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
In 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.
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.
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
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
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
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I’m so glad you reviewed this! I have all of her books and this is my favorite. She was such a pioneer in so many ways and died way too soon. I’m always heartened that this book became a bestseller in the ’50’s–people care about the ocean, origins, science. Always have (not that the ’50’s are the beginning of time LOL) and always will. With ‘Silent Spring’ I’m struck by her expose of exactly what is still happening today. How corporations tried to discredit her, calling her a crazy old cat lady just so they could profit at any cost: environmental destruction, the deaths of Americans. She will always be a hero and always be pertinent.
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I’m not surprised this is your favourite, this is probably the one I was originally looking for, the creative nonfiction narrative of the sea, but wanted to slow read them all over time and eventually get to Silent Spring, which is the protest after sharing with us all we know about the sea, her creatures and our interdependence.
Her life was short, but what great work she did and how fortunate we are to have this trilogy and the one that helped trigger the environmental movement. She fulfilled her purpose well and I just learned that the book she was working on for her grandnephew has also been published. Such a great role model, and important, beautifully rendered work.
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Yes, I agree! I will never tire of reading her books. I want to visit Maine because of her!
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Was that from reading A Sense of Wonder? I have a good friend who lives in Maine, so here’s another good reason to visit in the future, if we are ever allowed to travel again.
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Sense of Wonder and Silent Spring–in SS she goes in depth on how the pesticide companies were ruining her beautiful state. And the companies turned around and tried to brand her a crazy spinster cat lady once they realized SS was a runaway hit. Speaking of spring, I don’t think we’ll be traveling until spring 2021. Absolute madness happening here.
Sensible not to, many have been coming here and the consequences are beginning to be felt.
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You make this sound so absorbing, Claire – almost prescient in a way, given when it was written. Oddly enough, I don’t read non-fiction very often; but when I do, I almost always enjoy it. Maybe I’ll add Carson to my list of ‘must-try’ writers – she always seems to generate very positive reviews.
If you read my review of her debut you’ll see how I was on the hunt for a lyrical nature writer who makes the sea her subject, hence I came across her trilogy and read Under The Sea-Wind which I loved.
I think it helps to have a love of the sea, certainly she is more well known for her later work, but this is where her true passion lay, in the beauty and fascination of the sea, her inhabitants and those living on the edge of it. It gets a little scientific in parts but never too much, for she was even criticised in her job for being too literary with her prose. Fortunately for us.
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