November 30, 2007

Comments by Moderator Tom Schaefer

Rachel Carson's Legacy

In the summer of 1960 conservationists from many states converged on a peaceful Maine island to witness its presentation to the National Audubon Society by its owner, Millicent Todd Bingham. The focus that day was on the preservation of the natural landscape and the intricate web of life whose interwoven strands lead from microbes to man. But in the background of all the conversations...was indignation at the despoiling of the roads they had traveled.

Rachel Carson in Silent Spring

Let's see. In the summer of 1960 I was a ten year-old boy far from the Maine coast, probably playing a little baseball, but mostly flying my bike down tree-lined streets in a suburban Ohio neighborhood. My natural sense of wonder had not moved me to try to identify many species of birds, besides robins and cardinals; the only trees I knew for sure were apples and cottonwoods, the latter gifting our backyard with their snowy summer mess.

I don't remember much about chemical applications in those days. My parents talked about spraying the apple tree. Every year when the yield became bug ridden, their able-bodied children, of which I now officially qualified, would be loaded into the station wagon and carted off to a rural fruit farm where we helped pick a few bushels of golden delicious for use in Mom's famous apple sauce. The annual hope was our backyard tree would turn around next year with the help of some modern marvel sprayed under pressure. I'm not sure that my dad ever got around to it. I honestly think he preferred taking us kids out for an apple picking day in the country.

But it was August 1960 when Rachel Carson, still collecting stories that would complete Silent Spring, took a day to visit Millicent Todd Bingham's Hog Island just up the shore from her own summer place in Muscongus Bay. The application of chemicals was, it would seem, a topic of some of that day's conversations at the island's Todd Wildlife Sanctuary dedication.

Which brings us to the theme of this last post: Just what is Rachel Carson's legacy?

Some detractors claim hers a "cancerous" legacy which has taught a world population to blame farmers for using chemicals that promote human disease instead of looking into their own genetics. Further, her efforts to ban DDT have condemned millions of malaria victims to unnecessary suffering and death.

In another light, Rachel Carson is celebrated as a twentieth century visionary who successfully articulated the warning over widespread use of chemicals not only on fields and roadsides, but in urban and suburban populated areas. Also, of course, is her extensive body of work in marine biology and her influence in inspiring a generation of environmental activists.

Where do you stand on the Carson's legacy? Has she done more good than harm? What have the lessons of her writing left us? How will her story play out a century from now?

For me, The Sense of Wonder will always be a treasure. Commissioning me to take my own kids, my students, and my grandkids out to experience nature is a pearl beyond price. And for me, Silent Spring will forever be a bridge between the evolution of the conservation movement and my beloved Hog Island, current home of Maine Audubon's Hog Island Audubon Center, which, by the way, has kept the faith of teaching campers about "the intricate web of life whose interwoven strands lead from microbes to man" for almost seventy-five years now. Ms. Carson probably wouldn't mind if I encouraged you to visit their Web site.

Tom Schaefer

November Reading Schedule

The Sea Around Us Field Notes Blog continues through December

November 26, 2007

Comments by Moderator Tom Schaefer

The Good Fairy's Blessing

If I had influence with the good fairy..., I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote to boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.
Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder

Those of you who have been with this discussion of The Sense of Wonder since the beginning, have heard me and a few others in our blogosphere relish our position as grandparents. Maybe it's a night walk on a stormy beach with the young person wrapped and carried in a blanket or just a simple amble through a fall forest trying to catch leaves before they hit the ground. In any case, taking time to be mindful with a young person out among the presence of Nature's people (borrowing an Emily Dickinson expression) engenders the stuff of "adult caretaker" joy.

Still, amid these good, memorable times, is the nagging fear of danger and injury. What if something does go "bump" on a night hike or a kid falls down a hill gashing his head? One of my grandsons told me when he was nine that he didn't ride his bike any more because when I took him for a short ride when he was five, he crashed into a mailbox. He wanted nothing more to do with bikes and it was my fault. His reticence to ride has been replaced with a greater ease these days, but the issue remains: what of kids getting hurt while on a journey of discovery?

My interest today in childhood injuries emanates from an event that took place at our house twice during Thanksgiving week. With school out, child care fell to non-working and non-shopping grandparents, as I'm sure was the case in many households across This Great Land of Ours. The seven-year-old grandson, who spends many such days with us, was intent on getting into our mildly wild back yard to continue the work we had started months before: splitting firewood out of a fallen oak. And he wanted to swing the ax.

Do you remember being seven? My memories are mighty dim, but hanging out with Noah brings some back into clarity. When you're seven, you are in the first grade learning to read. He reads us picture books. And he recognizes words on signs that he could not cipher a year ago. And he's proud. He can do it. This week, too, I heard him say how much stronger he is -- now -- than when he was six. His universe is expanding and he is transforming with it.

I suppose this post is really about empowerment. How does an adult nurture natural confidence in a child? That surely was Carson's hope not only for her grand nephew Roger, but for all children when she spoke of the "good fairy" blessing them with "a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout a life." She wished for all children a deep sense of richness in the truth and beauty of Nature that could become the "unfailing antidote to boredom and disenchantments of later years." When time hands a child -- or grown-up child -- a divorce, or job loss, or death of a loved one, it was Carson's hope that Nature could provide a sense of comfort and connectedness that was genuine and grounded in the communal human experience.

So, how do we empower kids in a dangerous world? We'd love to hear your stories.

Oh. And BTW, Noah swung a fine ax at our little Wild Grace II homestead. He added a couple of pieces to the pile. And he didn't get hurt. He didn't even seem very tuckered out. That's more than I can say for grandpa.

Tom Schaefer

November Reading Schedule

The Sea Around Us Field Notes Blog continues through December

November 11, 2007

That special gift

If the moon is full...then the way is open for another adventure with your child.... The sport of watching migrating birds pass across the face of the moon has become popular and even scientifically important in recent years, and it is as good a way as I know to give an older child a sense of the mystery of migration. - Rachel Carson in The Sense of Wonder

I have two copies of The Sense of Wonder. One I bought some years ago for my personal collection while the second, the older of the two but newer on my bookshelf, was gifted to me by a friend. A naturalist and infamous collector, he makes it a point to seek out and buy every copy he can find of the older 1965 edition for one key reason: it has more pictures of kids.

And it's true. The 1998 edition, photographed by Nick Kelsh and pictured on this page, is a lovely little coffee table book with images of winter woods, leaves in full fall color, a close-up of rounded surf-washed stones, and a shot or two of an evening pond one could imagine swept by the same broom Emily Dickinson wrote of. But not many kids. To be honest, maybe this is the edition Rachel would have preferred. Linda Lear, in her introduction in this edition, cites a friend quoting Carson saying, "We plan for it to be rather lavishly illustrated with the most beautiful photographs we can find...."

I assume you know by now that neither of these editions of The Sense of Wonder were published during Carson's lifetime. The earliest version came out in the July 1956 Woman's Home Companion under the title "Help Your Child to Wonder." Lear relates that Carson wanted to improve the essay into an illustrated book, but after Silent Spring hit bookstores and subsequently the desks of chemical industry management, the last years of her life were spent defending her criticism of the use of "miracle" pesticides and herbicides on crops, roadsides, and the critters that live therein.

The first more kid friendly edition, photographed by Charles Pratt and others, was released in 1965, just one year after Carson's death. It, too, is "lavishly illustrated" with enchanting seasonal photography, but it seems to go beyond the picturesque to include a bare-chested boy peeking through the limbs of a Maine spruce, a couple of school girls messing around in the rain, and even the backside of a naked little kid toddling on a beach, hand safely held by an adult. Cute kids. In a book about kids.

