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

Part III

Part Three begins with Carson’s most successful magazine article, “Our Ever-Changing Shore” from Holiday, and ends with a television script on clouds. Carson had long understood that the same physical forces were at work in the air and on the sea, a similarity that fascinated her.

After leaving the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1952 Rachel Carson bought a cottage on Southport Island, Maine, near Boothbay Harbor, where with her own tide pools and rocky beach she spent the middle years of the decade researching and writing The Edge of the Sea, the final volume in her trilogy on the sea. As with her previous book, it was serialized first in the New Yorker and then appeared on the New York Times best-seller list.

Field research on the Atlantic seashores provided Carson with some of her most creative moments, several of which are reflected in the selections included here from her field notebooks and from her letters to friends. Carson used those field experiences in public speeches during this period to reflect on the primacy of ecological relationships and the value of beauty in the modern world.

Concerned about the dwindling number of America’s seashores, Carson advocated that some must be set aside from human activity. She had been an early advocate of wilderness preservation, but she also dreamed of saving a small tract of land she called “Lost Woods” on Southport Island. Although this ambition was never achieved, Carson left a written legacy of her advocacy for this and for the ecological importance of life in the marginal world.

Chapter 16. Our Ever-Changing Shore

[1958]

THE EDITORS of the new Holiday magazine planned a special issue for the summer of 1958 devoted to “Nature’s America,” and asked Rachel Carson to contribute a short article on the nation’s seashores. Although Carson’s attention had already turned to the problems of pesticide misuse, she accepted because, as she told her literary agent, the article provided the opportunity to “get in a few licks about how few seashores remain.” Carson hoped that if she effectively communicated the threat to the nation’s wild seashores, some might be saved.

Carson drew her examples from descriptions of coastlines she had explored and written about in letters to friends, and from observations she had made in her field notes. The resulting article combined acute description with an intimate feeling of being a fellow traveler with Carson to the shores she knew and loved. Her plea for the preservation of the nation’s seashores remains one of the most eloquent in contemporary nature writing.

image ALONG MILE AFTER MILE OF COASTLINE, the land presents a changing face to the sea. Now it is a sheer rock cliff; now a smooth beach; now the frayed edge of a mangrove swamp, dark and full of mystery. Each is the seacoast, yet each is itself, like no other in time or place. In every outthrust headland, in every curving beach, in every grain of sand there is a story of the earth.

This coastline plays endless variations on the basic theme of sea and land. On the coastal rocks of northern New England the sea is an immediate presence, compelling, impossible to ignore. Its tides rise and fall on their appointed schedule, draining coves and refilling them, lifting boats or dropping away to leave them stranded. On the broad beaches of the South the feeling is different. As you stand at the edge of the dunes, when the tide is out, the ocean seems far away. Under the push of a rising tide it advances a little, reducing the width of the buffer strip of sand. Storms bring it still farther in. But compared with its overwhelming presence on Northern shores it seems remote, a shining immensity related to far horizons. The sound of the waves on such a day, when the heated air shimmers above the sand and the sky is without clouds, is a muted whisper. In this quiet there is a tentativeness that suggests that something is about to happen. And indeed we may be sure the present stand of the sea here is only temporary, for many times in the past million years or so it has risen and flowed across all of the coastal plain, paused for perhaps a few thousand years, and returned again to its basin.

For the shore is always changing, and today’s sand beach may become the sheer rock coast of a distant tomorrow. This is precisely what happened in northern New England, where, only a few thousands of years ago, the earth’s crust sank and the sea came in, covering the beaches and the plain, running up the river valleys and rising about the hills. So, on the young Maine coast today, evergreen forests meet the granite threshold of the sea.

Everywhere the wind and the sea have shaped the coast, sculpturing it into forms that are often beautiful, sometimes bizarre. Along the Oregon coast the rocky cliffs and headlands speak of the age-long battle with the sea. Here and there a lonely tower of rock rises offshore, one of the formations known as stacks or needles. Each began as a narrow headland jutting out from the main body of coastal rock. Then a weak spot in its connection with the mainland was battered through.

Here and there the assaults of surf have blasted out caves in the sea cliffs. Anemone Cave in Acadia National Park is one. In the famous Sea Lion Caves on the central Oregon coast several hundred sea lions gather each autumn, living in the tumultuous surge of the surf, mingling their roars with the sound of the sea, still working to break through the roof of the cave.

