With her first book, the environmentalist established herself as both a scientist and literary genius, writes Linda Lear
February 21, 2016 12:00 AM
Courtesy of the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives, Connecticut College
Rachel Carson in 1949 aboard the Albatross II, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service vessel sailing out of Woods Hole, Mass.
"Under the Sea-Wind" by Rachel Carson
By Linda Lear
Although Rachel Carson is best known for her seminal work “Silent Spring,” this year marks the 75th anniversary of her remarkable literary debut, “Under the Sea-Wind,” published on the eve of World War II in November 1941.
It was very much a product of its time and reflected both anxiety about the future and optimism about nature’s resilience. Carson would become more pessimistic by the time “Silent Spring” appeared in 1962.
“Under the Sea-Wind” contains some of Carson’s finest nature writing, and years later, it remained her personal favorite. This scientifically incisive but elegiac account of life “under the sea” reminds us of our shared participation in the eternal cycles of life and death. Its message perhaps resonates even more today than when it first appeared.
Carson had every reason to anticipate a warm critical reception to her first book. However, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, coming barely a month after publication, turned the public’s attention from the rhythms of the natural world to the chaos of war. Carson’s stellar work was drowned in Armageddon. Barely 2,000 copies were sold before the book went out of print.
“Under the Sea-Wind” chronicles the dangerous, unpredictable “world of waters,” but its message is ultimately reassuring. Nature’s immutable laws forever govern the planet, even in the face of geopolitical and environmental uncertainty. Carson relates an amazing adventure in the ecology of air and water but stops short of anthropomorphizing the myriad denizens of the undersea world. The book introduces two of Carson’s most enduring literary themes: the symbiotic relationships of ocean life that have endured for eons and the concept of material immortality — the idea that the death of one creature plays a direct role in the life of another, even for the tiniest of organisms.
Her story features three protagonists: a black skimmer on its annual long-distance migration; a mackerel living in the open sea, hoping to reproduce and survive; and an eel that travels from inland river estuaries to the deepest abyss of the ocean. But the central character is always the sea itself.
Although Carson acknowledges that the cycles of life and death are inevitable, she is deeply conscious of the fact that human activity impinges on the lives lived in the “sea-wind.” The lack of nesting habitat for migratory birds, the over-development of coastal areas, the destruction of flyways, the changes in the salinity and temperature of seawater and the pollution of rivers are just some of the problems she addresses. Sadly, these encroachments are even more of a threat today.
The undersea adventure Carson writes of so vividly reveals the breadth of her understanding of the natural world. A student of birds as a young girl growing up in Springdale, she did graduate work in zoology at Johns Hopkins University, studying the morphology of the catfish. Later, as a fisheries biologist, she sailed the Georges Bank, off the Massachusetts coast, with colleagues from the Woods Hole Marine Biological Station and was dazzled by the haul of life that poured up from the depths.
But when Carson began writing what would become “Under the Sea-Wind” in the late 1930s, she was an unemployed zoologist and freelance writer for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries who was assigned to write radio scripts on ocean life. By night, she earned money turning out articles on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay for The Baltimore Sun. At a time when science was predominantly a male endeavor, she wrote under the byline “R.L. Carson,” hoping readers would mistake her sex and take her science seriously.
Her assignment at Fisheries was to write an introduction to sea life for a new brochure. What Carson submitted to her bureau chief, however, was literature, not “governmentese.” Encouraged by his enthusiasm, Carson sent it to The Atlantic, where it was published as an essay in 1937 and drew critical interest. It established Carson as a writer with a voice at once scientifically accurate and poetic —.and inspired her to write ”Under the Sea-Wind.”
Her expertise was not that unusual for the time. However, her wonder and delight were, and they marked her attitude toward her research and her prose. Carson found something she loved to write about but also the medium through which she could share her vision of nature’s oneness.
Certainly, Carson’s prose, in this and subsequent works, was influenced by the romantic school of nature writing exemplified by the Englishman Richard Jefferies. In her effort to make the sea and its life a reality, Carson asks her reader to imagine what it is to be a creature of the air and of the sea and also to abandon the human yardstick of time. Light and darkness and the ebb and flow of tides are the calculations that matter to the denizens of the sea-wind. It was a good exercise for people living in a world that never slows down and where the lights never go off.
More difficult for writer and reader alike, however, was Carson’s decision to give her creatures human traits and expressions. This was not acceptable in most scientific writing at the time. “I have spoken,” she writes, “of a fish 'fearing’ his enemies… not because I suppose a fish experiences fear in the same way we do, but because I think he behaves as though he were frightened.”
That was a risk in Carson’s day, but thankfully, no longer. In fact, “Under the Sea-Wind” helped pave the way for discoveries by biologists such as Carl Safina, whose 2015 book “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” explains how even fish feel pain, suggesting Carson was ahead of her time even in this.
And author Deborah Cramer, very much a Carson-like writer and naturalist, writes in “The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, an Ancient Crab and an Epic Journey” of the fragile symbiotic relationship between the ancient and once-abundant horseshoe crab and the global circumnavigation of the tiny bird called the red knot. Both creatures are threatened by the insatiable demands of modern medicine. It is a topic that would surely be close to Carson’s heart.
The freshness that Carson brought to her account of the cycles of seasons and struggle for survival marks “Under the Sea-Wind” as in some ways her most successful book. Republished in 1952, it appeared on The New York Times Best Sellers list simultaneously with her internationally acclaimed “The Sea Around Us.” The Times noted then, “Once or twice in a generation does the world get a physical scientist with literary genius.”
Drawing upon her own experience, Carson wrote movingly, “To stand at the edge of the sea, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines for untold millions of years, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be. They continue year in and year out through the centuries and the ages, while kingdoms rise and fall.”
This is the reaffirmation of life that Carson’s words still evoke, and why “Under the Sea-Wind” should be read again and again. From her response to this stream of life, we, too, can take hope in possibility.
Linda Lear (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of "Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature." Her donation of Carson materials and other historic items created the Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives at Connecticut College. Her most recent book is “Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature.”
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