Armchair Birding: Rachel Carson’s “Sea Books”

Armchair Birding: Rachel Carson’s “Sea Books”

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(by Anne Kilgannon) – I watched the chickadees busy at the suet feeder and felt anguish sweep over me as I worried yet again about their survival in the face of a changing climate and seemingly indifferent human race. How could I make a difference for them? How have others met the challenge of saving what they love in this—or other—distraught times?

An article in The New Yorker (March 26, 2018) by Jill Lepore seized my attention. Prompted by the Library of America publication of the works of Rachel Carson, she eloquently complained that this collection “includes not one drop of her writing about the sea.” Lepore then lavished praise on Carson’s neglected works as poetically and full of wonder as Carson herself achieves with her own writing.  I was jolted; Rachel Carson is my longtime hero. Reading Silent Spring was a turning point in my life, and her slim but deeply felt book The Sense of Wonder was a blueprint for how to raise my children and guide my own life; but Lepore’s outpouring shocked me: I knew nothing of Carson’s early works on the sea.

A little searching soon yielded an enticing stack: Under the Sea Wind, published in 1941; The Sea Around Us, in 1951; and The Edge of the Sea, in 1955. But before diving in, I immersed myself in her life story, thoroughly researched and sensitively portrayed by Linda Lear in Rachel Carson: The Life of the Author of Silent Spring. For even more insight, I dipped into Courage for the Earth, essays by many notable writers and activists about Carson’s influence, edited by Peter Matthiessen; and the love-letter of a book about her work by Carson’s editor, Paul Brooks, Rachel Carson at Work.

Carson’s work and life are so entwined and mutually enriching—the writing by the life story of the author and the life lived by the work undertaken—that reading her biography first only added to the sense of awe and deeper understanding I experienced when I finally delved into her books on the life of the sea. And what an immersion! Her writing takes you down to the shore alive with birds and the hidden life they depend on for sustenance, then into the vital tidal strip that teems with life balanced between salt water and rock or sandy beach, and steps gradually deeper and deeper until she probes the darkest, most mysterious of all depths, the ocean floor. Her prose rises with the waves, scintillates with moonlight, phosphorescence, and the life-giving rays of sunshine. She examines life from the tiniest one-celled creatures to the greatest fish in the ocean, and connects them all in the complicated web of prey and predator. The immensity of the waters, the tidal forces, the winds and currents, polar ice and underwater geology sweep us along, yet we pause to notice plankton, tiny shrimp and ghostly jellyfish. Her writing manages to be simultaneously dreamy, poetic, and sensual as well as particular, deeply researched, and stoically accepting of life-and-death.

I had two thoughts about the worth of reading books published in the 1940-‘50s era. As meticulous as her science was, at the time, what new discoveries and understandings now inform the study of sea life? What have we learned since and does that overturn her work? In the end, I decided there was still great worth in reading these books; they set an historical baseline for inquiry. Her passion was contagious. Her feeling as expressed through her words shone through this concern; I didn’t want to miss her exquisite sense of beauty and wonder, which can never be outdated.

Secondly, her work was very much of her time, the turmoil of the war and anxiety of the early Cold War period. And here I reflected on how Silent Spring built upon the scientific work of the Sea books—and how her reputation for excellence and eloquence as achieved by these early books was a springboard. We would not have Silent Spring without them. That book was written at a time of deep fear about the use of atomic bombs, worry about competition for world supremacy against the Soviets, and the hell-bent race for affluence after the years of depression and war with its adoption of wholesale use of chemical “solutions” and their “fall-out” so graphically described by Carson. The biography described how her critics tried every way to discredit her and belittle her work. But she was firm in her science and firm in her view, at heart spiritual, that the beauty of the Earth and life upon it was a sacred trust, our duty to protect. The beauty of her writing touched readers and fired their support; we owe so much to the groundswell that resulted from her testimony and courage to counter the forces that would pillage the sea and land. We need that courage and example today. We again face a perilous and reckless era.

And so it was that I made my pilgrimage in late July to watch the tide breaking against the rocks tumbled on the shore of the island of Southport, Maine near where she had a cottage. One rock carried a plaque noting Carson’s devotion to that very place, those particular tide-pools and mixed forest trees and the life they support. Her ashes were scattered there in the salt water that was so much her lifeblood. I remembered her words and felt such gratitude and renewed strength from her work and life.