July 16, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Mark Lytle

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….”

12 comments:

Willow said...

Thanks for the insight into how Rachel viewed the fisherman in her tale of fish migration and the challenges they face. I read the passsage you quoted, and from a 2007 perspective, all I could think of was how sad that all those fish died gasping for air, and that all the non game fish were just left for the scavengers. I'm afraid I can't see 'man' as just another predator the fish have to deal with. When I read it, I take along with me all my knowledge of the many fish stocks that have crashed due to overfishing, the tremendous loss of life from 'by-catch' including mammals such as dolphins, and the damage done by nets, hooks etc., left in the oceans and their shores.
I've been wondering why Carson inserted humans into her narrative of the natural interactions of wildlife, now I see that she thought of us as just a part of the whole, as you said, the fisherman are considered just another predator. I wish I could agree, but as of now, I think that is a utopian ideal.

Rudy Losoya said...

I find it amazing how detailed in her observations Rachel Carson was; but on the other hand, I am not surprised, for those are traits of a good scientist which Rachel Carson most certainly was. Her note taking, documentation and/or storage of detail in her memory and experiences that went into the writing of Under the Sea-Wind is amazing to me. Rachel Carson could a take a small portion of territory such as she does by describing the shore and sea life along the portion of North Carolina coast and make it feel as if she were describing the natural order of the entire world in just that relatively small space. I have read only a couple of chapters of the book, which I have really enjoyed, so I look forward to continue reading it to the end.

Patricia DeMarco said...

The image of the fishermen with their manually operated sein nets as described by Rachel Carson in this wonderful excerpt pales on scale and scope against modern methods. For example, in the Pasagchak Bay off Kodiak Alaska, the seiners operate similar netsdropped to the sea bottom with weighted edges, and pulled in a circle under a school of salmon by fast small boats, attaching the net back to the mother ship. There, the closing sein is accompanies by the loud smacking of paddles against tyhe water to scare the fish down into the net, sometimes seals get caught in the net, and often these are killed to prevent them from taking fish, or biting them. The nets close, and are lifted by winch high into the air, and the fish are dumped on the deck and swept into the iced hold. The schools of fish are mapped by GPS, or sometimes located by aerial spotter planes. The contest between man and fish is no longer an even match, if it ever was! I feel that the match is no more a contest of aching backs and straining arms against the collective might of a school of fish, but an overpowering of a natural schooling pattern of migrating fish by technology.

With the advance of technology giving the superior force over the natural world comes the responsibility for preserving intact the fundamental component of the natural system that allows it to sustain life over time. Fishing entire cohorts of migrating fish out of the oceans all at once, because we can, prevents a critical mass of fish from returning to spawn and renew the cycle. With knowledge comes power. Power exercised without full understanding and a sense of responsibility, we achieve only chaos.

7/17/07

P.DeMarco

Rudy Losoya said...

I sincerely believe it to be true and as you so well put it Ms Demarco, that: "With the advance of technology giving the superior force over the natural world comes the responsibility for preserving intact the fundamental component of the natural system that allows it to sustain life over time." And, "With knowledge comes power. Power exercised without full understanding and a sense of responsibility, we achieve only chaos." But is it going the way of the latter quote above? As some other wise person (Socrates? Confucius?) said: "If knowledge is power and absolute power corrupts absolutely, then absolute knowledge that knowledge is power corrupts absolutely."

julie said...

I agree with comments about Carson's amazing abilities to observe and report on her observations. But her imagination is also incredible. To my knowledge, she never visited the Arctic where she describes intimately the nesting birds and only ventured underwater once. Yet she describes the actions and imagines the feelings of mullet in the deep, winter sea in such a way as to make their struggles real and memorable--all without sentimentalizing. Terrific!

willow said...

I agree about the intricacy of her descriptions. I've just been reading the section on Scomber when he is really young, developing in the ocean and the various predators that prey on young fish. I almost feel like I'm there with the small fry.

Mark Lytle said...

I'd like to respond to Willow's initial comment. Like you, Carson came to change her mind about the human impact on nature. Initially she found the oceans so vast that they dwarfed humankind's attempts at control. But in the atomic age Carson found her faith shaken and her views shifting in a direction that led her to write "Silent Spring."

Willow said...

Thanks Mark. Another reason I think the human references bother me is that they draw me out of my immersion in the world Carson presents from the animal's perspective. I was just reading the chapter entitled the Harbor and it is a fasinating tale of the succession of movement of sea life, the interaction between species etc. With no people in sight, I can just pretend to be in the harbor with Scomber, experiencing his underworld realm. On a discordant note--am wondering if people who abuset animals as Michael Vick is alleged to have done would be that way if they had more exposure to nature and books such as Under the Sea Wind. This book seems the antithesis of such heinous behavior towards our fellow beings.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how Rachel Carson came up the the names of Rynchops the sanderling, Scomber the mackrel and Anguilla the eel?

Willow said...

I know Scomber is the part of the species scientific name, don't know about the others.

julie said...

Anguilla anguilla is the scientific name of European eels and isn't Rhynchops (Rhynchops niger) a black skimmer? I think Linda Lear wrote somewhere that Carson used the scientific names so that she could name the individuals without being sentimental.

Anonymous said...

2007 is also the centennial year for Loren Eiseley. Is it possible to know what influence Rachel Carson and Loren Eiseley had on each other's writing?

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