Rachel Carson’s explorations of the sea, the human relationship with elephants, and more




Rachel Carson: The Sea Trilogy
Sandra Steingraber
Library of America, 2021 ($ 40)

Before Rachel Carson wrote Silent source In 1962 – a literary masterpiece and basis of the modern environmental movement – she was a marine biologist and a prolific writer on the subject of the ocean. Carson first made a name for himself with a trilogy of bestselling books on the sea published between 1941 and 1955 The Spiritual.

Republished this winter as a single tome by the Library of America, Carson’s Marine trilogy is as enjoyable to read today as it has ever been; once state-of-the-art science may long ago be surpassed, but much of it will still be new to the layman. Each book does the rare feat of popular science: to create such a deceptively simple narrative that attracts readers and, once there, enchants them so much that it lingers for both the prose and the luscious bites of data.

Under the sea breeze the first in the sequence was Carson’s first published book. It’s unusual and imaginative – the fluid, changing plot takes the form of a series of episodes seen through the eyes of non-human creatures, many of whom are named: Blackfoot and Silverbar, two Sanderlings heading for the Arctic; a mackerel called Scomber; an eel named Anguilla; and so forth.

This is a device more commonly found in children’s literature, a sign of a heavily anthropomorphized wildlife, but Carson’s intentions were in the opposite direction. She later stated that she “wanted” [her] To make readers feel that they actually led the lives of marine life for a while. ”The naming identifies these animals as protagonists of their own stories, subtly shifting the focus from human concerns and luring us into the lives of other species invest. (Readers even take the perspective of the tattered tundra wildflowers at the end of summer: “No more need for bright petals … so throw them off … let the leaves fall too and the stems wither …”)

The book was well received by critics, but it didn’t sell – and a few weeks after its publication, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 saw everything else slide out of the public eye. Among other things, making your debut as a writer was a difficult time – something many writers of pandemic publications can understand – and Carson was forgotten again when her ambitions were overtaken by her job at the Bureau of Fisheries for a decade ( later the US Fish and Wildlife Service) and the needs of her family, where she was the sole breadwinner supporting her aging mother and two motherless nieces.

When she finally released The sea around us In 1951 her persistence was rewarded. It hit the bestseller charts and stayed there for 86 weeks. This second book took on a more conventional form – a comprehensive natural history of the ocean – and offered accessible summaries of what was then the cutting edge of oceanographic science (pathograms, acoustic probes, hydrophonic recordings) without the feeling of almost mystical reverence for the bondage of all Things. “What happens to a diatom in the upper, sunlit layers of the sea can definitely determine what happens to a cod lying a hundred fathoms below on the ledge of a rocky ravine, or to a bed of brightly colored, magnificently feathered sea worms that lay out a shoal below, or with a shrimp that crawls over the soft mud of the seabed in the blackness of the water that is kilometers deep. “

This phrase is typical of Carson’s style: precise and expressive at the same time, with the same sense of scaled-down, networked thinking that would later enable her to connect the different points of research on DDT, as she did in pieces in the 1950s and 1960s .

The sea around us was enthusiastically received and made Carson a literary celebrity. The reason for this is not difficult to see: the book is full of fascinating details, and on almost every page there is a passage of unusual beauty. Obsolete science does not detract from pleasure; if anything, it helps because it enables the reader to look back at the ocean and see it all over again from a place of greater ignorance. Oh God, as the Breton prayer says: Your sea is so big and my boat is so small.

The ocean was conjured up The sea around us is a strange world in which “strange and fantastic” creatures lurk in their darkest corners, their “eyes stunted or unusually large, their bodies littered with phosphorescent organs”. It’s a place where plankton mist swirls through sea-green light shafts, where flying squids pounce on the decks of passing ships. To read it means to grapple with our coexistence next to a vast realm that is almost unknown beyond our own little circle of light.

Carson tells us about the amazement of the crew of the Bulldog in 1860, when a tracking line was pulled up from a depth of 1260 fathoms – a depth that was then considered completely deserted – with 13 starfish clinging to it. It was as if a space shuttle was returning to earth with unexpected stowaways on board: “The depth has sent the long-awaited message,” as the ship’s naturalist noted at the time. There was a whole different world down there.

