July 9, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Patricia DeMarco

I sit on the shore of Lake Erie in Pennsylvania, contemplating the wonderful work of Rachel Carson as she describes the edges of the oceans. How appropriate also for the Great Lakes, and even the streams and rivers that cross all over the country!

Rachel Carson began her fascination with the oceans and creatures of the water from her childhood on the banks of the Allegheny River. She lived there and played on the edge of the river, wondering about the creatures she found. Where did they come from? Where did they go? How did they exist in the turbulent and, at that time, very polluted waters of the industrial era of Pittsburgh!

The essential ingredient Rachel Carson brought to her work was an innate curiosity about the natural world, combined with her precocious ability to write eloquently about her observations.

The book, Under the Sea Wind, is an excellent companion to a trip to the beach, or to the lake or river especially if you have children to entice, to use their eyes, noses, ears, and fingers to explore the wonderful space between water and land, that ever-changing boundary where all appears at first glance to be inert, quiet, and still of life with only sand and water at play. Rachel Carson makes it come alive with the very personal look at the creatures who live there, their antics, their life stories, and the intricate interactions among the creatures and with the ocean itself.

There is no better window into a mysterious, water-covered part of the Earth than to follow through the path of Rynchops, the black skimmer, or to learn of the hermit crab by listening for to the sound of its shell dragging along the sand. It is an intriguing thought indeed.

Take your children out to the beach at night, and just absorb the beauty and the power of the ocean as it moves in and out from the shores.


julie said...

I think it's significant that Carson dedicated her first book to her mother, who took her out on just the kinds of explorations that Patricia DeMarco recommends. I wonder if any of Mrs. Carson's writings (letters? journals?) survive.

Willow said...

I've gotten a few more chapter in, and her naming the main characters of the story no longer bother me. I realize she had to have a way to identify who/what she was talking about so we can follow the thread of their lives. She doesn't name all the animals, most of the 'supporting cast' is just referred to by age, species and gender.
I noted the dedication to her mom also, fitting as she played such a central role in Rachel's life. I've also been thinking of Dorothy Freeman as I read this (read Always, Dorothy last month). Dorothy mentions in the letters (or Rachel reports it in a response to Dorothy, don't remember which) that Under the Sea Wind is(was) her favorite book of Rachels. And there is one point in the letters, when Rachel, feeling unwell, pulls it off the shelf and reads it for the first time in years. She wrote to Dorothy after that she now understood why Dorothy liked it so much, as it is pure (nearly) naturalist writing on the doings of the sea and its creatures.

I agree with them that it has a soothing effect, rather like when being read a bedtime story. Even when a bird or other animal meets an untimely end, it barely seems to make a ripple in the pool, all seems like calm, steady, and magnificent.

Willow said...

Opps! Meant to write Always, Rachel :)

Patricia DeMarco said...

Hi Julie: Rachel Carson's at the Beineke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University in New Haven Connecticut contains correspondence between Rachel and her Mother from 1947 to 1951. These may be viewed by appointment, and I am not sure about whether they are avoailable electronically. Patricia WIllis is the curator there, and she may perhaps be able to help you.

Rachel's book, A sense of Wonder, is a great soource for a naturalists' introduction to children. Rachel wrote it as a speech to a women's club, and dedicated it to her adopted son, Roger.

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Paula said...

I actually like the naming of the creatures. Even though a lot of naturalists say it's silly of humans to attribute human traits to animals, in this case I don't think it comes off as sentimental. It does help us keep track of who's who and it adds to helping (me) connect with them. I know from a scientific point of view we're not supposed to anthropomorphize animals, but probably most humans do in one way or another. By the same token, I'm sure the animals look at us as other animals.

stephen williams said...

The design of the cover of the new edition of Under the Sea-Wind sparkles.

The older paperback copy I am reading from is labeled The American Museum of Natural History Special Members' Edition (part of a boxset which included all three of Rachel Carson's sea books). Looks like the boxset was part of the museum's centennial celebration (1869-1969).

Looking up mackerel in a Merriam-Webster produced "1: a fish (Scomber scombrus) of the No. Atlantic ...." While Scomber is not thinking in human terms, I like the way Scomber is narrowly avoiding a human cliche.

A vivid nocturnal beach experience I had as a child involved witnessing a large seagoing turtle carefully laying her numerous pingpong-ball size and color eggs.

Mark Lytle said...

At this point in her career as a writer, Carson believed that human beings had their own roles to play in the cycles of nature. Given the fecundity of the sea, that role was not necessarily destructive. Humans were but one more predator with whom the creatures of the sea contended. To a stroller on a Carolina beach the north winds of fall meant stinging sand blown into eyes and hair. For the commercial fishermen the same wind meant fish for their nets. When it blew, they sprang into action. As the tide turned a boat shot out from the beach to set the nets. The target was mullets, thousands of slim, silvery-gray fish, that inhabited the coastal waters. The net formed into a semicircle with a rope on each end tight in the hands of the men on the shore. Carson described the primal struggle that ensued:

Milling in a frantic effort to escape, the mullet drive with all their combined strength of thousands of pounds against the seaward arc of the net. Their weight and the outward thrust of their bodies lift the net clear of the bottom, and the mullet scrape bellies on the sand as they slip under the net and race into deep water. The fishermen, sensitive to every movement of the net, feel the lift and know they are losing fish. They strain the harder, till muscles crack and backs ache. Half a dozen men plunge into water chin-deep, fighting the surf to tread the lead line and hold the net to the bottom.

Eventually, the fishermen got the upper hand. The net formed into “a huge, elongated bag, bulging with fish.” As they pulled it onto the beach, “the air crackles with a sound like the clapping of hands as a thousand head of mullet, with the fury of their last strength, flap on the wet sand.”
Haste made waste, Carson noticed. Among the mullet were other fish—sea trout, pompano, young mullets, ceros, sheepshead, and sea bass—“too small to sell, too small to eat.” Rushing to store their catch the fishermen threw these unwanted species onto the beach. There amidst the litter some returned on the waves to the ocean while most died stranded beyond the water’s reach. “Thus, the sea unfailingly provides for the hunters of the tide lines,” she concluded. What was waste for the fishermen was food for the shore creatures. First came the gulls, followed by the ghost crabs and the sand hoppers. In time they would reclaim “to life in their own beings the materials of the fishes’ bodies.” To Carson this process was all part of nature’s plan “For in the sea nothing is lost. One dies, another lives, as the precious elements of life are passed on and on in endless chains.” Not even the fishermen disturbed that plan. The ocean’s bounty was such that no species threatened the survival of others. While the fishermen gathered around their stoves to fight off the night chill, “mullet were passing unmolested through the inlet and running westward and southward along the coast….”

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