Far right: Shackleford Bank
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?