Book Review

Rachel Carson’s Epic

Rachel Carson’s first major work of marine biology, Under the Sea-Wind, was published in 1941, shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, and despite good reviews it sold poorly.[1] Nobody wanted to read about mackerel and eels when the nation had just declared war on Japan. Ten years later when Carson’s even more ambitious The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and stayed atop the New York Times Best Seller list for almost a year, earning her the John Burroughs Medal among numerous other accolades, Under the Sea-Wind—out of print since 1943—was reissued and sold well. Praised by reviewers who were seeing it for the first time (Henry Beston, author of the nature-writer’s classic The Outermost House, was among them), it became a Book-of-the-Month Club Alternate in 1952. It is not hard to see what Beston and others admired. It begins with a remarkable picture:

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.

The complex aesthetic appeal of this picture is worlds apart from the usual discourse of marine science. Into a realm of palely gleaming sky reflecting shadows that steal across water at dusk come reflections of astonishing beauty and subtlety. A bright path reflected from both water and sand produces a color (how precise this is!) of steel overlaid with not silver but the sheen of silver. If there is a point of view here, it’s scrupulously impersonal: it shifts from island to sound to narrow beach and from bright path nearby to the distant horizon, in a realm of shadows and reflections whose boundaries—just like those of the land and water—are indistinguishable. No human agents are here, the actors are all nature’s elements—including the figurative minerals steel and silver. And the crux of it all—or call it Carson’s design—is that every­thing is interconnected and depends for its existence, as oceans and winds and rocks do, on everything else. What is a sea-wind after all if not an emblem of interdependent forces? That indeed is the vision of her whole book, foreshadowed microcosmically in its opening paragraph. It’s an ecological vision, of course, but the term wasn’t in use in 1941, and Carson didn’t need it.

In the next two paragraphs another actor enters the picture:

With the dusk a strange bird came to the island from its nesting grounds on the outer banks. Its wings were pure black, and from tip to tip their spread was more than the length of a man’s arm. It flew steadily and without haste across the sound, its progress as measured and as meaningful as that of the shadows which little by little were dulling the bright water path. The bird was called Rynchops, the black skimmer.

The thump of specificity here, giving the skimmer its Latinate genus name Rynchops, is welcome, after all the anonymity preceding it. The unidentified bird may seem “strange” at first, but with its nesting grounds nearby, this is clearly its habitat. Note how it arrives with the dusk, i.e., it behaves in concert with or response to the waning light, and its steady “progress” across the sound is analogous—“as measured and as meaningful”—as that of the shadows. What may be meaningful in the skimmer’s flight, in other words, is similarly meaningful in the steadily changing shadows. There is a stately persistence here, a sense of unwa­vering purpose, in this measured and unhurried movement. Note too that we are invited to measure the skimmer’s wingspread, “more than the length of a man’s arm,” against our own—yet a further unobtrusive but inescapable analogy. If I read these passages as if they were poetry, that is because they are.

Under the Sea-Wind is organized around the natural history of three distinct species: in chapters 1–5 it’s Rynchops the black skimmer (Rynchops niger), who ranges north to Hudson’s Bay, after our first glimpse of him, then returns to the Massachusetts coast and ventures south, perhaps as far as Cape Hatteras. In chapters 6-12 it’s Scomber, the Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus), who begins life off the tip of Long Island and ranges widely along the Georges Bank and the continental shelf, surviving innumerable attacks from predators, mostly by chance. And in chapters 13-15 it’s Anguilla the American eel (Anguilla rostrata), hatched in a freshwater pond two hundred miles from Chesapeake Bay, who—after a temporary haven in the tidal shoals of Virginia— finds her ideal habitat in the Gulf Stream. Some readers have assumed that Carson’s use of these names—and others like Ookpik, a snowy owl[2]—was prompted by children’s books such as Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter, where anthropomorphism hovers over every action (after all, Carson did publish animal stories in a children’s magazine, St. Nicholas, when she was 12). But her names are meant to be scientific and to reflect the readily-observable behaviors of each species (sight, hunger, fear, aggression, warmth and cold). They represent an individual who is typical of its kind. In one passage alone, Scomber survives all of the threats to his existence—from aggressive “herds” of haddock, voracious flounders with very sharp teeth, a six-foot rock cod (“a two-hundred pound monster of his kind”), a giant sting ray, and finally the “vast gaping mouth” of what seems to Scomber “a fish of monstrous and incredible size” and turns out to be the hull of a trawler whose net almost pulls up all these predators and their prey. That Scomber escapes is not a matter of happy endings or a novelistic “plot.” He is simply one individual who survives, along with many others, hence the genus name. Or he survives in the same way his hugely-successful species has survived for eons—despite staggering mortality rates.

