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The Urgency of Rachel Carson’s Sea Trilogy in a Time of Climate Crisis

Sandra Steingraber on Carson’s Legacy and What We Are Losing

On a blustery morning in October 1945, Rachel Carson, a marine biologist and government science writer, climbed to the summit of Hawk Mountain. She was accompanied by other birdwatchers, including her companion, artist and illustrator Shirley Briggs, who worked with her in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and was known as a very fine amateur ornithologist.

Briggs memorialized the moment in a photograph that offers a more ecstatic presentation of Carson than the prim, resolute figure we have come to know from later publicity photos and media appearances. After the National Book Award. After the meeting with the President’s science advisors and the testimony before the Government Operations Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate.

After her findings on the harms of pesticides kicked off a massive campaign by the chemical industry to discredit her.

After the cancer diagnosis.

In the Hawk Mountain photo of 1945, Rachel Carson is both beautiful and at ease. Balanced on a rocky outcrop, black leather jacket open to the wind, she scans the horizon with a pair of leather-strapped binoculars, the whole of Berks County, Pennsylvania, unfurling before her—forest and valley, field and mountain—like a verse from a Pete Seeger song.

An officially designated sanctuary for raptors along the Appalachian flyway, Hawk Mountain had become, by the mid-1930s, the spot in Pennsylvania to witness the annual fall migration of hawks and eagles. By the time Briggs and Carson ascended to the north overlook in fall 1945—mere weeks after the dropping of two atomic bombs ended World War II— Carson had already read classified papers documenting harm to wildlife from exposure to DDT and other untested wartime chemicals that were now receiving a hero’s welcome in American society. She was already piecing together the first inklings of what would become her final legacy as both scientist and author: public documentation of widespread ecological damage from pesticide-spraying programs that broadcast inherently toxic substances across the landscape, sabotaging, among other things, the ability of predators atop the food chain to reproduce.

Indeed, the declining numbers of juvenile bald eagles migrating along the ridge of Hawk Mountain in the decade following 1945 are cited in her landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring, as a critical piece of evidence for the unintended but “ever-widening wave of death” set in motion when persistent poisons are released into the environment.

But her field notes from that particular day on the mountain reveal that she was not up there solely to tabulate the number of raptors flying by:

And always in these Appalachian highlands there are reminders of those ancient seas that more than once lay over all this land these whitened limestone rocks on which I am sitting—these, too, were formed under that Paleozoic ocean, of the myriad tiny skeletons of creatures that drifted in its waters. Now I lie back with half closed eyes and try to realize that I am at the bottom of another ocean—an ocean of air on which the hawks are sailing.

Rachel Carson sat astride a mountaintop and imagined herself at the bottom of the sea that made the mountain.

*

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, and grew up on the outskirts of Springdale, sixteen miles from Pittsburgh. Her lifelong devotion to the sea began as a small child when she discovered, on a rocky hillside near her family’s farm, a fossilized fish, a sea creature in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. As she would later report in an author questionnaire to her publisher’s marketing department (See “Memo to Mrs. Eales” on page 693–700 in this volume):

As long as I can remember [the sea] has fascinated me. Even as a child—long before I had ever seen it—I used to imagine what it would look like, and what the surf sounded like. Since I grew up in an inland community, where we hadn’t even a migrating seagull, I had to wait a long time to have my curiosity satisfied. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until I had graduated from college and gone on to the famous Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, that I saw the ocean.

By the time she turned her attention, in the late 1950s, to the problem of chemical pollution, which became the topic of Silent Spring, Carson was already the celebrity author of three books about ocean ecology. It is this trilogy—Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955)—that is collected here. Altogether these three titles reveal the complex, hitherto unseen majesties of a world in which the human race scarcely appears. If readers could visualize the watery world below the mirrored surface of the sea—teeming with communities of interacting creatures, each possessed with emotions and personality—if we could travel back through geological time and witness the birth of an oceanic island, if we understood the physics of waves, if we could look down at the surf through the eyes of a storm-tossed shorebird, or up at the moon from the stony bottom of a tide pool, we might, the author believed, experience wonder and humility. And wonder and humility, said Carson, “do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”

What emerges, then, are not just popular accounts of marine biology or guides for beachcombers (although you can use these books for those purposes, too), but what amounts to an ocean-centric planetary ethic and philosophy of life.