Perhaps this post is really about the power and impacts of a thoughtful gift. I know I value my gifted copy of The Sense of Wonder more than the newer edition. It's special. And I realized today that I'll need two more copies of The Sense of Wonder for holiday giving this year: one for each of my grown daughters' families. With their busy lives of karate practice, homework, and school fund raisers, I want to be sure they hear the thoughts of an important American woman who encouraged moms, dads, and grandparents to be more zen while out in the natural world with kids, slowing down their own lives to experience the wonder of the natural world through the mindfulness of a child's microcosm.
How about "natural" holiday gifts for kids? I know the ten-year old grandson is getting a decent pair of binoculars and a birding field guide. Maybe we'll even set up camp and watch the full moon during migration.

Any thoughts on or stories about great gifts? Anything you know that might invite a child to investigate the innards of a walnut shell, hunt for fossils, or wonder at the fragile strength of a Daddy Long Legs? Do tell! ;-)

November 1, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Tom Schaefer

For the Kids

If a child is to keep alive his sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” - from Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder

I suppose the thing that I'm most proud of these days is being a grandfather. You can count on my pulling out pictures of the three grandkids if you were to ask about them, to be sure, but what I'm most interested in is taking them outside and showing them 'cool stuff.' Here in Ohio this time of year, that discovery takes place on a walk in the woods to look at color and to pick up leaves with interesting stories to tell. It also might include watching birds at the birdbath and listening to birdsong from the trees, trying to figure out just who it was who had something to say this late in the season. And this weekend it's off with the two grandboys to the local nature center to pick up birdseed for winter feeding. I'm just sure if we caught up with Rachel Carson on one of our outings, she'd give an approving smile and a wink.

When Rachel Carson comes to mind, I first think of her as a scientist. My initial exposure to her writing came in the late 1960s in a college biology class when we were assigned to read the newly published Silent Spring. Chilling it was. And a tough read for my science-resistant mind. Still, the book made an impact on me and was one of the factors, I'm sure, that has lead me to be a part-time activist for the Earth.

About that same time, Apollo 8 became the first manned space flight to the moon. I know I've read somewhere that the first picture of Earthrise taken from lunar orbit and beamed back home during that Christmas 1968 journey played an important role in helping those of us back home realize just how fragile Earth looks from even the short distance to the moon. I'm guessing many of you reading this can still visualize that photograph without resorting to a web search. And then, of course, came the first Earth Day just one and one half years later in 1970. It doesn't take an historian to tell us that both the Apollo program and Carson's Silent Spring, among other factors, had touched enough social nerves that brought many to take action to reverse the impact of development to flora and fauna alike on our island home -- our blue marble -- in space.

As a scientist, Rachel Carson has taught us that the health and viability of terrestrial ecosystems are things we need to care about. As an elective parent, she also taught us that sharing the simple and dynamic beauty of this planet with the next generation was also our responsibility. For her, it was a labor of love. As it is for Grandpa Tom. I hope it is -- or will be -- with you, too.

Care to post a story about sharing nature with a child? How about an idea on making a difference with kids in the natural world. We'd love to hear.

Tom Schaefer

November Reading Schedule

The Sea Around Us Field Notes Blog continues through December

October 22, 2007

Comments by Moderator Jim Lynch

Topic: The Sea Around Us
Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


When Rachel Carson wrote The Sea Around Us in 1951 she was still an activist in the making. Her goal at this point was to simply inform and engage. Yet she instinctively touched on subjects that would become environmental cornerstones, without raising her voice.

She talked about the likely expansion of petroleum exploration in the sea, but without warning of the downsides. She mentioned global warming, but without discussing man’s potential role. Her subject was the ocean, so she wrote about how it serves as the planet’s thermostat, how it is so large and deep that it absorbs great heat without getting hot and great cold without freezing.

At this point in her life she was enchanted with the mystery and drama of the sea. “But even with all our modern instruments for probing and sampling the deep ocean no one now can say that we shall ever resolve the last, the ultimate mysteries of the sea.”

And she concludes The Sea Around Us on a poetic and philosophical note. She doesn’t end on a warning, but on a wise truth, a reverence for the sea as the beginning and end of all life.

Yet her ocean work would later be used as an activist springboard. Jeffrey S. Levinson’s afterword to the 1989 edition of The Sea Around Us concludes: “We will have to manage the ocean’s resources and learn not to use it as a sewer. We will have to take to the sea once more, but with a spirit for cleansing the ocean that matches our centuries-old thirst for exploration and conquest.”

Seeing how this is my concluding essay, I cannot leave this blog without commenting on Rachel’s critics who resurfaced during her 100th birthday to savage her again, this time by blaming her for malaria-related deaths in Africa. The illogical argument maintains that because she raised questions 45 years ago about the indiscriminate use of pesticides, such as DDT, that adequate pesticides haven't been readily available to kill mosquitoes and save human lives. From my vantage point, these ongoing cheap shots at her legacy are as unfair and as unwarranted as potshots at the late Mother Teresa. For a concise look at the history of Carson's detractors, read "Defending Rachel Carson" by Cornell professor David Pimentel.

It has been an honor to discuss Rachel Carson for this unique book club this month. And I am grateful to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for asking me to participate. I also find it inspiring that Shippensburg University would devote so much time and resources to incorporating Rachel and The Sea Around Us into its fall curriculum. And once again, please don’t forget to click on “Field Notes” and the Photo Gallery to read and view more about the Shippensburg adventure.

It is my hope that over time Rachel Carson’s work and life is taught more intensively in the schools to help guide future generations, the same way people study other landmark Americans such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Such hopes drove me to invent a bright 13-year-old boy who sees Rachel as his hero. So I’d like to end my last essay here with an excerpt from The Highest Tide, which features banter about Rachel Carson between Miles, the narrator of the novel, and his sidekick Phelps:

“When did Rachel Carson write all that stuff?” Phelps asked.
“Early nineteen-fifties.”
“How old was she?”
“Her late forties.”
“When’d she die?”
“Nineteen sixty-four.”
“What of?”
”Breast cancer. She was the one who warned us that if we keep spraying poisons on fields we’ll stop hearing birds in the spring.”
“How many kids she have?”
“None. Never married.”
“You know everything about her, don’t you?”
I didn’t say anything for a couple beats. “I know she was brave and brilliant.”

October 14, 2007

Comments by Moderator Jim Lynch

Topic: The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson

Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


One of the first things to enthrall me about marine research was reading about Rachel Carson’s fascination with grunions, a small shimmering fish that beaches itself on the California coast just long enough to drop and fertilize eggs during the highest tides of the warmer months.

As Rachel put it in The Sea Around Us, nobody knows if it’s the pressure or rhythm of the water or something to do with the moon or what exactly it is that so precisely synchronizes these little fish with the monthly tidal cycles. She drove home my wonder with tides when she brought up the case of a sea worm that will rise and fall out of the sand with the tidal cycles even if it is moved to an aquarium in some basement in Kansas.

What struck me about that was that even a brainless worm is more in tune with the tides than most humans.

Like most things, the marine world becomes more fascinating the closer we look. In fact, marine science in general is far more exotic and exciting than I expected. I assumed the subject was finite, that almost everything had already been learned. I didn’t realize that we are still discovering dozens and sometimes hundreds of new species of sea life every year. I found it amazing while writing The Highest Tide in 2003, for example, that nobody had ever seen a giant squid alive and swimming.

The largest invertebrate on the planet was still a mystery to us?!

What got me further enthralled was when I started exploring tidal flats at night with a headlamp. If you’ve never done it, I highly recommend it. Tidal flats are freaky enough during daylight, but at night the setting feels like science fiction, like you are trespassing on another planet. Crabs and shrimp and other nocturnal creatures are far more bountiful. One night I came across a 22-legged purple and brown sunflower sea star the size of a manhole cover moving across the flats way faster than any sea star should be able to travel.

