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Rachel Carson, The Life and Legacy

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Conservation Nature Environmentalism Wilderness Rachel Carson Biographies

From Earth Common Journal VOL. 4 NO. 1

Rachel Carson: Humanizing Nature

By Mikayla Stewart
Earth Common Journal
2014, Vol. 4 No. 1 | pg. 1/1
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IN THIS ARTICLE

  • Introduction
  • Rachel Carson’s Inspiration
  • Before Silent Spring
  • Silent Spring
  • Reacting to Rachel Carson
  • Rachel Carson’s Legacy
  • Conclusion
  • Author
  • References
KEYWORDS

Keywords: Conservation Nature Environmentalism Wilderness Rachel Carson Biographies

Abstract

Rachel Carson was instrumental in changing the way the world viewed conservation. Her initial written works demonstrated the idea that humans were not the center of the earth’s ecosystems by describing the environment from the viewpoint of non-human creatures (Cafaro, 2011, para. 45-48). Carson’s most eminent publication, Silent Spring, was released at the beginning of the 1960s (Cafaro, 2011, para. 25). The book advocated Carson’s concept of enlightened anthropocentrism through the insistence that new scientific innovations should be questioned as to why, whether, and for what purpose they are put into practice (Walker & Walsh, 2012, p.19). Another issue sparked by Silent Spring regarded whether humans should alter nature for our purposes or attempt to leave it unchanged (Cafaro, 2011, para. 67).

Silent Spring helped to spark a national debate about scientific responsibility, limitations on advances in technology, and chemical pesticides in general (Lear, 2013, p. 1). The fact that her arguments stimulated such intense discussion is a testimony to how influential she truly was. Furthermore, Silent Spring led to the banning of dichlorodiphenyltricholoroethane (DDT) production by 1972, along with the implementation of government regulations to safeguard the environment (Hecht, 2012, p. 154; Lear, 2013, p. 1). Carson also made individuals realize that what they put into the environment must be regulated in order to keep the effects from haunting them for generations to come. This undeniable truth continues to resonate today.

Introduction

Rachel Carson, recognized as the author of Silent Spring, was born over a century ago in a small town in Pennsylvania (Feldman, 2009, para. 8; Lear, 2013, p.1). By the age of 19, Carson was pursuing a college degree in marine biology, notable because science was a male-dominated field at the time, and publishing her first nature article (Feldman, 2009, para. 11; Lear, 2013, p.1). Carson completed her degree and accepted a position with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Blanchard, 2000, p. 53). During that part of her career, she was able to use accessible literature to provide education to the public about nature, specifically its interconnectedness and the destructiveness of human actions against it (Blanchard, 2000, p. 53).

Rachel Carson circa 1940

Rachel Carson circa 1940. Photo: U.S. Dep of Fish and Wildlife.

Her literary skills led to a full-time career as a nature writer in the early 1950s (Feldman, 2009, para. 5). Carson’s initial works, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955), showcased her belief that humans are not the only relevant beings by describing the environment from the perspective of non-human creatures (Cafaro, 2011, para. 45-48). With the publication of Silent Spring at the beginning of the 1960s, Carson brought the need to equate humankind with the rest of the environment into focus, explaining the chemical pesticide problem with regards to the human value of maintaining natural biodiversity, our moral responsibility to protect non-human lives, and future human health concerns that could result from chemical contamination (Cafaro, 2011, para. 25).

Silent Spring had a crucial impact, sparking controversy and wildly differing reactions from industries associated with creating and administering pesticides, government, environmentalists, and the general public (Lear, 2013, p. 3). Carson’s statements about the dangers of chemical usage were met with heavy criticism from some corners, especially chemical industry representatives and the scientists that they funded, and exaltation from others, particularly environmentalists (Lear, 2013, p. 3). The fact that Carson’s arguments stimulated such intense discussions is a testimony to how influential she was, positively or negatively, as a scientist and a writer. Her legacy continues in both ideological contributions and physical tributes, such as Hawk Mountain Sanctuary (Lear, n.d., para. 49). According to Lear (n.d.), this non-profit eco-tourism reserve is inspired by Rachel Carson’s previous love of birdwatching in that area (para. 49).

Rachel Carson’s Inspiration

Just as Carson inspired the creation of Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, her mother inspired Carson by teaching her about the land on which she lived (Feldman, 2009, para. 8). According to many, her rural upbringing played a significant part in inspiring her love of organisms and the environment, and her decision to study and write about them (Feldman, 2009, para. 8). An important motivating factor for Carson to contribute to biology in a literary fashion was the enjoyment that she found in reading books, especially those about nature (Feldman, 2009, para. 9).

Both books and personal experience taught Carson about nature throughout her life, helping to develop her individual and spiritual closeness to the environment and its creatures (Cafaro, 2002, p. 65). She wanted humans to understand the intrinsic value of nature, which she believed that people could not truly comprehend without first-hand experience (p. 68). Her belief that an emotional response was key to the desire to learn about the environment led to the technique with which she wrote her first three books (Blanchard, 2000, p. 53).

