August 12, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Cindy Lee Van Dover

Word Pictures and Figurative Language in The Edge of the Sea

Sponges - "their appearance suggest nothing of the activity that goes on within their dark bulks" ...RC

In The Edge of the Sea, Rachel Carson set about to make the reader appreciate organisms unfamiliar to the casual observer and belonging to creatures not altogether appealing as cast in classical literature. Consider for example, the morbid reference to terrestrial worms in Andrew Marvell’s "To His Coy Mistress" (17th century):

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity
Thy beauty shall no more be found
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long-preserved virginity,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

T.S. Eliot offers a somewhat sympathetic view of organisms living at the edge of the sea in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Profrock" (1917). They are at least cast as a curiosity, though when I read these lines, I am left with a sense of futility of human nature in the face of the quiet and stubborn persistence of other forms of life.

The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite
Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses
Its hints of earlier and other creation:
The starfish, the hermit crab, the whale’s backbone;
The pools where it offers to our curiosity
The more delicate algae and the sea anemone.
It tosses up our losses, the torn seine,
The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar
And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices.

Consider the challenge of popularizing the beauty of estuaries where they have been reviled. When Rachel Carson wrote The Edge of the Sea, reclamation, not preservation, was the action dominating the progressive agendas of coastal towns with salt marshes and other wetlands. Tidal creeks and estuaries were places for dumping and filling.

Joseph Siry, in Marshes of the Ocean Shore: Development of an Ecological Ethic (1984, Texas A&M University Press) credits Carson with leadership in advocating for preservation of the ecological integrity of the seashore on scientific, aesthetic, and practical grounds through her writings. How does Carson achieve this leadership?

There is the whole, the sum of books like The Edge of the Sea, and there are the parts, where Carson uses simple prose to engage the reader, to take the most humble organism and make it mysterious and interesting. Consider how Carson brings the loggerhead sponge into a scale relative to that of a person and promises to reveal a secret inner life that is strange:

Massive and inert, the loggerhead sponges by their appearance suggest nothing of the activity that goes on within their dark bulks. There is no sign of life for the casual passer-by to read, although if he waited and watched long enough he might sometimes see the deliberate closing of some of the round openings, large enough to admit an exploring finger, that penetrate the upper flat surface. These and other openings are the key to the nature of the giant sponge …

Sue Hubbell, whose introduction graces the 1998 Mariner Books edition of The Edge of the Sea, follows in Rachel Carson’s footsteps in Waiting for Aphrodite: Journeys into the Time Before Bones (1999, Houghton Mifflin):

Sponges “…are layered masses of specialized cells that function in a seemingly muddled way. Yet their way of life is efficient and complex. And they have been at it for a much longer time than most other animals that we think of as having exciting lives.”

It is perhaps not fair to set these excerpts side by side, so I urge readers to study each author’s passage about sponges in their full and complete context. I am convinced that sponges are one of the most difficult creatures on Earth to make compelling to the novice naturalist. (I exclude from this claim the sponges of tropical waters, that attract the eye with their splashes of vivid colors). Carson succeeds in drawing me further into her prose through her blunt admission that sponges do indeed seem to be rather boring, but they hold secrets that she can reveal, if one reads on just a bit further.

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 mental logbook of your favorites and share the best one. Explain why it works so well, how it engages the reader.


Anne said...

What good are all the literary images, if they don't make you want to get out and look? Reading "The Edge of the Sea" at night makes me wish for morning so I can go out and find something new and while I waited, I wrote this for my Mom and for Rachel Carson, too.

We found clams, big and little
and crabs with a fiddle
some crabs that were blue and some square.

We found beach hoppers and fleas
and sand diggers that tease
and would dig, quick down deep
that's not fair!!

WE panned mud, like for gold
and found worms that, all told,
were smooth or were hairy and stung!

Some were white, some were blue
some had pinchers, its true!
some had heads that were big
and all tongue!

No sponges, have to keep looking.

Gretchen Green said...

A typical "word picture" word picture that made me smile is Carson's description of sand in the context of how it supports life. She talks about sand being too shifting and unstable to allow living things to establish themselves. As she puts it, "All have gone below, and in burrows, tubes, and underground chambers the hidden life of the sands is lived." I love the picture that description calls up. Just adding those two words "hidden life" creates a detailed vision, suggesting that a lot of very busy life is happening under there. The passage is an example of how Carson can bring even things like sand to life.

Willow said...

One good example of RC bringing a usually overlooked area to life is her words on rockweed jungles. Quoting part of this picture she creates on pg. 73 of my edition "By day the sunlight filters through the jungle of rockweeds to reach its floor only in shifting patches of shadow-flecked gold; by night the moonlight spreads a silver ceiling above the forest--a ceiling streaked and broken by the flowing tide streams; beneath it the dark fronds of the weeds sway in a world unquiet with moving shadows."

Prior to reading this, I never spared a thought for rockweeds, my consideration of seaweeds in general have been rather few, usually if I think of them at all, its in terms of what I see when I go to the seashore, flat green/brown/reddish structures that are slippery when you touch or try to walk on them. I hadn't thought about their function in the ocean, or what they would look like, or the area around them, when the tide has covered them back up. Rachel Carson brings me into their world, I feel like I am in amongst the rockweeds as the water moves around them, and sunlight is dappled as it is in a land forest.

julie said...

I appreciate Carson's deft ability to clarify the scale of various aspects of the seashore. One example:

"A pool need not be large to hold beauty within pellucid depths. I remember one that occupied the shallowest of depressions; as I lay outstretched on the rocks beside it I could easily touch its far shore."

Another technique she uses to put us on the shore with her and subtly to excite our interest is to engage our senses along with hers:

"The water in which they lived was so clear as to be invisible to my eyes; I could detect the interface between air and water only by the sense of coldness on my fingertips."

Why might her approach be effective to inspire conservation? Comparing Carson to her near-contemporary Jacques Cousteau, I think that her words bring us closer than film can to feeling part of the seascape she describes, perhaps because our own imagination must play an active role.

But comparing her to more recent conservation luminaries, such as Steve Irwin, I wonder if Carson would still be as effective. Would her revelations of wonder in the minute be considered thrilling enough in the age of the Crocodile Hunter:?

Mandy said...

It's interesting that Julie brought up the comparison between film and RC's writing. Our book club has been reading The Edge of the Sea this month, and at one of our meetings, someone brought a video titile "Deep Blue" and suggested that we watch it in conjunction with the reading we've been doing. "Deep Blue" is one of those breathtakingly photographed documentaries about the ocean. They take you under the water, over the water, and bring you eye-to-eye with the sea life. There's no denying it gives you an experience of the ocean. It is beautiful and informative and educational. But what I thought about while I was watching the movie is how what I had read of
"The Edge of the Sea" was adding to my experience of the movie. It seemed like the movie was an extension of what RC wrote about. To summarize, I think the writing made the movie more meaningful and the movie made the writing more meaningful.

A comparison between Steve Irwin and RC....that's a fascinating future topic!

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