Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part II

Chapter 10. New York Herald-Tribune Book and Author Luncheon Speech

[1951]

RACHEL CARSON was somewhat uncomfortable with the public role she assumed when The Sea Around Us made her a literary celebrity. Unaccustomed to public speaking, she reluctantly agreed to appear at the New York Herald-Tribune Book and Author Luncheon after Irita Van Dorn, the irrepressible book review editor, invited her less than a month after The Sea Around Us had been published.

Carson prepared a brief speech on the mystery and fascination of the sea, and to fill time, armed herself with hydrophone recordings of sounds made by shrimp, whales, and other fish in the sea’s middle region that she had borrowed from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Her talk on the ancient evolution of the world’s ocean and its life was a great success and ironically left her much in demand as a speaker, although she spoke so softly some had to strain to hear her.

Carson once remarked that she was always more interested in what she was going to write about next than in what she had written. Her remarks here indicate that she was already involved in research for her next book on the transition of life from sea to land.

image PEOPLE OFTEN SEEM TO BE SURPRISED that a woman should have written a book about the sea. This is especially true, I find, of men. Perhaps they have been accustomed to thinking of the more exciting fields of scientific knowledge as exclusively masculine domains. In fact, one of my correspondents not long ago addressed me as “Dear Sir” – explaining that although he knew perfectly well that I was a woman, he simply could not bring himself to acknowledge the fact.

Then even if they accept my sex, some people are further surprised to find that I am not a tall, oversize, Amazon-type female. I can offer no defense for not being what people expect, but perhaps I might say a few words about why a woman, and only an average-size one at that, should have become a biographer of the sea.

I seem to have been born with a fascination for the ocean. For years before I had ever seen it, I thought about it and dreamed about it and tried to picture what it would be like. I loved Swinburne and Masefield and all the other great poets of the sea. The stories I wrote for my classes in English composition often had a marine background. After I became interested in biology as a college student, I very naturally came to specialize in marine biology. At the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole I had my first prolonged contact with the sea. There I never tired of watching the tidal currents pouring through the Hole, and the waves breaking on Nobska Point after a storm. It was there, too, that I first discovered the rich scientific literature of the sea. But it is fair to say that my first impressions of the sea were sensory and emotional, and that the intellectual response came later.

Recently I have discovered that a great many other people feel just as I do about the ocean. A really overwhelming number of them have written to tell me so. During this past summer I have been traveling along the New England coast, gathering material for a new book. And I have been looking at people as well as at sea animals. I have been deeply impressed by what I saw. Everywhere there were people who simply sat – or stood – and gazed out over the sea, without saying a word. Whatever they consciously thought, the spell that was cast over them was clearly written on their faces. I have been trying to analyze some of the reasons for this fascination.

The sea is a place where one gets a sense of the great antiquity of the earth. It seems changeless; but it is always changing. It links the dim beginnings of time with the present. The same sort of waves that we watch today must have rolled in from Paleozoic seas. I suppose that the surface waters of the ocean look much as they did half a billion or a billion years ago, when the first primitive forms of life stirred in it. And even some of our shores must look about as they did in that period, some 300 million years ago, when the first animals were coming out on land to take up a strange new life.

I was reminded of that last summer when I stood on one especially beautiful point on the rocky coast of Maine. We had come down to the point through an evergreen forest that had its own sort of enchantment. All its trees, the living and the dead, were hung with the silvery grey of mosses and lichens. But it was a foggy morning, and when we reached the rocks above the surf the mists lay between us and the forest, and all we could see were those massive, primeval rocks and the sea. Except for our own presence, the scene might have been one of the closing periods of the Paleozoic Era. Some of the animals clinging to the walls of the tide pools might almost have been those early pioneers from the sea, that first came out on land back in Silurian time.

Now here is the particular magic of the sea. Exciting things are happening there today, just as they did millions of years ago. Evolution and the adaptation of creatures to new surroundings did not stop back in prehistoric time; they are still going on. That very day, only a few weeks ago, we saw hundreds of small, inconspicuous sea animals in the midst of a great experiment – the transition from a sea life to a land life.

These animals were small snails known as periwinkles. I am sure all of you have seen them on rocky coasts, between the tide lines. In some places you can hardly step without treading on the dingy grey shells of the common periwinkle. The periwinkles are now in the process of leaving the sea and turning into land snails. One by one, they are cutting the ties that bind them to the sea. Some of them have made more progress in this direction than others.

