The Sea According to Rachel Carson

The Many Moods

Rachel Carson’s sea.


Rachel Carson was a passionate and poetic writer, but she was not a particularly subtle one. When she set out to write a book, it did not end until the mountains had crumpled into the sea, all organisms dead or alive had vanished therein, and the form of life itself on Earth had been radically altered. Before Carson wrote her most influential book, Silent Spring, she wrote three thrilling books on the ocean’s creative power over all of life’s forms, each of them ending just this way.

Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), about the migratory patterns of fish and birds along North America’s Atlantic coast, concludes: “For once more the mountains would be worn away by the endless erosion of water and carried in silt to the sea, and once more all the coast would be water again, and the places of its cities and towns would belong to the sea.” A decade later she published the National Book Award–winning The Sea Around Us (1951), whose final sentence is: “For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.” And in 1955 her ode to shoreline ecologies, The Edge of the Sea, was yet another return to form: “As the years pass, and the centuries merge into the unbroken stream of time, these architects of coral reef and mangrove swamp build toward a shadowy future. But neither the corals nor the mangroves, but the sea itself will determine when that which they build will belong to the land, or when it will be reclaimed for the sea.”

Unlike 1962’s Silent Spring, her subversive argument against the overuse of insecticides, widely credited as a crucial step toward the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, Carson’s first three books—recently collected by the Library of America under the moniker The Sea Trilogy—are neither calls to political action nor calls for social change. In her second and third books, there are references to the rising and warming seas, but a man-made explanation for this isn’t put forth. Nor is there a sense of nostalgia or fatalism in these lines, some desperate desire to reach for a pristine refuge or nihilistically hasten our demise.

For so many writers, the sea has been a beautiful, convenient image for evoking the mystery of human interiority. The sea that the narrators of countless novels have gazed out upon is like the surface of a vast, twinkling unconscious from which fathomless stories are trawled, then lowered once more. But for Carson, the sea connects rather than isolates, reveals rather than obscures. It is the substance of every story she tells. The earth’s ecological systems, which she often refers to in her oceanic writings as “life itself,” provided her with a menagerie of fascinating terms by which to better understand the boundless energy and imagination of the sea and everything under its domain—the human and nonhuman life it sustained, punished, and inspired. Carson devoted her life to the sea as a scientist, but also for the same reasons that most serious writers commit to their subjects: because to her it was inescapable.

Rachel Carson was born in 1907 in the landlocked town of Springdale, Pa., but her life flowed inexorably toward the sea. William Souder recounts in his 2012 biography of Carson, On a Farther Shore, that money was “precarious” in her household when she was growing up; the sole child in her family to finish high school, she attended the Pennsylvania College for Women on a combination of scholarship funds, sales of family heirlooms, and student debt. There she majored in English, favoring Shakespeare, Dickens, Milton, and Twain, and tried her hand at short fiction, poetry, and reporting.

It was the idea of being a writer that captivated her first, from a young age, but it wasn’t until she began taking classes with an enigmatic biology professor named Mary Scott Skinker that Carson developed her famous sense of aim, switching her major to biology. (Souder writes bathetically that Skinker “exuded an airy, incorporeal remoteness that may have been due to the fact that she was nearsighted and refused to wear glasses.”) Carson grew close to Skinker and described her in a letter to a friend as “a perfect knockout.” In another letter to a friend around this time, Carson confessed that she had always wanted to write. “But I don’t have much imagination,” she went on. “Biology has given me something to write about.” Another moment of inspiration came when she read Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” for the first time. Glossing past the poem’s imperialist overtones, she fixated on its oceanic metaphors: “Let [thunder] fall on Locksley Hall, with rain or hail, or fire or snow / For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.” These lines hardened her purpose, to write about a place that so far existed in her imagination alone and yet seemed to connect her to the entire world.

