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?


Anne said...

What beautifully written "opening remarks." Rachel Carson would be proud that you are part of her legacy, and now I'm off with my copy of "The Edge of the Sea" to chase ghost crabs and peek into tidal pools.

Gretchen Green said...

I am new to Rachel Carson but have heard so much about her lately that I decided to find out what all the attention was about. I'm vacationing at the beach this summer and then found this website about the edge of the sea. I had a kind of funny experience when I went to the tiny local library in town to find the book. The librarian located it and when she brought it out I thought she was kidding. She handed me an old, frayed hardback, faded green cover and yellowed pages. It actually smelled musty. At first I was leary about even taking the book but then thought oh well, at least I won't have to worry about getting it dirty at the beach.

When I opened the book (pub. 1955) to see what the inside was like I was so surprised. There were the most beautiful sketches on almost every page. I leafed through the whole book just looking at every sketch. Talk about being drawn into another world! When I'm ready to tear myself away from the pictures, I will begin reading.

Mandy said...

I also am on vacation at the coast with my family as we've done for more than 10 years. This summer for the first time I decided to join a book club that's put on by the local library. The group was looking for suggestions about what to read for this month so we went online looking for ideas. Someone found this website and the group liked the idea of reading about the seashore where we spend so much time. It took a while to round up enough books for everyone and we're having to share a few among us. It will be fun to follow along with this website too!

stephen williams said...

When a kid I regularly visited a now faraway beach at the edge of the Indian Ocean. Walking the sandy beach and body surfing in the breaking waves, I first learned about the Portuguese man-of-war. Encountering the tentacles' sharp sting readily explained the man-of-war part of the name, but the Portuguese part left me puzzling.

Cindy Lee Van Dover remarks how Rachel Carson "meditates on the essence of nature" in The Edge of the Sea. This week I found Carson's meditative beam focused on the Portuguese man-of-war helpful in solving this childhood puzzle. Carson's use of the first person narrative sharpens the focus.

In brief, Carson describes the man-of-war's sail or float, and how Physalia can control the sail's position and degree of expansion. She then shares how she once attempted a beach rescue of a stranded man-of-war, re-launching it (with care) and watching the results.

"This was no helpless bit of flotsam, but a living creature exerting every means at its disposal to control its fate. When I last saw it, a small blue sail far up the beach, it was pointed out to sea, waiting for the moment it could take off again."

With Rachel Carson's help, a favorite history teacher comes to mind, along with her lesson about how the Portuguese revolutionized sailing navigation.

Gretchen Green said...

Your story about the Portuguese man-of-war brought back a memory for me from Padre Island. Many years ago, I spent a summer there one year with family friends who lived there. Every day, all day, we spent on the pristine beach which we had almost to ourselves as the Island was quite unknown at that time. One early morning we went down to the beach just after sunrise and could not believe our eyes. The beach was covered with rows and rows of what looked like blue and pink balloons. There were so many we could hardly walk between them. They were incredibly beautiful, shining and transparent in the sun. Of course, as children, we had no knowledge of the ocean's creatures and had no idea whatthe "balloons" were or how they got there. It seemed like magic and we were willing to accept it as such. When we utlimately found out we wouldn't be able to swim for the next week, we were a little less enthralled.

Willow said...

I think it was genius for RC to start the Edge of the Sea with a 1st person account, far from making the story about her, somehow she is inviting us all in, like a storyteller asking for our stories too. Maybe this works as she doesn't spend much time on her interior thoughts of what she saw/is seeing, but mostly limits the 1st person to her observations and feelings in the moment of discovery. I'd be interested in what others think on this.

One of my favorite examples of her 1st person is from her description of the 'fairy pool' pages 2-3 of my edition of EOTS. Quoting from p. 3 " Under water that was clear as glass the pool was carpeted with green sponge. Gray patches of sea squirts glistened on the ceiling and colonies of soft coral were a pale apricot color. In the moment when I looked into the cave a little elfin starfish hung down, suspended by the merest thread, perhaps by only a single tube foot. It reached down to touch its own reflection, so perfectly delineated that there might have been, not one starfish, but two. The beauty of the reflected images and of the limpid pool itself was the poignant beauty of things that are ephemeral, existing only until the sea should return to fill the little cave."

Samuel said...

I think successful use of the first person depends on whether the author uses a narcissistic "I"; "I went to the beach and this is what it meant to me." Interesting only if the author is one's lover, or child, or next semester's instructor; or the inclusive "I", "I went to the beach and if you had been with me, this is what we would have seen." Farley Mowat, Peter Matthiessen, and Carson, with the "Edge of the Sea," write with an arm around your shoulder.

stephen said...

Samuel, Would you share a specific example or favorite passage from The Edge of the Sea, where Rachel Carson writes with an arm around your shoulder?

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