Before Silent Spring

Bratton (2004) states that in order to make public education about oceanic regions more salient, Carson adopted a writing technique that involved taking the perspective of undersea creatures, such as Scomber the mackerel in Under the Sea-Wind (p. 7). Taking readers on a journey as a mackerel through polluted waters was meant to illustrate that the human impact on oceans is harmful and cannot be ignored (p. 14). Carson thought that humanizing the smallest of creatures and allowing people to view the world through their eyes would be an excellent way to inspire environmental awareness (p. 13).

As well as being entertaining, Carson’s early literature functioned to build up her scientific credibility (Cafaro, 2011, para. 44). According to Lear (2013), Carson’s second book, The Sea Around Us, was what first encouraged the public to recognize Carson as a trusted voice in science (p. 1). Another aspect that set Carson apart from the uneducated environmentalist advocates was her dedication to the biological field, advertised by her involvement in everything from the prevention of pollution, to the restoration of natural habitats, to the deterrence of inappropriate waste dumping (Cafaro, 2002, p. 76). One thing that she tried not to be too vocal about, in an attempt to prevent undermining the point of Silent Spring, was animal rights (Cafaro, 2002, p. 76). Without the foundation of her early literary works and environmental projects to build upon, Carson’s most prominent literary creation would not have been so acclaimed.

Another factor that increased the impact of Silent Spring was that the concerns about environmental damage by chlorinated hydrocarbon compounds, most markedly dichlorodiphenyltricholoroethane (DDT) and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), began back in the 1930s (Rosner & Markowitz, 2012, p. 127). The importance of DDT (adapted for use as an insecticide in 1939 after being first synthesized in the 1800s) in Silent Spring is due to its position as the first and best illustration of how dangerous pesticides and chlorinated hydrocarbons can be (Rosner & Markowitz, 2012, p. 128).

Langston (2012) explains that DDT was originally seen as a miraculous new technology that would perform services, such as pest control, with minimal risk to humans (p. 225). During World War II, the Allies used DDT to protect soldiers from malaria and civilians from typhoid (p. 226). Against the recommendations of scientists from the American army, the public was allowed to continue marketing and using DDT after the war (p. 226). By that time, pesticides were already harming the environment to a drastic extent, causing the deaths of fish, animals, and birds, as well as contaminating soil and water (Lear, 2013, p. 2). As the use of DDT persisted regardless of its negative effects, World War II ended, the Cold War started, and Rachel Carson began working on Silent Spring.

Silent Spring

Being mindful that World War II had ended less than two decades before, Carson strategically paralleled the arguments in Silent Spring with atomic fallout to explain that continued use of unsafe chemical pesticides could lead to the ultimate termination of life on the planet (Lear, 2013, p. 1). She tried to use relatable language to make her writing accessible to everyone and to avoid a direct contrast of human and non-human interests (Cafaro, 2002, p. 59). Other coincidences that made Americans so interested in Silent Spring were the recent evidence that thalidomide caused birth defects, and that aminotriazole, a weed-killer, contaminated American cranberries (Allen, 2013, p. 186).

In Silent Spring, Carson argued that DDT and similar advancements were evidence of humans trying to control nature and all synthetic chemicals would lead to nothing but misfortune for our species (Cafaro, 2011, para. 36-41). As well as the unquestionable benefits of mankind’s progress, Silent Spring challenged other assumptions: that the public’s health was kept safe by rules put in place by regulatory bodies, that technical experts understood the consequences of their research, that technical advances always brought more benefit than harm, and that ecological change did not affect humans (Hecht, 2012, p. 150).

Lear (2013) states that Carson wanted the public to realize that businesses and scientists were not considering the long-standing effects of chemical accumulation in ecosystems (p. 2). Silent Spring was meant to encourage people to demand answers about environmental destruction and consequent future health concerns, as well as to suggest that the agricultural chemical industry might be allied with the government, which was granting them permission to use products that had not been researched fully (p. 2).

Carson’s book also outlined her disapproval of economic gain at the expense of the earth’s beauty and diversity, of humans destroying nature, and of the increasing homogenization of the natural environment (Cafaro, 2002, p. 66).

As such, Carson’s book was instrumental in creating a national debate over scientific responsibility, limitations on advances in technology, and chemical pesticides (Lear, 2013, p. 1). Environmental consciousness also became a widespread concept across the globe (Lear, 2013, p. 1). Carson sidestepped the radical, economic aspect of her accusations against DDT in Silent Spring, although the book led to a ban on DDT production by 1972, along with the implementation of government regulations to safeguard the environment (Hecht, 2012, p. 154; Lear, 2013, p. 1).

Reacting to Rachel Carson

Ord (2009) argues that governmental policies were what most angered Carson’s opponents in the chemical industry, who labelled her as being against progress of any kind (p. 7). Chicago’s Velsicol Chemical Company threatened to take legal action against her publisher because of Carson’s allegedly libellous statements about “Elixirs of Death” (Ord, 2009, p. 7; Travis, 2012, p. 109). A gas chromatography consultant at Shell claimed the head science coordinator of his company was angry at Carson for what he called exaggerations, and further postulated that chemists there had already began to take notice of pesticides before Carson’s book was released (Travis, 2012, p. 109).

