The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson (1951)

The Sea as Home

Exactly five years ago I came across and read Rachel Carson’s debut novel Under the Sea-Wind (1941), not the book she is most well-known for, that is Silent Spring (1962) but her own personal favourite and definitely one of mine.

It was the first in her Sea Trilogy a beautifully told narrative account of three creatures that live within the ecosystem of the sea, a female sanderling named Silverbar, Scomber the mackerel and Anguilla the migrating eel.

The Sea as Mother

The Sea Around Us Rachel CarsonIn The Sea Around Us Carson makes the sea her subject, addressing it in three parts, Mother Sea, The Restless Sea and Man and the Sea About Him.

Reading nonfiction books on marine biology or ecology isn’t something I would normally choose to do on holiday but Rachel Carson writes narrative nonfiction that turns science and observation into a thrilling and insightful pageturner. And this second book in the trilogy, a New York Times bestseller, is just as engaging as her debut was. I loved it.

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. Through sharing Carson’s research, we become acutely sensitive to the interdependence of life. – Ann Zwinger , Introduction

The Sea as Teacher

Though published in 1951, therefore knowing our understanding of marine ecology has continued to develop, most of us likely won’t have read or studied too deeply about the sea, in fact, many remain (with good reason) in fear of it – not understanding her mood changes, dangerous rips, turbulent surf and the menacing creatures that live within her depths.

The Sea Rachel Carson Marine Ecology

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Here a casual reader with an interest in nature writing of a literary kind will learn and absorb much about the sea, the ocean, her characteristics, behaviours, secrets and influences with little effort, such is her mastery of narrating a serious subject in an engaging and memorable way.

Talking about the seasons, we discover the sea too experiences events that herald those forthcoming changes.

The lifelessness, the hopelessness, the despair of the winter sea are an illusion. Everywhere are the assurances that the cycle has come to the full, containing the means of its own renewal. There is the promise of a new spring in the very iciness of the winter sea, in the chilling of the water, which must, before many weeks, become so heavy that it will plunge downward, precipitating the overturn that is the first act in the drama of spring.

From Sea to Land, and the Moon Question

Taking us back to the beginning we learn how the sea might have come about, reading of a once believed theory that the moon may have been a child of the earth, born of a great tidal wave of earthly substance, torn off and hurled into space, leaving a scar or depression on the surface of the globe, that now holds the Pacific Ocean.

Whether or not that is true, we do know the moon affects the tides and cycles of many animals. Where the Moon came from continues to be debated today.

We familiarise with the evolution of tides, the moon effect, the significant evaporation of the Mediterranean which makes it excessively salty and more dense and learn of the rush of a current from the Atlantic that replaces it, lighter water that pours past Gibraltar in surface streams of great strength.

jellyfish sea life Rachel Carson

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It was not until Silurian time, some 350 million years ago, that the first pioneer of land life crept out on the shore.

When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal with its origin in the ancient sea. Fish, amphibian, and reptile – warm-blooded bird and mammal – each of us carries in our veins a salty stream  in which the elements sodium, potassium and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water.

Providing a succinct and easily readable account, we begin to understand the complexity of ocean currents, of streams within oceans, their discovery by sailors and captains, the reluctance of men to share their navigation maps, the effect on human migrations.

We read how interconnected everything is, the winds, waves, the currents, the deep abyss, the tendencies of schools of fish, explanations for their sudden disappearance and the effect on our livelihoods; the appearance of new land formations via underwater volcanoes, creating islands that emerge from the sea, we hear of airborne spiders riding high for miles, how life emerges on a protuberance from the sea and how easily it can be wiped out again.

It closes with the foretelling of the climate change we are already in, and the many that have been.

It is almost certainly true we are in the warming-up stage following the Pleistocene glaciation – that the world’s climate over the next thousands of years, will grow considerably warmer before beginning a downward swing into another Ice Age.

Rachel Carson had an incredible gift of writing the scientific complexity of the ecosystem of the sea and her creatures, sharing what was known at the time and hints of that which wasn’t in a captivating way, born of a great passion and love of the sea, the shore and all that lived within or depended on it.

Ideal Lake or Seaside Reading

Rachel Carson The Sea Marine Ecology

Rachel Carson, Marine Biologist (1907-1964)

I read this on holiday sitting next to a lake, watching on a micro level those same factors that move a body of water, that give it life, occasionally seeing the little fish who’ve made a home in it, the plant life in the water and beside it. And we humans, making it our playground for the summer. In much appreciation and gratitude.

