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

Part II

In the decade that began with the publication in 1941 of Under the Sea-Wind, Carson’s lyrical study of life in the open sea, and ended with the appearance of The Sea Around Us in 1951, Carson produced some of her most distinguished writing. The latter book, a monumental synthesis of the science of oceanography, catapulted her to international fame, provided a measure of fortune, and enabled her to leave the government and devote herself to her writing.

Reticent at first about speaking in public, Carson eventually grew more self-assured in her role as public figure and used these occasions to promote natural history as a way of understanding the world. Her major themes – the timelessness of the earth, the constancy of its processes, and the mystery of life – are found over and over in the body of her writing, but they had a special freshness and intimacy when Carson spoke them aloud. Carson also used the opportunities offered by her many awards to speak out against the iconoclasm of science, and to urge the commonality of values shared by all those who endeavored to unfold the wonders of nature.

In 1952, Carson resigned from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. No longer encumbered by government restrictions, she began to express openly her views on the politics of conservation and spoke out too for wilderness preservation.

Two of the selections in Part Two include references to the anxieties of life in the atomic age and to Carson’s concern that with the atom bomb humankind had achieved the power to alter the natural world, even to destroy it. It was a truth which ultimately impelled her choice of subjects and lay at the heart of her anger at our despoiling arrogance.

Chapter 8. Memo to Mrs. Eales on Under the Sea-Wind

[ca. 1942]

LITERARY NOTICE for Under the Sea-Wind, Carson’s first book on the life of the ocean, was prematurely cut short when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor barely a month after the book’s publication. Eager nevertheless to assist Simon and Schuster’s efforts to publicize her book, Carson completed an author questionnaire at the request of a Mrs. Eales in the publisher’s marketing department. In this synopsis, Carson describes with exceptional candor how she came to write the book, how she conceived its parts and main characters, and what qualities made her approach to ocean life unique.

Although Under the Sea-Wind sold fewer than two thousand copies before it went out of print in 1946, the book was given new life when Oxford University Press republished it in 1952 and it justly assumed a place on the New York Times best-seller list along with The Sea Around Us.

Background of the Book

image IT ISN’T AT ALL SURPRISING that I should have written a book about the sea, because as long as I can remember it has fascinated me. Even as a child – long before I had ever seen it – I used to imagine what it would look like, and what the surf sounded like. Since I grew up in an inland community, where we hadn’t even a migrating seagull, I had to wait a long time to have my curiosity satisfied. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until I had graduated from college and gone to the famous Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, that I saw the ocean. There, too, I began to get my first real understanding of the real sea world – that is, the world as it is known by shore birds and fishes and beach crabs and all the other creatures that live in the sea or along its edge. At Woods Hole we used to go out in a little dredging boat and steam up and down Vineyard Sound or Buzzards Bay. After a time, with much violent rocking of the little boat, the dredge would be pulled up and its load of sea animals, rocks, shells, and seaweeds spilled out on the deck. Most of these animals I had never seen before; some I had never heard of. But there they were before me, dripping with sea water and perhaps clinging to a piece of rock or shell or weed that they had brought up from their home down there on the bottom of the sound. Probably that was when I first began to let my imagination go down through the water and piece together bits of scientific fact until I could see the whole life of those creatures as they lived them in that strange sea world.

In a way, Under the Sea-Wind had its beginning about six years ago, when I happened to write a short essay on life in the sea. A friend who read it suggested that I send it to the Atlantic. At first I didn’t take the suggestion very seriously, for I let the essay lie in my desk for about a year; but finally I polished it up a little and sent it to the Atlantic. In due time a letter of acceptance came. A few weeks after the essay – which was called “Undersea” – had been published, I received a letter from Mr. Quincy Howe, who is editor-in-chief of the firm of Simon and Schuster. Mr. Howe said he had enjoyed the undersea article, and wondered if I was planning a book on the same general subject; if so, would I care to talk it over with him? As a matter of fact, I had never seriously considered writing a book, but naturally that letter put ideas in my head. I went to New York and we talked over a general plan for a book which would give the non-biologist a true picture of life in the sea. It was left that when I got around to writing such a book, the firm would like to consider it for publication. Actually, it was nearly two years later that the definite plan of the present book took form in my mind and I began to write, doing it all during my evenings and Saturday afternoons and Sundays. After I had written the first section the publishers signed a contract for publication of the book, and from that time on the writing went a lot faster, because a deadline had been set and I was writing under pressure, which sometimes isn’t a bad thing.