Carson first laid eyes on the Atlantic Ocean after she graduated, while traveling by boat from Manhattan to New Bedford, Mass., on the way to a summer job at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. There she discovered she didn’t enjoy working in a lab nearly as much as she did observing, studying, and writing about nature. (In The Edge of the Sea she even expresses disgust at the thought that she might “collect” a starfish on the beach: “to disturb such a being would have seemed a desecration.”) She studied the migratory behaviors of eels in graduate school at Johns Hopkins (while working part-time as a lab assistant at the medical school, where she presided over rat and fruit fly colonies), but then left in 1935 without a doctorate to work at the US Bureau of Fisheries in Baltimore. Linda Lear recounts in her 1997 biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature that Carson’s supervisor, Elmer Higgins, asked her to write an introduction to one of the bureau’s brochures. The resulting 11-page piece, “The World of Waters,” impressed Higgins, but he ultimately rejected it, finding the text too literary for government purposes.

Higgins advised her to submit it as an essay to The Atlantic Monthly, and it appeared in the September 1937 issue as “Undersea,” under the byline R.L. Carson, to cloak her gender. The article was a deft, engrossing survey of aquatic life, which the assigning editor praised for its ability to “fire the imagination of the layman” on issues of scientific importance. Carson had already been freelancing for a few years, writing scenic accounts of fishing and wildlife for local papers like The Baltimore Sun, but it was the Atlantic piece that caught the eye of an editor at Simon & Schuster, which eventually published her debut, Under the Sea-Wind. The book was critically acclaimed but sold poorly in its first run (Carson’s biographers point to the unfortunate timing of its release a month before the bombing of Pearl Harbor). Convinced she couldn’t make ends meet as an author, Carson continued to hold down various bureaucratic jobs and write freelance articles by night, until in 1948 she signed with the literary agent Marie Rodell and began working on her second book. With the royalties from The Sea Around Us, a best-seller that brought her a wider readership and acclaim (thanks in part to the book’s serialization in The New Yorker), Carson purchased a house in the tiny Maine summer colony of Southport Island. Her 250 fellow year-round Southport dwellers included Margaret Hamilton, best known for portraying the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz.

It was here that Carson met and began an intense friendship with Dorothy and Stanley Freeman, nature enthusiasts who were fans of her first two books. She dedicated her third book, The Edge of the Sea, to the couple, “who have gone down with me into the low-tide world and have felt its beauty and mystery,” but it was only Dorothy whom she fell in love with, and who fell in love with her. The two began exchanging emphatic love letters (often enfolded in family correspondences addressed to Stanley), which indicate they met many times alone. The various books and articles on Carson have often been coy about her sexuality: She was secretive about her private life, worked in a heavily male-dominated field, and died in 1964 at the age of 56, a few years before the ascendancy of the gay liberation movement.

In the nine years between the publication of The Edge of the Sea and her death from breast cancer, Carson’s reputation grew and changed drastically. The writer known during much of her life for her erudite portraits of nature achieved a level of celebrity and political influence that had seemed unimaginable. Yet it does not detract from the immense accomplishment of Silent Spring to know her also by the passions that defined her life, if not her legacy. Carson’s editor at Houghton Mifflin, Paul Brooks, told Sue Hubbell, who wrote the introduction to The Edge of the Sea’s second edition, that Carson had “talked for years about doing a book that was vast and unfocused, that was about Life Itself.” Brooks wasn’t in favor of the idea, but William Shawn, who brought Carson’s work to The New Yorker, wanted her to write next about the entire “universe.”

According to Brooks, Carson requested that a piece of her writing about the sea be read at the funeral. The selection—which ultimately wasn’t read, though it’s not clear why—came from a coda to The Edge of the Sea that’s pure poetic flourish reminiscent of a sermon, which speaks of distant coasts “made one by the unifying touch of the sea” and “the stream of life, flowing as inexorably as any ocean current, from past to unknown future.”

