July 27, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Patricia DeMarco

Rachel Carson's Environmental Ethic

As you read this wonderful first published book by Rachel Carson, you can recognize the themes of her core environmental ethic which infused all of her work and drove the major action of her life. Rachel Carson's basic environmental ethic can be simply distilled into four concepts:

* Live in harmony with nature
* Preserve and learn from natural places
* Take precautions against the impact of man made chemicals on the natural systems of the earth
* Consider the consequences of human actions on the global web of life.

The paths of the creatures Rachel Carson follows in Under the Sea Wind give a very personal view of the interconnectedness of the creatures that inhabit the earth. She shows the diversity of living organisma from the smallest phyoplankton to the mighty whales. As you weave through the web of life in the oceans and see the interplay between the sea and the land, it is impossible to ignore the elemental certainty that people are part of this system.

While we are mostly spectators of the passing scene as we visit the shore, we must realize that we are dependent on the forces that move the oceans for the purity of our air, for the flow of the water cycle, for the very currents of change that shape our climate. We humans have not always taken seriously our responsibilities as living creatures, part of a system of intricate relationships. I hope that Rachel Carson's sensitivity to the complexity of the world in Under the Sea Wind enlightens your perspective.

I would like to share a quote from the essay, "Lost Woods" which Rachel Carson wrote for the publicity department of Simon and Schuster to help in the promotion of her book: "Each of these stories seems to me not only to challenge the imagination but also to give us a little better perspective on human problems. They are stories of things that have been going on for countless thousands of years. They are as ageless as sun and rain, or as the sea itself. The relentless struggle for survival in the sea epitomizes the struggle for all earthly life, human and non-human." {Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. ed. Linda Lear. Beacon Press 1998. p.62}

When you are contemplating the role the oceans play in our lives, consider the lesson Rachel Carson left us, to take true stewardship of the earth by behaving as responsible creatures of the interconnected web of life. We cannot harm one strand without compromising the whole, and ourselves with it.

Patty DeMarco

July 16, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Mark Lytle

At this point in her career as a writer, Carson believed that human beings had their own roles to play in the cycles of nature. Given the fecundity of the sea, that role was not necessarily destructive. Humans were but one more predator with whom the creatures of the sea contended. To a stroller on a Carolina beach the north winds of fall meant stinging sand blown into eyes and hair. For the commercial fishermen the same wind meant fish for their nets. When it blew, they sprang into action. As the tide turned a boat shot out from the beach to set the nets. The target was mullets, thousands of slim, silvery-gray fish, that inhabited the coastal waters. The net formed into a semicircle with a rope on each end tight in the hands of the men on the shore. Carson described the primal struggle that ensued:

Milling in a frantic effort to escape, the mullet drive with all their combined strength of thousands of pounds against the seaward arc of the net. Their weight and the outward thrust of their bodies lift the net clear of the bottom, and the mullet scrape bellies on the sand as they slip under the net and race into deep water. The fishermen, sensitive to every movement of the net, feel the lift and know they are losing fish. They strain the harder, till muscles crack and backs ache. Half a dozen men plunge into water chin-deep, fighting the surf to tread the lead line and hold the net to the bottom.

Eventually, the fishermen got the upper hand. The net formed into “a huge, elongated bag, bulging with fish.” As they pulled it onto the beach, “the air crackles with a sound like the clapping of hands as a thousand head of mullet, with the fury of their last strength, flap on the wet sand.”Haste made waste, Carson noticed. Among the mullet were other fish—sea trout, pompano, young mullets, ceros, sheepshead, and sea bass—“too small to sell, too small to eat.” Rushing to store their catch the fishermen threw these unwanted species onto the beach. There amidst the litter some returned on the waves to the ocean while most died stranded beyond the water’s reach. “Thus, the sea unfailingly provides for the hunters of the tide lines,” she concluded. What was waste for the fishermen was food for the shore creatures. First came the gulls, followed by the ghost crabs and the sand hoppers. In time they would reclaim “to life in their own beings the materials of the fishes’ bodies.” To Carson this process was all part of nature’s plan “For in the sea nothing is lost. One dies, another lives, as the precious elements of life are passed on and on in endless chains.” Not even the fishermen disturbed that plan. The ocean’s bounty was such that no species threatened the survival of others. While the fishermen gathered around their stoves to fight off the night chill, “mullet were passing unmolested through the inlet and running westward and southward along the coast….”

