Readers of the Atlantic Monthly opened their magazines in September 1937 to find this opening paragraph in an article titled “Undersea,” written by one R. L. Carson: “Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swell of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere. Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor, where the sunlight, filtering through a hundred feet of water, makes but a fleeting, bluish twilight, in which swell sponge and mollusk and starfish and coral, where swarms of diminutive fish twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal night.”
It was Rachel Carson’s debut in a national publication, and, as she later said, “everything else followed.” But not without a long wait.
In part one of this two-part study of Carson’s early writing, based on her studies of the Bay, we focused mostly on her articles for theBaltimore Sun. This time we’ll look first at Carson’s writings as an employee of the Bureau of Fisheries (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and then at excerpts from her award-winning 1951 best-seller,
The Sea Around Us.
In 1935, as a young biologist and writer for Fisheries, Carson had submitted an early version of what eventually became the Atlantic article as part of a series of conservation bulletins on regional fisheries. Her boss rejected the writing as too lyrical for a government publication, but recognized its quality and suggested she submit it instead to the
Atlantic Monthly. Several revisions later, she did, and the article was accepted. On its publication, “Undersea” received praise from fellow scientists and brought Carson her first national attention. It also gave her the impetus for her first book,
Under the Sea-Wind, which she produced nights and weekends, and which was published in 1941. Like “Undersea,” it touches on two of Carson’s themes: the eternal nature of life (nothing is lost, as everything is recycled) and the interconnection of life (one thing always depends on many other things). Here is Carson in the introduction to
Under the Sea-Wind, making that sound like poetry:
To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, 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 of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.
While Under the Sea-Wind found a warm reception from critics and scientists alike, it failed to catch the attention of the general public and was soon out of print. Keenly disappointed, Carson continued her work with the Bureau of Fisheries, rising from aquatic biologist to editor-in-chief of publications for the newly formed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1949.
During the first half of the decade, Carson was occupied with producing a series of conservation bulletins on the nation’s fisheries, intended to introduce the public—and in particular housewives—to the wide variety of fish and shellfish available in the market. While in no way lyrical, these publications were nonetheless full of fascinating and useful information. Here, for example, are some excepts concerning black drum from Conservation Bulletin No. 37, Fish and Shellfish of the South Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, published in 1944. First, Carson dispatches with the practical aspects of the black drum fishery, such as:
The black drum may be taken anywhere from the shores of Long Island to the mouth of the Rio Grande, but it is only in Texas that it becomes a really important commercial species. . . .
The drum is a heavyweight among fishes—the largest specimen known weighed 146 pounds—but for market purposes the smaller sizes ranging from 8 to 20 inches long are most desired. . . .
These are good food fishes and lend themselves to broiling or to baking, provided fat is added, for the flesh is somewhat lean.
Then she turns to what clearly interests her more:
Quite aside from its food qualities, the black drum is an exceptionally interesting fish. It is probably the best musician of all the large family of drums or croakers to which it belongs. [Black drum] have voices so loud that they can actually be heard a considerable distance above the surface of the water. These vocal effects . . . are produced by the vibration of special band-like muscles against the taut air bladder. The black drum is now believed to be the subject of the old Indian legends in the country about Pascagoula Bay. According to these tales, mysterious music of supposedly supernatural origin, described as sweet, plaintive, and low, could be heard on summer evenings apparently issuing from the water. Fishermen are now well acquainted with these sounds, and know that they indicate the presence of a large school of drums.
Here she is on the flounder:
All flounders have flat, compressed bodies and a peculiar habit of lying on their sides. They are not born with this habit but acquire it early in life. Several amazing structural changes accompany the transformation, most important of which is the fact that the eye on the under side moves across the forehead and comes to lie beside the other on the uppermost side of the fish. In this way the flounder is saved the inconvenience of continuously looking into the mud with one eye. Some flounders habitually lie on the left side, others on the right. The southern flounder, for example, lies on its right side.
Carson’s next project—and her last for the Fish and Wildlife Service—was an ambitious series of pamphlets on the nation’s growing system of wildlife refuges. Choosing to begin with Chincoteague, one of the newest, Carson and illustrator Shirley Briggs explored the Virginia preserve by boat, vehicle and on foot, slogging across the salt marshes and making side trips to the oyster and clam harvesting operations in the area with refuge manager John A. Buckalew. In the evenings they stayed at the Channel Bass Hotel, apparently to the consternation of the establishment’s other guests. The monograph Chincoteague: A National Wildlife Refuge appeared in 1947. In it Carson set the tone for the series, stressing the importance of the wildlife refuges as a bulwark against the continuing degradation of the nation’s natural resources, and the importance of international cooperation in assuring the survival of the threatened population of migrating birds.
Here is the introduction that appeared at the opening of all the publications in the series:
If you travel much in the wilder sections of our country, sooner or later you are likely to meet the sign of the flying goose—the emblem of the National Wildlife Refuges.
You may meet it by the side of the road crossing miles of flat prairie in the Middle West, or in the hot deserts of the Southwest. You may meet it by some mountain lake, or as you push your boat through the winding salty creeks of a coastal marsh.
