Under the Sea-Wind: The life and works of Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, in my opinion, holds a place in history as one of the greatest nature writers and influential environmentalists to have ever lived. While Carson is most famously known for her book Silent Spring that exposed the destruction of wildlife through the widespread use of pesticides, she also published a trilogy on the life of the sea; The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea and Under the Sea-Wind. [tweetmeme source=”victoria_plumb” only_single=false]

Illustration by Sophie Herxheimer

On September the 10th, I will be speaking at Feast on the Bridge an annual communal dining event on Southwark Bridge, and part of the ever growing Thames Festival. In its fifth year, Feast on the Bridge will have a rather fishy theme, with a specific focus on sustainable fishing and unsung heroes of the underwater world. I’ll be giving a 15 minute talk about the life and works of Rachel Carson, a woman who inspired me and so many others to turn our attention and energy to preventing the reckless abuse and destruction of the natural world.

cc licensed flickr photo by Hani Amir

Until I read an article by US nature writer, Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker, I have to admit, I had no idea that Carson wrote anything else. She was so famous for Silent Spring, for me at least, it engulfed everything that came before.

So, as I polish up my knowledge of Carson’s life and works for my Feast on the Bridge talk, I am quickly realising that not only was she a prolific writer, but she has the most poetic, emotive style. Take this line from Undersea, an essay published in Atlantic Monthly in 1937. Carson originally wrote this as an introduction for an educational pamphlet for the US Bureau of Fisheries in 1935. Her boss told her it was too “lyric” for a government document, but she should try and get it published in Atlantic Monthly. Two years later she did. Carson is reported to have said from this,  “everything else followed”:

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 swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are prayed 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 dwell sponge and mollusc 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.

To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.

Rachel Carson (1937) ‘Undersea’ Atlantic Monthly, cited in Lear L (1998) Lost woods: The discovered  writing of Rachel Carson (Boston: Beacon Press)

What can I say. I get goose bumps every time I read this…

One Response to “Under the Sea-Wind: The life and works of Rachel Carson”
  1. Stefan Thiesen says:

    I understand the goose bumbs… I remember a lecturer at KCL, who kept saying the conveyor of a message is responsible for making himself understood. Another professor at HPU in Hawaii, where I took Marine Science – and writing – classes informed us (surprise!) that there is no reason why scientific texts have to be written badly and impersonally. I think science writing needs some lyrical infusion… the best did it. Think Carl Sagan. Or another great “ocean writer”: Sylvia Earle.

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  • August 2011
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