Of all her books, Carson’s first, Under the Sea-Wind, reads the most like a collection of fictional stories, yet it features the least human interiority. Its three sections follow a cast of 13 enigmatically named characters (Silverbar the sanderling, Lophius the angler fish, Ookpik the snow owl) and myriad unnamed creatures of the western Atlantic as they fulfill their migratory destinies between the Arctic and the Florida Keys. It is a meticulously researched feat of nature writing told in a roving close third person that assumes the consciousness of its animal characters. Yet there’s nothing so fantastical about it; her animals don’t have language, but they do possess memory, appetites, preferences, ancestries, and enemies.

The book begins at night on the shores of an unnamed island that “lay across a quiet sound from which the banks shouldered away the South Atlantic rollers.” Dispensing with the pretense of direct observation allows the narrator to see deeply into her environment, reinforcing the imaginative properties of the narrative from the outset. A rat “crafty with the cunning of years and filled with the lust for blood” approaches the water “along a path which his feet and his thick tail had worn to a smooth track through the grass.” We can hear “the elfin shuffle” of a hermit crab across the sand, watch the eels feast “royally” on the plunder in a fisherman’s nets, and mark that all the while “the wind was asleep.”

In later passages, Carson’s descriptions of the smallest creatures—even those invisible to the eye—are often her most ingenious. She conjures owl eggs dying in Arctic snows: “As the snow fell on the still-warm eggs and the hard, bitter cold of the night gripped them, the life fires of the tiny embryos burned low.” On dunes, “beach grasses lean in the wind and with their pointed tips write endless circles in the sand.” My favorite passage follows some newly hatched eel larvae as they drift on the open sea: “Billions of young eels—billions of pairs of black, pinprick eyes peering into the strange sea world that overlay the abyss.”

A change in nature is always a site of spectacle for Carson, a motif throughout her work that begins in Under the Sea-Wind with a series of costume changes. Eels “in silvery wedding dress” swim back out to sea. And this is how she describes the onset of autumn: “Let the green pigments fade. Put on the reds and yellows, then let the leaves fall, too, and the stalks wither away. Summer is dying.” Another, more contrived construction that binds her three sea books together is her penchant for using a “tall man” as her favorite unit of measurement: An eel appears that’s “as long as a man is tall and thick and drab as a piece of fire hose,” and later the fin of an orca is “as high as a tall man.” The Edge of the Sea introduces us to knotted wrack (a kind of seaweed) that “may grow taller than the tallest man,” to sea whips “as tall as a man,” and so forth.

Speaking of men, a few do appear in Under the Sea-Wind, but they are not afforded the privilege of destinies or names. We encounter them mainly on a fishing vessel in the book’s final section, which is devoted to the lives of eels. Like a child in a school play who has but one line shakily delivered, the lookout of the vessel shouts: “Mackerel!” Otherwise he does not speak, and his consciousness, such as it is, thinks of nothing but what might occupy a mackerel’s mind. He “sometimes thought about fish as he looked at them on deck or being iced down in the hold,” Carson writes. “What had the eyes of the mackerel seen? Things he’d never see; places he’d never go.” There is a sense here, as throughout her writing, that human life is dependent on all that is nonhuman. Meanwhile, the extent to which the opposite is true becomes a matter of attention paid. Humans are animals that perceive and think about nature; the use of these faculties have the power to keep ecologies in balance. So, in Carson’s schema, it is human forgetfulness, sloth, disinterest, and greed that have undone this pact. “In an age when man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival,” Carson writes in Silent Spring, “water along with other resources has become the victim of his indifference.”

The Sea Around Us has ambitions of a wider scope: It is Carson’s lyrical biography of the ocean (the first word in her alphabetical glossary is “abyss”). Here she hits on a style and form that will more or less characterize all her subsequent books. The chapters are messily arranged by phenomena, build on one another, repeat sentiments, and read as one flowing narrative rather than a collection of distinct essays. The voice is just as florid as in Sea-Wind, but more assured, and Carson puts less distance between herself and the reader, so that she is more like a teacher guiding us through the world than an author constructing one for us. This helps with concepts that are even harder to visualize than eel larvae, like the creation of the world, the rise and fall of islands, and the force of tides.