July 9, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Patricia DeMarco

I sit on the shore of Lake Erie in Pennsylvania, contemplating the wonderful work of Rachel Carson as she describes the edges of the oceans. How appropriate also for the Great Lakes, and even the streams and rivers that cross all over the country!

Rachel Carson began her fascination with the oceans and creatures of the water from her childhood on the banks of the Allegheny River. She lived there and played on the edge of the river, wondering about the creatures she found. Where did they come from? Where did they go? How did they exist in the turbulent and, at that time, very polluted waters of the industrial era of Pittsburgh!

The essential ingredient Rachel Carson brought to her work was an innate curiosity about the natural world, combined with her precocious ability to write eloquently about her observations.

The book, Under the Sea Wind, is an excellent companion to a trip to the beach, or to the lake or river especially if you have children to entice, to use their eyes, noses, ears, and fingers to explore the wonderful space between water and land, that ever-changing boundary where all appears at first glance to be inert, quiet, and still of life with only sand and water at play. Rachel Carson makes it come alive with the very personal look at the creatures who live there, their antics, their life stories, and the intricate interactions among the creatures and with the ocean itself.

There is no better window into a mysterious, water-covered part of the Earth than to follow through the path of Rynchops, the black skimmer, or to learn of the hermit crab by listening for to the sound of its shell dragging along the sand. It is an intriguing thought indeed.

Take your children out to the beach at night, and just absorb the beauty and the power of the ocean as it moves in and out from the shores.

July 2, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Mark Lytle

Origins of Under the Sea-Wind

Under the Sea-Wind began with Carson's first job at the Fish and Wildlife Service. Her boss there, Elmer Higgins, was responsible for a Bureau-sponsored radio series his colleagues dismissively referred to as “seven-minute fish tales.” The series became a headache for Higgins. No one in the Bureau knew how to make marine biology interesting to a general radio audience. Though he had no regular job for Carson, he asked her to write a few scripts. Eight months later she completed the series to the great satisfaction of Higgins and other Bureau officials. Higgins then had her write an introduction to a government brochure on marine life. When he met her in April 1936 to discuss the piece, his reaction stunned her. The essay would not do, he said. “The World of Waters” was too good for a government brochure. She should write a new introduction, he advised, “but send this one to the Atlantic.”

This article, "Under the Sea," brought Carson to the attention of the editors at Simon and Schuster. They recognized her as a new and remarkable literary voice. When asked to expand it into a full length book, Carson had an inspiration. Her book, Carson explained to the publisher, would avoid the anthropocentric or “human bias” that infected most writers about the sea. “The fish and other sea creatures must be central characters and their world must be portrayed as it looks and feels to them—and the narrator must not come into the story or appear to express an opinion. Nor must any other humans come into it except from the fishes’ viewpoint as a predator and a destroyer.” This would be the story of the sea and its creatures. “The ocean is too big and vast and its forces too mighty to be much affected by human activity,” she believed. Time proved her wrong on this last observation, as over fishing, pollution, and other byproducts of human society seriously altered the ocean’s ecology. But even at this point she began to suspect that naturally occurring chemicals such as fluorides and selenium as well as coastal pollution were harmful to aquatic life.

See July Book Schedule

Special Remarks by Larry Schweiger, NWF President

See the special May 27 post by Larry Schweiger and the essay written in special tribute to Rachel Carson on her birthday. This is a good prequel to our upcoming discussions on Carson's sea books and specifically Under the Sea-Wind which we will discuss this month with moderators Mark Lytle and Patricia DeMarco. Thanks, Larry, for your contributions.

See July Reading Schedule

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