The sea, Rachel Carson once wrote, is the “great mother of life.” Most know Carson for Silent Spring, an environmental manifesto that accused the chemical industry of spreading disinformation on pesticides. The book, published in 1962, contributed to the initiation of a federal ban on the use of the synthetic organic compound DDT, and to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency. But long before Carson’s carefully crafted prose helped to push the environmental movement forward, she introduced readers to the wonders of the sea.
To write Under the Sea-Wind, her first book, Carson lay on the beaches of Beaufort, North Carolina, and “felt the waves, listened to the birds, and imagined what was going on,” says Robert Musil, the president and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council, the legacy organization Carson envisioned before her death to carry on her environmental advocacy work. “She walked around at night with a flashlight and looked at the ghost crabs and became deeply involved with these creatures.” In the book, Carson follows a few of the animals—a mackerel, a pair of small shorebirds, and an eel—in their salty worlds.
For him, Musil says, the enduring appeal of Carson’s writing comes from her insight that “if you can’t identify with something, somebody, a species, or a people who are different than yourself, you’re inclined to destroy it.”
This ethic of environmental empathy was first instilled in Carson as she grew up outside of Pittsburgh, learning from her mother to listen to and identify the songs of birds and appreciate the wonder of the natural world. Carson made her first foray into writing at age eight with a story about two wrens searching for a house. She later enrolled at Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham University, to study English. A biology course taught by Mary Scott Skinker led Carson to a summer research position at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, where she combed the shore during the day, and at night peered into the water to watch what came to life under the moonlight. Read more…
Rachel Carson and Bob Hines, an artist who illustrated “The Edge of the Sea,” collect specimens of life from the surf in the Florida Keys in 1955.
Credit: Rachel Carson Council, Rex Gary Schmidt