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Under the Sea-wind: A Naturalist's Picture of Ocean Life

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Editor’s note: To celebrate Women’s History Month, expatalachians will publish a series of stories focusing on Appalachian women throughout March. Celebrating the mystery and beauty of birds and sea creatures in their natural habitat, Under the Sea-Wind—Rachel Carson’s first book and her personal favorite—is the early masterwork of one of America’s greatest nature writers. Shoals of young herring . . . with bodies flashing bronze and silver in the sun, appeared to the watching sea birds like dark clouds ruffling to a deep blue the smooth sheet of the sea.

Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) was an American marine biologist and conservationist whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement. A number of inferences follow from this precise—and innovative—use of point-of-view. First, that the way one species sees another can be imagined, or at least is important to attempt imagining. Second, that the careful nature writer should not tell her own story or project any subjectivity into it, should in fact work hard to avoid it—just as any scrupulous scientist would. Nevertheless, thirdly, we need to imagine what happens—especially things that occur underwater or are otherwise remote from us in space and time—things which we cannot see, will never see, or may only conjecture. In fact there is no science without imagination. Carson often said as much herself, in her Preface to The Edge of the Sea in 1955 for example: In beautiful lyrical prose, Rachel L. Carson in Under the Sea Wind stirs the imagination with her portrayal of the endlessness of life and death in the sea. For the sea was the cradle of all life, and still is a shelter for an endless array of living forms in the most eternal cycle of life that is to be found on earth. Rachel Carson—pioneering environmentalist and author of Silent Spring—opens our eyes to the wonders of the natural world in her groundbreaking paean to the sea. The story manages the most delicate of balances imaginable; it shows us the danger, savagery and fury of the natural Atlantic world, fish and birds die, hunting and predation are not sugar coated in any way, but the telling is so meticulous that reading the ways of the sea is at worst bitter sweet and it never becomes depressing. Another tactic of the author is to give us one or two 'characters' to follow through the story. This is masterly, because much as I love reading about marine life, following an individual lets one immerse in the story rather than feeling as though one is reading a textbook.According to environmental engineer and Carson scholar H. Patricia Hynes, "Silent Spring altered the balance of power in the world. No one since would be able to sell pollution as the necessary underside of progress so easily or uncritically." Chambers, John Whiteclay II, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999, 819-830. After 10 years of uneventful river habitation, the eels are drawn by instinct downriver returning to their place of birth, a deep abyss near the Sargasso Sea where they will spawn and die. It is the most remarkable journey, as is that of the newborn spawn originating from two continents, who float side by side and drift towards those same coastal rivers their parents swam from, a voyage of years and over time the two species will separate and veer towards their continent, the US or Europe. Rachel Carson: The Sea Trilogy is kept in print by a gift to the Guardians of American Letters Fund from The Gould Family Foundation, which also provided project support for the volume. In “The Art of Fiction” (1884), James wrote, “The only obligation to which in advance we may hold a novel . . . is that it be interesting.”

Under the Sea-Wind reveals Carson’s literary genius. Through clear language, personification, and vivid description, she brings the ocean to us on land. Under the Sea-Wind is the deepest immersion in the sea without going scuba diving. Although the bodies of the shrimp were transparent they appeared to the gulls like a cloud of moving red dots . . . Now in the darkness these spots glowed with a strong phosphorescence as the shrimp darted about in the waters of the cove, mingling their fires with the steely green flashes of the ctenophores [comb jellies] . . . The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began. Nature writing at its best in vivid, lyrical prose. She writes about ocean and shore life so you feel you are there. The reader follows birds, fish, crustaceans and even eel! You follow an interlude in these creatures’ respective lives. It is utterly amazing the extent to which Carson makes the reader feel part of their aquatic existence. Violent storms, dense fog and lulling, lapping seas under blue skies. Predators and prey, the cycle of life to death to food and new life.


The third book was The Edge of the Sea in which we are, once again, in practical ecology style writing. In many ways it feels more like a textbook that the first book, even, because there are long lists of animals to get through at times. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... As I was finishing this book I was reflecting on how much of Carson's writing I found familiar - and then it dawned on me just how much of the world does not live close to the coast; how many people have never witnessed anything she describes first-hand. To them this book must feel like reading a piece of science fiction describing another world.

Rachel Carson, writer, scientist, and ecologist, grew up simply in the rural river town of Springdale, Pennsylvania. Her mother bequeathed to her a life-long love of nature and the living world that Rachel expressed first as a writer and later as a student of marine biology. Carson graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) in 1929, studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, and received her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. And the eels lay offshore in the March sea, waiting for the time when they should enter the waters of the land, the sea, too, lay restless, awaiting the time when once more it should encroach upon the coastal plain, and creep up the sides of the foothills, and lap at the bases of the mountain ranges. Much more—one beautiful passage after another, in fact—might be quoted from this chapter as it rises to its peroration—tide pools have very nearly taken over the whole book. And why not? So many of Carson’s deepest reflections are here. Carson continues her marine expedition farther and deeper into the ocean, to return in the final paragraphs to this central interconnectedness of life — perhaps, she poetically suggests, our only real taste of immortality:Between 1964 and 1990, 650 acres (3 km2) near Brookeville in Montgomery County, Maryland were acquired and set aside as the Rachel Carson Conservation Park, administered by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. In 1969, the Coastal Maine National Wildlife Refuge became the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge; expansions will bring the size of the refuge to about 9,125 acres (37 km2). In 1985, North Carolina renamed one of its estuarine reserves in honor of Carson, in Beaufort. Under the Sea-Wind captures the beauty, violence, and complexity of the sea and life connected to it. The book reveals the interconnectedness of nature, which includes humans. We are part of the never-ending drama that makes the sea a magical, mysterious, and merciless place. Through her gift as a writer and knowledge of the sea, Carson reminds us land-bound creatures—even those of us nestled in the Appalachian mountains—that our world extends beyond the land to the depths of the sea.

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