The point of sharing a sliver of my book research is to point out that the details of my own findings helped inspire me to write a novel that hinged on the notion that most of us go through life so oblivious to the natural world around us that a boy who simply pays attention could come across as a genius, possibly even a prophet. And that idea, in part, grew out of watching the way Rachel mixed compelling research with her imagination and prose to create books that helped you think.

Obviously, part of making research compelling to read is to write it up as engagingly as you can. Journalists write most popular science books and articles and do their best to translate complex findings and ideas. However, at times, a lot gets lost in translation, which is why Rachel’s work was so extraordinary. She was both scientist and lyrical writer. In her hands, the nuggets of her research fit like vivid anecdotes into the bigger stories she wanted to weave.

She tells us about the grunions and the convoluta worm in a chapter that encourages us to imagine the history of the tides and their future too, how tidal friction is slowing down the spinning of our earth that used to rotate every four hours in its early days and continues to slow.
Regardless of Rachel, journalists need to become better scientists and scientists need to become better writers, if they want their findings to be more compelling on the page.

As a journalist who wrote about many environmental issues, I longed for eloquent people who could explain their research and findings in compelling fashion. Too often, modern day environmental debates get reduced to sparring matches between loud, sometimes reckless, spokespersons for environmental groups and businesses. And the people with the most valuable information are usually, and unfortunately, the quietest voice at the table, the cautious, often to the point of being dull, scientists.

Al Gore just won the Nobel Prize for ringing the alarms on global warming. Regardless of what you think of Gore, it is hard to deny that his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth” used an impressive array of compelling research to make what had been a complex fuzzy issue more provocative and personal.

In fact, I think it is safe to say, “An Inconvenient Truth” would have been praised profusely by Rachel Carson were she around in her 100th year to comment.

What scientific research or studies or reports do you find particularly compelling? And is it the information itself or the way it’s presented?

Shippensburg students, what was the most compelling thing you learned or saw from your ocean expedition? In other words, what will you tell friends and family when they ask you what you found particularly interesting or surprising?

And for all book club readers, please keep up with the accounts of the Shippensburg adventure by clicking on “Field Notes” in the upper right corner of this page beneath Rachel’s photo.

October 7, 2007

Comments by Moderator Jim Lynch

Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


Rachel Carson was an unlikely candidate to change the way Americans looked at planet earth. Yet this underdog, this bookish single woman who’d been writing seashore pamphlets for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sparked the modern day environmental movement in the middle of the last century at a time when sexism was in full bloom.

She accomplished it with a mixture of rare skills and gifts. Her precise and lyrical prose is often justifiably showcased as the source of her persuasive magic. But what’s often overlooked is how fearless she was in the subjects she tackled and the way she explained them. In The Sea Around Us, she not only dared to explain the beginnings of the planet and all that was known and unknown about our oceans, but she brought her lush imagination to the equation.

During this week’s readings alone, she helped us imagine the theory that the moon was originally part of the earth that ripped loose into the sky with the gouge it left behind filling with centuries of rain as the earth cooled. She described an ocean where “life is scattered everywhere like a fine dust.” She brought into eerie perspective that half of the planet’s surface is covered by miles of water through which light has never penetrated, a place where creatures feed on the endless “snowfall” of sediments from above. She asked us to picture the likelihood of the Atlantic eventually rising another hundred feet and splashing against the foothills of the Appalachians

Rachel’s imagination brought a romance to her science writing that turned the masses onto subjects they wouldn’t normally read. But her ideas, her habit of thinking big is what coaxed people to think about things they wouldn’t normally contemplate.

Her righteous activist streak popped up, although quietly, in “The Sea Around Us” as well. Consider her observation in “The Birth of an Island” chapter in which she recalled how birds on the Galapagos Islands used to be so friendly during Charles Darwin’s days that they’d land on your shoulder and pluck hair from your head for their nests. Instead of an amusing aside, however, she used it to make a sharp point about how interconnected humans are with all life.

“But man, unhappily has written one of the blackest records as a destroyer on the ocean islands … upon species after species of island life, the black night of extinction has fallen.”

She wrote that statement twenty-three years before the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.

Rachel ultimately threw her biggest punches in Silent Spring more than a decade after The Sea Around Us. But her convictions about the harm man was doing to the planet were rooted in her oceanic studies. And that’s also what gave her the power to write as assertively as she did when it came to exposing just how destructive pesticides were in a country reticent to heed environmental alarms, particularly from a woman author. Her voice was so unusual at the time that many readers had a hard time getting their minds around who exactly they were listening to. She reputedly received letters from both fans and critics alike who assumed, despite her given name, that anyone writing so forcefully must be a man. “Dear Mr. Carson ….”

Rachel’s underdog story and her ability to think big helped me think bigger on the novel I wrote about the sea. Just seeing her daring prose and imagination at work, helped raise the bar for what I was attempting to accomplish.

Does reading Rachel help you put your own work into a larger perspective?

If you’re part of the Shippensburg crew doing Rachel-related research this month, are there ways in which you can bring more imagination to your research, or perhaps ways that thinking big will make whatever you’re doing more fascinating and relevant?

Perhaps Rachel’s work guides or moves you in other ways. Or maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps it feels dated and cumbersome. Regardless, please share your thoughts.

And please don’t forget to click on and comment on "Field Notes from The Sea Around Us " (in the right-hand column below the image of Rachel Carson) as the Shippensburg program heats up this week. Let’s get the discussions rolling.

October 1, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Jim Lynch

Discussion Topic: The Sea Around Us

Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


I think this month’s online book club would make Rachel Carson smile.

Instead of The Sea Around Us simply inspiring yet another discussion among her loyal admirers, it will hopefully spark and enhance the field work and observations of college students and budding scientists who may be reading her words for the first time.

In a serendipitous alliance, as many as 41 students and five teachers at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania will be participating in the Rachel Carson Centennial Blog this month as they use The Sea Around Us as a backdrop text for their research and contemplation.

The students will be exploring and learning about the Atlantic Coast and Chesapeake Bay from various vantages and, starting October 8, the students will post some of their observations on this site. To view their work, overseen by Shippensburg faculty, click on "Field Notes from The Sea Around Us " (in the right-hand column below the image of Rachel Carson).

It is my hope as moderator for this portion of the blog that students and readers engage in both forums and take advantage of an unusual opportunity to witness Rachel Carson-inspired science, writing and reflection in action.

I also hope some students and readers will feel the same jolt I felt when I discovered The Sea Around Us. It was the fall of 2003, just as I was taking a leave to try to write a novel about a boy who keeps discovering exotic sea life on the tidal flats near his home in Puget Sound.

I was immediately dazzled by the authority and grace with which Carson wrote about the sea: “There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest parts of the abyss that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide.”

The Highest Tide took off for me when I decided to pass along my obsession with Carson’s work to my 13-year-old protagonist. As a result, the novel pays homage to a woman who may be the most eloquent and educational advocate our planet has ever had.

Her seven-page preface to the 1961 edition of The Sea Around Us exhibits just about everything you need to know about Carson’s gift for turning knowledge into moral duty and a call to activism.

She begins with a calm history of our understanding and ignorance of the ocean, its underwater ranges, its "deep hidden rivers" and its lively abyss. She goes on to dazzle us with her facts and imagination as she portrays a far more dynamic sea than most people can grasp. Then she eases the reader into understanding how misguided our notion has been that the sea can survive anything we dump into it, including atomic waste. Her preface concludes chillingly: "The mistakes that are made now are made for all time." She leaves us with this, again without raising her voice: “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”

Carson is so well known for Silent Spring that her three classics on the ocean are overlooked or dismissed as lesser works. While less activist in nature, they grew out of her core philosophy that the more people know about the natural world the less likely they will be to harm it.

I don’t know how The Sea Around Us or Carson herself would have fared in the modern era of smack-talking sound-byte activism. I do think she would have been pleased that more people than ever say we need to protect the environment, but I think she’d be alarmed that a smaller percentage than ever actually experience it.

