October 22, 2007

Comments by Moderator Jim Lynch

Topic: The Sea Around Us
Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


When Rachel Carson wrote The Sea Around Us in 1951 she was still an activist in the making. Her goal at this point was to simply inform and engage. Yet she instinctively touched on subjects that would become environmental cornerstones, without raising her voice.

She talked about the likely expansion of petroleum exploration in the sea, but without warning of the downsides. She mentioned global warming, but without discussing man’s potential role. Her subject was the ocean, so she wrote about how it serves as the planet’s thermostat, how it is so large and deep that it absorbs great heat without getting hot and great cold without freezing.

At this point in her life she was enchanted with the mystery and drama of the sea. “But even with all our modern instruments for probing and sampling the deep ocean no one now can say that we shall ever resolve the last, the ultimate mysteries of the sea.”

And she concludes The Sea Around Us on a poetic and philosophical note. She doesn’t end on a warning, but on a wise truth, a reverence for the sea as the beginning and end of all life.

Yet her ocean work would later be used as an activist springboard. Jeffrey S. Levinson’s afterword to the 1989 edition of The Sea Around Us concludes: “We will have to manage the ocean’s resources and learn not to use it as a sewer. We will have to take to the sea once more, but with a spirit for cleansing the ocean that matches our centuries-old thirst for exploration and conquest.”

Seeing how this is my concluding essay, I cannot leave this blog without commenting on Rachel’s critics who resurfaced during her 100th birthday to savage her again, this time by blaming her for malaria-related deaths in Africa. The illogical argument maintains that because she raised questions 45 years ago about the indiscriminate use of pesticides, such as DDT, that adequate pesticides haven't been readily available to kill mosquitoes and save human lives. From my vantage point, these ongoing cheap shots at her legacy are as unfair and as unwarranted as potshots at the late Mother Teresa. For a concise look at the history of Carson's detractors, read "Defending Rachel Carson" by Cornell professor David Pimentel.

It has been an honor to discuss Rachel Carson for this unique book club this month. And I am grateful to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for asking me to participate. I also find it inspiring that Shippensburg University would devote so much time and resources to incorporating Rachel and The Sea Around Us into its fall curriculum. And once again, please don’t forget to click on “Field Notes” and the Photo Gallery to read and view more about the Shippensburg adventure.

It is my hope that over time Rachel Carson’s work and life is taught more intensively in the schools to help guide future generations, the same way people study other landmark Americans such as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Such hopes drove me to invent a bright 13-year-old boy who sees Rachel as his hero. So I’d like to end my last essay here with an excerpt from The Highest Tide, which features banter about Rachel Carson between Miles, the narrator of the novel, and his sidekick Phelps:

“When did Rachel Carson write all that stuff?” Phelps asked.
“Early nineteen-fifties.”
“How old was she?”
“Her late forties.”
“When’d she die?”
“Nineteen sixty-four.”
“What of?”
”Breast cancer. She was the one who warned us that if we keep spraying poisons on fields we’ll stop hearing birds in the spring.”
“How many kids she have?”
“None. Never married.”
“You know everything about her, don’t you?”
I didn’t say anything for a couple beats. “I know she was brave and brilliant.”

October 14, 2007

Comments by Moderator Jim Lynch

Topic: The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson

Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


One of the first things to enthrall me about marine research was reading about Rachel Carson’s fascination with grunions, a small shimmering fish that beaches itself on the California coast just long enough to drop and fertilize eggs during the highest tides of the warmer months.

As Rachel put it in The Sea Around Us, nobody knows if it’s the pressure or rhythm of the water or something to do with the moon or what exactly it is that so precisely synchronizes these little fish with the monthly tidal cycles. She drove home my wonder with tides when she brought up the case of a sea worm that will rise and fall out of the sand with the tidal cycles even if it is moved to an aquarium in some basement in Kansas.

What struck me about that was that even a brainless worm is more in tune with the tides than most humans.

Like most things, the marine world becomes more fascinating the closer we look. In fact, marine science in general is far more exotic and exciting than I expected. I assumed the subject was finite, that almost everything had already been learned. I didn’t realize that we are still discovering dozens and sometimes hundreds of new species of sea life every year. I found it amazing while writing The Highest Tide in 2003, for example, that nobody had ever seen a giant squid alive and swimming.

The largest invertebrate on the planet was still a mystery to us?!