In fact, it is imperative to recognize that the information presented within the pages of Silent Spring was not entirely novel. Rosner and Markowitz (2012) express that, although the understanding of the hazards of chemical contamination to the environment and the lives of humans and non-humans is often traced back to Carson’s book, the investigation of chlorinated hydrocarbons began decades prior to the publication of Silent Spring (p. 132). Interestingly, Carson alludes to this history within the book (p. 126).

Subsequently, Travis (2012) states that Dow and Shell had devised instruments to detect and measure chlorinated hydrocarbon residues back in the 1950s, but the activities of Dow and Shell were not well-known at that time (p. 111). Even though the industry possessed the technology to take steps against chlorinated hydrocarbon contamination as far back as the 1950s, no nationwide action was taken in the U.S. until partway through the 1970s, following the debut of Silent Spring (p. 129). To their discredit, chemical industry supporters who rallied against Carson after Silent Spring was published did not seem aware that industries could have prevented the hydrocarbon contamination either (p. 111).

According to Hecht (2012) and Ord (2009), Robert White-Stevens, a biochemist and spokesman for the chemical industry, was the most public critic against Carson, primarily because of an antagonistic debate that aired on Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) Reports (p. 151; p. 7). Following the broadcasted debate between White-Stevens and Carson in 1963, Carson’s governmental opponents conceded their lack of knowledge of the consequences of chemical pesticides, and industry scientists countered that with forecasts of economic crashes without the continued use of chemicals (Lear, 2013, p. 3). Critics made DDT a symbol of the technological advancements and modernization of the world and, therefore, condemned Carson’s criticisms of DDT as an attack against progress in general (Hecht, 2012, p. 151).

Congress and President John F. Kennedy took an interest in Carson’s allegations in Silent Spring, even though scientists and big businesses began to portray Carson as an overexcited, obsessed, emotional woman who romanticized nature (Lear, 2013, p. 3). Remarkably, the FBI launched an investigation regarding communist tendencies in Carson’s work, but they came up with nothing (Allen, 2013, p. 188). Not only was the FBI investigation fruitless, Carson’s opponents also failed to discredit the science behind her claims (Ord, 2009, p. 7).

Even though Allen (2013) states that many facts in Silent Spring would now have to be revised due to recent scientific progress, Carson did convey what was known scientifically at the time in a way that the general public could understand (p. 188). Most strikingly, her book brought two U.S. presidents, Kennedy and Nixon, to see DDT as a real public issue and take action in that regard, further undermining her opponent’s protestations (p. 188). Despite such evidence of Silent Spring’s success, Carson’s critics are still rallying against her today (Hecht, 2012, p. 155).

In the 21st century, there is an increased ecological conscience, so Carson’s critics now focus on the power of DDT as a combatant of malaria (Hecht, 2012, p. 154). According to Allen (2013), libertarians and right-wing Republicans of today, such as Competitive Enterprise Institute with their website “Rachel was Wrong,” are claiming that Silent Spring is at fault for the millions of annual deaths caused by malaria (p. 183). Novelist Michael Crichton proposes that the banning of DDT can be likened to Hitler’s reign in the amount of fatalities that it caused (Allen, 2013, p. 183). These people, and others, suggest that Carson created a fearful generation that would not use chemicals with life-saving properties (Hecht, 2012, p. 153). Demonizing Rachel Carson now occurs primarily with free-market thinkers, not so much to promote DDT, but as an argument against environmentalism and governmental regulations on the use of chemicals (Allen, 2013, p. 183; Hecht, 2012, p. 152).

Rachel Carson’s Legacy

Carson supported government regulations, such as limits on the amount of chemicals that can be released into the environment, that industry representatives wished to retaliate against. According to Leisher (2008), Carson posited that an effective government can implement regulations to maintain aspects of the environment that are beneficial to humans, while allowing progress to continue safely (p. 478). She contributed the idea that the support of governments, notably with regards to the administrative and financial details of protected areas, is invaluable in monitoring and safeguarding biodiversity effectively, especially in developing countries (p. 478). Silent Spring led to many countries banning DDT and to legislation such as the U.S. Clean Water Act (Cafaro, 2011, para. 1). Carson’s efforts also helped to form the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 and several international agreements that enforced the banning or restriction of some main synthetic chemicals (Langston 2012, p. 225).