Carson’s favorite past-time was tide-pooling along Maine’s wild southern coast. And therein may lie the best advice for us all, and the first clue to the power of her activism: Get out in the world and look at it very, very closely.

Lastly, a word of advice on reading Carson. You can't speed-read her. Her writing is like good scotch. You best go slow. If you fall behind in the syllabus, don't worry about it. Savor the paragraphs and pages you do read.

And please post your big and small observations and questions here and on the "Field Notes" page.

September 28, 2007


For the month of October, we will welcome science students from Shippensburg University who will be participating in our online discussion of "The Sea Around Us" as part of an innovative course inspired by Rachel Carson and developed by the University’s science department faculty.

Beginning October 8, the students will also share their experiences from a service-learning field trip to the Chesapeake Bay area by publishing their field notes and photos in a new section, titled "Field Notes," which will be inter-linked to the blog.

Special thanks go to our moderator Jim Lynch, author of "The Highest Tide", for working with us and helping to bring the project together.

Have a look at the Reading Schedule and please be sure to join us, starting October 1st, for what promises to be a lively and memorable discussion.

September 25, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Patricia Hynes

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Linda Lear, Editor

The theme of spirituality in these collected writings and speeches.
H. Patricia Hynes

Week of September 24, 2007

I do not think of Rachel Carson as a religious woman (although her biographers know more than I and can speak to this); yet her writings and speeches throughout this collection are infused with a deep sense of the spiritual, including themes of the eternal, of mystery “beyond time and place,” of creation, wonder and fascination. In a speech upon receiving the John Burroughs Medal for The Sea Around Us*, she cites letters from readers in which she has learned of their anxieties about the state of the world, the erosion of their faith in humankind, and their hunger and capacity for understanding the larger, longer life history of the natural world with its epic moments of “the birth and death of continents and seas.” As she explains, the almost infinite being and near timelessness of nature puts in perspective the limits and blunders of the far briefer human history.

In "Undersea,"* Carson calls the inexorable cycle -- in which earth and air carry nutrients to the sea which, in turn, feed the food chain of plants, planktonic animals, and shoals of fish which, in time, die and re-dissolve into their elemental components—“a kind of material immortality.” In a speech at the New York Herald-Tribune’s Book and Author Luncheon*, she admits to a “very unscientific hope”: As science resolves one mystery after another, may the ultimate mysteries of the sea never be solved. She hopes and expects that every human discovery in science will lead only to deeper mysteries and deeper quests.

“Water and wind and sand were the builders, and only the gulls and I were there to witness this act of creation.” This entry in a field notebook about dunes off the coast of Georgia captures Carson’s abiding awareness of the elemental, creative forces of the earth. In the dunes, her thoughts are firmly moored in natural history and marine biology and yet they read like meditations of one in the solitary presence of the holy. The speech given to the Sorority of Women Journalists impressed me as her most open and self-disclosing. And it is here that she also touched most directly on the deeper philosophical and spiritual power of nature. “No one can dwell long” on the mysteries and beauties of the earth, she said, “without thinking…deep thoughts, without asking…often unanswerable questions…I believe that natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society.”

Recently, there have been virulent debates among renowned biologists (all subscribers to the fact and theory of evolution) regarding the compatibility of faith and science. The majority, who identify as atheists and secular humanists, claim that the reliance on faith over reason regarding the origin of life is shallow, sentimental, and unscientific; and that religion has done more harm than good to humans and nature by supporting colonization, war, and various fundamentalisms. Speaking for the minority, Thomas Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and an avowed Christian, asserts that “the scientific net…does not catch the evidence of the spirit.” The truth of God…”can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul.”

My sense of Carson is that she did not fall into the dualism between scientific reason and religious faith that reigns today, nor did she try to reconcile the two as does Collins. She was steeped in the rigor of scientific research and sought scientific truth; she subscribed to evolution as the path of life forms (albeit that the original spark of life was then and is yet a mystery); and she lived and wrote as an unapologetic witness to the wonders and mysteries of the earth. Was hers, perhaps, a secular spirituality with an openness to the not-yet-knowable, both scientific and spiritual? I am reminded, as I read Carson, of Emily Dickenson’s aphorism, “the soul should always stand ajar.” And elsewhere, the poet of Amherst speaks as much for the naturalist/scientist Carson as for herself: The examined life relies intensely on knowledge rather than faith and “accepts uncertainty and the mystery of the unknown.”

In his most recent book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, the prominent biologist and self-described secular humanist E.O. Wilson pens an impassioned plea to Christian ministers to join scientists in preserving the remaining critical biological life on earth. He expresses the same sense of wonder and inspirited love that Carson did for the biologically rich ecosystems of the earth and shares the same profound concern for their loss. That said, his eloquent and subtly desperate plea is based on preserving nature for the survival of the human species whereas Carson’s soulful appeals were more often directed toward preserving nature for its wondrous self, without which we humans would lose significant spiritual moorings.

My questions for Carson’s biographers are: What was her spiritual odyssey? Regarding religious affiliation, how was she raised; and what was her path as an adult?

And for other readers and contributors to this year-long dialogue, how does nature contribute to our spiritual development? How is this nature-inspired spiritual development, of which Carson wrote, different from that of formal religion? Does spirituality nourished by a love of nature also foster a love of humankind?

Conversely, do the major religions of the world that originate in a human-centered focus on salvation and that locate the deepest source of wonder, creation and mystery in a being beyond this earth, also nourish a love of nature? And if they do not, do we need or benefit from religion that does not cultivate an ethic of the earth?

…..the path to heaven
doesn’t lie down in flat miles
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive this world

*Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, publisher of Lost Woods.

September 21, 2007

Bill Moyer's Journal Tonight

Bill Moyer's Journal on PBS will feature a segment on Rachel Carson at 9 p.m. (check local listings) tonight (9/21/07). Actress Kaiulani Lee, is also featured in a segment called "Reimagining a Life" where she shares her thoughts about her one-woman show and the 15 years she has reimagined herself as Rachel Carson.

See also the Bill Moyer' Journal Blog where Edward O. Wilson has posted a remark. All are welcome to comment.

September 18, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Patricia Hynes

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Linda Lear, Editor
Part 3

H. Patricia Hynes

Week of September 17, 2007

Part 3 of Lost Woods gathers some of Rachel Carson’s most beautiful writings, among them “Our Ever-Changing Shore.”* This magazine article is steeped in mystical insight into the place where land meets sea and enriched with her depth of knowledge of the organic and inorganic marine world. But it is also fortified, as it closes, with a bracing critique of the tawdry development rapidly encroaching on the wild seacoast in the late 1950s (“the untidy litter of what passes under the name of civilization”). Carson finishes with an eloquent and urgent plea for the National Park Service to purchase and preserve shoreline areas as wilderness, not even as public parks, so there remains forever some remnant of sea, wind and shore without human impact. Henry David Thoreau and William Blake live in her words here, the former for his animus toward humans’ ignorant and destructive impact on wilderness and the latter for his intuition of the immortal in the mortal, the spiritual in the material.

What strikes me in the entire collection of Lost Woods, but most poignantly in Part 3, is the effect of her era on Carson’s deepest reflection and heaviest concerns. Listening for her response to the historical period, politics, and cultural changes in the mid-twentieth century United States – a response which generally rises like a coda at the end of her speeches and articles -- I have noted that she is acutely preoccupied with the growing human footprint on nature and the artificial isolation of humans from nature. (She was moved to help organize the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy, with the dream of preserving forested coastline as “a cathedral of stillness and peace,” we learn in a letter to friends* in this collection).

