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

Three Ways to Disappear by Katy Yocom

Sarah has recently left journalism due to her frustration at not being able to do more than just tell a story. The forced abandonment her profession demands, the development of a journalists detachment that enables them to walk away and move on to the next story isn’t in her. She resigns.

In her confusion about what to do next Sarah decides to return to the country where she spent her early childhood, where mysteries about their time there still remain. India.

Protecting Bengal Tigers in India

She joins a tiger protection organisation in Ranthambore National Park and helps raise awareness of the issues of a community, where humans, their animals and wildlife compete for scarce resources, land and water. There is tension between those trying to protect the tigers and those trying to keep their animals alive, where water is scarce and the lake is a forbidden zone to them.

Sarah’s twin bother Marcus died of cholera when they were children, her mother fled with Sarah and her sister Quinn, leaving her husband and returned to America. All three of them have different perspectives on what happened that day, and Sarah’s move back begins to unravel the shadow that has remained with them all.

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Sarah provokes controversy after taking a photo of a poacher that becomes evidence and lands him in jail, leaving his wife and children in difficulty and when she rescues a cub that has fallen into the river. Her actions raise her profile in the wider community, in some ways helpful to the organisation but in other ways endangering her.

Her involvement with one of her colleagues creates further complications, highlighting cultural taboos she is determined to overcome. The scheme she comes up with to resolve those issues is well-intended, requiring a stretch of the imagination to accept.

It’s a thought provoking novel that looks at how our environment has changed as species are hunted into extinction, how overpopulation and the need to survive means that humans compete with wildlife for scarce resources and how cross cultural alliances can be sabotaged by those whose worldview favours domination, or nurtured by those seeking partnership.

How We Disappear

Three Ways Humans Disappear – sickness, accident, violence
Three Ways Animals Disappear – hunted, starvation, genetic extinction

I’m still thinking about the meaning of the title as it can be interpreted in a number of ways that aren’t made clear in the text, but it made me think about how humans disappear and how animal species disappear. It seems it remains a mystery to the author as well.

“The title is a bit of a mystery even to me! I originally chose “Three” because the family in the story has three children, and “disappear” because of the threat of extinction to the tiger. But there are so many ways to disappear: for instance, through death, or by withdrawing from relationships. And as time goes by, the meaning of the title shifts a bit. Currently I think one interpretation of three ways to disappear would be physically, emotionally, and spiritually,” Yocom explained.

It took me a while to get into the book and there was some discomfort for me around the white saviour trope and although the main protagonist had spent some of her childhood in India, she didn’t feel natural to the environment, nor was her presence really appreciated, she was seen as another threat, as her first published photograph proved. Equally the love story. Overall it was an enjoyable read despite its flaws.

Environmental Literature

It reminded me of The Tusk That Did the Damage, a novel set in South India that explores the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker and an elephant.

The tigress in this story Machli is based on a real tiger with the same name who lived in the lakes region of Ranthambore and was observed and photographed by the author in 2006.

This book won the Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature and is published by Ashland Creek Press, who publish “books that foster an appreciation for worlds outside our own, for nature and the animal kingdom, for the creative process, and for the ways in which we connect.”

It also won a First Horizon Award, a prize for debut authors bestowed by the Eric Hoffer Book Award. The EHBA honors books from small, academic, and independent presses.

Further Reading

EcoLit Books: An Interview and Q & A with Katy Yocom

N.B. This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher.

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James

Elephants Ivory Poaching India Environmental LiteratureTania James’s The Tusk That Did the Damage is a story about a couple of very young American film-makers who travel to a  Keralan wildlife park in South India to make a documentary about a veterinarian they’ve heard of, who rescues orphaned elephants. One of those orphaned elephants is now on the loose and is being pursued by poachers.

The young elephant orphaned after the brutal death of its mother, initially seized as a baby by poachers earns the name Gravedigger after developing a reputation for covering his human victims with leaves and dirt after death. Having escaped captivity he is being pursued by poachers, a significant price on his head.

Manu is the younger brother of a poacher, disturbed by what he discovers his brother is up to and the lies he tells his wife to cover for his absences. For the sake of his mother, who pleads with him to watch over her eldest son, he follows his brother on this last deadly pursuit, to try to ensure his safety; he knows the danger very well as his best friend was one of the victims of Gravedigger, but he hopes to keep his brother out of danger and trouble.

It is a story of a tribe of elephants in South India, who have lost their ability to roam freely and live as their nature intended, forever changed by their interactions with humans, it is also about those who wish to care for and protect elephants, those who are willing to exploit them and outsiders looking for a sensational story to bolster their careers.

Remembering India

Remembering India

It is a clash of cultures, of people and species who have forgotten how to live in harmony and are having to live with the consequences of their behaviours.

The narrative follows the elephant they name Gravedigger, the film maker Emma and Manu, the younger brother of the ivory poacher.

“Fresh out of college, we’d been looking for a subject for our first documentary feature when I learned about Ravi from an inflight magazine. The photos of fuzzy elephant calves hooked me for the usual cutesy reasons; the description of the veterinary doctor glowed with dramatic potential.”

The story moves between the three narratives, following their lives, looking back at the events that have shaped them until now, leading them towards each other and the inevitable confrontations that beckon.

“The trouble began when my mother found a pouch of bullets in Jayan’s cabinet – thick and crude as if sawed from a steering rod – and thrust the pouch at my father. She felt it a father’s duty to straighten out a wayward son even if the father himself was wayward past hope.”

There is an authenticity to the narrative of the younger brother that has the effect of drawing the reader deep into the lives of his family and neighbours, that his story involves more than just himself may be one of the reasons I was captivated by these sections.

The insights into the perceptions from the elephants point of view are sensitively if briefly handled, I wished this narrative voice could have been even stronger.

“I had never stood in such intimate company with a wild bull elephant or felt its breath steaming upon my face, had never watched the ground beneath my feet fall away until all that remained was the small patch on which I stood trembling. How could a man survive such a thing unchanged? How could he glimpse that unholy omen, a warning as ancient as the oldest of fables, as obvious as a black-bellied cloud, and ignore it?”

An Outsiders Perspective

The film-makers felt unnatural in the environment, lacking understanding, empathy and not spending sufficient time to learn anything, they were the major weakness in the narrative for me. It is interesting having recently read Yasmina Khadra’s The African Equation, that both authors depict a similar stereotype of the Westerner entering into a foreign culture for a short period of time, insufficient to be able to able to understand it from the inside and this case, perhaps not wishing to see it in any other way that a sensational one.

 

It might be time for me to read  Tété-Michel Kpomassie’s An African in Greenland, brought to my attention by Ann Morgan, in her A Year of Reading the World project.

The author ran away from his native Togo, to avoid having to be initiated into a snake cult and after reading a children’s book about a place called Greenland that had no snakes, he made that his destination. For the next twelve years, he travelled overland working his way towards his destination, sharing his observations and experiences. Not just an adventure, his book published in 1977 in France won a literary prize and since Ann Morgan read and reviewed it, the story has been picked up by a film producer.

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Note: The Tusk That Did the Damage was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.