All this is foreshadowed in the first chapters of Scomber’s story, “Migrants of the Spring Sea” (Ch. 6) and “Birth of a Mackerel” (Ch. 7): When thousands of adult mackerel return to inshore waters and “ease their bodies” of eggs and milt, Carson writes,

They leave in their wake a cloud of transparent spheres of infinitesimal size, a vast, sprawling river of life, the sea’s counterpart of the river of stars that flows through the sky as the Milky Way. There are known to be hundreds of millions of eggs to the square mile, billions in an area a fishing vessel could cruise over in an hour, hundreds of trillions in the whole spawning area.

Such visions of the sea’s colossal fecundity run through not just Under the Sea-Wind but all of The Sea Trilogy and play a crucial role in it. They are occasions for metaphor and figurative analogy, for micro- and macrocos­mic parallels, and perhaps above all for syntactical rhythms that pulse and flow majestically—like the ocean itself. Don’t try to scan it as poetry, just read it aloud to yourself and listen.

Another act of imagination Carson requires of us, more emphatically in Under the Sea-Wind than elsewhere in the trilogy, involves her use of point-of-view. Of course it is never overtly her own; and as I have argued above, her “characters” are never anthropomorphic. So whose gaze is at issue? Consider the following:

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.

As Scomber pursued the larvae in emerald haze five fathoms under the surface he saw a bright flash sweep in a blinding arc across his sphere of vision. Almost instantly the flash was followed by a second blaze of iridescent glitter that curved sharply upward and seemed to thicken as it moved toward a shimmering oval globe above.

[A]s the floor of the cove was very rocky its pattern as seen from above by the gulls and the terns was mottled darkly with many weed patches. Over the sand-bottomed clearings between the seaweed thickets, the little fishes of the cove poured in restless shoals. The shining green and silver caravans wound in and out, swerving, diverging and merging again, or at a sudden fright darting away like a shower of silver meteors.

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] . . .

In each example all the details—colors, light, impressions, images, even metaphors—come from the creatures who are there watching, not from the author directly. We are asked to imagine what they see. The next chapter presents an extended scene observed by gulls whose “eyes missed nothing”:

The gulls saw the school of young mackerel swimming a foot under water. Across half a dozen wave hills to the eastward they saw two dark fins, like sickle blades, cutting the water. Because of their elevation the gulls could see that the fins were part of a large fish who drifted just under water, with only the long back fin and the upper blade of the tail protruding.

Then comes a violent attack by the big predator (an 11-foot swordfish) on a newly-arrived school of herring, now seen by the gulls in close-up:

What happened next was partly hidden from the gulls by the seething water and spurting spray; but as they dropped closer and hovered with short wing beats—drawn by awareness of a kill—they could see a great dark shadow that whirled and darted and lunged in a frenzy of attack . . .

All the vivid details that ensue—water “foamed to whiteness,” dead herring with broken backs, others listing “dizzily,” too feeble to swim away—are also watched by the gulls. Indeed they “missed nothing” and take much of the kill away from the “weak-jawed” swordfish.