We learn of the 1946 discovery that echo sounding revealed a “phantom bottom” of “completely unknown nature” that appeared to hang at a depth of about 1,500 feet between the surface of the ocean and the sea floor. At first mistakenly mistaken for a chain of sunken islands, it was later discovered that it spanned much of the ocean and was observed to move – rising close to the surface at night and sinking during the day, “apparently strong from Repelled sunlight “. This phenomenon, which we now call the deep litter layer, is made up of millions of tiny fish, but when you look at it from 1951, its first discovery retains enough closeness and mystery to send a chill down your spine. What Carson’s descriptions bring to mind most is the Sentient Ocean from StanisÅ‚aw Lem’s 1961 science fiction classic Solaris– and the same feeling of facing an unknown, unnerving being with its own incomprehensible agenda.

From the trilogy, The sea around us is by far the most vibrant and exhilarating. This is in part a function of the strangeness of its subject, the vastness of the great black depth. The relatively prosaic setting of the third book, The edge of the sea– the coast where so many of us crawled around with our little nets – perhaps inevitably pales in comparison. Still, Carson is our constant, learned companion, chatting companionably about the most interesting crabs and algae, crustaceans and barnacles she knows, all nicely accompanied in this issue by the original illustrations by Carson’s friend and colleague Robert W. Hines.

Truly, this third book is more of a field guide and was always intended as such, but was nevertheless produced with the typical Carson flair: snail shells are “wound like a French horn”; Comb jellies move with “fleeting moonbeams”. She remembers a rock pool, “which is only a few centimeters deep, but contains the entire depth of the sky and captures and restricts the reflected blue from great distances”.

Carson once stated that if her books contain poetry about the sea, it is not because she put it there, “but because no one could truthfully write about the sea and leave the poetry out.” Possibly. But you can’t help but think of Carson, who works late into the night, crafting her perfect sets with the precision of a jeweler. She was a scientist, yes, but also a student of the sea. These books are devotional works.

The sea is a wild and majestic place in Rachel Carson’s eyes. At its edges, gazing at the waves, she writes: “We have an uncomfortable feeling for the communication of a universal truth that is just beyond our reach.” Although I live on an island, it had not occurred to me before. After reading Carsons Sea trilogy, I look out my window and see the water as if for the first time.—Cal Flyn


Elephant trails: A history of animals and cultures
by Nigel Rothfels
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2021 ($ 40)

Historian Nigel Rothfels traces human relationships with elephants from prehistoric times to the present day, writing with compassion for the mighty mammals, and condemning our heinous treatment with them. It captures the pain and cruelty of colonization and enslavement; it is gruesome read at times, but sobering one. This book will appeal to those fascinated by the mythology and legacy of elephants as well as animal lovers who struggle for the liberation of all living beings. –Jen Cox

The Origin of the Incarnation: A novel
by Tom McCarthy
Button, 2021 ($ 28)

Tom McCarthy’s latest novel follows Mark Phocan, a motion capture company employee who assists the special effects of a science fiction thriller Incarnation. As Phocan uses the company’s technology in a variety of contexts from war to sex, he becomes entangled in a mystery involving a fictional version of industrial psychologist and engineer Lillian Gilbreth, whose time-and-motion studies may have discovered something far more valuable than saved Job. Though very technical, these nested narratives are steeped in mysticism and connect time, light and energy to the nature of being. –Dana Dunham

The forgotten botanist: Sara Plummer Lemmon’s Life of Science and Art
by Wynne Brown
University of Nebraska Press, 2021 ($ 27.95)

Sarah Plummer Lemmon was a frontier worker in the 19th century. She cared for wounded Civil War soldiers, founded the first library in Santa Barbara, campaigned for the golden poppy as the California state flower, and became a prolific botanical illustrator. She also collected and described numerous specimens of plants throughout the American West, but her scientific discoveries were only ascribed to “JG Lemmon & Frau” for years. In this attentive and well-researched portrait, writer Wynne Brown recognizes not only Plummer Lemmon’s many accomplishments, but also her drive and courage. –Tess Joosse



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