Weeding out the bookshelves in my basement the other day, I found the old, dog-eared paperback of “The Sea Around Us” by Rachel L. Carson. I still remember the day I bought it at a book sale in my middle school library.
When I opened the book, I understood why I had exchanged my lunch money long ago for a science book, rather than the usual literature titles that would attract a future English major.
The introduction captivated me: “The enigmatic ocean-mother has always fascinated poets; here an eminent scientist presents a factual, informative, and comprehensive survey of the sea that retains the art and wonder of great poetry. Miss Carson describes the hidden mountains and canyons of the ocean deeps, how they are being mapped; tells of the ceaseless power of the winds, waves, and currents, and the paradox of the moving tides. She reveals the meaning of the ocean to man – the heritage of the sea that we carry in our bodies – and the riches to be found in its salty marshes.”
This was around the time that my parents bought property in Fogland, and I needed a guide. The book jacket said that Carson had continued her graduate work at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole. That cinched it. I knew the place firsthand.
The summer before, my parents had taken us to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and we were given a tour. My father’s friend was a staff photographer for the prestigious marine facility, and he had granted access to my parents, my brother and I to a world known only to research scientists.
The experience would have a profound effect on us.
My brother would learn to scuba dive and to pilot a sailboat and small planes. I think the seed to study and explore was planted in him that day at Woods Hole.
While I marveled at all I saw, I wanted to write about it like Carson, seamlessly combining science and prose to capture the work of the Creator.
A marine biologist, author of four books, and professor at The John Hopkins University, Carson chose a quote for the subhead for each of the chapters of “The Sea Around Us.”
For the first chapter “The Gray Beginnings,” the quote appropriately came from Genesis, the first book of the Bible: “And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” In “The Pattern of the Surface,” she selected a line from Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick”: “There is, one knows not sweet mystery about this sea, whose gently awful stirrings seem to speak of some hidden soul beneath.” The sainted monk The Venerable Bede supplied the quote for “The Moving Tides”: “In every country the moon keeps ever the rule of alliance with the sea which it once for all has agreed upon.”
When I decided to write my thesis at Wellesley College on a collection of nonfiction essays about Fogland, I once again turned to Carson for help. All the books on my carrel came from the shelves of the Margaret Clapp Library – except one. I walked over to the Science Center Library to unearth this book with a copyright date of 1950 that seemed ancient history next to the books on cutting-edge scientific discoveries.
I would defend my thesis in front of three English professors and one professor of Oceanography, who seemed so out of place among the tomes of Shakespeare and other literary greats on the bookshelves of the English Common Room. But my creative writing thesis was like no other – it contained the rhythm of meter and verse and the sea.
Today, decades after buying Carson’s book, I am amazed at the impact she has made on my life. This blog "Sea, Sky & Spirit" is testament to my lifelong fascination to the sea around us.
Thank you, Rachel Carson.
(This post is dedicated to the memory of Wellesley Professor of Geosciences Dr. Harold Andrews, a brilliant and kind gentleman.)