August 19, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Cindy Lee Van Dover

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.


stephen williams said...

"The sages were ahead of us in recognizing that sympathy cannot be confined to our own group. We have to cultivate what the Buddhists call an "immeasurable" outlook that extends to the ends of the earth, without excluding a single creature from this radius of concern." Karen Armstrong (from The Great Transformation)

When considering the value Rachel Carson gives to the edge of the sea, I find myself drawn back to her encounter with the basket star. During this encounter RC makes sure her readers understand that she places no value in collecting or physically possessing the basket star. What she does bring to the encounter is a reverence for and sympathetic understanding of the basket star, which she gracefully translates into words for her readers. You don't need to be an Albert Schweitzer to recognized the reverence RC brings to this encounter, and its description.

Alas. There is too often a disconnect between coastal reverence and coastal development. Looking out of the window of an airplane flying over a Floridian coastal city, with development bursting at the seams, I remember feeling embarrassment, in part, for the planners. One of the few open spaces (besides the sea)seemed to be an old army fort, with guns pointing seaward and with a long coastline of sand and mangrove trees, that had been preserved as a park.

Gretchen Green commented earlier about "the most beautiful sketches on almost every page" of The Edge of the Sea. My favorite sketch by Bob Hines is the full-page picture that helps introduce Chapter Five, The Coral Coast. It deplicts what appears to be an egret next to a mangrove tree. The shadow of the fishing egret merges in with other watery shadows. In the distance across coastal waters are a series of mangrove islands. In the foreground a young mangrove tree is just starting to take hold.

As much as I like this illustration, the accompanying writing by RC probes the surface and adds depth.

"What is the future of this mangrove coast? If it is written in its recent past we can foretell it: the building of a vast land area where today there is water with scattered islands. But we who live today can only wonder, a rising sea could write a different history."

Anne said...

"...and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago." Well, maybe out there the waters can cover what is happening in the deep, but here along the edge, so much is just plain to see.
After a summer away, this morning we walked the marsh close by my house here in Virginia and what was clean and tidy in June is now littered with old ice boxes and bottles and bags of trash and boxes of rotting bait fish and the bodies of bull-nosed skates, and the little strips of sand between the marsh and the bay where diamond back terrapins lay their eggs are rutted and trenched by ATVs and the marsh itself is lined and crossed by the tread of tires and around the point the little tidal creek and its mud flats are staked to be dug up for a boat channel and dock in front of a giant new house being built where a year ago, ospreys nested.
I may be just a kid, but I'm discouraged!
I wish I could find something R.C. wrote that would help or inspire, but today "Edge of the Sea"seems more memorial than guidebook and the only line that I remember and now think I understand is Emily Dickenson's "Hope is the thing with feathers."
I am discouraged.
And I read that not far from R.C.'s Beaufort town marsh, another marsh unknown, so unloved is to be cleared and mined for..phosphate, and now that once again whales are hunted and harp seal pups being slaughtered, who will care about crabs and worms and clams? the creatures at the edge of the sea.
I an discouraged.

Herb L. said...

The great thing about great books is that they are capable of taking on different meanings at different times, or maybe it's a matter of taking on more and more meaning as time advances. After reading Anne's comments (and laments), I suddenly saw "The Edge of the Sea" in that category. Anne concisely described it herself when she said it seems more of a memorial than a guide book. I would say the book serves as both and is important as both. It started out as a guidebook for what was there at that time. Now today, in the context of the marsh Anne is looking at, the book takes on the quality of a memorial to what was previously there.

But things don't just end there - neither the condition of the edge of the sea nor the meaning of the book. In terms of the future, the book now takes on a bigger meaning for being a guidebook. If the next generation makes different choices for how they treat marshes, i.e., the environment, they will need the guidance of older wisdom and the guidance of detailed memory.

Anne, you have a right to be discouraged. No question about it, the conditions on your beach are downright discouraging! You also have a reason to be encouraged. "Who will care about crabs and worms and clams?" YOU will care. A new generation is coming up and they are the ones who will be making decisions and setting policy. A lot of them are probably people like you who understand what's at stake and are capable of taking charge and making the changes.

I'm encouraged.

Locations of visitors to this page