Wherever you meet this sign, respect it. It means that the land behind the sign has been dedicated by the American people to preserving, for themselves and their children, as much of our native wildlife as can be retained along with our modern civilization.
Wild creatures, like men, must have a place to live. As civilization creates cities, builds highways, and drains marshes, it takes away, little by little, the land that is suitable for wildlife. And as their space for living dwindles, the wildlife populations themselves decline. Refuges resist this trend by saving some areas from encroachment, and by preserving in them, or restoring where necessary, the conditions that wild things need in order to live.
Carson then paints a picture, rich in detail, of Chincoteague’s geography. Here’s an excerpt:
Back from the beach the sand mounts into low dunes, and the hills of sand are little by little bound and restrained by the beach grasses and the low, succulent, sand-loving dune plants. As the vegetation increases, the dunes fall away into salt marshes, bordering the bay. Like islands standing out of the low marsh areas are the patches of firmer, higher ground, forested with pine and oak and carpeted with thickets of myrtle, bayberry, sumac, rose and catbriar. Scattered through the mashes are ponds and potholes filled with wigeon grass and bordered with bulrushes and other good food for ducks and geese. This is waterfowl country. This is the kind of country the ducks knew in the old days, before the white man’s civilization disturbed the face of the land. This is the kind of country that is rapidly disappearing except where it is preserved in wildlife sanctuaries.
In a wonderfully symphonic description of the preserve over a single season, Carson, now as the conductor, directs our view here and there, encouraging us to listen and see nature’s wonder with new eyes.
The summer months are quiet. Except for a few black ducks and a handful of blue-winged teal, the thousands of waterfowl that wintered on the refuge have gone north. Up in the marshes around Ragged Point, the black ducks have been nesting. In April you might have found their nests here and there under the bayberries; in June the broods of ducklings, with their mothers, are beginning to appear in the slashes. . . . And early almost any morning of the summer you could see a bittern slinking through the tall salt meadow grass or hear the sharp clatter of the rails.
August passes into September, with its briskly cooler nights and shortening days . . . . September brings the first of the returning waterfowl, and toward the end of the month flocks of small land bird migrants appear. One morning, tree swallows by the thousand are lined up, wing to wing, on the Coast Guard telephone wires for miles along the beaches. Heavy flights of robins and flickers pass through; hawks sweep down the coast from the south. Then in October, when the marshes are silvered with frost in the mornings, the waterfowl begin to pour in from the north. Crossing the Levels, you see flights of pintails circling the marshes, dropping down into the ponds. After a night of heavy migration, the refuge suddenly takes on new life as flocks of canvasbacks, redheads, teal and baldpates rise into the air in noisy thousands.
Offshore, beyond the white lines of breakers, great numbers of sea ducks appear. Rafts of scoters parallel the beach from one end of the refuge to the other. Old squaws and golden eyes congregate in the nearly landlocked harbor of Assateague Anchorage, following the oyster dredgers.
Through October, November, and into December the flights of waterfowl increase. Brant gather in the Anchorage, a few whistling swans appear in the Levels. The snow geese drift in, having made the long flight from Greenland and the islands of the Arctic Sea, with only one or two stops anywhere on the continent of North America.
The Conservation in Action series concluded with Guarding Our Wildlife Resources, published in 1948. It was Carson’s swan song for the Wildlife Service. The introduction is resonant with Carson’s passion for nature, and her anger and indignation (possibly unique in a government publication) at man’s destruction of his environment. But she also demonstrates her faith that science and a caring population can yet undo the damage.
This is the story of the wildlife resources of America, of their place in our history, and their value in our modern life. It is the story of the forces that threaten to destroy them, and the efforts that we must make, as individual nations and as a community of nations, to preserve them.
The Western Hemisphere has a relatively short history of the exploitation of its natural resources by man. This history, though short, contains many chapters of reckless waste and appalling destruction. Entire species of animals have been exterminated, or reduced to so small a remnant that their survival is doubtful. Forests have been despoiled by uncontrolled and excessive cutting of lumber, grasslands have been destroyed by overgrazing. These and other practices have afflicted us with all the evils of soil erosion, floods, destruction of agricultural lands, and loss of wildlife habitats.
All the people of a country have a direct interest in conservation. For some, as for the commercial fishermen and trappers, the interest is financial. For others, successful conservation means preserving a favorite recreation—hunting, fishing, the study and observation of wildlife, or nature photography. . . . But for all the people, the preservation of wildlife and of wildlife habitat means also the preservation of the basic resources of the earth, which men, as well as animals must have in order to live.
Three years later, in 1951, what had begun quietly with the Atlantic article and continued with
Under the Sea-Wind, exploded with the publication of
The Sea Around Us. The book found an immediate audience—rising to the top of best-seller list and staying there for 86 weeks—and received universal praise from critics and scientists. With it, Carson finally attracted the recognition she deserved and enough money to leave the FWS and devote herself to writing.
