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.”


J.L.B. said...

Years ago, Rachel Carson’s books were required reading in many college courses especially for science majors. Over time that changed to where now most college students aren’t familiar with her or her works. Recently it seems to be changing again to where Rachel Carson is back in the limelight and becoming known again. A good example is the Shippensburg University program on your website here. Is it a matter of merely rediscovering her or are people finding new meaning in what she wrote in seeking solutions to problems of this day and age such as global warming?

Jim Lynch said...

That's a good question, and I agree with the premise. It seems like there is a resurgence of interest in Rachel Carson's work. I don't know how to quantify it, but I felt it on my book tours with my novel. Many people told me they were enjoying rediscovering Rachel or reading her for the first time.

And I think the Shippensburg program this fall could be a model for how high schools and colleges might engage with her work in the future. And perhaps this blog format may ultimately prove to be a great forum for students to discuss and learn about her books.

Perhaps Nancy Pollot at U.S. Fish and Wildlife may be able to offer an opinion or insights into whether there is a resurgence of interest in Rachel's writings.

Fossil Man said...


I find your question a very interesting question and would like to comment from my perspective as a participant in Ship's first Alternative Fall Break. But first, I wonder... back in the day to what degree was "required reading", due to general interest in Carson's sense of science or was it required reactionary reading as "Carson Doctrine" became so controversial?

To answer your question from my perspective today, I think it is safe to say that we have chosen to work with Rachel Carson, perhaps for a little bit of both reasons.

For many of our students, they had never heard of Rachel Carson, and those that had only knew about Silent Spring (from hearsay). Therefore they have many misconceptions about who and what she was and a minimal understanding of what the controversy of her writing was about.

For me, I have rediscovered Rachel Carson after reading a few of her books in college. Today I am reading her books again with a different eye, and a different perspective (especially The Sea Around Us)in light of many modern environmental concerns. My recent experiences, and subsequent education has given some new meaning to what it is that she said way back then.

From our group's perspective, and please chime in colleagues if you have comments, the fact that Carson's book is written as it was in layman's terms- it is a book that can be used in the framework of an extra-curricular and interdisciplinary educational environment. It is enjoyable to read and does not require that everyone has the same prerequisites of knowledge. Once you read - you can contribute to meaningful discussions from different disciplinary perspectives. In the end readers with various experiences and points of view, by sharing those perspectives with others, enable a clearer understanding of what her writing was all about.

I think this is something to be said of the power of Carson.

David Pimentel said...

Although I never met Rachel Carson, over the years I got to know many of her close friends. Both from their personal contacts and reading "Silent Spring" and her other books, I realized that Carson was a keen biologist and observer. She loved nature and all the plants and animals.

David Pimentel, author of Defending Rachel Carson (http://www.pww.org/article/articleprint/11914/)

stephen said...

Memory in fondness speaks: of a gathering to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the publishing of Silent Spring, hosted with grace by Ester Peterson, late in her life. No one had asked her to serve as host; it was something she had wanted and offered to do.

A few days ago I was drawn back to an earlier bookclub reading, to the letter dated September 10, 1963 that Rachel Carson wrote to her friend Dorothy Freeman. What drew me back was a sense of loss. For those not familiar, in this letter Carson shares the lesson of "the brightly fluttering bits of life." The lyrical wisdom and consolation in this letter is fully acknowledged by return mail.

Reading The Sea Around Us led me to think about the powerful tsunami that overwhelmed parts of Indonesia in December of 2004. The New Yorker ran an excellent article that looked closely at the lives of several survivors of this tsunami. Eyewitness accounts confirm what Carson wrote in The Sea Around Us.

"This ominous withdrawal of the sea from its normal stand is often the first warning of the approach of seismic sea waves."

Some people -- not understanding this warning that December 2004 day -- walked down to the waterless banks or sloping flats never before seen.

In the Preface to the 1960 revised edition of The Sea Around Us, Carson introduces important new findings placed in the Appendix as notes. In Note 12 Carson describes the warning system established to protect the Hawaiian Islands from seismic waves, and concludes:

"Even with its present limitations, however, the system has filled so great a need that there is strong international interest in extending it to other parts of the world."

