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

Part III

Chapter 17. Four Fragments from Carson’s Field Notebooks

[1950–1952]

THE EDGE OF THE SEA was conceived as a guide to the shore life of the Atlantic coast. Beginning in 1950, Carson traveled from Maine to Florida studying tidal ecology. These fragments from Carson’s field notebooks were written during several research trips to the remote beaches of the Carolinas and Georgia.

Carson’s field observations were never so narrow or self-absorbing that she missed the wider angle of vision or failed to relate her specific environment to the larger evolution of life. She was always an immediate participant intimately in touch with the life of her fellow creatures. Her notebooks testify to her compassion, her capacity for wonder, and her humility in the face of creation.

Saturday

image HIKED NORTH on beach. Very windy, a quick shower or two, much froth. Saw a little one-legged sanderling hopping along hunting food. Without my glasses I couldn’t be sure whether the injured leg was cut off or drawn up under the body, but it was completely useless. Still he ran and probed, not venturing as near the surf as they usually do. When I came near he wheeled out over the water, his sharp “pit, pil” quickly lost in the sound of the waves. I thought of the long miles of travel ahead of him and wondered how long he would last. As I came back down the beach I saw him again still hopping along bravely.

A very few ghost crabs were out, but scuttled back quickly into their holes. I sat down on a box to wait for one to come out, feeling like a cat watching a mouse hole, but soon it began to rain and I moved on.

Saw tracks of a shore bird – probably a sanderling, and followed them a little, then they turned toward the water and were soon obliterated by the sea. How much it washes away, and makes as though it had never been. Time itself is like the sea, containing all that came before us, sooner or later sweeping us away on its flood and washing over and obliterating the traces of our presence, as the sea this morning erased the footprints of the bird.

On the way back I met the little one-legged sanderling again, the one I had seen Saturday afternoon. Remembering how the legs of the normal ones twinkle as they dash up and down the beach, it was amazing to see how fast this little fellow got about just hopping, hopping on his good right leg. This time I could see that his left leg is only a short stump less than an inch long. I wondered if some animal, maybe a fox, had caught it in the Arctic, or whether it had gotten into a trap. Their way of feeding being what it is, one would say he would have been eliminated before this as “unfit” – yet he must be even tougher than his two-legged comrades. That last word is a misnomer, he had no companions – either time I saw him – just hunting alone, he would hop, hop, hop, toward the surf; probing and jabbing busily with opened bill, turn and hop away from the advancing foam. Only twice did I see him have to take to his wings to escape a wetting. It made my heart ache to think how tired his little leg must be, but his whole manner suggested a cheerfulness of spirit and a gameness which must mean that the God of fallen sparrows has not forgotten him.

Little Dog

image THE NEXT DAY, out on these same flats in early morning for low tide, I saw Callianassa scooting around in pools left in depressions – thanks to the help of a little dog. I first saw him away out on the flats, apparently by himself, and I thought he was chasing birds. There were the usual willets and a snowy egret and they’d get up and move on when he approached. But he was interested in the shallow pools of water and would wade in and go trotting around, his stumpy tail wagging constantly. I first wondered if he was noticing the little glittering reflections that were dancing all over the bottom, for the breeze kept little ripples stirring and the sun was very bright. When I came back down the beach later, he was still out, trotting around in the same pool. Everyone had gone in; the tide had turned, and I was worried for fear he might be cut off – he was very far out – get bewildered about where the shore was, and drown. So I decided to go out after him. He just wouldn’t be distracted, but went on trotting in circles. Then I saw the darting of the little, almost transparent forms of shrimp and knew what was attracting him. In the end I had to pick him up and carry him a little distance; then he scampered ahead to another pool and resumed his shrimp hunting, but since that was near the upper beach I didn’t worry. [ … ]

There are a fair number of Diapatra tubes [plumed worms] out on these flats. In some of the depressions (winding ones almost like creek beds) that seem always to have water even when tide is out – you see many tracks winding back and forth. When you can see where one ends (and sometimes there will be movement evident) you dig down and find a live moon snail moving along.

I think Callianassa holes differ in appearance according to the kind of bottom: where it is sandy you get the little excreted pellets looking like chocolate, and scattered closely around mouth of hole but not much mounded up. Where it is muddy, you seem to get elevated chimneys. The mud is sort of coiled, as though squeezed out of pastry tube with fancy fillips. [ … ] Some are flattened – others go up to a peak. On digging, I could get canal going down into sand, but could never get shrimp.

While digging, found empty Cystoidean tube.

Out here, I also watched sand dollars burying themselves in sand. You see a broad track, explore end of it carefully with fingers and find dollar. If you dig one out, it will immediately start to disappear into the sand – there is a considerable current stirred up all around edge, and body starts to dip under at forward edge. It takes it only a couple of minutes to disappear under sand again.