“The shore is an ancient world. I can’t think of any more exciting place to be than down in the low-tide world, when the ebb tide falls very early in the morning, and the world is full of salt smell, and the sound of water, and the softness of fog.” Rachel Carson

Further Reading

New Yorker: The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson

Brain Pickings: Why the Sea is Blue: Rachel Carson on the Science and Splendor of the Marine Spectrum 

Buy a Copy of The Sea Around Us

Writers and Lovers by Lily King

A thirty year old woman named Casey rents a tiny room and is soon to be evicted, she’s under a mountain of student debt, prone to crying, having lost her mother quite suddenly, is estranged from her father who tried to turn her into a golf pro as a youngster, an activity she now refuses to have anything to do with.

Casey is a waitress in a restaurant, on her last warning, is using her one month of being eligible for health insurance to have as many tests as possible and is paranoid about a lump in her armpit. And undecided about the two men she is simultaneously dating, both writers.

There’s a sense of life passing her by as she receives wedding invitations from friends, who judge her for not being able to afford to be part of their occasion (friends who’ve given up any attempt at independence or flexing their creative muscle for the safety and security of a man).

She’s spent 6 years writing a novel and is now on the verge of her fragile world crumbling on top of her. It is almost with relief that she contemplates the potential life-threatening lump that might be her escape.

I really struggled to stay with this one and persevered because I’d seen a number of good reviews, so I kept hoping it would improve. And it does towards the end. Although it does feel a little like a fairy tale ending. I guess it just wasn’t where I wanted or needed to be at the time of reading. I’ve long wanted to read Lily King’s earlier book Euphoria, which is in part why I jumped at the chance to read this.

I did enjoy the anecdote about Edith Wharton, scolded by her mother as a child for wanting to be alone to make things up and forbidden to read novels until after marriage. When her mother died, she sent her husband to the funeral and stayed home to write. She was 45 years old and published her first novel the following year.

And some thought provoking words about writing and fear:

All problems with writing and performing come from fear. Fear of exposure, fear of weakness, fear of lack of talent, fear of looking like a fool for trying, for even thinking you could write in the first place. It’s all fear.

And this aspect, more of a universal theme here perhaps:

If we didn’t have fear, imagine the creativity in the world. Fear holds us back every step of the way.

And that ultimately is what the journey of the protagonist is about, living in fear and allowing it, nurturing it, holding fast onto it, until she can no more. As she lets go of it, her life begins to change, until she realises, she has nothing to fear.

Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)

I really enjoyed Passing, but I might be in the minority when I say I loved Quicksand which I read first, even more. Quicksand adds into its complexity that little known element of being a TCK (third culture kid), Helga is not only of mixed race, but she was born and is growing up in a culture (America) that neither of her parents were born into or belonged to, there is no extended family for her to mould into, whereas in Passing, we meet two women who have a stronger sense of family and there is more of a focus on belonging to a race and by extension, its culture.

Passing Nella Larsen Harlem Renaissance ClassicBook Review

In Passing, we meet Irene who has just received a letter from an old friend, one who twice in her life she believed she would never see again and with distaste realises this letter is evidence of her reappearance in her life. Intending to resist seeing her, she ignores it.

The narrative then goes back in time to the earlier encounter when Irene was visiting Chicago where her parents live, doing last minute shopping for her children, overcome by the heat, she hails a cab and asks the driver to take her to a rooftop hotel. It is here that Irene practices her version of ‘passing’ as a white bourgeoise person, alone, unobserved, quietly taking tea by a window where no one is near, a moment to recuperate.

“It’s funny about ‘passing’. We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.”

To her horror, a man and woman appear and take the table next to her. The man leaves and the woman stares at her in an unsettling manner. Fear pervades her as the woman approaches, recognising her.

“About her clung that dim suggestion of polite insolence with which a few women are born and which some acquire with the coming of riches or importance.”

Passing is taut with tension beginning with this scene, Irene is careful, her old school friend Clare takes what to Irene  are unbearable risks, something she wants to distance herself from, doing all she can not to fall into her manipulative ways. But her charm is near impossible to resist, she is more practiced in passing and in getting what she wants, in ways Irene wouldn’t dare imagine.