With The Sea Around Us, her writing too had moved away from the parochial and into the universal. While
Under the Sea-Wind had for its underlying themes the ageless patterns of the natural world, the story was told through the lives of several individual creatures, like Anguilla the eel. In
The Sea Around Us, Carson tackled nature’s driving forces: the creation of the oceans, the birth of islands, and the eternal forces of wind, tide and current. Here she is, for example, on waves:
As the waves roll in toward Lands End on the westernmost tip of England they bring the feel of the distant places of the Atlantic. Moving shoreward above the steeply rising floor of the deep sea, from the dark blue water into troubled green, they pass the edge of “soundings” and roll up over the continental shelf in confused ripplings and turbulence. Over the shoaling bottom they sweep landward, breaking on the Seven Stones of the channel between the Scilly Isles and Lands End, coming in over the sunken ledges and rocks that roll out their glistening backs at low water. As they approach the rocky tip of Lands End, they pass over a strange instrument lying on the sea bottom. By the fluctuating pressure of their rise and fall they tell this instrument many things of the distant Atlantic waters from which they have come. . . . Most of the waves that roll over the recorder at Lands End . . . are born in the stormy North Atlantic eastward from Newfoundland and the south of Greenland. Some can be traced to tropical storms on the opposite side of the Atlantic, moving through the West Indies and along the coast of Florida. A few have rolled up from the southernmost part of the world, taking a great-circle course all the way from Cape Horn to Lands End, a journey of 6000 miles.
On ocean currents:
There is, then, no water that is wholly of the Pacific, or wholly of the Atlantic, or of the Indian or the Antarctic. The surf that we find exhilarating at Virginia Beach or at La Jolla today may have lapped at the base of Antarctic icebergs or sparkled in the Mediterranean sun, years ago, before it moved through dark and unseen waterways to the place we find it now. It is by the deep, hidden currents that the oceans are made one.
On the power of the tides:
There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest parts of the abyss, that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide. No other force that affects the sea is so strong.
And on one species’ tidal adaptation:
The link between tide and living creature I like best to remember is that of a very small worm, flat of body with no distinction of appearance, but with one unforgettable quality. The name of this worm is Convoluta roscoffensis, and it lives on the sandy beaches of northern Brittany and the Channel Islands. . . . . Convoluta rises from the damp sands of the intertidal zone as soon as the tide has ebbed. . . . . For the several hours while the tide is out, the worms lie thus in the sun and the plants manufacture their starches and sugars; but when the tide returns, the worms must again sink into the sand to avoid being washed away.
But what I find most unforgettable about Convoluta is this: sometimes it happens that a marine biologist, wishing to study some related problem, will transfer a whole colony of the worms into the laboratory, there to establish them in an aquarium, where there are no tides. But twice each day Convoluta rises out of the sand on the bottom of the aquarium into the light of the sun. And twice each day it sinks again into the sand. Without a brain, or what we would call a memory, or even any very clear perception, Convoluta continues to live out its life in this alien place, remembering, in every fiber of its small green body, the tidal rhythm of the distant sea.
We’ll leave Carson here, at the cusp of fame as perhaps our finest writer of the natural world. Ahead of her were two more best-selling books,The Edge of the Sea, published in 1955, and Silent Spring in 1962. Of the latter, perhaps no hyperbole is possible. Its influence was profound, and the reactions to it were extreme. Its publication was followed by a long and vicious campaign waged against Carson personally as a scientist and a woman by the chemical companies that felt threatened by her accusations of the terrible damage done by the unrestricted use of pesticides. But in the end she prevailed. Her science—and her ability to explain the complex in clear and moving prose—proved stronger than the forces arrayed against her. Victory, however, came at a personal price. Carson lost her struggle against breast cancer shortly afterward. She died at her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 1964 at age 56.
Before and after her death, Carson received many honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, presented with a Guggenhiem Fellowship, the John Burroughs Medal, the George Westinghouse Science Writing Award and the National Book Award.
We end with final quote from The Sea Around Us, one that speaks particularly to us as boaters. It is from chapter one, “The Gray Beginnings.”
Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage. He could not physically re-enter the ocean as the seals and whales had done. But over the centuries, with all the skill and ingenuity and reasoning powers of his mind, he has sought to explore and investigate even its most remote parts, so that he might re-enter it mentally and imaginatively.
He built boats to venture out on its surface. Later he found ways to descend to the shallow parts of its floor, carrying with him the air that, as a land mammal long unaccustomed to aquatic life, he needed to breathe.
And yet he has returned to his mother sea only on her own terms. He cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents. In the artificial world of his cities and towns, he often forgets the true nature of his planet and the long vistas of its history, in which the existence of the race of men has occupied a mere moment of time. The sense of all these things comes to him most clearly in the course of a long ocean voyage, when he watches day after day the receding rim of the horizon . . . or when, alone in his world of water and sky, he feels the loneliness of his earth in space. And then, as never on land, he knows the truth that his world is a water world, a planet dominated by its covering mantle of ocean, in which the continents are but transient intrusions of land above the surface of the all-encircling sea.
For a biography of Rachel Carson, we recommend Linda Lear’s excellent and highly readable Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. One way to open your eyes, Carson said, is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?”