Rachel Carson and the Sea Around Us
Carson was a visionary who understood the connection between people and the natural environment. She pulled disparate pieces of a puzzle together and developed a picture for the public showing the input of chemicals in one end of the chain could and did create repercussions in distant parts. She read and absorbed complicated scientific information and reshaped it into a form the public could understand. Most importantly her writing possessed such grace and imagery the public was convinced of the need to act, and empowered to do so.
Although Rachel Carson grew up landlocked in Pennsylvania, she fantasized about the ocean as a child. Her family had a conch shell on their fireplace mantle, and she would hold it to her ear and imagine what happens when the sand meets the sea. Carson’s first time seeing the ocean was during a summer fellowship at the U.S. Marine Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Curiosity about the ocean and its underwater galaxy of plants and animals would remain with her throughout her life.
When she was originally hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) she created a series of seven-minute radio spots on marine life, called “Romance Under the Waters.” Meanwhile, she continued to submit writings on conservation and nature to newspapers and magazines, urging people to regulate the “forces of destruction” and consider always the welfare of the “fish as well as that of the fisherman.”
In 1936, Carson was appointed as junior aquatic biologist, and was one of only two women employed by the Bureau at a professional level. During the early years, her work took her to visit the Chesapeake Bay, where she spoke to watermen and toured commercial plants to understand the economics and culture of the area.
During her free time, Carson wrote books about her government research. Her first book, titled Under the Sea-Wind was published in 1941, and highlighted her unique ability to present scientific material about biological processes and life forms in the ocean, and use poetic language to captivate readers by painting a verbal canvas of nature’s underwater fury. In 1943, Carson was promoted to aquatic biologist in the newly formed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where she created informational bulletins designed for the American public.
One of the most well-known series, called “Conservation in Action” was devoted to exploring wildlife and ecology on national wildlife refuges, and focused primarily on the Atlantic coast. Another series was titled “Food from the Sea” and offered information on proper preparation as well as the advantages of a diet including fish and shellfish to a public unused to eating freshwater fish.
Carson won the George Westinghouse Science Writing Award, which led to the Guggenheim Fellowship, an extremely prestigious award that freed her time to write her second book.
The Sea Around Us was published in 1951 and remained on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 81 weeks! With more than 200,000 copies sold, Carson won the National Book Award in 1952. This book is steeped in biological and geographical information about the earth, moon and tides, but her writing style was rhythmical and poetic – said to mimic the surge and flow of the tides and charming readers with the magic of the ocean.
“If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out poetry,” – Rachel Carson as she accepted the National Book Award.
The success from The Sea Around Us gave her the economic freedom to resign from her position with the government and devote herself full-time to writing. She began summering on Southport Island off the Maine coast. She spent her days studying the Maine coast and tidal pools and collected information for her third book published in 1956. The Edge of the Sea was a naturalist’s guide to identifying the organisms and creatures of the ocean, tidal marshes, shallows and tide pools.
It was only after spending a lifetime focusing on fisheries and coastal ecosystems that Carson decided to write the book that is credited with sparking the environmental movement, Silent Spring.
Carson reminded us human health and nature’s health cannot be separated. She reminded us that water, life’s most essential element, is the bond between the two. She reserved a special place in her heart for the beauty of our waters and its inhabitants.
For all at last returns to the sea—to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the everflowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
Last updated: April 12, 2007