Walker and Walsh (2012) state that Silent Spring highlighted the idea of scientific uncertainty, which had been an ongoing debate in the time period when the book was released, as an argument against the use of chemicals (p. 3). By addressing this concept, Rachel Carson invited ordinary people to ask questions and voice their concerns about science-related issues (p. 21). Realizing that scientists cannot always know the long-term effects of industrial-use chemicals laid the foundation for the modern use of the same in global warming, Gulf oil drilling, and nuclear power debates (p. 4). According to Carson, new scientific innovations should be questioned as to why, whether, and for what purpose they are put into practice (p. 19). Another issue sparked by Silent Spring, regarding whether humans should alter nature for our purposes or attempt to leave it unchanged, continues to be debated today as evidenced by the simultaneous development of both conservation biology and progressive biotechnology (Cafaro, 2011, para. 67).

For example, Carson put pressure on chemical, water, and waste industries to use new chemical instrumentation for trace analysis, which is still needed today, to thoroughly test chemicals that they use for dangerous properties (Travis, 2012, p. 111). Two of Carson’s other insights continue to be relevant for evaluating endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and their effect on the health of humans and the environment: that chemical residues have transgenerational effects, and that scientists are unable to isolate human considerations from those of the environment in which we live (Langston, 2012, p. 228). Following the publication of Silent Spring, people gained a clearer understanding of how interconnected humans are with nature and how vulnerable that makes us to the results of our own actions (Allen, 2013, p. 187). Also, according to Langston (2012), many journalists began emphasizing the cross-generational alteration of sexual traits and gender expression that DDT had the potential to cause (p. 227). Current research has indeed shown that EDCs may alter DNA processes and promote problems with reproduction in future generations (p. 228).

Carson inspired people to take heed of her warnings and introduced the idea of using human dimensions and shared principles in the context of conservation to illuminate environmental issues and generate interest in them (Blanchard, 2000, p. 56). On the other hand, Langston (2012) clarifies that despite the attention that Carson drew internationally to the problem of pollution, chemical use has risen in the decades following her death (p. 225). Currently, the chemical industry is worth two trillion dollars a year on a global scale, creates millions of jobs, and continues to consume excessive amounts of natural resources (p. 225). Over 70, 000 distinct industrial chemicals are produced and retailed each year, and double that amount of new chemical compounds has been synthesized since 1952 (p. 225). As a result, more than a billion pounds of chemicals permeate the environment and our bodies annually, the exact danger that Carson warned us of (p. 225).

Conclusion

Rachel Carson was correct in her adamant criticism of chemical use in the chemical industry. She altered the way in which people considered humans’ effect on the environment while encouraging people to take an interest in it. Nonetheless, she failed to make the difference that she envisioned, partially as a result of her earlier, more fantastical literature. Instead of establishing her scientific prowess as Lear (2013) claimed, her previous books, like Under the Sea-Wind, may have undermined her claims in Silent Spring by providing evidence of emotionalism, and paving the way for misogynist comments from her critics later on (p. 1).

Conversely, Carson’s artistic outlook on nature inspired her need to take part in many environmental projects and bring awareness about the dangers of chemical contamination to innumerable people. Her work was critical in generating environmental consciousness internationally and in leading the government to take steps to regulate the chemical industry’s impact on nature. In conclusion, most claims regarding Carson were unfounded and driven by anger against the imposed regulations. Rachel Carson was not a villain; she was a hero.


Author

Mikayla Stewart was born and raised in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. She will be completing her BSc, Psychology major, Biology minor, in April 2015 and plans to continue on into the field of Speech Pathology. She spends her free time reading, staying active, and spending time with youth as a volunteer leader for Young Life Canada.


References

Allen, B. (2013). Rachel Carson revisited. Hudson Review, 66(1), 183-188. Retrieved from http://hudsonreview.com/

Barrow Jr., M.V. (2012). Carson in cartoon: a new window onto the noisy reception to Silent

Spring. SciVerse ScienceDirect, 36(4), 156-164. doi: 10.1016/.j.endeavor.2012.09.005

Blanchard, K.A. (2000). Rachel Carson and the human dimensions of fish and wildlife management. Human Dimensions of Wildlife: An International Journal, 5(1), 52-66. doi: 1080/10871200009359172

Bouwman, H., van den Berg, H., & Kylin, H. (2011). DDT and malaria prevention: addressing the paradox. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(6), 744-747. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1002127

Bratton, S.P. (2004). Thinking like a mackerel: Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind as a source for a trans-ecotonal sea ethic. Ethics & the Environment, 9(1), 1-22. doi: 10.2979/ETE.2004.9.1.1

Cafaro, P. (2002). Rachel Carson’s environmental ethics. Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology, 6(1), 58-81. doi: 10.1163/156853502760184595

Cafaro, P. (2011). Rachel Carson’s environmental ethics [Essay]. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155638/

Feldman, B. (2009). 10 facts about Rachel Carson [List]. Retrieved from http://www.surfnetkids.com/go/1233/rachel-carson/

Hecht, D.K. (2012). How to make a villain: Rachel Carson and the politics of anti-environmentalism. SciVerse ScienceDirect, 36(4), 149-155. doi: 10.1016/.j.endeavor.2012.10.004

Langston, N. (2012). Rachel Carson’s legacy: endocrine disrupting chemicals and gender concerns. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 21(3), 225-229. Retrieved from www.oekom.de/gaia

Lear, L. (n.d.). The life and legacy of Rachel Carson [Research Guide]. Retrieved from http://rachelcarson.org/ResearchGuide.aspx

Lear, L. (2013). Rachel Carson and the awakening of environmental consciousness [Essay].