Back from the surf line, the winds have piled up majestic dunes here and there. At Kitty Hawk in North Carolina perhaps the highest dunes of the American coast rise abruptly from the sea. I have stood on the summit of one of these dunes on a windy day when all the crest appeared to be smoking, and the winds seemed bent on destroying the very dunes they had created. Clouds and streamers of sand grains were seized by the strong flow of air and carried away. Far below, in the surf line, I could see the source of the dune sand, where the waves are forever cutting and grinding and polishing the fragments of rock and shell that compose the coastal sands.

The curving slopes, the gullies, the ridged surfaces of the dunes all carry the impress of the sea winds. So, in many places, do living things. The westerly winds that sweep across thousands of miles of open ocean at times pile up on our northern Pacific shores the heaviest surf of the whole Western Hemisphere. They are also the sculptors of the famous Monterey cypresses, the branches of which stream landward as though straining to escape the sea, though rooted near it. Actually the cutting edge that prunes such coastal vegetation is the sea salt with which the wind is armed, for the salt kills the growing buds on the exposed side.

The shore means many things to many people. Of its varied moods the one usually considered typical is not so at all. The true spirit of the sea does not reside in the gentle surf that laps a sun-drenched bathing beach on a summer day. Instead, it is on a lonely shore at dawn or twilight, or in storm or midnight darkness that we sense a mysterious something we recognize as the reality of the sea. For the ocean has nothing to do with humanity. It is supremely unaware of man, and when we carry too many of the trappings of human existence with us to the threshold of the sea world our ears are dulled and we do not hear the accents of sublimity in which it speaks.

Sometimes the shore speaks of the earth and its own creation; sometimes it speaks of life. If we are lucky in choosing our time and place, we may witness a spectacle that echoes vast and elemental things. On a summer night when the moon is full, the sea and the swelling tide and creatures of the ancient shore conspire to work primeval magic on many of the beaches from Maine to Florida. On such a night the horseshoe crabs move in, just as they did under a Paleozoic moon – just as they have been doing through all the hundreds of millions of years since then – coming out of the sea to dig their nests in the wet sand and deposit their spawn.

As the tide nears its flood dark shapes appear in the surf line. They gleam with the wetness of the sea as the moon shines on the curves of their massive shells. The first to arrive linger in the foaming water below the advancing front of the tide. These are the waiting males. At last other forms emerge out of the darkness offshore, swimming easily in the deeper water but crawling awkwardly and hesitantly as the sea shallows beneath them. They make their way to the beach through the crowd of jostling males. In thinning water each female digs her nest and sheds her burden of eggs, hundreds of tiny balls of potential life. An attending male fertilizes them. Then the pair moves on, leaving the eggs to the sea, which gently stirs them and packs the sand about them, grain by grain.

Not all of the high tides of the next moon cycle will reach this spot, for the water movements vary in strength and are weakest of all at the moon’s quarters. A month after the egg laying the embryos will be ready for life; then the high tides of another full moon will wash away the sand of the nest. The turbulence of the rising tide will cause the egg membranes to split, releasing the young crabs to a life of their own over the shallow shores of bays and sounds.

But how do the parent crabs foresee these events? What is there in this primitive, lumbering creature that tells it that the moon is full and the tides are running high? And what tells it that the security of its eggs will be enhanced if the nests are dug and the eggs deposited on these stronger tides?

Tonight, in this setting of full moon and pressing tide, the shore speaks of life in a mysterious and magical way. Here is the sea and the land’s edge. Here is a creature that has known such seas and shores for eons of time, while the stream of evolution swept on, leaving it almost untouched since the days of the trilobites. The horseshoe crabs in their being obliterate the barrier of time. Our thoughts become uncertain; is it really today? or is it a million – or a hundred million years ago?

Or sometimes when the place and mood are right, and time is of no account, it is the early sea itself that we glimpse. I remember feeling, once, that I had actually sensed what the young earth was like. We had come down to the sea through spruce woods – woods that were dim with drifting mists and the first light of day. As we passed beyond the last line of trees onto the rocks of the shore a curtain of fog dropped silently but instantly behind us, shutting out all sights and sounds of the land. Suddenly our world was only the dripping rocks and the gray sea that occasionally exploded in a muted roar. These, and the gray mists – nothing more. For all we could tell the time might have been Paleozoic, when the world was in very fact only rocks and sea.

We stood quietly, speaking few words. There was nothing, really, for human words to say in the presence of something so vast, mysterious and immensely powerful. Perhaps only in music of deep inspiration and grandeur could the message of that morning be translated by the human spirit as in the opening bars of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony – music that echoes across vast distances and down long corridors of time, bringing the sense of what was and of what is to come – music of swelling power that swirls and explodes even as the sea surged against the rocks below us.