After the devastating 2004 tsunami the extension of the warning system protecting the Hawaiian Islands to other parts of the world has quickened.

I very much enjoyed listening to The Highest Tide as a talking book. While not exactly the same, the care Miles shows Florence and Angie probably parallels in spirit the care that Rachel Carson showed her aging mother and her departed sister's young son Roger.

I look forward to reading next month's book selection A Sense of Wonder.

Nancy Pollot said...

In giving some thought to j.l.b.’s question, I’d say there is definitely renewed interest in Rachel Carson and her writings. A couple of reasons, no doubt, have to do with the occasion of her centennial this year along with the amazingly coincidental re-appearance of the controversial DDT issue in the headlines. She also got a lot of notoriety this year from being chosen as one of the most important people of the 20th century. In fact, on England’s list she was number one out of a hundred.

She continues to be discovered in the sense that each new generation must discover for itself what was deemed to be of value to previous generations. Each new generation will not only learn from her work but will add to it by bringing its own understanding of the world to it.

Then there are people who recognized the importance of her work from the beginning and have maintained the interest all along. Whenever we go back and look again at her work, we will find new meaning because we are always viewing it from the vantage point of a different place in time.

I think many people are looking to Rachel Carson for clues to help solve some of today’s most pressing issues such as global warming. Some people say her writings sound prophetic now, but that’s not so unusual for someone who took the time to gain a deep and true understanding of the earth.

Jason said...

Carson's activism is now being rediscover by myself and fellow Shippensburg students, along with others on this blog. I believe that most of us here can agree that the criticism of Carson is unfair and that she can be viewed as activist looking to inform and create a better world (although there are the ignorant who still like to bring up uninformed arguments about pesticides).

Nevertheless, in regard to the current issues with global warming, can we really make the argument that Al Gore is the modern day Rachel Carson? He used a different medium, a movie, to get his message across and presented science to back up his statements.

To be perfectly honest, Ive seen An Inconvenient Truth and cant help but note that Al Gore is still Al Gore. I was on board for most of the science and his arguments but I do not feel he has the cross-sectoral appeal that Carson had. Her writing brought the normal person who did not normally read about science to understand and be moved by it. With Gore, maybe I am wrong, but I think it is more a combination of his celebrity status , the medium of the movie business, and the fact that the topic is so serious. What do you think, can Gore be considered a modern day Carson?

Amy Harmon said...

I am currently reading the Sea Around Us for my class at Shippensburg University. I don't have a very established background in science. Therefore, I really enjoyed her writing more so than the science aspects of the book.

In her book she describes the sea in more detail than I have ever cared to notice. This makes me realize how beautiful not just the sea is, but nature in general. I find myself observing nature in much greater depth than before. While I have been reading The Sea Around Us, I have definitely noticed the changing colors of leaves and other changes that come with the autumn season.

The chapter based on the seasons of the sea also really affected me. While watching the changes on land, I also think about this chapter and what is happening now in the sea.

The detailed descriptions have really affected the way I see nature. However, I find the scientific aspects of the book quite difficult to follow at times.

This book was originally published in the 1950s and because I do not have much knowledge science, I find myself confused on the different types of technology of which she writes. I do not know what is current and what is outdated. I also am not aware of what new technologies and studies have been done since she has written the book, which makes it difficult for me to understand the scientific perspective offered in this book.

I think the combination of her writing ability with her scientific knowledge does make this book appropriate for a variety of audiences. This is extremely important for the purpose of informing the general public of the beauty of the sea and the harm we are causing it.

Jason said...

I am actually in the same position as Amy. I agree with her completely that due to the ease at which Carson was as a writer, her creative liberties (uses of her imagination is probably a better way of saying it) make it difficult to find out what is scientific reality. Im embarrassed to admit how weak my scientific background is, but it is amazing that even the little that I do know, I have to question because Carson is such an impressive writer. This creates an interesting dynamic because Carson's goal is to inform through a different style but in actuality is so effective that we begin to believe false truths (that was not known at the time). Carson should be in no way blamed for this but it just interesting and important to note while reading what is factual science and what is her educated creative musings of what the sea is from her perspective a half a century ago.

Jim Lynch said...