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:

To understand the life of the shore, it is not enough to pick up an empty shell and say “This is a murex,” or “That is an angel wing.” True understanding demands intuitive comprehension of the whole life of the creature that once inhabited this empty shell: how it survived amid surf and storms, what were its enemies, how it found food and reproduced its kind, what were its relations to the particular sea world in which it lived.

Another way Carson appeals to her reader’s “intuitive comprehension” is oratorical. Sometimes toward the ends of paragraphs and frequently at the ends of chapters, she abandons the clear-eyed prose of jewel-bright exactitude—call it her Darwinian poetry—for an elevated style of long phrases, formal diction, frequent parataxis, and anaphoric repetition, one that may derive in part from the King James Bible, or Milton or perhaps Melville at his loftiest, but one she makes entirely her own. The longest, most brilliant passage in this mode comes at the end of Under the Sea-Wind. The season is early spring, when all the eels and elvers have returned to the bay of their origin, awaiting the moment to head upriver en masse and spawn:

        As the moon waned and the surge of the tides grew less, the elvers pressed forward toward the mouth of the bay. Soon a night would come, after most of the snow had melted and run as water to the sea, when the moon’s light and the tide’s press would be feeble and a warm rain would fall, mist-laden and bittersweet with the scent of opening buds. Then the elvers would pour into the bay and, traveling up its shores, would find its rivers.
Some would linger in the river estuaries . . . But the females would press on, swimming up against the currents of the rivers. They would move swiftly and by night as their mothers had come down the rivers. Their columns, miles in length, would wind up along the shallows. . . . No hardship and no obstacle would deter them. They would be preyed upon . . .They would swarm . . . they would squirm. . . . Some would go on for hundreds of miles . . .

The repeated verb would designates what will happen but hasn’t yet (future conditional tense), but it also expresses—after fourteen repeti­tions! —what will happen because of ironclad determination, the inexorable necessity of what must happen. Note how moon and tides and warm spring rains are involved, the whole vernal equinox itself, not the spawning fish alone. Then Carson makes a slight but critical change: would becomes should:

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.

I don’t know of another nature writer who is capable of a drama like this. Simply by transforming the verb and repeating it, Carson’s should generates a Biblical imperative, a sense of ultimate authority deter­mining what shall happen or by divine decree what ought to happen. And now the repetition is devastating. Just as we expect reassurance in nature’s renewal, so we must expect that the sea will return as well—to encroach and creep up and lap at our mountains and drown every last one of us. The stately rhythms of Carson’s prose carry us, inevitably and convincingly, deep into geologic time. Relentlessly (as it were) the verb would reappears three more times in her final sentence, where we must acknowledge that “once more the mountains would be worn away,” and “once more all the coast would be water again, and the places of its cities and towns would belong to the sea.” As perorations go, this is surely one of the best that has ever been written.

By the time The Sea Around Us was published in 1951, Carson had achieved wide recognition—both as a professional marine scientist and as a powerful writer. She had shared many chapters with friends and scientific experts, and magazines like The Yale Review, Science Digest, and Nature magazine had chosen to publish them. Then The New Yorker invited Carson to adapt and condense nine of the book’s fourteen chapters, and these appeared in three long installments, June 2, 9, and 16, 1951. Such was her fame that, when the book appeared in July with no picture of its author on the dust jacket, reviewers complained, prompting one newspaper cartoonist to supply one—the image of a fierce Amazonian Queen towering over the men around her.

