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Diving Deep with Rachel Carson: Taking Bearings (The Library) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #8
Revisiting Rachel Carson's classic--no, not Silent Spring!
A few prefatory words
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This week’s feature is The Library, and I’m excited to connect with you over a beautiful book by a environmental hero.
Diving Deep with Rachel Carson
But in modern times, at least, we might profit from history.
Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us, 1951
Chances are you have heard of Rachel Carson and her history-changing book Silent Spring (1962). Remembered mainly as a book that warned of the harms of pesticides, especially DDT, Silent Spring shook the American public so hard it reverberated across the globe and in the decades since it appeared. Historians often credit Carson with helping to launch the modern environmental movement. Both Carson and her book deserve their acclaim.
However, if you are like most people, your knowledge of Carson ends there. But she authored other books. In fact, her 1951 book The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award and earned the Burroughs Medal for natural history writing among other honors. The Sea Around Us also became a bestseller, and that allowed Carson to quit her job and devote herself to writing full-time. Without that, Silent Spring might not exist. But if Silent Spring hadn’t come to be, Carson’s contribution to science writing might have been sufficient that still we’d know her name in environmental circles.
For my Library issue this week, I wanted to read this precursor to Carson’s more famous book.
Carson was born in Pennsylvania in 1907 and as a child showed interests in nature and writing. She rambled around her family’s farm, publishing her first story when she was 10 years old. From a modest background, Carson relied on scholarships to help her earn a bachelor’s degree at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) and then moved on to a master’s degree at the nation’s preeminent research institution, Johns Hopkins University. She continued with doctoral studies, but economic and family burdens forced her to leave before finishing.
Carson obtained a job during the Depression with the US Bureau of Fisheries (which later became the US Fish and Wildlife Service), writing short radio scripts and government brochures. One of her earliest efforts was so good her supervisor urged her to submit it to The Atlantic.
Quite early in her career, she discovered her talent: translating scientific information clearly to an interested public. She continued doing this the rest of her life. Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941) demonstrated this theme and earned strong reviews, but the outbreak of World War II tanked sales. She hoped that The Sea Around Us would receive similar reviews but also garner financial success.
The Context of The Sea Around Us
The sea drew Carson’s passionate scientific interest, and she became something of an evangelist for oceans. According to her biographer Linda Lear, Carson wanted The Sea Around Us to educate, awaken, and fascinate her audience so that readers, too, might appreciate all there was to the sea.
Carson researched and wrote The Sea Around Us during a great increase of oceanic information. The war had catalyzed research and technological capabilities to study and explore the sea, which had long been mostly myth and mystery. By way of illustration, Carson pointed out that human knowledge about the sea floor lagged behind knowledge of the moon’s topography.
Carson lived through discovery after discovery, assimilating them into her growing understanding of the sea. Historian Stephen Pyne (one of my graduate mentors) characterized this transformative period as the Third Age of Discovery, the time when human understanding pushed deeper into the ocean and farther into space. Carson served as a scientific translator of this scientific renaissance.
In some ways, her book was premature, because scientific information kept coming so quickly.
The Theme of The Sea Around Us
For readers interested in marine life and oceanography, The Sea Around Us undoubtedly is a treasure trove. I came to the book without those special interests, so what stood out to me were somewhat broader themes.
A central theme that emerges in the book is the ocean’s paradoxes. Carson opens one chapter, “The Changing Year,” stating, “For the sea as a whole, the alternation of day and night, the passage of the seasons, the procession of the years, are lost in its vastness, obliterated in its own changeless eternity. But the surface waters are different. The face of the sea is always changing.” She captures that simultaneous timelessness and dynamism within a few sharp phrases.
Similarly, when describing an undersea volcano in “The Birth of an Island” chapter (my favorite), Carson writes, “It is one of the paradoxes in the ways of earth and sea that a process seemingly so destructive, so catastrophic in nature, can result in an act of creation.” For Carson, this juxtaposition is wondrous and why she never tired of learning.
Besides reveling in nature’s intricacies, Carson insists on reorienting the world as a water world. In a compact opening chapter about the origins of life and of people, she has an omniscient “man” realizing “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.”
And then in the book’s final paragraph, she reminds us that the Ancient Greeks understood that “always around the disc of the habitable world was the vast ocean, encircling all.” These poetic phrases—that bookend the tome—nudge us land creatures away from the center of our world, requiring us to remember how much of the earth is water, and how much of that remains out of sight, beneath any surface view.
Of course, The Sea Around Us cannot stand up as scientifically accurate in 2022. And some contrasts merit some pondering. Carson noted rising sea levels with a curiosity that is not married to worry about doomed cities, such as is common in our current contemplation about rising ocean levels. Today, we also hear much about the ocean as a carbon sink. Such concerns do not appear. It was another time, another sea.
A final note: Carson’s writing is clear. Often exquisite. Almost every chapter opens with a paragraph that rings like a clarion. Writers should read Carson for this crispness alone and then be surprised by all else that’s there. The Sea Around Us deserves its honors, and Carson deserves the praise that came to her.
The literary world took note. The New Yorker serialized several chapters (as it did Silent Spring a decade later). One chapter won the American Association for the Advancement of Science prize for science writing. The Book-of-the-Month Club selected it as an alternate selection, something that vastly increased sales. Saturday Review of Literature featured Carson. The New York Times Book Review featured the book. Reviews were routinely stellar. Honorary degrees came, too. In two months, Oxford University Press put The Sea Around Us through 15 printings. It sat atop the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks, a record. And sales? The first edition sold more than 1.3 million copies.
We owe Rachel Carson huge debts of gratitude for Silent Spring, a book that revolutionized many popular understandings of ecology. But even without it, Carson merits our attention.
The Sea Around Us - National Book Foundation — www.nationalbook.org Published in 1951, The Sea Around Us is one of the most remarkably successful books ever written about the natural world. Rachel Carson's rare ability to combine scientific insight with moving, poetic prose catapulted her book to first place on The New York Times best-seller list, where it enjoyed wide attention for thirty-one consecutive weeks. Quite simply, she captures the mystery and allure of the ocean with a compelling blend of imagination and expertise.
One last passage to help you meditate on nature’s cycles:
In its broader meaning, that other concept of the ancients remains. For the sea lies all about us. The commerce of all lands must cross it. The very winds that move over the lands have been cradled on its broad expanse and seek ever to return to it. The continents themselves dissolve and pass to the sea, in grain after grain of eroded land. So the rains that rose from it return again in rivers. In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.
Besides Carson's own work, I relied on two biographies: Linda Lear, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature and Mark Lytle's The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement.
At Shepherd.com, I contributed two lists of book recommendations, each one curated around the topics of my last two books. Check out my lists--and then surf around Shepherd, which has authors choose five important and related books. You just might find a new book to buy and help support authors.
The best books to help you get deep in the wilderness — shepherd.com Adam M. Sowards shares the 5 best books on helping you get deep in the wilderness. Have you read Trace?
The best books for bringing the public into the public lands — shepherd.com Adam M. Sowards shares the 5 best books on bringing the public into the public lands. Have you read The Hour of Land?
Taking Bearings Next Week
The Wild Card is up next week. That issue will explore a bit about where I grew up, as found in the archives.
As always, thank you for reading and please share.