- The Birth of an Island:Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us
At the end of this summer I drove up the Massachusetts coast to Marble-head, eventually reaching Rockport at the northernmost tip of the Cape Ann headland. It would only be a matter of time before the scaffold of obligations would heave, but there was something about this familiar coastline that was drawing me out. The whole area is a massive granite bedrock, contoured in the last ice age. It is shaped in glacial ridges and depressions where the rock is cut through with natural reservoirs and swamps. At the time, I was thinking about how a mountain reveals a mountain, a desert reveals a desert—every environment reveals itself. Or, at least it can. And Cape Ann feels close to its elements: rocks, air, cold salt water.
And so in Rockport, I cut a path around a blue quarry, through catbriar and shadbush, to the Atlantic's flashing edge. But when I closed my eyes against the glare I could have been anywhere—like still at the quarry. In fact, there was nothing remarkable about the day, save its extreme clarity. Depending on where you stood, you could see Ipswich Bay or what I think was the Isle of Shoals in New Hampshire. If you were in a boat you would come upon the Dry Salvages due east—white-capped rocks, notorious in shipwreck, memorialized in American literature.
My small discovery wasn't to be about a vista as much as it was another city, cramped and glistening in the rocks, and tightly packed in little tidal ponds and channels. Mussel beds covered in seaweed and oozing red algae were somehow breathing. These little pods bubbled up like another context for thinking about community at a different scale. It had nothing to do with taxonomic parceling into some larger biological unit to reveal a story of geological nesting. If the ocean was a story, as Rachel Carson purported [End Page 292] it to be, it was a story of cohabitation. All life was this: permeability and pull—rhythms that originate outside and draw us in.
And it is this sense of a slow, layered immersion into another world, where our stock frameworks of time and progress fall away, that makes Rachel Carson's 1951 classic The Sea Around Us most luminous. Carson, not surprisingly, knew Cape Ann. She also knew the waterfront at Duxbury, just a short distance south of Rockport, where her friend and fellow scientist Olga Owen Huckins once kept a bird sanctuary. In January 1958, Huckins sat at the typewriter and wrote Carson, whom she had not seen in a long time, to report the unusual bird behavior and deaths immediately after aerial DDT spraying. "Olga Owens Huckins told me of her own bitter experience of a small world made lifeless," Carson wrote in her acknowledgments for Silent Spring (1962, ix). These small worlds of interlocking pieces were the building materials that held together all of Carson's scientific writing and that were most charged and vibrant in her writing about the sea.
The Sea Around Us is effectively the centerpiece of Carson's ocean trilogy. Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), is a succession of narratives about birds, fish, and eels, arranged to unfold ecological lifecycles in story form. Animals, she shows, are the transports—and subjects in their own rights—that get us closest to the seabed, life on the shore, and migrations in the air. In her final book in the series, The Edge of the Sea (1955), illustrated by the national wildlife artist Bob Hines, Carson was closest to writing what she thought of as home: the Atlantic rock, sand, and coral reef shores, from Maine to the back sounds of North Carolina's Outer Banks (now the site of Rachel Carson Reserve). In each book Carson shows us how the ocean is interactive with all life. In fact, in the preface to the 1961 edition of The Sea Around Us, she convincingly censured the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission) for licensing radioactive waste dumping in coastal seas. Carson ended...