Review: Erik Reece on Rachel Carson
It was sitting on a Florida beach some years ago, reading Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea, that I learned the quartzite sand all around me had once belonged to the Appalachian Mountains, whose destruction due to strip mining I had been writing about for a decade. In my mind, this astonishing fact bound me in some small, symbolic way to one of the greatest American environmental writers.
Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, sixty years to the day before my own entre into the world near those very mountains—another link. Thirty-eight years later, she was hiking the northern spine of the Appalachians, mindful of the Precambrian seas that once covered these mountains, when she wrote this sentence in her notebook: “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.” Even in the mountains, Rachel Carson was dreaming of the sea.
In her 2018 New Yorker profile, “The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson,” historian Jill Lapore sniffed that the recent Library of America edition of Carson’s Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment, built around the book she wrote at the end of her life and for which she is best known, “includes not one drop of her writing about the sea.” This so vexed Lapore that she devoted a good five thousand words to (admirably) calling readers’ attention to Carson’s first three books, all about the sea. But clearly such a collection was already in the works, and here it is: The Sea Trilogy.
The first installation, Under the Sea-Wind, appeared in 1941, a few weeks before Pearl Harbor. No one read it. The Sea Around Us came out a decade later and won the National Book Award for nonfiction. The Edge of the Sea arrived in 1951, eleven years before the book that would change the world, Silent Spring. During the Depression, Carson worked at the Bureau of Fisheries as her family’s only breadwinner. There, she drafted an essay called “The World of Waters.” The head of her department told her that it was too good for a government brochure and suggested that she send it to The Atlantic. That publication led to her sea-book triptych. And when Carson became alarmed that a war-time chemical called DDT was being sold as a post-war pesticide, she shifted her final focus to that trend. Her warnings in Silent Spring let to passage of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the Clean Water Act (1972), and the Endangered Species Act (1973), and eventually to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
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But if Silent Spring was written out of necessity, the Sea Trilogy was inspired by Carson’s uncomplicated love of the marine world. The first volume, Under the Sea-Wind, employs an anthropomorphic device of naming wild animals that now feels dated and quaint (“In time Silverbar accepted Blackfoot as her mate and the pair withdrew to a stony plateau overlooking the sea”), so let’s move on to Carson’s masterworks, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea. Seldom, to my mind, does “nature writing” rise to this sophisticated blend of science and art. In that regard, Carson’s only American peer is Loren Eiseley. Both of the later books synthesize an astonishing amount of scientific data, then alchemize that dry information into vibrant poetry. For instance: “Fish, tapered of body and stream-molded by the press of running waters, were evolving in Silurian rivers.” Or: “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.” This is great writing—perfectly balanced sentences that ride an undercurrent of music, the rhythm of the sea, if you wish.
Carson couldn’t swim and boats made her seasick. Yet she possessed the uncanny ability to imagine life in the depths of both time and space. The first ten pages of The Sea Arounds Us tell the whole story of primordial creation in a phantasmagorical distillation: some gaseous mass became matter, which then flung the moon into space, where it began to conduct the tides. Clouds parted, sunlight penetrated chlorophyll in the ocean, and viola, life!
Carson wasn’t interested in isolated organisms; she was interested in entire ecosystems—how things held together. Take sargassum weed, for example. In the Sargasso Sea, “a place forgotten by the winds,” algae collects from reefs and coasts, then creates a literal “life raft” for fish, crabs, shrimp, and thousands of other organisms that then ride the Gulf Stream north to Florida. Carson’s description of this voyage and the inhabitants of this floating island is stunning. Unfortunately she wasn’t a fortuneteller. Carson couldn’t have known that in the years since her death in 1964, heat from burning fossil fuels and nitrogen run-off from industrial farming would turn sargassum weed into the largest algae bloom on the planet. It now strangles dolphins, turtles, and sharks, and its wreaking mass makes the coast of Key West smell like miasma of rot.
The editor of both Library of America Carson volumes, Sandra Steingraber, a biologist who has spent her entire writing life tracking the hideous trail of synthetic chemicals that course fatally through our bodies, is the true heir of Carson. No one else could have brought together these collections with as much compassion and erudition. (Once, when Steingraber and I were on a panel together, we fielded “practical” questions from would-be writers. Someone asked her about her retirement plan. She replied that her plan was to be found dead sitting at her computer, making bank.) In her introduction, Steingraaber helps us understand why the 40 percent of Americans who live near the coasts will soon be swamped by the very sea Carson that absorbed Steingraber’s attention. Also, the more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the more carbonic acid there is in the ocean. This acidification is killing crabs, shellfish, and coral reefs, which make up 1 percent of the ocean floor but provide habitat for 25 percent of all sea life.
These days in Key West, restaurants refuse patrons plastic straws because plastic is contributing to reef destruction. You know what would really help save the reefs? We could all stop going to Key West, or any other coastal vacation destinations. We could stop burning jet fuel and stop harassing the reefs in search of an Instagram picture. We could stay home and read Rachel Carson’s Sea Trilogy instead. We could read it as an elegy; we could read it as a call to action.
Erik Reece is the author of five books of nonfiction, including Lost Mountain and Utopia Drive, and two books of poetry, A Short History of the Present and Animals at Full Moon. He teaches writing at the University of Kentucky and is the founder of Kentucky Writers and Artists for Reforestation.
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