Saint Simon Island, Georgia (1952)

image ON THE BEACH in front of the Coast Guard station, and from there north to the Inlet, an immense stretch of sand is exposed at low tide. One can walk out probably half a mile, almost dry-shod, it being necessary, here and there, to wade through just enough depth of water to wet one’s shoes. The upper beach – i.e. from high tide line down perhaps several hundred feet – is smooth sand, but farther down there must be a mixture of mud or clay which gives a firmer consistency. This part of the beach, when the tide is out, is always deeply grooved with ripple marks – a pattern of wavelets sculptured and preserved for the tidal interval in this curiously firm substance. [ … ]

On the evening of April 17 I had a wonderful hour on these flats from 6:30–7:30, coming in almost at dark. Low tide was about 8:15, so the water still had almost an hour to ebb, but really incredible expanses of sand were exposed. Away out there, so far from the buildings on shore, it was nice to think that this wide tidal area belonged to the sea and couldn’t be built on. Out there, there are no sounds but those of the wind and the sea and the birds.

It is curious how the sound of the wind moving over the water makes one sound, and the water sliding over the sand, and tumbling down over its own wave, forms another. The bird voice of these flats is the call of the willets. I have a new idea of these birds after seeing them here. I had always associated them with quiet water and salt marshes instead of the ocean beach. When I went down tonight one was standing at the edge of the water, looking out over it and giving its loud urgent cry. Presently there was an answer, and this bird flew to join the other – they greeted each other noisily and one flew off. [ … ]

These flats become even more wonderful as dusk approaches and the only light is that reflected from the occasional pools of water. Then bird forms become dark silhouettes, with no color discernable. Sanderlings scoot across the sand like little ghosts, and here and there, larger, darker forms of willets stand out. Often I could come very close to them before they would take alarm – the sanderlings by running, the willets by flying up, crying. Three black skimmers flew along the ocean edge while it was still light enough to see color.

As I was walking back in the near dark, I could see them flitting around like big moths. One “skimmed” along within a few yards of me, following a “creek” of water that wound across the flats. There seemed to be little fish in this – there were disturbances at the surface, sending little circular ripples spreading out.

Dunes

image WHAT PECULIAR BRAND OF MAGIC is inherent in that combination of sand and sky and water it is hard to say. It is bleak and stark. But somehow it is not forbidding. Its bleakness is part of its quiet, calm strength.

The dune land is a place of overwhelming silence, or so it seems at first. But soon you realize that what you take for silence is an absence of human created sound. For the dunes have a voice of their own, which you may hear if you will but sit down and listen to it. It is compounded of many natural sounds which are never heard in the roar of a city or even in the stir of a small town. A soft, confused, hollow rustling fills the air. In part it is the sound of surf on the beach half a mile away – a wide sand valley and another ridge of sand hills between us – the deep thunder of the surf reduced to a sigh by the intervening distance. In part it is the confused whisperings of the wind, which seems to be never wholly still there, but always to be exploring the contours of the land it made, roaming down into the valleys and leaping in little, unexpected gusts over the crests of the sand hills. And there are the smaller voices, the voices of the sand and the dune grass. The soft swish of the grass as it dips and bends in the wind to trace its idle arcs and circles in the sand at its feet. Arcs, especially on the southeast side of the grass, mean unsettled weather, so they say; whole circles foretell fair weather because they show the wind to be blowing alternately from different quarters. I cannot say as to that; but the scribblings of the dune grass always enchant me, though I cannot read their meaning.

I knew the history of that land, and there, under the wind and beside the surf that had carved it, I recalled the story –

I stood where a new land was being built out of the sea, and I came away deeply moved. Although our intelligence forbids the idea, I believe our deeply rooted attitude toward the creation of the earth and the evolution of living things is a feeling that it all took place in a time infinitely remote. Now I understood. Here, as if for the benefit of my puny human understanding, the processes of creation – of earth building – had been speeded up so that I could trace the change within the life of my own contemporaries. The changes that were going on before my eyes were part and parcel of the same processes that brought the first dry land emerging out of the ancient and primitive ocean; or that led the first living creatures step by step out of the sea into the perilous new world of earth.

Water and wind and sand were the builders, and only the gulls and I were there to witness this act of creation.

Strange thoughts come to a man or woman who stands alone in that bleak and barren world. It is a world stripped of the gracious softness of the trees, the concealing mercies of abundant vegetation, the refreshment of a quiet lake, the beguilement of shade. It is a world stripped to the naked elements of life. And it is, after all, so newly born of the sea that it could hardly be otherwise. And then there is the voice of the sand itself – the quick sharp sibilance of a gust of sand blown over a dune crest by a sudden shift of the breeze, the all but silent sound of the never ending, restless shifting of the individual grains, one over another.

I am not sure that I can recommend the dunes as a tonic for all souls, nor for all moods. But I can say that anyone who will go alone into the dune lands for a day, or even for an hour, will never forget what he has seen and felt there.