissolving and mingling with the others, lost in the eternal whole.”

The river is truly, undoubtably, a character in her own right, an ever present semi-god.

“I loved the lyrical, spiritual relationship of the voles with the river, and somehow the very sad and dangerous parts of the voles’ lives was held in perfect balance with this, so that the book was accurate about life and death, but never gratuitously cruel or, on the other hand, unrealistically sentimental.”
– A. Booth, an amazon review

I think it’s useful to know that Moorhouse is an ecologist at Oxford University’s Zoology Department and completed his DPhil on water vole conservation ecology in 2003, as such this is a fairly good representation of this life of voles. Except of course it’s fiction and the voles talk. But you know what I mean!

“Once water voles were an everyday part of experiencing our countryside. Seeking them is a way of connecting with our past.”
– Tom Moorhouse

Water voles used to be a common sight along rivers in the UK, plopping into the water whilst fishermen sat on the banks. But things aren’t so good for them anymore. They are the fastest declining wild mammal in Britain and have disappeared from many parts of the country. Habitat loss is one reason for this but the introduction of the American Mink has had a huge impact on numbers as mink eat voles, something Sylvan and his siblings know only too well… Between 1989 and 1998, the population fell by almost 90 per cent. The populations which still remain are becoming increasingly disjointed and disconnected which leads to a loss of genetic variation.

But things might be improving for the voles. According to an article from summer 2017, numbers are on the up. And thankfully, for the species as a whole, they are not picky eaters and have been recorded eating 227 different types of plant in Britain. This means that they are less vulnerable to changes in flora but they do need to eat 80% of their body weight every day. I suspect a lot of live as a vole is about finding yummy food!

They have amazing, cute and expressive little faces and despite all the dangers around them, all the predators looking to eat them (we encounter a few in the book), they look relaxed and calm as they nibble away on the riverside vegetation. Just don’t expect this level of zen when you read the adventure of this vole family!

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: