Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)
Chapter 6. An Island I Remember
IN THE DECADE following the publication of Under the Sea-Wind in 1941, Carson worked on an extended profile of the ocean which would become The Sea Around Us. In 1946, after almost ten years in the federal government, Carson had accumulated enough annual leave for a month’s vacation in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, the site of a Bureau of Fisheries laboratory engaged in research on lobster reproduction, and a coastal area she had longed to visit.
Carson along with her mother and her two cats rented a tiny, secluded pink cottage on the shore of the Sheepscot River west of town. It looked out to Indiantown Island, a mysterious, spruce-covered strip of lush forest where the wind rustled through the trees and at sunset a hermit thrush sang its eerie song.
Carson fell in love with the beauty of Maine that summer and determined that one day she would have a place of her own there. She told her friend Shirley Briggs in a letter, “the only reason I will ever come back [to Maryland] is that I don’t have the brains enough to figure out a way to stay here the rest of my life.” Seven years later the success of The Sea Around Us enabled her to buy land and build a cottage along the Sheepscot on Southport Island.
Among the unpublished fragments in Carson’s papers, there is no more arresting example of Carson’s ability to absorb her surroundings with all her senses, or of her pleasure in the diverse fabric of the natural world.
IT WAS ONLY A SMALL ISLAND, perhaps a mile long and half as wide. The face it presented to the mainland shore was a dark wall of coniferous forest rising in solid, impenetrable blackness to where the tops of the spruces feathered out into a serrate line against the sky. There was no break in that wall anywhere that I could see, no suggestion of paths worn through island forests, no invitation to enter. At high tide the sea came up almost to the trees, with only little patches of light colored rock showing at the water line, like white daubs made by a painter’s brush. As the tide ebbed and the water dropped lower on the rocks, the white patches grew and merged with each other, exposing the solid granite foundations of the island, so that now there was a high rocky rampart, on which grew the living green wall of the forest.
There was perhaps a quarter of a mile of water between the island and the mainland shore where our cabin stood, its screened porch at the sea wall and its back against a steep hillside where ferns were dark among the rocks and the branches of great hemlocks reached down to touch the ground. Day after day the island lay under the summer sun, with no sound coming from it, and nothing moving at the visible edges of the forest. On every low tide I could see a solemn line of cormorants standing on a rocky ledge that ran out from the south end of the island, their long necks extended skyward. The gulls were less broodingly protective of the approaches to the island forest, their presence about the shores of the island more casual as they perched on the weed-covered rocks while waiting for the turn of the tide.
About sundown the island, that had lain so silent all day long, began to come to life. Then the forms of large, dark birds could be seen moving among its trees, and hoarse cries that brought to mind thoughts of ancient, reptilian monsters came across the water. Sometimes one of the birds would emerge from the shadows and fly across to our shore, then revealing itself as a great blue heron out for an evening’s fishing.
It was during those early evening hours that the sense of mystery that invested the island drew somehow closer about it, so that I wished even more to know what lay beyond the wall of dark spruces. Was there somewhere within it an open glade that held the sunlight? Or was there only solid forest from shore to shore? Perhaps it was all forest, for the island voice that came to us most clearly and beautifully each evening was the voice of a forest spirit, the hermit thrush. At the hour of the evening’s beginning its broken, silvery cadences drifted with infinite deliberation across the water. Its phrases were filled with a beauty and a meaning that were not wholly of the present, as though the thrush were singing of other sunsets, extending far back beyond his personal memory, through eons of time when his forebears had known this place, and from spruce trees long since returned to earth had sung the beauty of the evening.
It was in the evenings, too, that I came to know the herring gulls as I had never known them before. The harbor gull - the gull of the fish wharves - is an opportunist. He sits with his fellows on the roofs above the harbor, or each on his wharf piling, and waits, knowing at what hour the refuse will be discharged from the fish house, or when the first of the returning fishing boats will appear on the horizon, to be met with excited cries. But the gulls of the island were different. They were fishermen, and like the men who handle the nets, they lived by their own toil.
I suppose a certain amount of regular fishing went on during the day, but I was especially aware of the excitement that attended the runs of young herring that came into our cove each evening.
It is strange to reflect on that twilight migration of the young herring that by day have moved widely through the coastal waters, but now are drawn, as the water darkens to black and silver, to follow the channels between the rocky foundations of the islands.
We would know the herring were coming by watching the behavior of the gulls. Most of the late afternoon they would have dozed on their rocky perches along the shore of the island. But as sunset neared and the shadows of the spruces began to build dark spires in the water, a stir of excitement would pass among the gulls. There would be a good deal of flying up and down the channel, as though scouts were coming and going. It seemed that some intelligence of the movements of the fish was being spread among the birds. More and more of the gulls would join in the scouting parties, until the whole flock was in movement, their sharp, staccato cries coming across the water.