General Plan and Viewpoint of Book

I believe that most popular books about the ocean are written from the viewpoint of a human observer – usually a deep-sea diver or sometimes a fisherman – and record his impressions and interpretations of what he saw. I was determined to avoid this human bias as much as possible. The ocean is too big and vast and its forces are too mighty to be much affected by human activity. So I decided that the author as a person or a human observer should never enter the story, but that it should be told as a simple narrative of the lives of certain animals of the sea. As far as possible, I wanted my readers to feel that they were, for a time, actually living the lives of sea creatures. To bring this about I had first, of course, to think myself into the role of an animal that lives in the sea. I had to forget a lot of human conceptions. For example, time measured by the clock means nothing to a shorebird. His measure of time is not an hour, but the rise and fall of the tides – exposing his food supply or covering it again. Again, light and dark may mean merely the difference between the time when you are relatively safe and the time when an enemy can find you easily. All these adjustments in my thinking had to be made; and in writing the book I was successively a sandpiper, a crab, a mackerel, an eel, and half a dozen other animals. Hardest of all, I had to get the feel of a world that was entirely water.

I very soon realized that the central character of the book was the ocean itself. The smell of the sea’s edge, the feeling of vast movements of water, the sound of waves, crept into every page, and over all was the ocean as the force dominating all its creatures.

In order to give a fairly complete picture of sea life, I divided the book into three parts, one to picture the life of the shore, one for the open sea, and one for the deep abyss. In each of these parts, or books, I told the life story of one particular animal.

Book I – Edge of the Sea

Almost everyone knows the sea beach in a general way. Unfortunately, though, most people stay within sight of the piers and boardwalks of a resort beach, and never become acquainted with the animals of the beach, except for the few whose remains may be found in the litter along the high-tide mark. I always seek out the wild sections of beach that are usually to be found a few miles above or below a resort. One particularly lovely stretch of wild ocean beach in North Carolina forms the setting for most of the chapters about the shore. It is a beach that is separated from the mainland towns by a wide sound, fringing one of those narrow strips of outer land which the Carolinians call “banks.” I have visited that beach in spring and fall to watch the comings and goings of the shorebirds. I have spent hours on end among the dunes or on the beach, saturating myself with the sounds of water and the feel of hot sun and blowing sand. I have watched the fiddler crabs and ghost crabs, and, in autumn, seen the mullet fishermen draw their seines on the beach. This was the background for the story of a bird that almost everyone who has visited the beach has seen as it runs along at the edge of the waves – a special kind of sandpiper called a sanderling. I chose the sanderling as the main character of the shore section because of its fascinating life story. The sanderling is one of the bird tribe’s long-range migrants. I believe that few of the people who like to watch the sanderling on the beach have any idea of the hardships these birds endure, or the long and hard flights they make. Some of them actually travel more than eight thousand miles every spring and return the same distance every fall. These little birds winter as far south as Patagonia, at the extreme southern end of South America, and in the spring they migrate northward, most of them beyond the Arctic Circle, and some to within a few miles of the North Pole. This seems a strange place to choose to rear their young, but many of the shore and ocean birds nest in the Arctic. Probably they are obeying some instinct inherited from forgotten generations of ancestors. We see the sanderlings in the spring as they are migrating up along our coastline, then, about May and June in Maryland and Virginia, all but a few immature birds disappear. This is during the period when the adult birds are nesting on the Arctic tundras. When they first arrive in the Arctic the snow and ice have not melted, food is scarce, and late-season blizzards may take a heavy toll of life. Eventually, spring comes even to these frozen tundras, the birds prepare their nests and lay their eggs, and the young are hatched. There are many enemies abroad on the tundra. Some of these are the large snowy owls, the foxes, and hawk-like birds of the gull tribe known as jaegers. After the chicks have hatched, the mother sanderling takes great precautions to hide the egg shells, so that enemies will not be led to the nest by them. Usually she leads the young away from the nest when they are only a few days or even hours old, if she has been frightened by marauders. Very quickly, however, the young become able to take care of themselves. As soon as they are no longer needed, the old birds leave for the south. The young remain behind until their wing feathers have grown strong enough for the long journey down across the two Americas. By late July the older sanderlings are seen on our beaches again, and a few weeks later we begin to see young birds.

This is the story that I have told in the first section, against a background of Carolina beach and Arctic tundra.

Book II – The Gull’s Way

The central character of the second section is another long-distance migrant, but this time a fish. In this section, which pictures the strange world of the open sea, I have written the biography of a mackerel, beginning, as biographies usually do, with the birth of my central character. There could scarcely be any stranger place in which to begin life than the surface waters of the open sea. Yet these waters are a sort of nursery where literally hundreds of kinds of sea creatures deposit their eggs, and where the young get their start in life. Parenthood in the sea is a relatively simple matter, for as a usual thing the parents do not care for their young and probably never even see them.