The Sea Around Us reflects something of this caricature. Its page of Acknowledgements opens the book by thanking all the male authorities she consulted personally and whose respect she had earned—three at Harvard University, three at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, two at the American Museum of Natural History, one each at Yale University, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, the U.S. Geological Survey, the University of Michigan, and the University of Miami. Next she thanked other friends and colleagues at the Hydrographic Office in Washington, the Bingham Oceanographic Laboratory at Yale, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and six other authorities from abroad, including Thor Heyerdahl (then at the height of his fame) in Oslo. Similarly, Carson chose to close her book with a bibliography divided into categories like “History of Earth and Sea,” “Sea Life in Relation to its Surroundings,” and “Exploration and Discovery,” citing a total of some thirty sources—every one of them written by a man. Thus the very design of Carson’s book declares her authority, and her bravery. Looking back on it, now that everybody knows what she dared to do in Silent Spring, and what a revolution it caused, her achievement in 1951 may not seem so remarkable or even surprising. But it surely was both.

The appeal of The Sea Around Us, written more than seventy years ago, remains strong today, partly because so much of what it describes has changed little—to our eyes, at least—and sometimes not at all. The weeds that grow today in the Sargasso Sea, Carson tells us, are exactly the same plants Columbus saw when he sailed by in 1492. (Interesting, no?) But the book’s critical virtue is not really in its vast subject—how the earth’s ocean was formed, how it generated life as we know it, how its tides and currents and waves determine what grows and evolves, shaping and re-shaping the land it surrounds—but in how Carson writes about it. It doesn’t matter if recent marine science says she got some things “wrong.” Her only obligation, to paraphrase what Henry James once said about the novel, is the obligation to be interesting.[3] She does that unfailingly, I think, nearly all of the time.

I was stunned, for example, by her account of how the molten earth’s atmosphere cooled and produced centuries of rain (“The Gray Beginnings”), by her bleak visions of the ocean’s deepest abysses, drained of all color and utterly hostile to life (“The Sunless Sea” and “The Long Snowfall”), by her many chapters of marine history—oceanic navigation since the Phoenicians—as well as by her sense of undersea topography as a mirror of what we see and measure above sea level, except that its “mountains” and “valleys” are much taller, deeper, and more mysterious (“Hidden Lands”). Again and again, it’s Carson’s language that makes these visionary landscapes unforgettable. Then too she increases her credibility with frequent admissions of fallibility:

For the plain and inescapable truth is that no one was there to see. . . . So if I tell here the story of how the young planet Earth acquired an ocean, it must be a story pieced together from many sources and containing whole chapters the details of which we can only imagine. (Italics mine.)

Yet the geographic range of her examples makes it seem as if she has traveled everywhere. In “Birth of an Island” she discusses—as if she has visited them all—Ascension Island, the Canaries, Aleutians, and Azores, Bermuda, Midway, Falcon, the Galapagos, Java, Sumatra, and the Netherlands Indies, plus tiny little Bogoslof in the Bering Sea, and—a frequent reference point for Carson—the Rocks of St. Peter and St. Paul, lying somewhere “in the open Atlantic between Brazil and Africa.” Thus freely she roams the whole world’s ocean, and carries us down into its abysses of space and time.

Perhaps the most Melvillean chapter of The Sea Around Us is “Wind and Water,” which goes into fascinating detail about how winds (and volcanoes) create waves (and tsunamis), how many thousands of miles they travel, how each one is measured (five hundred miles of fetch!), and what destruction the largest of them can cause, especially when they come ashore “armed with stones and rock fragments.” Maritime history is replete with legends of gigantic waves, many of which can sound apocryphal, but Carson’s information about waves in excess of 60 feet is relentlessly persuasive. To cite only one of these, she tells of a huge wave that lifted a 135-pound rock and “hurled [it] high above the lightkeeper’s house on Tillamook Rock [in Oregon] . . . 100 feet above sea level,” smashing it to pieces. She also quotes Lord Bryce’s observation about storm surf on the coast of Tierra del Fuego, “There is not in the world a coast more terrible than this!” Charles Darwin agreed, not mincing his words: “The sight of such a coast is enough to make a landsman dream for a week about death, peril, and shipwreck.” Carson concludes her chapter by taking the surface drama undersea:

It is always the unseen that most deeply stirs our imagination, and so it is with waves. The largest and most awe-inspiring waves of the ocean are invisible; they move on their mysterious courses far down in the hidden depths of the sea, rolling ponderously and unceasingly.