The 1950s was an era of rapid change in the US, including post-war industrial development in the United States; rising prosperity, reduction of poverty and growth of the middle class; the construction of the interstate highway system and suburban development and sprawl; the war in Korea; and the escalation and hardening of the Cold War. The Cold War permeated politics and civil society. It was used to support an immense buildup of conventional and nuclear arms research, testing and development; and it engaged the two superpowers – the US and the Soviet Union – in competing militarily and economically for the allegiance of countries on every continent. The competition was responsible for internal wars and militarization within those countries, especially in Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia. The anxiety and loss of faith reflected in letters to Carson from her readers mirrored the times. So also did her growing direct and blunt salvos about the menace to human and natural life of the arms race, with the “lust for destruction” it embodied.

As a biologist and gifted naturalist who stayed close to her field of study and research, Carson was not prepared to challenge the risks of militarism to nature and humans with the same nuance and evidence basis of her forthcoming Silent Spring (1962). Thus, her warnings in this collection sound more like a prophet’s cry in the wilderness.

In 1954 Carson addressed nearly a thousand women gathered for the annual dinner of the Sorority of Women Journalists. In “The Real World Around Us,” she is at ease, candid, autobiographical, and humorous, so at home, one senses, in the sisterhood of women writers. “Beauty – and all the values that derive from beauty – are not measured and evaluated in terms of the dollar,” she says to her audience. She juxtaposes, more directly and comprehensively than ever, the necessity of nature for spiritual development and depth against the growing trends in materialism, commercialism, suburban homogeneity, and urban artificiality.

As compelling as this verity is, though, the more recent field of ecological economics has resorted to putting a price on beauty, as well as on the ecological functions of nature (to the degree they are understood), in order to argue for their preservation. Accordingly, the goods and services of nature (we might call it the global natural product) are estimated to be equivalent in worth to the global national product, some 33 trillion US dollars. And the economic value of a wilderness with vistas may be derived by estimating how many people would visit it and how much they are willing to pay. Nature is necessary for human survival; and preserving nature for the sake of the human economy has become the dominant paradigm for ecological preservation.

There are many difficult dilemmas posed by the necessity to impute an economic value to nature in order to preserve it.

My question for readers is: What do we gain and what do we lose with an economic paradigm, whereby, for the sake of preserving nature, wetlands are priced for their services in flood control and biodegradation; and marine ecosystems, for their commercial fisheries and shellfish habitats; and forests, for their capacity to offset CO2 emissions from new power plants?

What then is the value of birdsong? Does it become necessary to calculate the dollar value of the serenity and happiness that wood thrushes and veeries offer us, in order to justify preserving their habitats from commercial development?

Finally, since beauty is subjective (“in the eye of the beholder”) and one’s sense of beauty is mediated by environment and popular culture, some may find monocultural suburban lawns beautiful and support neighborhood covenants to prohibit wildflowers and vegetables in front yards. People who grow up in cities may find forests formidable with their dark interiors and wildlife. Others, influenced by thriller movies that terrify with sharks, may experience the sea as a high risk environment. How, then, in an increasingly urban world – in which 2 of 3 humans will life by 2050 – do we sustain an intuition of beauty steeped in the natural world and the intelligence to preserve it?

*Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, publisher of Lost Woods.

September 10, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Patricia Hynes

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Linda Lear, Editor
Part 2

H. Patricia Hynes

Week of September 10, 2007

Part 2 of Lost Woods opens with a letter to the marketing department of Rachel Carson’s publisher,* in which she explains her intention and method in writing Under the Sea-Wind. The delight here is how fresh, direct and present she is in this letter, as a person and personality. As writers must do for their publishers, she underscored what set her book apart from others of similar subject, namely, that in order to successfully write their stories, she had to become a sanderling, a crab, a mackerel, an eel, and a half dozen other sea creatures, with the ocean as the central character. Not merely masterful biography, Under the Sea-Wind is, as she suggested, an autobiography of sea life!

This section of Lost Woods contains a selection from The Sea Around Us, entitled “Lost Worlds,”* and entries related to this acclaimed book, including speeches for book awards, jacket notes for a recording of Debussy’s La Mer, and a preface for a 1961 second edition. The preface updates key aspects of oceanography since the book’s publication in 1951 and registers Carson’s mounting anxiety about ocean dumping of radioactive waste.

In “Lost Worlds,”* Carson tells a suite of stories in which sea-faring explorers and colonizers settled or invaded remote, ecologically stable Pacific islands bringing domesticated animals and, inadvertently, snakes and rats; exotic plants and birds; and methods of clear cutting and burning that created vast extinction, loss of habitat, and impoverished ecosystems overrun by invasive species. War in the Pacific and subsequent atomic testing quickened and magnified the eco-cide. The reality of biological pollution and permanent loss of biodiversity described in “Lost Worlds” is much more trenchant in our times. The extinction rate today is estimated to be 100 times the rate before human appearance on the Earth and is expected to rise ten-fold in the next few decades. At current rates of ecosystem and habitat loss, half of the Earth’s species of animals and plants may disappear or be near extinction by the end of the century. The forces at work – industrial and military pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, the spread of invasive species, and unsustainable patterns of consumption - have all accelerated since the mid-20th century when she wrote. Conservation biologists affirm that the sixth mass extinction in the Earth’s history has begun, this one initiated by human activity.

In Part 2 of Lost Woods, Carson’s theme of human ignorance and apathy regarding the conservation of natural resources and habitats and the relentless development of destructive technology gains in volume and tone. The contrast of human haste to develop weapons and disregard for their impact on ecosystems with Nature’s “so deliberate, so unhurried, so inexorable” ways becomes progressively more marked in her work. Linda Lear, editor of Lost Woods, attributes Carson’s emerging political voice to her professional freedom: She resigned from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1952 to write fulltime.

Isn’t it also plausible that the escalation of the new postwar “military, industrial complex” in the 1950s, including atomic weapons manufacture and testing, nuclear power production under the mantra of “atoms for peace,” and hazardous waste dumping, heightened her awareness and apprehension about the growing and increasingly destructive human footprint on the Earth?

That said, I find that Carson was less precise about who than about what when she writes of “man’s ability…to despoil” in the Preface to the Second Edition of The Sea Around Us* and when, in her award speech for the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in nature writing,* she describes modern man as “intoxicated with a sense of his own power … going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”

Are everyman and everywoman, the generic humans of modern industrial society, equally responsible for the growing despoliation? Or are there structures of power -- industrial, political, financial, military, and hyper-consumerist – in which some humans, with inordinate power and money, shape and magnify the destructive impact of all of us?

Her letter (1953) to the Washington Post,* which fiercely decries the firing of prominent conservationists from the Department of Interior and the appointment of a non-qualified businessman to head it in the new Eisenhower administration, on the other hand, does specify the agents of opportunism and greed, namely natural resource industries intent on “raid[ing]…national parks, forests, and other public lands.” (Indeed, such politically-motivated appointments are the norm in national politics today!) Carson concludes her letter to the editor with an irony that is as relevant today as in the 1950s climate of cold war fear and civilian defense alerts: While the federal administration constructs elaborate military defense systems to protect against outside enemies, it sacrifices our natural wealth and resources within.

Rachel Carson was a student of nature before she entered the laboratory. Her gift of natural intelligence, her aptitude for science, and her promethean talent for writing produced masterpieces on the sea. Her final work, Silent Spring – a model of evidence-based advocacy - steeped her in political science. Here Carson names most directly the vested interests that have turned chemicals developed for World War II into a “rain of death” on agriculture, namely chemical pesticide manufacturers, their business lobbies, and their political allies in the United States Department of Agriculture and Congress. More than 45 years later, they are still smarting from her salvos, judging by some of the editorials published on the occasion of her 100th birthday in May 2007!

Do any readers perceive as I, not only a growing urgency and forthrightness in Carson from the late 1940s onward, but also a growing clarity about what political and economic forces are most endangering ecosystems and environmental health?

What issues and opportunities for action do you think are the most strategic ones around which to organize and act in these times for the sake of planetary and human health?

*Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, publisher of Lost Woods.

September 1, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator H. Patricia Hynes

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Linda Lear, Editor

See Introduction by Linda Lear (reprinted by permission from the publisher)
More information about H. Patricia Hynes

Rachel Carson brought perfectionism to nature writing, both in her scrupulous research and also in her structure of narrative, flow of language, imagism and choice of word. And, she stayed out of the way, so to speak, so that we enter the natural world through her acute perception as if it is our own alert senses, curiosity and wonderment at work. I chose to provide a brief commentary on Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, because I wanted to pore over unpublished and lesser known work to learn something new, if possible, about her perspective on the times in which she lived and the future she anticipated. And I suspected that some of the collection -- speeches and letters, particularly -- would give us the chance to hear her in the first person, something she avoided scrupulously in her books and government publications. Finally, contributing like this always offers the opportunity to pose some exploratory questions for discussion.

Lost Woods is organized into four parts which progress from the threshold of Carson’s writing career to the conclusion of her life. Part 1 offers a story she wrote for publication as a teenager and early writings of the 1930s and ‘40s, including a few preludes for Under the Sea-Wind, field notes from watching the fall migration of hawks, an imagistic portrait of an island on the Sheepscot River in Maine, and a section from a Conservation in Action publication on the national wildlife refuge at Mattamuskeet, North Carolina published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are a few observations that I came away with that I will share below.

First, Carson at 15 wrote a story for a children’s magazine about a day in May when she went off early with her dog, lunch and canteen, a field notebook and a camera to search out and photograph birds’ nests with their eggs. In “My Favorite Recreation,” she recounts a day full of adventure, tracking the familiar songs and warning calls of low-nesting birds to their nests; and it is replete with descriptions of successful finds. She returns home late in the day “gloriously tired, gloriously happy.” I finished this story, which is so pungent with happiness, with a longing for children today – particularly girls-- to have the same kind of secure freedom alone in nature; the same capacity to be so curious, informed, stirred and overjoyed by nature; and the same access to physical activity and outdoor life that characterized Carson’s youth in rural Pennsylvania. The loss of “nearby nature” in cities and suburbs, the immense pressure of the market on teenagers to seek happiness in consumer products and body image, and the epidemic of overweight among children because of inactivity and poor nutrition – all greatly magnified since Carson’s childhood -- need the counterweight of the simple (yet elusive) path to joy that she knew and sojourned as a child.

Are there successful programs that readers are familiar with which have as their purpose to cultivate a knowledge and sense of wonder about nature for children, particularly those in cities and suburbs?

As an editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson instigated a 12-part series on the national fish and wildlife refuge system that would constitute a nature guide and source of popular education in ecology for each refuge system. Her style in this richly informative booklet is that of a skilled teacher, providing first a background of cultural history and geography and then a catalogue of the birdlife of the refuge. She employs the Socratic Method, posing questions and using answers to explain the “scientific” management of the refuge for the purpose of maximizing the marsh food supply for waterfowl. She observes, as a sidebar, that that Mattamuskeet country has cachet among geese hunters far and wide for its wealth of waterfowl.

Upon finishing Carson’s essay about Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, the following questions posed themselves. Why would the Fish and Wildlife Service manage the refuge so to increase its natural capacity for wildlife, as she described? Was it because other unpreserved refuges were endangered by development, and, thus, these management techniques would create more habitat capacity for wildlife? Or was it to sustain better recreational hunting opportunities for hunters? Or both? If it was the latter (and it is alleged that the strong lobby of sports hunters was a considerable force in the creation of early wildlife organizations and early government refuge and national park initiatives), then has the advancement in environmental ethics since Carson’s time posed a challenge to the preservation and management of wildlife refuges for the recreation of sports hunters?

It would be especially beneficial to learn from staff of the Fish and Wildlife Service their thoughts on conservation and management of wildlife refuges for recreational hunting. Should we distinguish between hunting for sustenance, hunting for control of wildlife populations, and hunting for sport on publicly managed and conserved land?

August 26, 2007

Remarks of Moderator Cindy Lee Van Dover

Ifremeria sp., a snail that lives at gold-rich hydrothermal vents. Watercolor; Karen Jacobsen; 2005.

The Way Forward

For those of you who have been to the shore this month, there is sand between the pages of your copy of The Edge of the Sea, and happily so. It should please you further to look forward to September and a discussion led by Patricia Hynes of the book, Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson, wherein there is more by Rachel Carson about the edge of the sea, and where Carson reminds us that

‘in the waters of the sea, we are brought back to the fundamental truth that nothing lives to itself. The water itself is altered, in its chemical nature and in its capacity for inducing metabolic change, by the fact that certain organisms have lived within it and by so doing have transmitted to it new properties with powerful and far-reaching effects.’

These words from a scientific paper that Carson presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1953 eloquently capture some of what the scientific community now somewhat pedantically refers to as an ecosystem-based approach.

Public addresses, books, essays, letters… As a gifted and impassioned writer, Carson found myriad ways to share her knowledge of nature with the public and to shape and influence public policy. What about the contemporary environmental scientist – what do we do to advocate for wise environmental stewardship?

I offer a brief outline of a particularly tricky case study that goes beyond the edge of the sea, into the deep sea. In the late 1970’s, scientists discovered hot springs on the seafloor, oases of life colonized by strange and beautiful animals. Thirty-five years later, we continue to explore these wilderness areas, finding every year dozens of new species and, oftentimes, unimagined adaptations for life in extreme environments. These discoveries are the stuff that make new chapters in textbooks and that inspire the next generation of ocean explorers and advocates. Would that strange life were all one might find at these deep-sea hot springs. But

“In the ocean depths, there are mines of zinc, iron, silver and gold, which would be quite easy to exploit.”
— Jules Verne, 1870
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

Jules Verne was all too prescient. There is now a rush to mine gold and other precious metals from deep-sea hot springs within territorial waters of other nations, particularly those of island nations in the southwest Pacific. More than one company proposes to begin commercial extraction – pit mining – of metal sulfides that make up the mineral chimneys formed as hot spring fluids exit the seafloor. The method of extraction removes the very habitat that supports the strange animals that I study and is likely to cause collateral damage to the surrounding ecosystem as well. We – the scientific community – have barely begun to discover which species live in these particularly gold-rich environments in the SW Pacific. What we do know comes at a great price and is in large part enabled by field expeditions sponsored by mining companies as they work to meet or even exceed their legal requirements for environmental assessment. Can we begin to assess the impact of mining on the species that live in the threatened habitats and to advise policy makers with informed science?

Here we land squarely at the frustrated interaction between scientists and policy makers that is so cogently described in H. Russell Bernard’s 1974 essay on Scientists and Policy Makers: An Ethnography of Communication (Human Organization 33:261-275) (reprinted by permission of the publisher). Scientists – myself as an example – want to give the yes and no answer, because the issues can be, as in this case, complex, with many unknown and unmeasured variables. We are trained as scientists to specify the limitations of our research, to distinguish what is result and what is interpretation; we are trained to think about the error as well as the mean. Policy makers want to know what is the best course of action to achieve a particular result; insufficient information to make a wise policy decision is not a tenable response.

My own view is that it is premature to mine hot springs for gold. We do not have the ability to assess the environmental impact of sustained and cumulative commercial mining efforts on organisms that colonize seafloor hot springs, nor do we have the means for environmental remediation should mining proceed and insupportable consequences result. I, in a view that I believe is shared by others in the scientific community who study the animals that live at deep-sea hot springs, advocate that a precautionary approach be applied. I take it as our ethical responsibility to maintain the integrity of natural systems; the burden should be on mining advocates to demonstrate that mining will not cause habitat degradation and loss of biodiversity at regional scales.