I think Al Gore deserves the praise and notoriety he's received for An Inconvenient Truth, but he's no Rachel Carson. For starters, Gore was a lifelong politician, a man who has tried to get as much limelight as a man can possibly get. Rachel Carson didn't relish any limelight. She didn't like being in front of a panel of lawmakers or on television. She operated from her conscience. She also didn't have a team of researchers and producers and marketers anything like the machinery that Gore has. And she took a lot more heat for her findings with Silent Spring than Gore has received for Inconvenient Truth.

As for Carson's science, it's true that some of her speculation and theories and findings are dated and inaccurate. Fifty seven years have rolled by, so that is to be expected. But I think her ability to make science fascinating, to turn it from dry and obtuse to alive and engaging still sets the high bar for science writing for the masses.

Rmagin said...

I just finished posting "The Melting of the Ice" on my blog at http://pinoybarkinghall.blogspot.com., two days ago when I come across with the "Field of Note....." I have read "The Sea Around Us" and not aware of Rachel Carson Centennial and why I rushed to publish the said post, maybe touched by Ms. Carson herself.
I admit being inspired by her and I'll be frequenting this site to contribute and know more about her.

Emily S said...

Like Amy and Jason, I am a student at Shippensburg University. Also, like them, I do not know much about science. I am the first one to admit that I do not like science one bit. However, Rachel Carson (and her books) make science more palatable for me. I could read (and understand!) The Sea Around Us. I also remember in high school, my mom found a used copy of Silent Spring at a book sale for a quarter. She bought it for me, and I always said that I would read it. I never got around to it. I think this winter break, I will go back and read it!

Jenn said...

"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."

I thought this was a very interesting observation. Even though her works appeal to such a large audience of people; from environmental types, to writer types, to political scientist types, to activist types (and you get my idea), she never sought out the limelight. Her passion and commitment without the shackles of the glory-seeking is what makes her so admirable and lovable by so many different groups. And even in the Sea Around Us, as evidenced on this blog, she is not a mere alarmist, but rather a dedicated scientist and impassioned believer in nature.

Jess said...

I'll be honest... I never heard of Rachel Carson before the Shippensburg University course. So why isn't she more recognized? I think, as Mr. Lynch has mentioned, she had a lot of criticism, but surely, there are many who are interested in her work, as he discovered on his book tours. Since I've been in the course, however, I did watch a documentary that aired on TV. So perhaps there really is a resurgence in her work?

It's so sad to me, though, that we wait to recognize her until after she's gone. Wouldn't it be nice if we honored more activists like Rachel Carson, while they are still alive? Who are some modern-day activists that deserve recognition but don't receive it? Just by googling, I found Laurie David, an environmental activist of our time. Check out her web site and compare her views with Rachel Carson: http://www.lauriedavid.com/. Who are the activists in your lives?

Kelsey said...

As Jim Lynch said: "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."

Rachel Carson end to The Sea Around Us was quite fascinating to me. The most interesting thing I found was the chapter entitled Wealth From the Salt Seas. She starts by saying, "The ocean is the earth's greatest storehouse of minerals." I knew that the ocean was full of creatures that I didn't know of and natural elements like minerals, but Carson explained just how much is untapped.

Man has processes to test water, but yet there are still minute traces of chemicals that some animals live on that man does not know about. Man has been to the moon, but has yet to fully explore the depths of the oceans. Carson really opened my eye to just how much wealth can be found in the sea. Speaking of wealth, she explains that there is enough gold in the ocean, "to make every person in the world a millionaire." Carson then explains that the process to extract gold from salt water is so expensive it's not worth all the hard work.

This circles back to how some animals, like the lobster, survive on very small amounts of minerals found in the ocean water. It's just amazing. Imagine if fifty years from now man learned to extract these minerals from the ocean. If the sea hadn't been destroyed before then, would it now be depleated of its essential minerals?

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memphismemory said...

Twenty years ago, I learned about the toxins and poisons. How do farmers and other commercial and private users not realize what this is doing? If it affects a bugs life and kills living microorganisms of any kind - how can it have no affect on the rest of us? There have been other ways for generations to control disease, insects, and to fertilize. Look at what has happened lately with dog food. It is all about money and laziness isn't it?

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