Three Harlem Renaissance Women 1925Irene has strong and angry thoughts on Claire’s predicament, but in her presence is unable to act in accordance with them. She is stuck between loyalty to her race and guilt at her ability to pass for the thing that so oppresses them.

“Mingled with her disbelief and resentment was another feeling, a question. Why hadn’t she spoken that day? Why, in the face of Bellew’s ignorant hate and aversion, had she concealed her own origin? What had she allowed him to make his assertions and express his misconceptions undisputed?”

The fear Irene has turns it into something of a psychological suspense novel, use of the word dangerous planting the seed of it early on.

“Her brows came together in a tiny frown. The frown, however, was more from perplexity than from annoyance; though there was in her thoughts an element of both. She was wholly unable to comprehend such an attitude towards danger as she was sure the letter’s contents would reveal; and she disliked the idea of opening and reading it.”

Neither woman is totally content with the life decisions they have made, each of them reaching for something that eludes now them, witnessing it in the other, living with a pervasive level of anxiety that threatens to disrupt their lives. Their predicaments provide an insight into the country’s turbulent feelings towards integration and race relations in the 1920 -1930’s

Further Reading

My review of Quicksand by Nella Larsen

My review of From Caucasia With Love by Danza Senna

Lapham’s Quarterly: Passing Through by Michelle Dean: Nella Larsen made a career of not quite belonging

Essay in Electric Literature by Emily Bernard: In Nella Larsen’s ‘Passing,’ Whiteness Isn’t Just About Race

New York Times: Overlooked Obituaries – Nella Larsen (1891-1964) Harlem Renaissance-era writer whose heritage
informed her modernist take on the topic of race by Bonnie Wertheim

Harlem Renaissance Titles Reviewed Here

Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde

Bird Summons by Leila Aboulela

The first book I have read by Leila Aboulela, an author I’ve wanted to read for some time, being someone who grew up in one culture and has experienced life in another, of the variety that interests me, the opposite of the colonial visitor.

There was a time when literary insights into other cultures came predominantly from male explorers of anglo-saxon cultures, now we are increasingly able to read stories of how it is to be a woman coming from an African or Eastern culture or country, living in the West, a blend of the richness in perspective of what they bring and the fresh insights of their encounter with the place and people they have arrived to be among.

Bird Summons was all the better, for telling a tale of three women. They share in common that they belong to the Arabic Speaking Muslim Women’s Group, although they’ve each grown up in different countries. Within their group and from that element they have in common, they challenge and learn from each other.

We witness how their attitudes shift and change as they transform, within this environment they’ve adapted to. One can not live elsewhere and stay fixed in the past and even when one adapts to a new present, it is necessary to continue changing and moving forward, no matter what challenges us from the outside.

Salma has organised a trip for the members of the group to visit the remote site of the grave of Lady Evelyn Cobbold, the first British woman to perform the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, to educate themselves about the history of Islam in Britain, however rumours of its defacement cause some to have doubts, whittling their numbers to just three.

“The attempt of the women to visit Lady Evelyn’s grave is a way of connecting more closely to Britain. Because Lady Evelyn was a Muslim like them, they see her as one of them and it gives them a sense of belonging.

She was also more independent than they are, stronger, more confident, more able. She was a Scottish aristocrat and therefore vastly more entitled than they would ever be. She represents the figure of a leader which is something that they need.” Leila Aboulela

Sometimes adversity offers a gift and rather than an overnight visit, they decide to stay a week at the loch, a resort on the grounds of a converted monastery, from where they can leisurely make their way to the grave.

Each of the three women has a pressing life issue that over the week consumes them, that the other women become aware of, leading them to have a strange, hallucinatory, spiritual experience. As their journey unfolds, they explore how faith, family and culture determine their lives, decisions and futures.

As they travel we get to know their characters, their lives, how attached they are to the place they now call home and the pressures and influences on them that come from the cultures they have left behind. They live at the intersection of a past and present, of who they were and who they are becoming. This holiday will be transformational for all three of them.

“Salma, Moni and Iman are weighed down by their egos, though it might not be apparent to them at first. Like most of us, they see themselves as good people, justified in the positions and decisions they have taken.” Leila Aboulela

Salma was trained as a Doctor in Egypt, leaving her fiance, for David, a British convert who would bring her to Scotland, something her family approved of and she was excited to do, despite being unable to practice her profession. Though successful in her current job as a massage therapist, when Amir starts messaging her, she begins imagining the life she might have had, obsessively checking and replying to the messages.