Week of August 27 – Rachel Carson Book Club members have the opportunity to study how Carson’s work influenced the environmental movement and environmental policy. This leadership comes from her understanding and knowledge of how organisms interact with one another and the environment, as well as a set of values and ethics that places human beings within the context of the environment, rather than apart from it. To all this, Carson added an ability to communicate. What is included in the suite of tools and opportunities that contemporary scientists may use to influence environmental policy? In the particular example of seafloor mining in waters of other nations, what outlets might individuals use to advocate for a particular environmental policy?

August 19, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Cindy Lee Van Dover

Perception and Value

Perth Amboy, Rahway, Elizabeth City – chemical plants and refineries – these were the sights I associated most with salt marshes as a child growing up in New Jersey, where field trips into New York City took us along this section of the Turnpike corridor. Gas flares set off at the tops of towers, the stink of swamp gas…it seemed a filthy, dreary, worn-out, worthless land, of little use except as a place to dump chemical wastes, to deposit mountains of trash, to fill in, to forget, or better yet, ignore from the start.

And then there is Rachel Carson’s view of a salt marsh:

“a rim of sand held firm by the deep roots of beach grasses – the landward border of the shoal. The burrows of thousands of fiddler crabs riddle the muddy beach on the side facing the marshes. The crabs shuffle across the flats at the approach of an intruder, and the sound of many small chitinous feet is like the crackling of paper. If the tide still has an hour or two to fall to its ebb, one sees only a sheet of water shimmering in the sun.”

In a few lines, Carson gives the marsh texture, depth, motion, sound...and thereby, value; littoral magic that she captures and conveys. Who indeed would not wish to ‘get out and look’, with such prose as inspiration? But one can do even more – one can look, listen, smell, and feel, as Carson shows us time and again in The Edge of the Sea.

I have been to this marsh that Carson describes – it is Town Marsh of Beaufort. Fiddler crabs still abound there by the thousands, in some way descendents of those very crabs that Rachel Carson observed so propitiously. On a summer night I have heard those crabs shuffle. Crackling of paper is a good simile, but it isn’t perfect, for they move in waves when disturbed, so that the rustle of their miniature footsteps (recall each has 8 feet with which to step) is a soft cadence accompanying the lick of the sea as it washes upon the beach. Stand quietly, and the crabs will go back about their business of feeding on the tiny organisms that live in the mud where they make their burrows. Then the sound shifts to a chorus of uncountable whispered slurps.

I cannot say precisely how my concept of salt marshes shifted from the Turnpike marsh to Town Marsh, but shift it did, and decidedly, before I entered high school. What factors elicit watershed changes in individual attitudes about nature, in defiance in this case, of the evidence before me as a child? There is a new field of study called ‘Conservation Psychology’. The website for this fledgling discipline defines conservation psychology as “the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature and of how one can influence public discourse to produce enduring behavioral change.” Happy thought, that one can discover scientifically, what Rachel Carson accomplished artistically. If I had the freedom to hire new faculty at will, this is a field in which I would invest.

In The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson promotes the concept of coastal preservation and an ‘estuarine-protection imperative’, affirming, as Siry says, ‘the human psychic need to find its identity in relationship to surrounding land and water’(1). This coming to terms with the sea – or its edge – is not new, nor is it finished, especially with a sea that is forever changing, and changing now as a consequence of our own actions. Alain Corbin, Professor of History at the Sorbonne (University of Paris I), provides a cultural backdrop to our view of the sea in his book The Lure of the Sea: the Discovery of the Seaside 1750-1840 (1988, published by Penguin Books in 1995). I am not scholar enough to cogently summarize this work in a brief paragraph, but follow the prospect in the chapter titles in Parts I, Unconsciousness and the First Premises of Desire, and II, The Pattern of a New Pleasure:

1. The Roots of Fear and Repulsion
2. First Steps Toward Admiration
3. A New Harmony Between the Body and the Sea
4. Penetrating the World’s Enigmas
5. The Freshness of Wonder
6. The Ephemeral Journey

Part III (The Growing Complexity of the Social Spectacle) concludes with chapters on The Pathos of the Shores and Inventing the Beach.

Altogether Cobain leads us along the path where art, literature, and society work to change the view of the seashore from a place of horror to a place that we destroy with our love.

Suggested Discussion, Week of August 20 – How we perceive the edge of the sea: What value does Rachel Carson give to this narrow zone that separates land and ocean? How do these values transcend the east-coast setting of The Edge of the Sea? How well do our current sensibilities about development and use of coastal zones map to these values?

(1) J.V. Siry, Marshes of the Ocean Shore: Development of an Ecological Ethic. Texas A&M University Press, 1984.

August 12, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Cindy Lee Van Dover

Word Pictures and Figurative Language in The Edge of the Sea

Sponges - "their appearance suggest nothing of the activity that goes on within their dark bulks" ...RC

In The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson set about to make the reader appreciate organisms unfamiliar to the casual observer and belonging to creatures not altogether appealing as cast in classical literature. Consider for example, the morbid reference to terrestrial worms in Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress" (17th century):

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity
Thy beauty shall no more be found
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

T.S. Eliot offers a somewhat sympathetic view of organisms living at the edge of the sea in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Profrock" (1917). They are at least cast as a curiosity, though when I read these lines, I am left with a sense of futility of human nature in the face of the quiet and stubborn persistence of other forms of life.

The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the hermit crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices.

Consider the challenge of popularizing the beauty of estuaries where they have been reviled. When Rachel Carson wrote The Edge of the Sea, reclamation, not preservation, was the action dominating the progressive agendas of coastal towns with salt marshes and other wetlands. Tidal creeks and estuaries were places for dumping and filling.

Joseph Siry, in Marshes of the Ocean Shore: Development of an Ecological Ethic (1984, Texas A&M University Press) credits Carson with leadership in advocating for preservation of the ecological integrity of the seashore on scientific, aesthetic, and practical grounds through her writings. How does Carson achieve this leadership?

There is the whole, the sum of books like The Edge of the Sea, and there are the parts, where Carson uses simple prose to engage the reader, to take the most humble organism and make it mysterious and interesting. Consider how Carson brings the loggerhead sponge into a scale relative to that of a person and promises to reveal a secret inner life that is strange:

Massive and inert, the loggerhead sponges by their appearance suggest nothing of the activity that goes on within their dark bulks. There is no sign of life for the casual passer-by to read, although if he waited and watched long enough he might sometimes see the deliberate closing of some of the round openings, large enough to admit an exploring finger, that penetrate the upper flat surface. These and other openings are the key to the nature of the giant sponge …

Sue Hubbell, whose introduction graces the 1998 Mariner Books edition of The Edge of the Sea, follows in Rachel Carson’s footsteps in Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones (1999, Houghton Mifflin):

Sponges “…are layered masses of specialized cells that function in a seemingly muddled way. Yet their way of life is efficient and complex. And they have been at it for a much longer time than most other animals that we think of as having exciting lives.”

It is perhaps not fair to set these excerpts side by side, so I urge readers to study each author’s passage about sponges in their full and complete context. I am convinced that sponges are one of the most difficult creatures on Earth to make compelling to the novice naturalist. (I exclude from this claim the sponges of tropical waters, that attract the eye with their splashes of vivid colors). Carson succeeds in drawing me further into her prose through her blunt admission that sponges do indeed seem to be rather boring, but they hold secrets that she can reveal, if one reads on just a bit further.

Week of August 13 – Word pictures and figurative language: The Edge of the Sea is filled with word pictures, similes, and sensory perceptions. Keep a mental logbook of your favorites and share the best one. Explain why it works so well, how it engages the reader.