And yet, as intentional as the writing is, Carson’s sea trilogy began almost by happenstance. In 1936, the chief of the Division of Scientific Inquiry in what was at that time called the Bureau of Fisheries asked Carson to write an introduction to a forthcoming publication—and then deemed the eleven pages she submitted too literary for a government brochure. He was, nevertheless, sufficiently captivated by the rhythms and imagery of Carson’s draft to urge her to submit the original as an essay for The Atlantic. Desperate for additional income, she finally did.

And its publication there in 1937 caught the attention of an editor at Simon & Schuster who solicited from her a book proposal and so launched her career as a literary writer. “I had never seriously considered writing a book,” she would say later (in her “Memo to Mrs. Eales”). “But naturally that letter put ideas in my head.” Thus, four years after the publication of her much revised and carefully tooled essay “Undersea” came the first book in the trilogy, Under the Sea-Wind. As Carson later said, “everything else followed.”

The seductive power of “Undersea” surely arises from Carson’s descriptive voice, which beseeches the reader to suspend terrestrial ways of understanding and simply, in an act of negative capability, enter, behold, and wonder at the alien world of the deep sea:

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. For to the sea’s children nothing is so important as the fluidity of their world. It is water that they breathe; water that brings them food; water through which they see, by filtered sunlight from which first the red rays, then the greens, and finally the purples have been strained; water through which they sense vibrations equivalent to sound.

The dreamlike, cinematic quality of “Undersea” is extended in Under the Sea-Wind. To it is added Carson’s specific expertise as a fisheries biologist and naturalist. This knowledge base allows her to structure the book as a series of narratives with shifting points of view, each told from the perspective of a different marine or ocean-dependent animal. In a daring choice, Carson gives her animal narrators individual names. They have agency—consciousness, even. And memories. (“Before the moon had come to the full, Rynchops had remembered the island.”) They investigate, assess situations, and make decisions—sometimes catastrophic ones. They stalk and are stalked. (“Down along the cliff raced the two fishes—the mackerel a slim, tapered creature flashing iridescent in the sun; the eel as long as a man is tall and thick and drab as a piece of fire hose.”) They are harassed beyond endurance. They are disquieted, become confused, panic. They narrowly escape and need to calm down. (“. . . so today he only listened, perhaps to reassure himself that the weasels had not raided the lemming colony since his last visit.”)

Wonder and humility, said Carson, “do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.”

And yet, the thirteen animal characters that sequentially reveal to us the mysteries of ocean ecosystems in Under the Sea-Wind are not sentimentally personified. Their narratives are not fables. Instead, the book compels continued acts of de-personification on the part of readers. For example, as revealed in her author questionnaire (“Memo to Mrs. Eales”), Carson chose an eel and a sanderling to serve as two of Under the Sea-Wind’s narrators—both are long-range migrants—so that she could use their journeys to showcase a multitude of marine habitats, from arctic ice to the dark abyss.

The long odysseys of these protagonists are often narrated in the passive voice (in contrast to the active voice of the many chase scenes) as they are seized by elemental forces beyond themselves and joined, each to each, in the fluidic circulation of life. The recurring theme of Under the Sea-Wind is that the power of the ocean itself directs the movements of migratory species. These are not Homeric-style heroic voyages. Again, from “Memo to Mrs. Eales”:

I very soon realized that the central character of the book was the ocean itself. The smell of the sea’s edge, the feeling of vast movements of water, the sound of waves, crept into every page, and over all was the ocean as the force dominating all its creatures.

The task required of us as readers of Under the Sea-Wind is to begin to unlearn our necessarily anthropomorphic perspectives:

I decided that the author as a person or a human observer should never enter the story, but that it should be told as a simple narrative of the lives of certain animals of the sea. As far as possible, I wanted my readers to feel that they were, for a time, actually living the lives of sea creatures. To bring this about I had first, of course, to think myself into the role of an animal that lives in the sea. I had to forget a lot of human conception.