Here on our northern Atlantic coast there are three species of periwinkles. One of them is still almost completely marine. It lives down among the rockweeds where it is always wet or at least very damp. It lays its eggs on the weeds, and the young hatch out there and develop. Another species, called the common periwinkle, comes far up on the shore – as far as the waters of the high tide. It can stand a good deal of exposure to the air. In fact, it has developed a very simple sort of lung for breathing out of water. But it is still dependent on the sea, for it sheds its eggs into the water, and all the baby common periwinkles must spend the first period of their existence swimming about in the waters of the ocean.

The third species, called the rough periwinkle, is almost a land animal. Some of them live in crevices in the rocks where they are wet only by the spray of breaking storm waves. They can live without any contact with sea water for a week or more. Even in their method of reproduction they have cut their ties with the sea. The young of this species undergoes complete development within the body of the mother. They emerge as little snails exactly like their parents, ready for adult life. And so the three species of periwinkles give us a beautiful demonstration of the pattern of evolution, as it has been working out in the sea over the ages.

That is part of the fascination of the ocean. But most of all, the sea is a place of mystery. One by one, the mysteries of yesterday have been solved. But the solution seems always to bring with it another, perhaps a deeper mystery. I doubt that the last, final mysteries of the sea will ever be resolved. In fact, I cherish a very unscientific hope that they will not be.

A century is a very short time. Yet only a century ago men thought nothing could live in the deep waters of the ocean. They believed that, at most, there could be only a “few sparks” of life in the black waters of the oceanic abyss. Now, of course, we know better. In the year 1860 a surveying vessel was looking for the best route for the trans-Atlantic cable. When the sounding line was brought up from a depth of about a mile and a half, there were starfish clinging to the line. The same year a cable was brought up for repairs from the bottom of the Mediterranean. It was heavily encrusted with corals and other animals that evidently had been living on it for months or years. Such discoveries gave our grandfathers and our great-grandfathers their first proof that the floor of the deep sea is inhabited by living creatures.

Now, in our own time, another mystery of the sea is engaging the attention of scientists. This is the nature of the life of those strange, middle regions – far below the surface, but also far above the bottom.*

We had always assumed that these mid-depths were a barren, almost lifeless, Sahara of the sea. They lie beyond reach of even the strongest rays of the sun. And where there is no sunlight, no plants can live. So we assumed that food would be too scarce to support a very abundant animal population there.

Then about ten years ago came the discovery of immense concentrations of some living creatures, spread like a cloud over much of the ocean at a depth of a quarter of a mile or more. No one is sure just what these creatures are. As yet they have been “seen” only with the impersonal eye of echo sounding instruments. These instruments automatically record the depth of water under a moving vessel. They trace the contour of the ocean floor as a continuous line on a strip of paper. They also record, as traces or smudges on the paper, any solid objects, like schools of fish, that lie between the surface and the bottom. Hundreds of vessels have now found this layer of living creatures over the deeper parts of all oceans of the world. It has sometimes been called the “phantom bottom” of the sea, because people at first mistook it for shoals or sunken islands, and reported submerged land where none existed. Everyone agrees now that the layer is composed of living creatures. At night – in darkness – it moves up to the surface of the sea. But just before daybreak it descends again into deep water where light cannot follow it. Many small shrimplike creatures are known to do this. Also, some of the weird fishes of the deep sea come to the surface at night, like those Mr. Heyerdahl described so vividly in Kon-Tiki.

Scientists have tried to sample the layer with nets. You can never be sure, though, that your nets are catching everything. Perhaps the very creatures that are the key to the mystery are too swift to be caught. So the results are not very satisfying. Some people think the mystery creatures are shrimps – billions and billions of them. Others think they are fish or squid. If they should turn out to be something edible, the layer would represent an enormous food supply because of its almost ocean-wide dimensions. The answer to this enigma may come very soon, for a great many people are working on it.

One very common misconception about the sea was corrected by studies made during the Second World War. We always used to think of the deep sea as a place of silence. The idea that there could be sound under water had not entered most people’s minds. Nor had the idea that fish or shrimp or whales had voices. When Navy technicians began listening for submarines during the war, they heard a most extraordinary uproar. In fact, the tumult of undersea voices was so great that whole fleets of submarines could have passed by undetected. Later, of course, means were developed for filtering out and separating the various sounds.

I thought it might be fun for us today to take a trip under water and listen to the sounds we might hear if we could actually visit the deep sea. [ … ]

*Ed.: About the same time as Carson made this speech, scientists at Woods Hole were identifying and refining their understanding of “the scattering layers,” or what she refers to here as “the middle region of the ocean,” of which there are many. Although the exact population of fish within these layers depends on water temperature and the upwelling of deep ocean currents, scientists have found a wide variety of fish but not necessarily a large number of individual fishes. In spite of the fact that Carson’s recordings were taken from these depths, they turned out not to be particularly noisy regions of the ocean or, unfortunately, especially abundant.