Arts/Literature

At the edge of the sea with Rachel Carson

#8: The Edge of the Sea by Rachel Carson (1953)
#9: The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson (1961)

The thermometer says it’s 23 degrees, but the wind blowing east off the Gulf of Maine says differently. I can hardly feel my fingers though my deerskin mittens have been off for less than half a minute. I wanted to grab a couple snapshots with my Blackberry of the waves as they roll in and hit the granite shoreline that the receding tide has been slowly revealing. As the waves hit, the same wind that’s numbing my fingers is sheering off the tops of the whitecaps before they hardly have time to spray. There’s a booming flash of white—and then the wind erases it.

I’m standing at the southern tip of Mt. Desert Island, near the western end of the natural seawall. I’ve come here, to the edge of the sea, to spend some time with Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea.

I’ve also brought Carson’s first book, The Sea Around Us, although for most of the day the sea is safely out there. The cold weather has forced me to spend most of my time huddled in my car with the heater going as I’ve read. It’s pretty much what I expected, although you can never really be sure what the weather’s doing at the coast until you get there. From Acadia’s mountaintops, I’ve seen fogbanks roll in from the open sea and swallow entire islands in Freshmen’s Bay in a matter of minutes. I’ve walked through feet of snow to sit, in shorts, on Sand Beach on warm March weekends. You just never know.

A trip to the coast always recharges me, and I thought Carson might make a particularly good traveling companion. Sitting on the edge of the sea to read her work might be an appropriate way to try and channel her a little bit. The Edge of the Sea is a magnificent little book, so to read it here, even if I’m shut away from the sea in my car, is a treat.

If Robert Frost had gone to work writing nature guides for Roger Tory Peterson, the result would have probably resembled something like this book. First published in 1955, it is a love letter to lovers of the sea, to those who find joy exploring tidepools and beaches. Such places are, for Carson, places of wonder, and she invites readers to take a peek. “By daylight the sunlight filters through the jungle of rockweeds to reach its floor only in shifting patches of shadow-flecked gold,” she writes, “by night the moonlight spreads a silver ceiling above the forest….”

Carson breaks her book into three main sections, each one focusing on a different type of coastline: the rocky coasts of New England, the sandy beaches of the mid- and southern Atlantic seaboard; the coral and mangrove coasts of Florida’s tip. She traces the geological history and influences of each area and then begins to pick her way along the water’s edge. As a result, The Edge of the Sea brims with information about the fauna and flora of the coast the way Maine’s rocky shore brims with mussels.

But Carson’s not merely content to offer information. She relays essence. Take those mussels, for instance. “Their shells were a soft color, the misty blue of distant mountain ranges,” she writes. The moment you read something like that, you know it’s true, whether you’ve seen vast mussel beds or not (and I have seen plenty, though none today here at the seawall).

Every walk along the sea’s edge that Carson writes about offers an opportunity to see something new. “Everywhere I looked, directly in the beam of my flashlight or obliquely in the half-illuminated gloom, crabs were scuttling about,” she writes about one such nighttime walk. “Boldly and possessively they inhabited the weed-shrouded rocks. All the grotesqueness of their form accentuated, they seemed to have transformed this once familiar place into a goblin world.”

Through Carson’s thoughtful exploration, the wonders never cease. For instance, she explains that a large population of periwinkles scraping the seaside rocks for food has a pronounced erosive effect, cutting away rock surfaces, grain by grain, at about the same pace as the earth’s major forces of erosion—rain, frost, and floods. As someone who’s spent hundreds of hours along the Maine coast, it was startling to have something as common as periwinkles examined with such fascinating newness. I had resolved to go look for one when I was out taking photos, but the spray on the rocks had turned to a thin layer of ice that I didn’t have the nerve to brave.

As exquisite as The Edge of the Sea is for its poetic prose and its thoughtful science, Carson has one final treat in store for readers: she brushes, like a warm coastal current, against some of the biggest philosophical questions out there. “What truth is expressed by the legions of the barnacles, whitening the rocks with their habitations, each small creature within finding the necessities of its existence in the sweep of the surf?” To try and understand the sea is to try and understand “the ultimate mystery of Life itself,” she says. That’s some heavy thinking for tidepool gazers.

I read The Edge of the Sea in conversation with The Sea Around Us as a way to better understand Carson’s writing style. In doing so, I’m starting to better see the boundary between nonfiction and creative nonfiction. The Edge of the Sea, while brimming with facts and information about life along the shore, was written with a definite literary flair and a self-conscious reflectiveness. The Sea Around Us is a more traditional nonfiction work because Carson pretty much keeps herself out of it. She intends to convey information, albeit in an interesting style and with a keen eye, rather than evoke emotion.

“The face of the sea is always changing,” she writes. “Crossed by colors, lights, and moving shadows, sparkling in the sun, mysterious in the twilight, its aspects and its mood vary hour by hour. The surface waters move with the tides, stir to the breath of winds, and rise and fall to the endless, hurrying forms of the waves.”

The Sea Around Us reads like a biography of the ocean. Carson considers the ocean through nearly every lens a reader might imagine: ecologically, geologically, geographically, chemically, and culturally. She looks at waves, currents, tides, salinity, temperatures, sea levels, depths, and climate. She looks at the ways scientists have mapped and measured it. It is a perfect Oceanography 101 text—or a least it would’ve been in the 1960s. First published in 1951, The Sea Around Us got an update from Carson in 1961; she incorporated findings gathered since the book’s first publication so that the new edition would be as current as possible.

In the fifty years since, oceanographic research has yielded exponentially more information about the seas (although we still know less about parts of the ocean than we do about parts of outer space). As a result, The Sea Around Us can’t help but be a bit dated, although it still holds up surprisingly well as a solid read.

Being landlocked in Western New York as I usually am, I long for the sea, so to be here this afternoon is treat enough. To have Carson provoke me into new ways of considering it, though, makes me a little giddy.

I’ve yet to tackle Carson’s seminal Silent Spring, which I hope to look at before this reading project wraps up. I’d also like to look at her book The Sense of Wonder, which looks to be even more solidly ensconced on the “creative” side of the nonfiction continuum.

In the meantime, I’ll crank up the heater for another minute or so and make one last foray out to the edge of the sea before the sun drops below Bass Head to the west. The lighthouse there, with its red beacon, will stave off darkness, warning ships to beware the edge of the coast. The sea will ignore the light, and the dark, and the wind. It will keep rolling in.

4 replies »

  1. Agreed–nicely done.

    Carson changed everything–she sort of single handedly, through her books, created much of the environmental movement that grew into the first Earth Day. I still remember when Silent Spring came out–the chemical industry tried to bury her, and nearly succeeded.She just kept on writing. She is, or should be, a hero for our time.

  2. Thanks.

    I’m looking forward to continuing my way through Carson’s work. She writes the way I wish I could!