The open sea is a strange place for anything so fragile as a mackerel egg to be set adrift: just sky and water, and great silences, but teeming, incredibly abundant life. In the first place there are the eggs of all sorts of animals – fishes, crabs, shrimps, clams, worms, starfish, and the like. From all these eggs larvae or young animals are hatching. Almost immediately, each larva is on its own resources. It begins to swim about and seek food, eating almost anything that is small enough to take into its mouth, or to overpower and swallow. All sorts of enemies of young fishes prowl through these surface waters: small jellyfish with enormous appetites, little, transparent worms with sharp, biting jaws, schools of small fishes that eat smaller fishes, and larger fishes that eat them. Just to give an idea of some of the hazards of sea life: a full-grown mackerel may produce half a million eggs in a season, or a large cod may shed three or four million. But the destruction of the young is so enormous that, on the average, only two young mackerel or cod will survive out of all the potential offspring produced by the mother fish during her whole life. This ceaseless ebb and flow of life – the constant destruction of individuals contrasted with the survival of whole species – is one of the most impressive spectacles which the sea presents.

As the young mackerel grows rapidly during the first months of life, sea animals that were once deadly enemies become his prey as he, too, joins the ranks of sea hunters. After spending the summer in a sheltered New England harbor, he and other young mackerel wander out into the open sea again. There new and larger enemies await them: fish-eating birds, swordfish, tunas, and fishermen. In the concluding chapter of this series, I described the setting of a mackerel seine from the viewpoint of a fish – something that I do not believe has been done before.

In many ways, I found this section the hardest to write, and so I get a good deal of satisfaction out of the fact that most reviewers and readers seem to like it best. I believe it was hard because of the endless waste of waters – no fixed points around which to orient one’s characters. I said a few minutes ago that I really lived the things I wrote about, and I don’t mind admitting that I was very thankful to climb out on dry land in beginning the concluding section.

Book III – River and Sea

For the last section of the book, I had left the gently sloping sea bottom from the tidelines out to the edge of the continental shelf, and the deep Atlantic abyss. There was one fish whose migrations include all that varied undersea terrain – the eel. I know many people shudder at the sight of an eel. To me (and I believe to anyone who knows its story) to see an eel is something like meeting a person who has travelled to the most remote and wonderful places of the earth; in a flash I see a vivid picture of the strange places that eel has been – places which I, being merely human, can never visit.

Every eel that lives along our Atlantic coast began life in the distant Sargasso Sea. It lived, at first, so far below the surface that only the faintest blue haze ever penetrates there. For the most part, the water in which the baby eels are born is eternally dark and still and cold. The pressure is so great that it would instantly crush our unaccustomed bodies to nothing. All about the baby eels are the strange animals that live permanently in the abyss. Many of them carry their own lights, perhaps to help them see their way about in the darkness and find food.

As the young eels grow they work up toward the surface, and as they move up the light becomes stronger. By this time they look like tiny willow leaves, flat, oval, and transparent. In a few months’ time, they begin their thousand-mile journey toward the American coast. At first, probably, they are carried along by the ocean currents; later, they must swim independently. But here is the really remarkable part of the story. In the Sargasso, the young of eels from America mingle with the young of European eels, for the eels from all the European Atlantic coast make the long westward crossing to spawn in the Sargasso. But although many of the two species of young are intermingled during their first weeks or months of life, soon after the migration begins the travelers separate. They form two great bands, one company proceeding westward toward America, the other eastward to Europe. The two kinds of eels are so similar that a scientist can distinguish them only by counting the number of vertebrae in the backbone, but the little eels themselves never make a mistake. They always return to the continent from which their parents came.

In the spring the young eels begin to arrive in our coastal waters. They are, by this time, a little more than a year old, but they are no longer than a man’s finger and so transparent that one could read print through their bodies. They move into the bays and river estuaries, and some begin to ascend the rivers and streams. It is thought that the young males remain in salt or brackish water, and that it is only the females that ascend the fresh-water streams. There they live for 8, 10, or 12 years before they reach physical maturity. Then the awakening of some race instinct causes them to begin a downstream migration. This happens in the fall of the year. Usually the eels migrate at night, and apparently dark, stormy nights are times of large movements of eels. In the estuaries of the rivers the migrating females are joined by the males and together they enter the sea and pass out through the coastal waters. Fishing boats take a few; then the eels completely disappear from sight and never are seen again. We know, though, that they returned to their birthplace a thousand miles out in the Atlantic, because, very early in the spring, the eggs of the new generation of young can be found there. Evidently the old eels die after they spawn, for they never return to the coast. They begin and end their lives in the deep abyss.

General

Each of these stories seems to me not only to challenge the imagination, but also to give us a little better perspective on human problems. They are stories of things that have been going on for countless thousands of years. They are as ageless as sun and rain, or as the sea itself. The relentless struggle for survival in the sea epitomizes the struggle of all earthly life, human and nonhuman. As one reviewer said: “Our own battles for existence seem less a matter for dismay and more a simple reason for fortitude when compared in the mind with the ceaseless ebb and flow of life and death that are under all the sea winds.”