But that morning all that was worth saying was being said by the sea. It is only in wild and solitary places that it speaks so clearly. Another such place I like to remember is that wilderness of beach and high dunes where Cape Cod, after its thirty-mile thrust into the Atlantic, bends back toward the mainland. Over thousands of years the sea and the wind have worked together to build this world out of sand. The wide beach is serene, like the ocean that stretches away to a far-off horizon. Offshore the dangerous shoals of Peaked Hill Bars lie just beneath the surface, holding within themselves the remains of many ships. Behind the beach the dunes begin to rise, moving inland like a vast sea of sand waves caught in a moment of immobility as they sweep over the land.

The dunes are a place of silence, to which even the sound of the sea comes as a distant whisper; a place where, if you listen closely, you can hear the hissing of the ever mobile sand grains that leap and slide in every breath of wind, or the dry swish of the beach grass writing, writing its endless symbols in the sand.

Few people come out through that solitude of dune and sky into the vaster solitude of beach and sea. A bird could fly from the highway to the beach in a matter of minutes, its shadow gliding easily and swiftly up one great desert ridge and down another. But such easy passage is not for the human traveler, who must make his slow way on foot. The thin line of his footprints, toiling up slopes and plunging down into valleys, is soon erased by the shifting, sliding sands. So indifferent are these dunes to man, so quickly do they obliterate the signs of his presence, that they might never have known him at all.

I remember my own first visit to the beach at Peaked Hill Bars. From the highway a sandy track led off through thickets of pine. The horizon lay high on the crest of a near dune. Soon the track was lost, the trees thinned out, the world was all sand and sky.

From the crest of the first hill I hoped for a view of the sea. Instead there was another hill, across a wide valley. Everything in this dune world spoke of the forces that had created it, of the wind that had shifted and molded the materials it received from the sea, here throwing the surface of a dune into firm ridges, there smoothing it into swelling curves. At last I came to a break in the seaward line of dunes and saw before me the beach and the sea.

On the shore below me there was at first no sign of any living thing. Then perhaps half a mile down the beach I saw a party of gulls resting near the water’s edge. They were silent and intent, facing the wind. Whatever communion they had at that moment was with the sea rather than with each other. They seemed almost to have forgotten their own kind and the ways of gulls. When once a white, feathered form drifted down from the dunes and dropped to the sand beside them none of the group challenged him. I approached them slowly. Each time I crossed that invisible line beyond which no human trespasser might come; the gulls rose in a silent flock and moved to a more distant part of the sands. Everything in that scene caused me to feel apart, remembering that the relation of birds to the sea is rooted in millions of years, that man came but yesterday.

There have been other shores where time stood still. On Buzzards Bay there is a beach studded with rocks left by the glaciers. Barnacles grow on them now, and a curtain of rockweeds drapes them below the tide line. The bay shore of mud and sand is crossed by the winding trails of many periwinkles. On the beach at every high tide are cast the shells and empty husks of all that live offshore: the gold and silver shells of the rock oysters or jingles, the curious little half decks or slipper shells, the brown, fernlike remains of Bugula, the moss animal, the bones of fishes and the egg strings of whelks.

Behind the beach is a narrow rim of low dunes, then a wide salt marsh. This marsh, when I visited it on an evening toward the end of summer, had filled with shore birds since the previous night; their voices were a faint, continuous twittering. Green herons fished along the creek banks, creeping along at the edge of the tall grasses, placing one foot at a time with infinite care, then with a quick forward lunge attempting to seize some small fish or other prey. Farther back in the marsh a score of night herons stood motionless. From the bordering woods across the marsh a mother deer and her two fawns came down to drink silently, then melted back into their forest world.

The salt marsh that evening was like a calm, green sea – only a little calmer, a little greener than the wide sheet of the bay on the other side of the dunes. The same breeze that rippled the surface of the bay set the tips of the marsh grasses to swaying in long undulations. Within its depths the marsh concealed the lurking bittern, the foraging heron, the meadow mouse running down long trails overarched by grass stems, even as the watery sea concealed the lurking squids and fishes and their prey. Like the foam on the beach when the wind had whipped the surface waters into a light froth, the even more delicate foam of the sea lavender flecked the barrier of dunes and ran to the edge of the marsh. Already the fiery red of the glasswort or marsh samphire flickered over the higher ground of the marsh, while offshore mysterious lights flared in the waters of the bay at night. These were signs of approaching autumn, which may be found at the sea’s edge before even the first leaf shows a splash of red or yellow.

