ACTIVISM: RACHEL CARSON STYLE
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.