Moni left a high flying career, her life now revolves around caring for her disabled son Adam, consuming her and pushing her away from her husband who wants them to join him in Saudi Arabia, something Moni rejects because of how she believes Adam will  be perceived, an outcast.

Iman is young, beautiful, unlucky in love and a poor judge of character, the men she has married were stunned by her beauty but possessive.

Surrounded by adulation and comfort, like a pet, she neither bristled nor rebelled. She did, though, see herself growing up, becoming more independent.

Hoopoe bird Bird Summons Leila Aboulela

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And then there is the Hoopoe. The wonderful bird that’ll take some readers on a side journey to find out more. The bird comes to Iman in a dream, recounting fable-like stories.

It spoke a language that she could understand.  It knew her from long ago, it had travelled with her all those miles, never left her side, was always there but only here in this special place, could it make  itself known.

It is one of only three birds mentioned in the Quran, and symbolises tapping into ancient wisdom, probing one’s inner questions for the answers being sought.

The appearance of the Hoopoe late in the novel heralds a period of magic realism, that reminds me of the experience of reading The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree. It comes as a surprise when the woman’s reality shifts, as they shape-shift and are tested within the experience. It is disconcerting for the reader as we too experience the women’s confusion, but I recognise it as part of the cultural experience, of an aspect of traditional storytelling bringing a mythical message-carrying bird into contemporary social relevance.

“The Hoopoe in classical Sufi literature is the figure of the spiritual/religious teacher who imparts wisdom and guidance. However, the Hoopoe’s powers are limited. The women must make their own choices.”

It is a wonderful book of three international women, their journey, which they believe to be a pilgrimage to an important site, which becomes an inner voyage of transformation.

Highly Recommended.

About the Author

Leila Aboulela was born in Cairo and brought up in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. She lived for some years in Aberdeen, Scotland.

Her novels include The Translator (1999), Minaret (2005) and Lyrics Alley (2010) all of which were longlisted for the Orange Prize — and The Kindness of Enemies (2015). Lyrics Alley also won Novel of the Year at the Scottish Book Awards and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize.

“When I write I experience relief and satisfaction that what occupies my mind, what fascinates and disturbs me, is made legitimate by the shape and tension of a story. I want to show the psychology, the state of mind and the emotions of a person who has faith. I am interested in going deep, not just looking at ‘Muslim’ as a cultural or political identity but something close to the centre, something that transcends but doesn’t deny gender, nationality, class and race. I write fiction that reflects Islamic logic; fictional worlds where cause and effect are governed by Muslim rationale. However, my characters do not necessarily behave as ‘good’ Muslims; they are not ideals or role models. They are, as I see them to be, flawed characters trying to practise their faith or make sense of God’s will, in difficult circumstances.”

Further Reading

the punch magazine: interview: Leila Aboulela, Elsewhere, Love

Recollections of My Non-Existence by Rebecca Solnit (Essays)

Rebecca Solnit EssaysThe Circular or Spiral Memoir

Having read a few of Rebecca Solnit’s essay collections, I’m used to her meandering mind or circular style of narrative, so while this has a #memoir tag that might create an expectation of recounting an aspect of the author’s life, Solnit’s essays are rarely linear, less ‘slice of life’ and more like interconnected ‘thought bubbles’.

She starts out recalling her early adult life, eight years in a neighbourhood of San Franscisco, the people she came into contact with, the situations she avoided as a woman, pausing now from years afar wondering about her impact on that neighbourhood, her contribution to its demise, to its gentrification, removing its diversity, colour, vibrancy and ultimately affordability.

The title pays homage to and contrasts Diana di Prima’s Recollections of My Life as a Woman, a feminist beatnik poet I first came across earlier in 2020 when I was reading all I could about 1968, the year she wrote Revolutionary Letters, a series of poems composed of utopian anarchism and ecological awareness, scribbled from a spiritual, feminist perspective. All touch points within Solnit’s repertoire, however she writes in and of a different era, scratching at the wounds of our non-existence, how it has been actively contributed to by others and by her/our own hand.

Our NonExistence

Recalling a sensation of disappearing, as if on the verge of fainting; rather than the world disappearing she senses herself disappear, introducing the metaphor of nonexistence, discovering/exposing the many ways it is enacted.

In those days I was trying to disappear and to appear, trying to be safe and to be someone, and those agendas were often at odds with each other.