Retrieved from http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntwilderness/essays/

Leisher, C. (2008). What Rachel Carson knew about marine protected area. BioScience, 58(6), 478-479. doi: 10.1641/B580602

Ord, D. (2009). Still Silent Spring? Ecologist, 39(3), 7-8. Retrieved from http://www.theecologist.org/

Rosner, D., & Markowitz, G. (2012). Peristent pollutants: a brief history of the discovery of the widespread toxicity of chlorinated hydrocarbons. Environmental Research, 120, 126-133. doi: 10.1016/2012.08.011

Travis, A. S. (2012). Detecting chlorinated hydrocarbon residues: Rachel Carson’s villain. Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, 59(2), 109-130. doi: 10.1179/174582312X13345259995967

Walker, K., & Walsh, L. (2012). ‘‘No one yet knows what the ultimate consequences may be’’: how Rachel Carson transformed scientific uncertainty into a site for public participation in silent spring. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 26(1), 3-34. doi: 10.1177/1050651911421122

Cite
References
Print

Allen, B. (2013). Rachel Carson revisited. Hudson Review, 66(1), 183-188. Retrieved from http://hudsonreview.com/

Barrow Jr., M.V. (2012). Carson in cartoon: a new window onto the noisy reception to Silent

Spring. SciVerse ScienceDirect, 36(4), 156-164. doi: 10.1016/.j.endeavor.2012.09.005

Blanchard, K.A. (2000). Rachel Carson and the human dimensions of fish and wildlife management. Human Dimensions of Wildlife: An International Journal, 5(1), 52-66. doi: 1080/10871200009359172

Bouwman, H., van den Berg, H., & Kylin, H. (2011). DDT and malaria prevention: addressing the paradox. Environmental Health Perspectives, 119(6), 744-747. doi: 10.1289/ehp.1002127

Bratton, S.P. (2004). Thinking like a mackerel: Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind as a source for a trans-ecotonal sea ethic. Ethics & the Environment, 9(1), 1-22. doi: 10.2979/ETE.2004.9.1.1

Cafaro, P. (2002). Rachel Carson’s environmental ethics. Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology, 6(1), 58-81. doi: 10.1163/156853502760184595

Cafaro, P. (2011). Rachel Carson’s environmental ethics [Essay]. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/155638/

Feldman, B. (2009). 10 facts about Rachel Carson [List]. Retrieved from http://www.surfnetkids.com/go/1233/rachel-carson/

Hecht, D.K. (2012). How to make a villain: Rachel Carson and the politics of anti-environmentalism. SciVerse ScienceDirect, 36(4), 149-155. doi: 10.1016/.j.endeavor.2012.10.004

Langston, N. (2012). Rachel Carson’s legacy: endocrine disrupting chemicals and gender concerns. GAIA – Ecological Perspectives for Science and Society, 21(3), 225-229. Retrieved from www.oekom.de/gaia

Lear, L. (n.d.). The life and legacy of Rachel Carson [Research Guide]. Retrieved from http://rachelcarson.org/ResearchGuide.aspx

Lear, L. (2013). Rachel Carson and the awakening of environmental consciousness [Essay].

Retrieved from http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nattrans/ntwilderness/essays/

Leisher, C. (2008). What Rachel Carson knew about marine protected area. BioScience, 58(6), 478-479. doi: 10.1641/B580602

Ord, D. (2009). Still Silent Spring? Ecologist, 39(3), 7-8. Retrieved from http://www.theecologist.org/

Rosner, D., & Markowitz, G. (2012). Peristent pollutants: a brief history of the discovery of the widespread toxicity of chlorinated hydrocarbons. Environmental Research, 120, 126-133. doi: 10.1016/2012.08.011

Travis, A. S. (2012). Detecting chlorinated hydrocarbon residues: Rachel Carson’s villain. Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry, 59(2), 109-130. doi: 10.1179/174582312X13345259995967

Walker, K., & Walsh, L. (2012). ‘‘No one yet knows what the ultimate consequences may be’’: how Rachel Carson transformed scientific uncertainty into a site for public participation in silent spring. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 26(1), 3-34. doi: 10.1177/1050651911421122

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Word by Word

Books Ive enjoyed, Journeys Ive loved, Places that inspire

by Claire Word by Word

Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson

Under the Sea-Wind (1941) was Rachel Carson’s literary debut and the first title in her Sea Trilogy, three books she wrote about the sea, the second The Sea Around Us (1951) and finally The Edge of the Sea (1955).

I discovered Under the Sea-Wind one day because I felt sure someone must have written a book about the sea, as I had imagined.

