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


scott said...

WOW! What a book. Haven't read this in years. Nice to go back again and read.

stephen williams said...

Carson's use of the first person narrative when sharing about horn shells and remembrance of things past is written so deliciously. (When Carson half closes her eyes and imagines flamingos, she sees flame birds.) Another effective first person narrative involves Carson's encounter with a basket starfish. The urge to quote this narrative verbatim is strong. As Scott above suggests, readers are in for a treat. In selectively using the first person narrative it's as if Carson is telling her readers LOOK, come explore. With an incomplete bookshelf handy it is just an educated quess, but another Carson book which might also use the first person narrative is A Sense of Wonder.

Anonymous said...

I think Rachel’s writing in the first person in this book is a reflection of the intimacy she felt with and passion for the the natural world she was describing. The excitement she felt and expressed in the first person in turn gives the reader a better sense of what she was experiencing and observing. She makes this possible by the first hand description in intricate and beautiful detail the plant, animal and sea life around her. This is in contrast to her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, where her imagination roamed and she used her acquired knowledge, which was not necessarily first hand, to describe the life and activities of the sea creatures. I also sense that Rachel went deep within herself giving us a view of her spirituality, and perhaps some nostalgia and sentimentality mixed in.

Cindy Lee Van Dover said...

Flame birds for flamingoes - that is glorious and right. Well done Rachel!

Stephen - you resisted excerpting the basket star prose, but I cannot:

"The searching, exploring, testing branchlets at the tips of the arms reminded me of the delicate tendrils by which a growing vine seeks out places to which it may attach itself. For many minutes, I stood beside it, lost to all but its extraordinary and somehow fragile beauty."

The cadence, the image, and the reminder that we can lose ourselves in the details as well as the grandeur of nature is prose to be shared and celebrated.

I am convinced, too, that Carson found her voice from deep within.

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