Note how the grandeur increases as the sentence gathers rolling force and weight, climaxed by its two four-syllable adverbs. The chapter’s final paragraph ends with another poetic summation—impossible not to quote!—of how much remains unknown about the great ocean around us:

We can only sense that in the deep and turbulent recesses of the sea are hidden mysteries far greater than any we have solved.

If Melville’s iambics can be heard in passages such as this, I think it’s because Carson’s sense of awe and wonder—her vision of the ocean’s epic magnificence—came from essentially the same sources.

With the publication of The Edge of the Sea in 1955, Carson brought her readers back down to a more modest, immediate, and accessible environment—the coastline of Eastern North America from Maine all the way south to the Florida Keys. The change in scale and purpose—it could almost be called a guidebook—is palpable. Carson no longer had anything to prove about her scientific authority in academic circles or—having won the National Book Award and the John Burroughs Medal —as a writer. Nor did she have to worry about supporting herself, her mother, her two nieces (after her sister died in 1937) and later her grandnephew (after 1957). She bought a summer house in Maine—on the water, of course—and, even more consequentially, she bought a microscope. The result was that Carson made her self more accessible. While Under the Sea-Wind was a scrupulously reticent book, avoiding all subjectivity in its narration, and The Sea Around Us was almost a public book with its vast compendium of voices consulted and authorities joined, The Edge of the Sea was—and remains—frankly personal.

Its introductory chapter, “The Marginal World,” explains her purpose—to describe her memories of three distinct places—a magical hidden tide pool in Maine, a ghostly night beach walk at low tide near Nag’s Head, North Carolina, and a flourishing mangrove “forest” off the southwestern Florida coast, approachable only by small boat. Each place is framed as a memory (a totally new tactic for Carson), each provides a “revelation of exquisite beauty,” each represents a complex habitat for inter-related species, and each has a different geological foundation: rocks in Maine, sand in North Carolina, coral reefs in the Keys.

That Carson is well-organized and (again) uses a three-part structure is no surprise; what is new is the presence of her own first-person voice. It appears quietly, almost before you know it, in sentences that begin “On my own shore in Maine, where the tides rise and fall over a wide expanse. . .” Or “In the laboratory, under my microscope, I have watched the larvae swimming about . . .” Her original idea was to write a guidebook, but guidebooks normally rule out anecdotes like the following: “Curious about the early stages of this abundant snail, I have gone down into my own rockweed forests on the summer low tides to search for them.” The benefit of having this very personable narrator (mild, uninsistent, selfless) is that you want to walk along the beach with her and share not only what she sees but how she sees it. Particularly when she peers down into a tide pool:

Some of the most beautiful pools lie high on the shore. Their beauty is the beauty of simple elements—color and form and reflection. I know one that is only a few inches deep, yet it holds all the depth of the sky within it, capturing and confining the reflected blue of far distances. . . . When the light and one’s mood are right, one can look down into the blue so far that one would hesitate to set foot in so bottomless a pool. Clouds drift across it and wind ripples scud over its surface, but little else moves there, and the pool belongs to the rock and the plants and the sky.

John Updike once said of Nabokov’s style, “He writes prose the only way it should be written—that is, ecstatically.” I think Carson does the same. Listen to her evocation of another tide pool near the one described above. It’s an even more complex aesthetic experience:

By some magic the pool transcends its realities of rock and water and plants, and out of these elements creates the illusion of another world. Looking into the pool, one sees no water but instead a pleasant landscape of hills and valleys with scattered forests. Yet the illusion is not so much that of an actual landscape as of a painting of one; like the strokes of a skillful artist’s brush, the individual fronds of the algae do not literally portray trees, they merely suggest them. But the artistry of the pool, as of the painter, creates the image and the impression.