I like to read page-turning, lyrical nature writing, the kind of prose written by poets, though not poetry; authors like Kathleen Jamie who wrote Findings ( my review here ) and Sightlines, Barry Lopez and his Arctic Dreams ( review here ), Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. They are all books that fascinate, entertain and enthrall on the subject of nature, in a way that traditional, factual texts about those subjects rarely inspire.

So I asked myself, well who has written in this form, about the sea? Because the sea is my muse, my resting place, that living, moody, playful, dangerous place that I never tire of and rarely get enough of and I wanted to read something that attempted to articulate the essence of it. So I could bring the sea nearer to me, when I can’t go to her. In that search I discovered Rachel Carson’s literary debut, her personal favourite book of all those she wrote, a book all about the sea, invoking its mystery and wonder.

The book started out as an assignment she completed in 1936, when she was an unemployed zoologist and freelance writer for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Asked to write an introduction to a brochure on marine life, she submitted an essay entitled “The World of Waters” neatly typed by her mother, as all her manuscripts would be.

The next day Carson sat in Higgins’s Washington D.C. office waiting for his verdict.The government ichthyologist knew at once that it was unsuitable. What he was reading was a piece of literature. Carson never forgot the conversation: ‘My chief…handed it back with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I don’t think it will do,’ he said. ‘Better try again. But send this one to the Atlantic Monthly.’

The essay was a narrative account of the countless sea creatures that cohabit in and underwater and introduced her two most enduring and renowned themes: the ecological relationships of ocean life that have been in existence for millenia and the material immortality that embraces even the tiniest organism. It was the essay that spawned a classic in nature literature.

A sanderling shore bird

A sanderling shore bird

Under the Sea-Wind is structured in three parts, and in each part, we view the sea and sea life from the point of view of one of its inhabitants.

In Part One, Edge of the Sea, written for the life of the shore, and inspired by a stretch of North Carolina sea-coast, we meet a female sanderling she names Silverbar, it is Spring and the great Spring migration of shore birds is at its height and concludes with the end of summer where the movements of  birds, fish, shrimp and other water creatures heralds the changing of the seasons.

“Pressing close to the backwash, Silverbar saw two shining air bubbles pushing away the sand grains and she knew that a crab was beneath. Even as she watched the bubbles her bright eyes saw that a wave was taking form in the tumbling confusion of the surf. She gauged the speed of the mound of water as it ran, toppling, up the beach. Above the deeper undertones of moving water she heard the lighter hiss that came as the crest began to spill. Almost in the same instant the feathered antennae of the crab appeared above the sand. Running under the very crest of the green water hill, Silverbar probed vigorously in the wet sand with opened bill and drew out the crab. Before the water could so much as wet her legs she turned and fled up the beach.”

She describes the terror of the shore birds as they hide in the beach grass from the noisy, boisterous migrating flocks that briefly occupy their territory; the terrible snow storm that will freeze hundreds of egg embryos, where only the fittest and strongest survive; the way the birds lure a fox away from their nests and the day the parents finally abandon their young, their job complete.

A school of Mackerel

A school of Mackerel

Part Two The Gull’s Way, is dedicated to the open sea, a parallel time period in the open ocean and here we encounter Scomber the mackerel, following his journey from birth through infancy and youth in a quiet New England harbour, only to join a school that follows its instinct into the great sea where numerous predators await. As the fish move from one location to the next, trying to outwit predators, including man, the sea becomes the scene of a thriller and Scomber the mackerel, our fugitive!

Anguilla, the eel

Anguilla, the eel

Part Three River and Sea is written in the deepest, darkest, fathoms, we follow Anguilla, the eel from the far tributaries of a coastal river pool, downstream to the gently sloping depths of the sea, ‘the steep descent of the continental slopes and finally the abyss’.

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.

“Anguilla had entered Bittern Pond as a finger-long elver ten years before. She had lived in the pond through its summers and autumns and winters and springs, hiding in its weed beds by day and prowling through it waters by night, for like all eels she was a lover of darkness…Now it was autumn again… a strange restiveness was growing in Anguilla the eel. For the first time in her adult life, the food hunger was forgotten. In its place was a strange, new hunger, formless and ill-defined. Its dimly perceived object was a place of warmth and darkness – darker than the blackest night over Bitten Pond.  She had known such a place once – in the dim beginnings of life, before memory began. Many times that night, as the wind and rain tore at the surface film of the pond, Anguilla was drawn irresistibly towards the outlet over which the water was spilling on its journey to the sea.”

Rachel Carson writes about the sea, the sand, the birds, fish and the smallest of creatures and organisms in a way that makes us realise how little we observe of what is occurring around us, though we may stand, swim, float or fish in the midst of it. For the sea, its shore and the air above thrum like a thriving city of predator and prey of all sizes and character, constantly fluctuating, its citizens ever alert to when it is prudent to move and when it is necessary to be still.

Original, enthralling, it opens our eyes to much that we do not see or understand, I am in awe of shore birds, mackerel, eels, the sea, streams, rivers, ponds and the interconnectedness of them all.

