Perception and Value
Perth Amboy, Rahway, Elizabeth City – chemical plants and refineries – these were the sights I associated most with salt marshes as a child growing up in New Jersey, where field trips into New York City took us along this section of the Turnpike corridor. Gas flares set off at the tops of towers, the stink of swamp gas…it seemed a filthy, dreary, worn-out, worthless land, of little use except as a place to dump chemical wastes, to deposit mountains of trash, to fill in, to forget, or better yet, ignore from the start.
And then there is Rachel Carson’s view of a salt marsh:
“a rim of sand held firm by the deep roots of beach grasses – the landward border of the shoal. The burrows of thousands of fiddler crabs riddle the muddy beach on the side facing the marshes. The crabs shuffle across the flats at the approach of an intruder, and the sound of many small chitinous feet is like the crackling of paper. If the tide still has an hour or two to fall to its ebb, one sees only a sheet of water shimmering in the sun.”
In a few lines, Carson gives the marsh texture, depth, motion, sound...and thereby, value; littoral magic that she captures and conveys. Who indeed would not wish to ‘get out and look’, with such prose as inspiration? But one can do even more – one can look, listen, smell, and feel, as Carson shows us time and again in The Edge of the Sea.
I have been to this marsh that Carson describes – it is Town Marsh of Beaufort. Fiddler crabs still abound there by the thousands, in some way descendents of those very crabs that Rachel Carson observed so propitiously. On a summer night I have heard those crabs shuffle. Crackling of paper is a good simile, but it isn’t perfect, for they move in waves when disturbed, so that the rustle of their miniature footsteps (recall each has 8 feet with which to step) is a soft cadence accompanying the lick of the sea as it washes upon the beach. Stand quietly, and the crabs will go back about their business of feeding on the tiny organisms that live in the mud where they make their burrows. Then the sound shifts to a chorus of uncountable whispered slurps.
I cannot say precisely how my concept of salt marshes shifted from the Turnpike marsh to Town Marsh, but shift it did, and decidedly, before I entered high school. What factors elicit watershed changes in individual attitudes about nature, in defiance in this case, of the evidence before me as a child? There is a new field of study called ‘Conservation Psychology’. The website for this fledgling discipline defines conservation psychology as “the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature and of how one can influence public discourse to produce enduring behavioral change.” Happy thought, that one can discover scientifically, what Rachel Carson accomplished artistically. If I had the freedom to hire new faculty at will, this is a field in which I would invest.
In The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson promotes the concept of coastal preservation and an ‘estuarine-protection imperative’, affirming, as Siry says, ‘the human psychic need to find its identity in relationship to surrounding land and water’(1). This coming to terms with the sea – or its edge – is not new, nor is it finished, especially with a sea that is forever changing, and changing now as a consequence of our own actions. Alain Corbin, Professor of History at the Sorbonne (University of Paris I), provides a cultural backdrop to our view of the sea in his book The Lure of the Sea: the Discovery of the Seaside 1750-1840 (1988, published by Penguin Books in 1995). I am not scholar enough to cogently summarize this work in a brief paragraph, but follow the prospect in the chapter titles in Parts I, Unconsciousness and the First Premises of Desire, and II, The Pattern of a New Pleasure:
1. The Roots of Fear and Repulsion
2. First Steps Toward Admiration
3. A New Harmony Between the Body and the Sea
4. Penetrating the World’s Enigmas
5. The Freshness of Wonder
6. The Ephemeral Journey
Part III (The Growing Complexity of the Social Spectacle) concludes with chapters on The Pathos of the Shores and Inventing the Beach.
Altogether Cobain leads us along the path where art, literature, and society work to change the view of the seashore from a place of horror to a place that we destroy with our love.
Suggested Discussion, 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?
(1) J.V. Siry, Marshes of the Ocean Shore: Development of an Ecological Ethic. Texas A&M University Press, 1984.
August 19, 2007
Perception and Value