Under the Sea-Wind (1941) was Rachel Carson’s literary debut and the first title in her Sea Trilogy, three books she wrote about the sea, the second The Sea Around Us (1951) and finally The Edge of the Sea (1955).
I discovered Under the Sea-Wind one day because I felt sure someone must have written a creative non-fiction book about the sea, someone with an affinity for the sea and an ability to bring it alive in the way I was imagining.
I like to read page-turning, lyrical nature writing, the kind of prose written by poets, though not poetry; authors like Kathleen Jamie who wrote Findings (my review here) and Sightlines, Barry Lopez and his Arctic Dreams (review here), Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. They are all books that fascinate, entertain and enthrall on the subject of nature, in a way that traditional, factual texts about those subjects rarely inspire.
So I asked myself, well who has written in this form, about the sea? Because the sea is my muse, my resting place, that living, moody, playful, dangerous place that I never tire of and rarely get enough of and I wanted to read something that attempted to articulate the essence of it. So I could bring the sea nearer to me, when I can’t go to her. In that search I discovered Rachel Carson’s literary debut, her personal favourite book of all those she wrote, a book all about the sea, invoking its mystery and wonder.
The book started out as an assignment she completed in 1936, when she was an unemployed zoologist and freelance writer for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Asked to write an introduction to a brochure on marine life, she submitted an essay entitled “The World of Waters” neatly typed by her mother, as all her manuscripts would be.
The next day Carson sat in Higgins’s Washington D.C. office waiting for his verdict.The government ichthyologist knew at once that it was unsuitable. What he was reading was a piece of literature. Carson never forgot the conversation: ‘My chief…handed it back with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I don’t think it will do,’ he said. ‘Better try again. But send this one to the Atlantic Monthly.’
The essay was a narrative account of the countless sea creatures that cohabit in and underwater and introduced her two most enduring and renowned themes: the ecological relationships of ocean life that have been in existence for millenia and the material immortality that embraces even the tiniest organism. It was the essay that spawned a classic in nature literature.
Under the Sea-Wind is structured in three parts, and in each part, we view the sea and sea life from the point of view of one of its inhabitants.
In Part One, Edge of the Sea, written for the life of the shore, and inspired by a stretch of North Carolina sea-coast, we meet a female sanderling she names Silverbar, it is Spring and the great Spring migration of shore birds is at its height and concludes with the end of summer where the movements of birds, fish, shrimp and other water creatures heralds the changing of the seasons.
“Pressing close to the backwash, Silverbar saw two shining air bubbles pushing away the sand grains and she knew that a crab was beneath. Even as she watched the bubbles her bright eyes saw that a wave was taking form in the tumbling confusion of the surf. She gauged the speed of the mound of water as it ran, toppling, up the beach. Above the deeper undertones of moving water she heard the lighter hiss that came as the crest began to spill. Almost in the same instant the feathered antennae of the crab appeared above the sand. Running under the very crest of the green water hill, Silverbar probed vigorously in the wet sand with opened bill and drew out the crab. Before the water could so much as wet her legs she turned and fled up the beach.”
She describes the terror of the shore birds as they hide in the beach grass from the noisy, boisterous migrating flocks that briefly occupy their territory; the terrible snow storm that will freeze hundreds of egg embryos, where only the fittest and strongest survive; the way the birds lure a fox away from their nests and the day the parents finally abandon their young, their job complete.
Part Two The Gull’s Way, is dedicated to the open sea, a parallel time period in the open ocean and here we encounter Scomber the mackerel, following his journey from birth through infancy and youth in a quiet New England harbour, only to join a school that follows its instinct into the great sea where numerous predators await. As the fish move from one location to the next, trying to outwit predators, including man, the sea becomes the scene of a thriller and Scomber the mackerel, our fugitive!
Part Three River and Sea is written in the deepest, darkest, fathoms, we follow Anguilla, the eel from the far tributaries of a coastal river pool, downstream to the gently sloping depths of the sea, ‘the steep descent of the continental slopes and finally the abyss’.
After 10 years of uneventful river habitation, the eels are drawn by instinct downriver returning to their place of birth, a deep abyss near the Sargasso Sea where they will spawn and die. It is the most remarkable journey, as is that of the newborn spawn originating from two continents, who float side by side and drift towards those same coastal rivers their parents swam from, a voyage of years and over time the two species will separate and veer towards their continent, the US or Europe.
“Anguilla had entered Bittern Pond as a finger-long elver ten years before. She had lived in the pond through its summers and autumns and winters and springs, hiding in its weed beds by day and prowling through it waters by night, for like all eels she was a lover of darkness…Now it was autumn again… a strange restiveness was growing in Anguilla the eel. For the first time in her adult life, the food hunger was forgotten. In its place was a strange, new hunger, formless and ill-defined. Its dimly perceived object was a place of warmth and darkness – darker than the blackest night over Bitten Pond. She had known such a place once – in the dim beginnings of life, before memory began. Many times that night, as the wind and rain tore at the surface film of the pond, Anguilla was drawn irresistibly towards the outlet over which the water was spilling on its journey to the sea.”
Rachel Carson writes about the sea, the sand, the birds, fish and the smallest of creatures and organisms in a way that makes us realise how little we observe of what is occurring around us, though we may stand, swim, float or fish in the midst of it. For the sea, its shore and the air above thrum like a thriving city of predator and prey of all sizes and character, constantly fluctuating, its citizens ever alert to when it is prudent to move and when it is necessary to be still.
Original, enthralling, it opens our eyes to much that we do not see or understand, I am in awe of shore birds, mackerel, eels, the sea, streams, rivers, ponds and the interconnectedness of them all.
Man, when his ambitions were more local, was once a balanced part of this ecosystem, though many of the practices of today appear to have stretched the boundaries of our role too far towards destructive exploitation, in our ignorance, we are upsetting this delicate yet complex ecosystem, which will be to our detriment if not stopped.
Fortunately, we have people like Captain Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who have made themselves guardians of marine wildlife, actively pursuing and preventing those who exploit and destroy without regard for the destructive effect of their pillaging the oceans.
Rachel Carson explores the sea-shore, the shallow and the deep, seeing them from the point of view of three species natural to those habitats, while mentioning so many more that they encounter, in a narrative that makes nature writing absolutely thrilling and survival an astounding feat.