Given the attention attracted by her essay “Undersea,” Rachel Carson had every reason to hope that the publication of Under the Sea-Wind would receive notice. But that’s not what happened. Within weeks of her book launch, the U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States suddenly at war. Under the Sea-Wind became a commercial failure, selling just two-thousand copies before going out of print.

In July 1951, a full decade and many, many U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports later, Carson released a second sea book in a different historical moment—and enjoyed the opposite kind of publishing experience. The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award for nonfiction. Almost half of the book was serialized in The New Yorker. The title stayed on The New York Times best-seller list for eighty-six weeks, and the reviews poured in, full of praise and admiration. Riding on the coattails of this success, Under the Sea-Wind was reissued—and it too, the second time around, swiftly became a best seller. By 1952, royalties from both books provided her enough financial independence that Carson could resign from government service and write full-time. The Sea Around Us was a life-changing book for its author.

The third book of the triptych, The Edge of the Sea, explores the liminal zone between the tide lines where ocean meets land, “the place of our dim, ancestral beginnings.” Of the three books, it is the most intimate and requires no imaginative time travel or descents into the abyss.

Here are tide pools, sandy beaches, and rocky shores. These landscapes exist on a human scale and, when the tide goes out far enough, can be gazed upon with human eyes—like those of any casual beachcomber. If The Sea Around Us provides a maocosmic view of a complex, generative planetary system, The Edge of the Sea is about the microcosm found within, say, the body of a single loggerhead sponge tucked among the corals of a Florida reef. (Living sponges provide housing for amphipods, worms, isopods, and, most notably, snapping shrimp. “Wandering through its dark halls, they scrape food from the walls of the sponge . . . filling the water world with a continuous sizzling, crackling sound.”) The wonderment of book three is in illuminating the powers of adaptability (“compromise, conflict, and eternal change”) and cooperation among the organisms who reside in places that are continuously shifting between landscape and seascape. Its ethical message is to go forth into the natural world—even on an ordinary beach—in a spirit of discovery, with an open, inquiring mind, and your attention will be sustaining.

*

So profound and systemic is the ongoing global climate crisis that it is hardly possible to overstate the level of peril now confronting the world’s oceans or to exaggerate the magnitude of harms, present and to come, afflicting or soon to afflict every creature living within them—from diatoms to angler fish, coral reefs to whales—and those who depend upon them. Which includes, of course, all of us. Photosynthesizing plankton drifting on the sunlit surface of the sea provide more than half the oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere, which is to say, more than half the oxygen in the air that we breathe. These plankton stocks are now in decline. Oxygen levels in the surface waters of the open ocean are also falling. (Warm water holds less oxygen than cold water.)

In a world full of indifference and avoidance and disinformation and denial, Carson’s sea books inspire curiosity and care about what we are in the process of losing.

Forty percent of Americans live in counties that touch the sea. Communities in these counties, along with the magical shoreline habitats described by Carson in The Edge of the Sea, are now endangered by increasingly violent coastal storms. (Warm water evaporates more rapidly than cold water.) And, if they have not been dashed apart or flooded out already, they are also menaced by sea level rise, which is caused primarily by increased rates of ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and secondarily by thermal expansion. (Warm water takes up more room than cold water.)

Also, because the sea gathers carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transforms it into carbonic acid, the ocean’s acidity rises in tandem with atmospheric carbon emissions from fossil fuel operations. Accordingly, seawater is now 20–30 percent more acidic than it was at the beginning of the twentieth century, with acidification now affecting 95 percent of the ocean’s surface area. This drop in pH matters because acidity pulls calcium carbonate into solution. As a result, shelled animals at the base of the marine food chain—barnacles, oysters, mussels, crabs, corals—are currently experiencing difficulty secreting and maintaining their calcified exoskeletons. Rising ocean acidity is also, according to a recent study, corroding the teeth and skin of sharks. Plainly put: our dependency on burning oil, coal, and gas has, within the span of a human life, altered the chemistry of the world’s oceans in ways that are dissolving their inhabitants.