What got me further enthralled was when I started exploring tidal flats at night with a headlamp. If you’ve never done it, I highly recommend it. Tidal flats are freaky enough during daylight, but at night the setting feels like science fiction, like you are trespassing on another planet. Crabs and shrimp and other nocturnal creatures are far more bountiful. One night I came across a 22-legged purple and brown sunflower sea star the size of a manhole cover moving across the flats way faster than any sea star should be able to travel.

The point of sharing a sliver of my book research is to point out that the details of my own findings helped inspire me to write a novel that hinged on the notion that most of us go through life so oblivious to the natural world around us that a boy who simply pays attention could come across as a genius, possibly even a prophet. And that idea, in part, grew out of watching the way Rachel mixed compelling research with her imagination and prose to create books that helped you think.

Obviously, part of making research compelling to read is to write it up as engagingly as you can. Journalists write most popular science books and articles and do their best to translate complex findings and ideas. However, at times, a lot gets lost in translation, which is why Rachel’s work was so extraordinary. She was both scientist and lyrical writer. In her hands, the nuggets of her research fit like vivid anecdotes into the bigger stories she wanted to weave.

She tells us about the grunions and the convoluta worm in a chapter that encourages us to imagine the history of the tides and their future too, how tidal friction is slowing down the spinning of our earth that used to rotate every four hours in its early days and continues to slow.
Regardless of Rachel, journalists need to become better scientists and scientists need to become better writers, if they want their findings to be more compelling on the page.

As a journalist who wrote about many environmental issues, I longed for eloquent people who could explain their research and findings in compelling fashion. Too often, modern day environmental debates get reduced to sparring matches between loud, sometimes reckless, spokespersons for environmental groups and businesses. And the people with the most valuable information are usually, and unfortunately, the quietest voice at the table, the cautious, often to the point of being dull, scientists.

Al Gore just won the Nobel Prize for ringing the alarms on global warming. Regardless of what you think of Gore, it is hard to deny that his movie, “An Inconvenient Truth” used an impressive array of compelling research to make what had been a complex fuzzy issue more provocative and personal.

In fact, I think it is safe to say, “An Inconvenient Truth” would have been praised profusely by Rachel Carson were she around in her 100th year to comment.

What scientific research or studies or reports do you find particularly compelling? And is it the information itself or the way it’s presented?

Shippensburg students, what was the most compelling thing you learned or saw from your ocean expedition? In other words, what will you tell friends and family when they ask you what you found particularly interesting or surprising?

And for all book club readers, please keep up with the accounts of the Shippensburg adventure by clicking on “Field Notes” in the upper right corner of this page beneath Rachel’s photo.

October 7, 2007

Comments by Moderator Jim Lynch

Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


Rachel Carson was an unlikely candidate to change the way Americans looked at planet earth. Yet this underdog, this bookish single woman who’d been writing seashore pamphlets for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, sparked the modern day environmental movement in the middle of the last century at a time when sexism was in full bloom.

She accomplished it with a mixture of rare skills and gifts. Her precise and lyrical prose is often justifiably showcased as the source of her persuasive magic. But what’s often overlooked is how fearless she was in the subjects she tackled and the way she explained them. In The Sea Around Us, she not only dared to explain the beginnings of the planet and all that was known and unknown about our oceans, but she brought her lush imagination to the equation.

During this week’s readings alone, she helped us imagine the theory that the moon was originally part of the earth that ripped loose into the sky with the gouge it left behind filling with centuries of rain as the earth cooled. She described an ocean where “life is scattered everywhere like a fine dust.” She brought into eerie perspective that half of the planet’s surface is covered by miles of water through which light has never penetrated, a place where creatures feed on the endless “snowfall” of sediments from above. She asked us to picture the likelihood of the Atlantic eventually rising another hundred feet and splashing against the foothills of the Appalachians

Rachel’s imagination brought a romance to her science writing that turned the masses onto subjects they wouldn’t normally read. But her ideas, her habit of thinking big is what coaxed people to think about things they wouldn’t normally contemplate.

Her righteous activist streak popped up, although quietly, in “The Sea Around Us” as well. Consider her observation in “The Birth of an Island” chapter in which she recalled how birds on the Galapagos Islands used to be so friendly during Charles Darwin’s days that they’d land on your shoulder and pluck hair from your head for their nests. Instead of an amusing aside, however, she used it to make a sharp point about how interconnected humans are with all life.

“But man, unhappily has written one of the blackest records as a destroyer on the ocean islands … upon species after species of island life, the black night of extinction has fallen.”

She wrote that statement twenty-three years before the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973.