Man, when his ambitions were more local, was once a balanced part of this ecosystem, though many of the practices of today appear to have stretched the boundaries of our role too far towards destructive exploitation, in our ignorance, we are upsetting this delicate yet complex ecosystem, which will be to our detriment if not stopped.

Fortunately, we have people like Captain Paul Watson and the  Sea Shepherd Conservation Society , who have made themselves guardians of marine wildlife, actively pursuing  and preventing those who exploit and destroy without regard for the destructive effect of their pillaging the oceans.

Rachel Carson explores the sea-shore, the shallow and the deep, seeing them from the point of view of three species natural to those habitats, while mentioning so many more that they encounter, in a narrative that makes nature writing absolutely thrilling and survival an astounding feat.

Highly Recommended!

Buy a copy of Under the Sea-Wind via Book Depository

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38 thoughts on “Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson

  1. I love the sea, but I have never heard of Carson’s trilogy. Beautiful review.

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    • It’s such a beautiful book Ali and so great that it’s been recognised and issued as a Penguin Classic, I wish they’d republish the next two as well!

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  2. Thank you so much for introducing me to these.

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    • My pleasure Linda, it’s a wonderful book for the right moment, I can’t wait to read the next two.

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  3. This sounds wonderful, Claire! Thanks for a brilliant review. 😀

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    • Thank you for your kind words 🙂 it is one of the classics of nature writing for sure.

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  4. So pleased we were able to share time at the beach this year. I really look forward to one day taking you to Smugglers Cove to enjoy the sea both on it and in it:)

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    • Thank you Helen, I can’t wait to spend time at Smugglers Cove with all the family!

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  5. This sounds so lovely. I can see everything – the sand, the water, the birds – in my mind as I’m reading. It’s so beautifully written.

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    • It’s a beautiful book Heather and a wonderful collaboration between mother and daughter in putting it together, I’m happy to have discovered it and to share it. Looking forward to read the next one in the trilogy. You’re right, I could see and feel what the bird, the fish and eel were doing, feeling, exquisitely written!

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  6. I have to agree with your other commenters. This sounds terrific, definitely one for the wishlist. I love how some of the best nature writing can make us more aware of the wonders around us.

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    • It does make us more aware Jacqui, your comment reminds me of something Kathleen Jamie says in Findings, about what she wanted to learn from her walking among the birds and nature and which she succeeds in doing on the page, one of the reasons I believe it is so accessible to the common reader:

      This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering, ‘My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis – don’t be silly, it’s just a wild heron.’ Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and learn again to look, to listen.

      It’s like that classic writer’s adage of show, don’t tell, and when a writer does this, it inspires the reader’s imagination and takes them on the journey too.

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  7. I have heard of Silent Spring, of course, but not this trilogy. And, I find that good nature writing is not what is talked about and seen around the most, so it’s good to have some recommendations for it!

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    • I bought Silent Spring at the same time after reading that this is the work that she is most well known for, but in fact just as you say, it is the little known work that appeals to me most and so I’m going to stick to reading them first before getting to the popular bestseller, which wasn’t the book I was looking for initially.

      I do often see the same names promoted, but find it’s worth digging a little deeper and looking in the less traditional places for reviews to hunt out the works that really appeal to me.

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  8. Hi Claire. Your article sparked my interest in Rachel Carson, so I found out more information. She was a pioneer in raising awareness about the effects of pesticides on living beings. Her book Silent Spring caused outrage in the sixties because the manufacturers of pesticides were concerned about their business.80% of the streams and lakes in the United States of America are now polluted with pesticides and we don’t know the future impact of the ongoing use of pesticides. This is taboo. This matter is ignored for the sake of profits.  It is important to raise awareness and to do our best to reduce the use of these chemicals.

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    • Hi Julia, I am so pleased you read more about Rachel Carson, she really did a lot to raise awareness of the damage humans are doing to the environment and inspired many to take up careers in order to do something proactive. I have a copy of Silent Spring to read as well, I couldn’t help but notice the importance of that work when I was looking at her work too, it’s great that she was able to reach so many through he knowledge and sharing it through literature. An inspirational woman!

      I love that this little known first work, which was her personal favourite has been reissued as a Penguin Classic, I hope they think to republish the next two as well. Silent Spring was published as a Modern Classic in 2000.

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  9. I love Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and I really want to read Arctic Dreams! I knew of this book by Rachel Carson, but I didn’t pay it much attention. Sounds very interesting.

    I do have to add, though, that in my opinion factual science books can be completely inspiring too!

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    • That is so true about factual science books, you are right, I witness it every time I take my son to the library, he heads straight for the science, nature and life sections, it’s only facts for him! I think the non-fiction books I like to read on the subjects are a little like listening to a good documentary, the voice is important in carrying the reader along to want to read every word, unless its a subject that one is completely passionate about, in which case we would read anything and everything about that topic.

      I do hope you give this one a try and that you get to read Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez can write on any subject and be captivating.

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  10. Another hidden gem you have uncovered, the sea is such a fascinating place and the varied places with which Carson writes about sounds wonderful, especially the Sargasso Sea which has always interested me since I started reading about Atlantis myths.