It would be wrong to fault Carson, so masterful at following where science led, for failing to foresee and predict these outcomes. In her three books that serve as love letters to the sea, she neither denies nor turns away from the evidence for an imminent, oceanwide ecological unraveling caused by heat-trapping emissions from fossil fuel combustion. Rather, that evidence was simply was not yet available to her. Hawaii’s Mauna Loa Observatory, with the longest record of direct measurements of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, only started collecting data in 1958. The first subtle evidence for rising sea surface temperatures came in 1970. (It’s less subtle now: the rate of ocean warming and heat uptake has doubled since 1993.)

The dataset documenting loss of oxygen in the world’s oceans also began in 1970. The phenomenon of marine heat waves—triggered by high-pressure systems that stall over the open ocean and act like a magnifying glass to the sun’s rays—was first recognized in 2011 when superheated water devastated a kelp forest off the coast of western Australia and collapsed the fishing industry. (A few years later, another marine heat wave, nicknamed The Blob, killed phytoplankton stocks across a swath of the Northwest Pacific, and in its wake, chinook salmon disappeared, and a million seabirds died in the Gulf of Alaska.)

We now understand, in ways that Carson could not have, that coral is exceedingly vulnerable to both ocean acidification and marine heat waves. Acid water brings frailty to the reefs, thinning and fracturing their architecture. Absent rapid decarbonization of our energy systems, current models predict that ocean pH could, by midcentury, fall low enough to prevent corals from excreting a calcium skeleton at all. Meanwhile, superheated currents of water cause corals to expel the symbiotic algae that live inside their polyps and provide them food (and also brilliant colors). These so-called bleaching events further weaken the coral and cause it to wither and starve. Climate change is thus a double crisis for coral, which, although it fills only 0.1 percent of the planet’s ocean floor, offers food and shelter for fully one-third of all marine life in the ocean— including four-thousand species of fish.

And yet, even without a working understanding of the myriad ways in which an accumulation of heat-trapping gases can damage marine ecosystems, Carson comes very close to a theory of climate change in The Sea Around Us. From the chapter titled “The Global Thermostat,” which documents how ocean currents circulate energy and water and so regulate Earth’s climate:

But for the present, the evidence that the top of the world is growing warmer is to be found on every hand. The recession of the northern glaciers is going on at such a rate that many smaller ones have already disappeared. If the present rate of melting continues others will soon follow.

One utilitarian way of approaching Carson’s sea trilogy in the present day is with the idea that it depicts a disappearing natural baseline: this is how the all-creating ocean functioned, how its creatures lived and interacted, before the catastrophe of climate change began to tear it all apart in an ongoing act of de-creation. And the writing does do that. Just as importantly, in a world full of indifference and avoidance and disinformation and denial, Carson’s sea books inspire curiosity and care about what we are in the process of losing. She did not live to see industrial overfishing, or news of the potential collapse of the Gulf Stream, or massive floating garbage patches, or icebergs the size of states breaking off Antarctica, or microplastics replacing plankton in the water column, or plans for deep-sea mining—but her words fortify us for battles she had only begun to imagine.

After the publication of The Edge of the Sea in 1955, when she discovered what chlorinated pesticides were doing to the eggshells of eagles, she found the courage to confront the chemical industry—sparking the modern environmental movement along the way. By her example and her words, she would urge us now to take notice of what the fossil fuel industry is doing to the corals—and to all the fish in the sea and to the sea itself. Her writing about shorebirds and tide pools emboldens us to confront hard truths about our continued existence on the planet.

_______________________________________________________

From The Sea Trilogy by Rachel Carson, edited by Sandra Steingraber. Used with the permission of Library of America.

 

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Sandra Steingraber
Sandra Steingraber is senior scientist at the Science & Environmental Health Network and one of America’s leading environmental writers and anti-pollution advocates. Her books include Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment (1997), Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (2001), and Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (2011).





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