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.
“How old was she?”
“Her late forties.”
“When’d she die?”
”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.”