Because of the meandering style, it’s not easy to recall which particular vignette or essay has the most impact, however I note that I’ve highlighted 107 passages in the collection, her words provoke, recollect, ignite the reader’s memory, imagination and own experience.

Looking Back At Youth From Ripeness

She struggles writing poetry as a young woman, not doing it well but ferociously, unaware of what or why she was resisting, often resulting in a murky, incoherent, erratic defiance, something she observes today, as young women around her fight those same battles.

The fight wasn’t just to survive bodily, though that could be intense enough, but to survive as a person possessed of rights, including the right to participation and dignity and a voice. More than survive, then: to live.

And though we all know people learn from their own experience, there is something reassuring in reading or hearing of those who’ve trod a similar path; she expresses a desire that young women coming after her might skip some of the old obstacles, some of her writing exists to that end, at least by naming those obstacles.

Women Feminism Rebecca Solnit Silencing

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Discussing harassment and violence towards women, particularly young women, she ponders how and what she is able to do differently being an older woman, compared to how she reacted and behaved in youth.

So much of what makes young women good targets is self-doubt and self-effacement.

Observing how we strengthen our purpose over time, gaining orientation and clarity, she recognises something like ripeness and calm flowing in, as the urgency and naiveté of youth ebb.

I think of her book The Faraway Nearby where she revisited childhood and a difficult mother, unrecognisable in the woman she then tended, neither of them who they once were, there being no longer any need in hanging on to the earlier version. Ripeness was a metaphor here too, one she desired to observe over days, a pile of apricots gifted from her mother, left on the floor of her bedroom, an installation, left to admire, to mature, rot, transform.

Conversation and Research Weave Patterns

Looking back at her evolution as a writer, she recalls the evening conversation that spawned the morningessay ‘Men Explain Things to Me’ that went on to become that new word, now mainstream ‘mansplaining’.

She rereads photocopies of letters in handwriting that is no longer her own, meeting a person who was her, that no longer exists, who didn’t know how to speak.

The young writer I met there didn’t know how to speak from the heart, though I could be affectionate…She was speaking in various voices because she didn’t yet know what voice was hers, or rather she had not yet made one.

Furnishing her mind with readings, they become part of the equipment of imagination, her set of tools for understanding the world, creating patterns, learning enough to “trace paths though the forests of books, learn landmarks and lineages.” She celebrates the pleasure of meeting new voices, ideas and possibilities that help make the world more coherent in some way, extending or filling in the map of one’s universe, grateful for their ability to bring beauty, find pattern and meaning, create joy.

Discussing patterns of how women were portrayed in novels by men she read in the past, she becomes aware of always relating to the part of the male protagonist, usually cast in the preferred heroic role, noting:

‘women devoured to the bone are praised; often those insistent on their own desires and needs are reviled or rebuked for taking up space, making noise. You are punished unless you punish yourself into nonexistence.’

Imagination Rules

It was Nella Larsen, author of Quicksand and Passing who said:

“Authors do not supply imaginations, they expect their readers to have their own, and to use it.”

Rebecca Solnit carries the thought further observing the astonishment of reading:

that suspension of your own time and place to travel into others’. It’s a way of disappearing from where you are…a world arises in your head that you have built at the author’s behest, and when you’re present in that world you’re absent from your own…It’s the reader who brings the book to life.

Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com

She finds research exciting, piecing together a nonfiction narrative like a combination of craft and medicine, of creativity and healing.

Research is often portrayed as dreary and diligent, but for those with a taste for this detective work there’s the thrill of the chase – of hunting data, flushing obscure things out of hiding, of finding fragments that assemble into a picture.

Even if some of this is familiar from previous works, it is the reworking of the landscape of her mind, the rearranging of those experiences, interviews, a more mature awareness and wakefulness that makes her work so readable, engaging and accessible and relevant to what is happening in the fast changing world we inhabit.

Nonfiction is at its best an act of putting the world back together – or tearing some piece of it apart to find what’s hidden beneath the assumptions or conventions…recognizing the patterns that begin to arise as the fragments begin to assemble.

For all it’s circular loops and spiral reasoning, its patterns and weaving, I appreciate the web Rebecca Solnit has created in this collection, threads linking across and around its intersections, leaving something fully formed at its conclusion.

Highly Recommended.

Rebecca Solnit Books I’ve Reviewed Here

The Faraway Nearby

The Mother of All Questions

Buy a Rebecca Solnit Book