Rachel ultimately threw her biggest punches in Silent Spring more than a decade after The Sea Around Us. But her convictions about the harm man was doing to the planet were rooted in her oceanic studies. And that’s also what gave her the power to write as assertively as she did when it came to exposing just how destructive pesticides were in a country reticent to heed environmental alarms, particularly from a woman author. Her voice was so unusual at the time that many readers had a hard time getting their minds around who exactly they were listening to. She reputedly received letters from both fans and critics alike who assumed, despite her given name, that anyone writing so forcefully must be a man. “Dear Mr. Carson ….”

Rachel’s underdog story and her ability to think big helped me think bigger on the novel I wrote about the sea. Just seeing her daring prose and imagination at work, helped raise the bar for what I was attempting to accomplish.

Does reading Rachel help you put your own work into a larger perspective?

If you’re part of the Shippensburg crew doing Rachel-related research this month, are there ways in which you can bring more imagination to your research, or perhaps ways that thinking big will make whatever you’re doing more fascinating and relevant?

Perhaps Rachel’s work guides or moves you in other ways. Or maybe it doesn’t. Perhaps it feels dated and cumbersome. Regardless, please share your thoughts.

And please don’t forget to click on and comment on "Field Notes from The Sea Around Us " (in the right-hand column below the image of Rachel Carson) as the Shippensburg program heats up this week. Let’s get the discussions rolling.

October 1, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Jim Lynch

Discussion Topic: The Sea Around Us

Moderator: Jim Lynch, author of The Highest Tide


I think this month’s online book club would make Rachel Carson smile.

Instead of The Sea Around Us simply inspiring yet another discussion among her loyal admirers, it will hopefully spark and enhance the field work and observations of college students and budding scientists who may be reading her words for the first time.

In a serendipitous alliance, as many as 41 students and five teachers at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania will be participating in the Rachel Carson Centennial Blog this month as they use The Sea Around Us as a backdrop text for their research and contemplation.

The students will be exploring and learning about the Atlantic Coast and Chesapeake Bay from various vantages and, starting October 8, the students will post some of their observations on this site. To view their work, overseen by Shippensburg faculty, click on "Field Notes from The Sea Around Us " (in the right-hand column below the image of Rachel Carson).

It is my hope as moderator for this portion of the blog that students and readers engage in both forums and take advantage of an unusual opportunity to witness Rachel Carson-inspired science, writing and reflection in action.

I also hope some students and readers will feel the same jolt I felt when I discovered The Sea Around Us. It was the fall of 2003, just as I was taking a leave to try to write a novel about a boy who keeps discovering exotic sea life on the tidal flats near his home in Puget Sound.

I was immediately dazzled by the authority and grace with which Carson wrote about the sea: “There is no drop of water in the ocean, not even in the deepest parts of the abyss that does not know and respond to the mysterious forces that create the tide.”

The Highest Tide took off for me when I decided to pass along my obsession with Carson’s work to my 13-year-old protagonist. As a result, the novel pays homage to a woman who may be the most eloquent and educational advocate our planet has ever had.

Her seven-page preface to the 1961 edition of The Sea Around Us exhibits just about everything you need to know about Carson’s gift for turning knowledge into moral duty and a call to activism.

She begins with a calm history of our understanding and ignorance of the ocean, its underwater ranges, its "deep hidden rivers" and its lively abyss. She goes on to dazzle us with her facts and imagination as she portrays a far more dynamic sea than most people can grasp. Then she eases the reader into understanding how misguided our notion has been that the sea can survive anything we dump into it, including atomic waste. Her preface concludes chillingly: "The mistakes that are made now are made for all time." She leaves us with this, again without raising her voice: “It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”

Carson is so well known for Silent Spring that her three classics on the ocean are overlooked or dismissed as lesser works. While less activist in nature, they grew out of her core philosophy that the more people know about the natural world the less likely they will be to harm it.

I don’t know how The Sea Around Us or Carson herself would have fared in the modern era of smack-talking sound-byte activism. I do think she would have been pleased that more people than ever say we need to protect the environment, but I think she’d be alarmed that a smaller percentage than ever actually experience it.

Carson’s favorite past-time was tide-pooling along Maine’s wild southern coast. And therein may lie the best advice for us all, and the first clue to the power of her activism: Get out in the world and look at it very, very closely.

Lastly, a word of advice on reading Carson. You can't speed-read her. Her writing is like good scotch. You best go slow. If you fall behind in the syllabus, don't worry about it. Savor the paragraphs and pages you do read.

And please post your big and small observations and questions here and on the "Field Notes" page.

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