August 5, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Cindy Lee Van Dover

The Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserve
Foreground: Duke Univ. Marine Laboratory

Left: Town of Beaufort, NC
Right: RCERR
Far right: Shackleford Bank

The view from the window of my office where I write looks onto Carrot Island and Bird Shoal. These beach grass- and cedar-covered sand spits belong to the Rachel Carson National Estuarine Research Reserve and are part of the ‘inner banks’ of coastal North Carolina, at the edge of the sea. My link to this sandy margin goes back three decades, when I camped for a summer at one apex of the triangle that links Carrot Island, the town of Beaufort, and Pivers Island. Rachel Carson wrote of these North Carolina shores in the Edge of the Sea. I have slept beside fiddler crabs, waded among knobbed whelks, floated above parchment worms, and am otherwise familiar with the habits and habitats of the organisms that populate The Edge of the Sea.

My copy of the The Edge of the Sea is a worn and yellowed paperback, broken-spined. My name written on the inside cover is of a fine size and precision that I can no longer match. The 95¢ price tag further marks it as a book purchased decades ago, when I first devoured it as a summer student of marine biology in my New Jersey high school. It is a book that stayed with me during my college summers at a Rutgers University research laboratory on Delaware Bay, where I was apprenticed to nature on the tidal flats. My copy has traveled with me around the country, from New Jersey to Florida, California to Alaska. Among the papers tucked inside its pages are receipts from a 2005 trip to Porquerolles (FR), testimony that even in recent years it is a volume I turn to for inspiration.

I could never warm to Under the Sea-Wind, nor did The Sea Around Us truly capture my attention. Of the Carson triptych of books about the marine world, it was The Edge of the Sea that fed my desire to know more about how the strange organisms that live on the seashore survive. It is little wonder that when I set about trying to describe the strange life that I came to know beyond the edge of the sea , I kept Carson’s book at my desk while I worked and gave nod to her influence in my own career on the first page of the introduction.

The enduring nature of Rachel Carson’s narratives in The Edge of the Sea intrigues me, draws me to her prose to discover how she achieves this. The August RC Book Club discussions begin with explorations of what gives power to her writing. I use as my guide to this topic John A. Murray’s excellent Nature Writing Handbook: A Creative Guide (Sierra Club Books 1995). Murray credits Thoreau as the pioneer of the narrative tradition that translates technical information into a meditation on the essence of nature. According to Murray, the risk for the novice writer is ‘the disappearing narrator’, where technical information overwhelms the storyline. Where Carson disappears from the narrative in The Edge of the Sea, it is only to allow the narrative of the organisms to take first place, if not first person.

Rachel Carson’s prose may be at its best in the first chapter of The Edge of the Sea – The Marginal World – where she takes us with her to the shore. It is a chapter that begins with eloquence and promise: “The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place." It is a chapter filled with perceptions of movement: on a single page wind blows over the water, waves crash on the beach, a ghost crab waits and watches, an egret wades with stealthy, hesitant motion, and oysters grip mangrove roots. The prose mirrors the cadence of the ebb and flow of the tide, land becomes sea, sea becomes land; Carson meditates on the essence of nature and the spectacle of life that appears, evolves, and – sometimes – disappears.

Week of August 6 – Finding the ‘I’: Where and how does Rachel Carson use the first person narrative most effectively in The Edge of the Sea? Why does it work? Browse through your shelf of Carson books – where else do you find effective use of the first person in her prose?

August 1, 2007


Moderator for August: Professor Cindy Lee Van Dover, Director, Duke University Marine Laboratory, Beaufort, North Carolina

The Edge of the Sea was originally conceived as a practical field guide to the seashore life of the east coast – a reference book to aid intrepid explorers of tide pools, sandy beaches, mudflats, and reefs. A residual compendium of major groups of microorganisms, plants, and animals persists as an appendix.But as Mark Lytle describes in The Gentle Subversive, Rachel Carson’s vision for the book evolved as the project proceeded. It was not enough to list names and describe peculiarities of one organism after another. Instead, Carson uses her mastery of the narrative essay, rich in figurative language and word pictures, to describe life at the edge of the sea. She draws us into this tidal world, makes us want to see, touch, listen, to discover the myriad ways in which the lives of sea creatures and their environment are intertwined.

Discussion Topics
The enduring nature of Rachel Carson’s narratives intrigues me, draws me to her prose to discover how she achieves this. The August RC Book Club discussions will begin with explorations of what gives power to her writing. I use as my guide to this topic John A. Murray’s excellent Nature Writing Handbook: A Creative Guide (Sierra Club Books 1995; Rev. ed. U. of NM Press 2003).

Week of August 6 – Finding the ‘I’: Where and how does Rachel Carson use the first person narrative most effectively in The Edge of the Sea? Why does it work? Browse through your shelf of Carson books – where else do you find effective use of the first person in her prose?

Week of August 13 – Word pictures and figurative language: The Edge of the Sea is filled with word pictures, similes, and sensory perceptions. Keep a logbook of your favorites and share the best one. Explain why it works so well, how it engages the reader. We will then consider perceptions of the contemporary seashore, while looking back through time for a glimpse of how these perceptions have evolved. There are undoubtedly many scholarly volumes on this topic. One I was recently introduced to is The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside 1750-1840 by Alain Corbin (1994 U. of CA Press; Penguin Books in 1995).

Week of August 20 – How we perceive the edge of the sea: What value does Rachel Carson give to this narrow zone that separates land and ocean? How do these values transcend the east-coast setting of The Edge of the Sea? How well do our current sensibilities about development and use of coastal zones map to these values? Our final week of discussion will indulge my interests in how contemporary scientists and policy-makers interact, as a context for appreciating the magnitude of Rachel Carson’s achievements in the environmental movement. In initiating this discussion, I will draw from a 1974 scholarly article by H. Russell Bernard entitled “Scientists and Policy Makers: An Ethnography of Communication” (Human Organization 23:261-275) (posted by permission from the publisher) and then look the environmental program at my home institution for examples of ways in which the gap between science and policy can be narrowed.

Week of August 27 – Rachel Carson Centennial Blog readers have the opportunity to study how Carson’s work influenced the environmental movement and environmental policy. This leadership comes from her understanding and knowledge of how organisms interact with one another and the environment, as well as a set of values and ethics that places human beings within the context of the environment, rather than apart from it. To all this, Carson added an ability to communicate. What is included in the suite of tools that contemporary scientists must use to influence environmental policy?

Submitted by Cindy Lee Van Dover

July 27, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Patricia DeMarco

Rachel Carson's Environmental Ethic

As you read this wonderful first published book by Rachel Carson, you can recognize the themes of her core environmental ethic which infused all of her work and drove the major action of her life. Rachel Carson's basic environmental ethic can be simply distilled into four concepts:

* Live in harmony with nature
* Preserve and learn from natural places
* Take precautions against the impact of man made chemicals on the natural systems of the earth
* Consider the consequences of human actions on the global web of life.

The paths of the creatures Rachel Carson follows in Under the Sea Wind give a very personal view of the interconnectedness of the creatures that inhabit the earth. She shows the diversity of living organisma from the smallest phyoplankton to the mighty whales. As you weave through the web of life in the oceans and see the interplay between the sea and the land, it is impossible to ignore the elemental certainty that people are part of this system.

While we are mostly spectators of the passing scene as we visit the shore, we must realize that we are dependent on the forces that move the oceans for the purity of our air, for the flow of the water cycle, for the very currents of change that shape our climate. We humans have not always taken seriously our responsibilities as living creatures, part of a system of intricate relationships. I hope that Rachel Carson's sensitivity to the complexity of the world in Under the Sea Wind enlightens your perspective.

I would like to share a quote from the essay, "Lost Woods" which Rachel Carson wrote for the publicity department of Simon and Schuster to help in the promotion of her book: "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 for all earthly life, human and non-human." {Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. ed. Linda Lear. Beacon Press 1998. p.62}

When you are contemplating the role the oceans play in our lives, consider the lesson Rachel Carson left us, to take true stewardship of the earth by behaving as responsible creatures of the interconnected web of life. We cannot harm one strand without compromising the whole, and ourselves with it.

Patty DeMarco

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