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.


Shippensburg Faculty said...

"Serendipitous" indeed...

Although we are now in October, and nearing the last month of the Centennial Blog... the best is yet to come.

The Rachel Carson Service Project and Alternative Fall Break program, just now getting underway, began as an idea that came about over a lunch time discussion between faculty and staff, friends and colleagues, at Shippensburg University. A quirky alliance of unique personalities and motivated individuals, started dreaming up some scheme for a simple field trip and service learning program to the Chesapeake Bay region for students to celebrate Rachel Carson's 100th birthday and her book, The Sea Around Us.

Serendipitous Indeed... 6 months later. Wow what an amazing dream... Somewhat unreal, somewhat far fetched - but certainly a dream that I am sure Rachel Carson would have smiled about. She would have smiled about it based on the theme alone - service learning. She would have smiled about based on topic - facets of conservation. And I know she would have smiled about based on action! We have acted on our dream and worked collaboratively through trials and tribulations, big and small, all in an effort to make a difference. Like Rachel, our skills are focused on education, and to act using those skills is what Rachel would have approved of most of all.

Our dream has been invigorated, clarified, and indeed strengthened by our many partners, including those who have organized and moderate this blog, as well as the messages left by Rachel herself.

Kudos to all of you and please join in our expedition and follow along as we discover The Sea Around Us, both in prose and in person, as we experience the Atlantic Coast and the Chesapeake Bay. We look forward to sharing our discoveries with all of you.

Serendipitous Indeed...

stephen said...

The students and faculty from Shippensburg University are lucky to be visiting and exploring places along the East Coast of America that Rachel Carson loved.

I keep musing over one of the readings from last month, the one where Carson shares her affinity with a poem by Emily Dickenson (I Never Saw a Moor) and tells of her early fascination with the sea -- long before she ever saw it. The movement or journey from fascination to knowledge can be mysterious, as Dickenson's poem suggests.

The Sea Around Us is dedicated "To HENRY BRYANT BIGELOW who by precept and example has guided all others in the exploration of the sea". During Carson's journey she often has the grace to connect with a number of scientific teachers, explorers and writers. One of the many people Carson acknowledges at the beginning of The Sea Around Us as having helped lighten her task is the Norwegian explorer and bestselling author Thor Heyerdahl. And in the second chapter entitled The Pattern of the Surface she quotes some of his corresponded close observations on the wide open sea at night, including a first sighting of a deep sea snake-mackeral, Gempylus.

So here is one small question. Did Rachel Carson ever actually travel to another country?

And here is a second small question. I am reading from a secondhand copy of The Sea Around Us, in which an earlier reader has written a number of editorial comments -- all of them negative. For example, on the second page of the first chapter entitled The Gray Beginnings, Carson gives a carefully reasoned minimum estimate of our planet's birth as having occurred about 2 1/2 billion years ago. In the margin of my book on that page is penciled in "4.5". Is there any truth to the thought that some people who might just ignore the writings of say Henry Thoreau and Aldo Leopold, go out of their way to try and refute Carson's writings?

Jim Lynch said...

Good questions Stephen,
I don't recall off hand reading about Rachel leaving the country, but it seems likely that she would have. Silent Spring, I know, was a hit in the UK, although perhaps after her death.

As for the question about her detractors, I think the facts she poured into The Sea Around Us were not heavily disputed at the time. Otherwise, it is unlikely she would have received The National Book Award for it.

Much has been learned about the sea since then, of course, so there are assumptions that later proved inaccurate. See Jeffrey Levinson's 1989 "afterword" to The Sea Around Us for more thoughts on that.

But there is no doubt that Rachel created many vociferous detractors with Silent Spring, which I believe was fueled by a mixture of pesticide-industry misinformation and flat-out sexism -- which I will touch on in my next post.

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