When the water was glassy calm, holding the colors of the evening sky on its surface, we could time as exactly as the gulls the arrival of the herring in our cove. Suddenly the silken sheet would be dimpled by a thousand little noses pushing against the water film. It would be streaked by a thousand little ripples moving eagerly toward the shore. It would be shot through by a thousand silver needles as the fish, swimming just beneath the surface, disturbed the placid sheet. Then the herring would begin flipping into the air. It seemed it was always out of the corner of your eye that you saw them, and you never quite knew where to look for the next little herring skipping recklessly into the air in a sort of back somersault. They did it as though it were great fun - this rash defying of a strange and hostile element, the air. I believe it was a sort of play indulged in by these young children of the herring. They looked like silvery coins skipped along the surface. I never actually saw any of the youngsters caught in the air by a gull, but the quick eyes of the birds must certainly have been attracted by the bright flashes.
The gulls would greet the arrival of the herring schools with a frenzy of excitement, swooping, plunging, crying loudly. A gull does not dive as a tern does; he swoops and, not quite alighting, plucks his fish from the water. It takes a good eye and good timing. It is less graceful than the beautiful, clean dive of a tern, but perhaps it requires equal skill.
A night I especially remember there had been a large run of herring into the cove and it had come somewhat later than usual. The gulls, apparently determined to make their catch despite the gathering darkness, fished on until it was hard to understand how they could possibly see the fish. We could see their moving forms against the island - white, mothlike figures against the dark backdrop of the island forest, fluttering to and fro and all the while uttering their cries, in a scene out of some weird shadow world.
On sunny days the gulls would go aloft to ride the warm, ascending air currents. Up and up, sailing around in slow, wide circles, until they were almost lost to sight. I used to lie on my back on the dock, relaxing in the warm sunshine, and watch the gulls above me in the blue sky. Some were so high they were only white stars wheeling slowly in orbits of their own making.
It was possible to do a good deal of birding by ear alone, lying there on the dock half asleep. Once the sound had been identified by squinting through half-opened eyes, I knew without looking that the mouselike rustling and patter of very small feet on the dock, skirting my head and passing just beyond my outstretched arm, was the song sparrow on whose territory we were living. I knew that the soft “whuff, whuff” overhead was the wing beat of a gull, the bird passing so close that I could easily hear the sound of air sliding over the feathered wing surfaces. The gulls’ wings made a dry sound, very different from the wet, spattering wing beat of a cormorant that had just risen from the water, and whose precipitate flight down the cove sounded like a wet dog shaking himself.
Often, as I lay there, I could hear the high, peeping whistle of an osprey, and opening my eyes, would see him coming down along the inner shore of the island. I think a pair of them had a nest somewhere up north of the island; when they carried fish, they were always going north.
And then there were the sounds of other, smaller birds - the rattling call of a kingfisher that perched, between forays after fish, on the posts of the dock; the call of the phoebe that nested under the eaves of the cabin; the redstarts that foraged in the birches on the hill behind the cabin and forever, it seemed to me, asked each other the way to Wiscasset, for I could easily twist their syllables into the query, “Which is Wiscasset? Which is Wiscasset?”
Sometimes the still water of the passage would be rippled, then broken, by the sleek, round head of a seal. Swimming up-current, his nostrils and forehead protruding, his passage sent diverging ripples running in silken V’s toward the opposite shores. After looking gravely about him with soft, dark eyes, surveying for a moment the world of sun and air, the seal would disappear as silently as he had come, returning to the soft green lights, the seaweeds streaming from sunken rocks, the little silver gleams of fleeting fishes. There is always something of mystery about these mammals of the sea. Akin to ourselves in most of the biological processes, warm-blooded, possessing a hairy covering, suckling their young, yet they are at home in an element to which we can make only the briefest of visits.
Sometimes I would watch the island from the hill that sloped up from the water line to a wooded crest from which could be seen the cove and all the outlying islands. It was fun to climb the hill, carpeted so thickly with gray-green reindeer moss, studded with pine and spruce and low-growing juniper. On the sunny slopes the moss was so dry that it crunched underfoot like very cold snow, but in the deep shade it was soft and spongy. Beard-like tufts of the strange Usnea moss or old-man’s-beard hung from the pines, a suggestion that the beautiful parula warbler might be about, for the parulas nest in pendant clumps of this moss.
And indeed the woods there on the hillside were bright with the moving, flitting forms of many warblers - the exquisite powder-blue parula with his breast band of orange and magenta; the Blackburnian, like flickering flames in the spruces; the myrtle, flashing his yellow rump patch. But most numerous of all was the trim little black-throated green warbler, whose dreamy, nostalgic song drifted all day long through the woods, little wisps of song lingering like bits of fog in the tree tops. Perhaps because I so invariably heard it in those woods, when I now recall the song in memory, it always brings with it a vivid picture of that sunny hill splashed with the dark shadows of the evergreens, and the scent of all the heady, aromatic, bitter-sweet fragrances compounded of pine and spruce and bayberry, warmed by the sun through the hours of a July day.