The sea’s phosphorescence is never so striking alongshore as in late summer. Then some of the chief light producers of the water world have their fall gatherings in bays and coves. Just where and when their constellations will form no one can predict. And the identity of these wheeling stars of the night sea varies. Usually the tiny glittering sparks are exceedingly minute, one-celled creatures, called dinoflagellates. Larger forms, flaring with a ghostly blue-white phosphorescence, may be comb jellies, crystal-clear and about the size of a small plum.

On beach and dune and over the flat vistas of salt marsh, too, the advancing seasons cast their shadows; the time of change is at hand. Mornings, a light mist lies over the marshes and rises from the creeks. The nights begin to hint of frost; the stars take on a wintry sparkle; Orion and his dogs hunt in the sky. It is a time, too, of color – red of berries in the dune thickets, rich yellow of the goldenrod, purple and lacy white of the wild asters in the fields. In the dunes and on the ocean beach the colors are softer, more subtle. There may be a curious purple shading over the sand. It shifts with the wind, piles up in little ridges of deeper color like the ripple marks of waves. When first I saw this sand on the northern Massachusetts coast, I wondered what it was. According to local belief the purple color comes from some seaweed, left on the shore, dried, and reduced to a thin film of powder. Years later I found the answer. I discovered drifts of the same purple color amid the coarse sand of my own shore in Maine – sand largely made up of broken shell and rock, fragments of sea-urchin spines, opercula of snails. I brought some of the purple sand to the house. When I put a pinch of it under the microscope I knew at once that this came from no plant – what I saw was an array of gems, clear as crystal, returning a lovely amethyst light to my eyes. It was pure garnet.

The sand grains scattered on the stage of my microscope spoke in their own way of the timeless, unhurried spirit of earth and sea. They were the end product of a process that began eons ago deep inside the earth, continued when the buried mineral was brought at last to the surface, and went on through millenniums of time and, it may be, through thousands of miles of land and sea until, tiny, exquisite gems of purest color, they came temporarily to rest at the foot of a glacier-scarred rock.

Perhaps something of the strength and serenity and endurance of the sea – of this spirit beyond time and place – transfers itself to us of the land world as we confront its vast and lonely expanse from the shore, our last outpost.

The shore might seem beyond the power of man to change, to corrupt. But this is not so. Unhappily, some of the places of which I have written no longer remain wild and unspoiled. Instead, they have been tainted by the sordid transformation of “development” – cluttered with amusement concessions, refreshment stands, fishing shacks – all the untidy litter of what passes under the name of civilization. And so noisy are these attributes of man that the sea cannot be heard. On all coasts it is the same. The wild seacoast is vanishing.

Five thousand miles of true ocean beach may seem inexhaustible wealth, but it is not. The National Park Service has recently published a survey of the remaining undeveloped areas on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. (The results of a Pacific survey are yet to be released.) It described the situation it discovered as “foreboding,” for “almost every attractive seashore area from Maine to Mexico that is accessible by road has been acquired for development purposes, or is being considered for its development possibilities. The seashore is rapidly vanishing from public use.”

The Service asked that public-minded citizens and local, State and Federal Governments take the necessary steps, before it is too late, “to preserve this priceless heritage.” Of the open shoreline of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts only 6½ per cent is owned by the states or nation. The Park Service urged that at least 15 per cent of the general shoreline of our east coast should be publicly owned. This means acquiring an additional 320 miles at once. This must be done if we are to insure that we ourselves, and generations to follow, may know what the shore is like, may read the meaning and message of this strip between land and sea.

In its effort to awaken the public to the threatened loss of all natural seashore, the Park Service is recalling a recommendation made following a survey in 1935. Then, just a human generation ago (a mere second in earth history) the situation was very different. At that time the Park Service urged that 12 major strips, totaling 437 miles of beach, be preserved for public use. Only one of these was acquired. All the rest of these strips, except one, have since gone into private or commercial development.

One of the areas then recommended could have been bought at that time for $9000 a mile. Now, thanks to the post – World War II boom in seashore property, its price tag is $110,000 a mile.

To convert some of the remaining wild areas into State and National parks, however, is only part of the answer. Even public parks are not what nature created over the eons of time, working with wind and wave and sand. Somewhere we should know what was nature’s way; we should know what the earth would have been had not man interfered. And so, besides public parks for recreation, we should set aside some wilderness areas of seashore where the relations of sea and wind and shore – of living things and their physical world – remain as they have been over the long vistas of time in which man did not exist. For there remains, in this space-age universe, the possibility that man’s way is not always best.