A passage like this deserves to be studied alongside Modernist poems by Stevens and Bishop; it is surely a meditation on artifice in nature and who—or what—creates it. But I think Carson’s curiosity—and her feeling of wonder—often surpasses theirs.

Most other writers would move on from these transcendental tide pools, but not Carson. Lying down beside another one, a “miniature pool” lined with tiny mussels whose “misty blue” shells seem like “distant mountain ranges,” she tries to see the reflecting surface itself:

The water in which they lived was so clear as to be invisible to my eyes; I could detect the interface between air and water only by the sense of coldness on my finger-tips. The crystal water was filled with sunshine—an infusion and distillation of light that reached down and surrounded each of these small but resplendent shellfish with its glowing radiance.

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.

Sand may seem, by contrast, an entirely prosaic subject, taken up next in “The Rim of Sand.” But not the way Carson sees it: “Sand is a substance that is beautiful, mysterious, and infinitely variable; each grain on a beach is the result of processes that go back into the shadowy beginnings of life, or of the earth itself.” She proceeds to make sand interesting by characterizing it minutely.

About Venice [Beach, Florida] there is a special sparkle and glitter over the sands, where crystals of the mineral zircon are dusted over its surface like diamonds; and here and there is a sprinkling of the blue, glasslike grains of cyanite.

Carson’s examples—virtually a gazetteer of American beach sand— range from the narrowly local to the far distant; not many science writers would attempt it. But what is most remarkable is that she breathes life into it. In accepting her National Book Award in 1952, alongside Marianne Moore (a richly-suggestive coincidence), she said: “There is no such thing as a separate literature of science, since the aim of science is to discover and illuminate the truth, which is also the aim of all true literature.”

Long before coming to the end of The Sea Trilogy, it becomes apparent that Carson has written something more than three individual books, each successful in its own way. They have a design and need to be seen as a sequence: a monumental centerpiece, The Sea Around Us—surely an epic in every sense of the term—flanked by a narrative of departure from the land and going undersea in Under the Sea-Wind, and by a return to the shore, less a narrative than a new personal vision in The Edge of the Sea. The first book begins with a dark coastal picture, all shadows and silvery reflections, and the last book ends with a dazzling array of tide pool pictures, each a microcosm of what surrounds us—distant mountains, the sky above, and water so pure it distills a radiant sunshine. The result is a whole of epic proportions, held together by leitmotifs and themes that steadily recur and echo one another—the bioluminescence of the sea at night, the intersections of death and re-birth, the processes of destruction and renewal, cosmic and geological as well as biological; the endless ambiguities and analogies between land and sea, or time and space, or permanence and change; the paradoxes of seeing and invisibility. Looked at this way, the trilogy has its own ecology, with each part intertwined with and enhanced by all the rest.

The recognition of this epic—the critical awareness of what is actually in it—has been dimmed if not completely obscured by the fame of Silent Spring in 1962. One of the few critics who has seen this is Peter Matthiessen, a gifted nature writer himself (The Snow Leopard, Far Tortuga). He edited a collection of essays in praise of Silent Spring in 2007 which is worth consulting for his introduction alone.[4] So far as I have been able to determine, Matthiessen is the only recent critic to make the following valuable and necessary assessment:

Famed as a scientist whose timely book on chemical poisons had served as a warning to the world about the insatiable nature of corporate greed, she was at the same time an important writer, one of the finest nature writers of her century. And it is for her literary excellence, not her cry of warning, that in the end, she may be best remembered.

I don’t think I can improve on that.
[1] THE SEA TRILOGY: Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, by Rachel Carson, ed. by Sandra Steingraber. The Library of America. $40.00.

[2] In the Inuktitut language the term for snowy owl is ookpik. In 1963 it was made into a stuffed toy, became wildly popular as a national symbol, and produced several children’s books called “Ookpik the Owl.”

[3] 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.”

[4] Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson, ed. by Peter Matthiessen (Boston/New York, 2007).