Carson rarely refers to herself in the first person or reveals anything about herself directly, but you can tell it’s downright painful for her to imagine the earth before there was any water on it. “A Stygian world of heated rock and swirling clouds and gloom,” she calls it. But then the rains fell, and “never have there been such rains since that time.” Nor can she ever, not once, contain her passion for the moon: She bestows upon the celestial body her highest honor—making it the condition of possibility for the sea itself. She writes that the moon “may have been born of a great tidal wave of earthly substance, torn off into space…. [I]f the moon was formed in this fashion, the event may have had much to do with shaping the ocean basins and the continents as we know them.” Another obsession is sediments, which she is always likening to books whose pages she longs to skim, and once to “a sort of epic poem of the earth.”

It’s in this book, too, that she continues working at her great theme—hinted at in Sea-Wind and immortalized in Silent Spring—of life’s interconnectedness. “For the globe as a whole, the ocean is the great regulator,” Carson writes. Change is as inevitable as the big herring eating the tiny mackerel spawn, but it relies on patterns of monumental proportions to continuously reproduce life, and it’s these patterns that are examined in The Sea Around Us: the sea’s temperature, its topography, its currents. Were the oceans to rise merely 100 feet, she observes, “the surf would break against the foothills of the Appalachians.” Another 500 feet and “the Appalachians would become a chain of mountainous islands.”

Of course, the oceanic balances of power seem stable only when one looks at them as if from space, and Carson views the sea primarily as a network of transformations and tumults, especially at its boundaries. The Edge of the Sea—the most gorgeous, memoiristic, and riotous of The Sea Trilogy—is her book about the interdependency and resilience of marginal nonhuman life. “Nowhere on the shore is the relation of a creature to its surroundings a matter of a single cause and effect,” Carson writes; “each living thing is bound to its world by many threads.” Entire communities develop in the debris of mussel shells, “a sort of understory inhabited by a variety of animals including worms, crustaceans, echinoderms.” A tiny fish called the Nomeus lives among the tentacles of the poisonous Portuguese man-of-war, even though “some recent workers contend that the fish has no immunity whatever, and that every live Nomeus is simply a very lucky fish.”

Carson refines her idea of the sea as a great drama full of alliances, clashes, and anxieties, every ounce of water a voiceless, teeming argument. “In the sea there are mysterious comings and goings, both in space and time: the movements of migratory species, the strange phenomenon of succession by which, in one and the same area, one species appears in profusion, flourishes for a time, and then dies out, only to have its place taken by another and then another, like actors in a pageant passing before our eyes.” This methodical striving often plays out behind curtains of sand, water, and darkness. “Invisibly, where the casual observer would say there is no life, it lies deep in the sand, in burrows and tubes and passageways.” Sea urchins are bound to their preferred tidal level by “invisible ties.” And when the day is done, “a dream world inhabited by creatures that move sluggishly or not at all…comes swiftly to life.”

As if unable to resist the urge, Carson turns several times to her favorite tidal pools along the coast of Maine in some of the book’s most personal passages. One lies in a cave, a flickering, liminal space that cannot be entered except during certain low tides. Another reflects the sky and is inhabited by comb jellies, algae, and mussels whose shells are “the misty blue of distant mountain ranges.” Carson finds herself contemplating the beauty of a third pool, which she likens to a landscape painting of “hills and valleys with scattered forests.” She attributes this artistry to the pool itself, which, like a painter, “creates the image and the impression.”

Then she begins to wonder about the life of this great artist. What really can be known of her? Carson notes that the pool has “many moods,” that her tides ebb and flow with “the raw materials” of life, that most of her is invisible to the human eye. On this moonlit night, she’s drawn a masterpiece from her depths; tomorrow she will continue remaking the world in her image.

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