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    • I don’t know much about the Sargasso Sea but the journrey of these eels is amazing. I hope this one makes your list!

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      • It most certainly has! I don’t know a lot about the Sargasso Sea apart from a few myths and in some ways I think that is better to keep that mystery.

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  11. I love nature writing, too, and with ‘Silent Spring’ affecting me so profoundly when I first read it, I would remiss in not reading ‘Under the Sea-Wind.’ My own fascination with all things under the sea had me very curious about Marie Tharp when this book came out a few years ago: “Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor.”

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    • Silent Spring seems to have become the one book that rose above the others and has had a profound effect on the thinking and knowledge of so many, I did acquire a copy of it as well, but wanted to stick with my inital plan to follow my initial instinct and am so glad I did in discovering Carson’s sea trilogy. Thanks for the mention of Marie Tharp Deborah, I shall have a look at her book too.

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      • Just so you know — interested as I was to learn about the world of oceanography and a woman’s limited place in it, I thought the book fell a little short in revealing much about Tharp. Here’s a link to the article that led me to read it — http://mentalfloss.com/article/60481/how-one-womans-discovery-shook-foundations-geology You decide for yourself 😉

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  12. I have all of her books (including ‘A Sense of Wonder’!) and love to re-read her work, especially ‘The Sea Around Us’. Her descriptions of our planet are often poetic and such page turners! I’m so sorry she died so young.

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    • Oh, A Sense of Wonder sounds like a wonderful book too. Thanks for mentioning it. Don’t you just love a poetic pageturner on natural history!

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  13. Beautiful post, attentive and generous.

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    • Thank you Theresa, it’s a beautiful book, I’m happy to have discovered Carson’s writing.

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  14. Lovely post Claire… hadn’t realised that Rachel Carson had written anything before Silent Spring… they sound wonderful and right up my alley…
    Another classic about the sea and nature is Henry Beston’s ‘The outermost house’, which never leaves my bed-side, and I’ve just finished Robert Macfarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’… now looking for Roger Deakin’s ‘Waterlog.’.. and am about to re-read ‘The Kontiki Expedition’, which is a wonderful saga about the sea… you’ve really pressed my buttons with this post !!!!

    And oh yes, wonderful Annie Dillard… PIlgrim…. is also by my bedside.. have you read her ‘Teaching a stone to talk ‘?
    Do love your posts, Claire – food for the soul for a bookomaniac !!!

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    • Thank you Valerie for your kind words. Based on your bedside favourites this does sound right up your alley. Funny you mention ‘The Outermost House’ as a Goodreads friend recommended it to me when I indicated I like to read about the sea and then in the introduction to Under the Sea-Wind, we discover that it was also a favourite of Rachel Carson’s and that in 1952 Henry Beston wrote what was considered the best review of her book. She considered his book one of the greatest natural histories of the seashore of all time. I love how the discovery of one gem can unearth others!

      I wasn’t aware of Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, what a great title, thank you!

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  15. Pingback: Top Reads 2015 | Word by Word

  16. this is an amazing review, i’m doing a project on Rachel Carson and this has helped. Im reading Silent Spring but hopefully sometime I will be able to read this book,

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  17. Pingback: Oceans Echoes by Sheila Hurst – Word by Word

  18. Pingback: The Outermost House by Henry Beston #NatureWriting – Word by Word

  19. After seeing a documentary on Rachel Carson, I learned about her trilogy, now after reading your post, I am definitely going to buy these three books. Silent Spring is a book I’ve read more than once – it’s as important now as it was when she first wrote it, if not more so. Thank you for sharing the reviews of the trilogy, we all need to get closer to nature, to see what we may be destroying by disconnecting from it. I will definitely share this on Becca’s Inspirational Book Blog – http://www.BeccaChopra.com . Namaste!

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  20. Reblogged this on Beccas Inspirational Book Blog and commented:
    Now that Silent Spring by Rachel Carson needs to be read again by our politicians before they gut the EPA, we can also be inspired to save our oceans, our wildlife and our earth by reading her three other books as well. Thanks to Claire at Word by Word ( https://clairemca.wordpress.com/2015/07/23/under-the-sea-wind-by-rachel-carson/ ) for this review…

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  21. Pingback: Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson | Beccas Inspirational Book Blog

  22. It’s been a long time (40 years?) since I read Under the Sea-Wind and those intimate details of the life and longings of the eel, but they struck home today as they did way back. Carson achieves equality of all beings. I think we can attribute to her the courses in Marine Biology at universities now and the huge number of graduates who go on to fall in love with such life forms, and protect them.

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Generally, the government believes that history began 1,000 years ago. They do not count the history of people who were not Muslim.

In my novels, I’m trying to show how these people influenced the history and where their position was.

I’m trying to emphasize how the Hittites, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Armenians, Greeks and all the different groups affected it.

Turkey needs this: an independent view of people, regardless of their race or religion. That’s the basis of my books.

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