Rachel Carson was a marine biologist, conservationist and writer whose life and work should serve as an inspiration to any independently minded schoolgirl considering a career in the sciences. I wish I had heard of her when I was younger – she carved out a career for herself quite outside of the expectations that society held for women in the first half of the 20th century.
She wrote several books, of which the fourth, Silent Spring (concerned with the increasing use of pesticides and their effects on humans and the environment), is probably her best known. Her second book, The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, was the one that initially propelled her into the public eye.
The Sea Around Us is a natural history of the sea, based upon the oceanographic and scientific knowledge of the workings of the world’s oceans that was available at the time of writing. I read an edition of this book that Carson updated in 1961 with knew scientific developments of the last ten years, and there are other editions available with supplementary chapters that bring the science and oceanography completely up to date. The required updates aren’t sufficiently vast to render the book useless or even annoyingly out of date, and indeed, once you’ve read some of Carson’s prose it becomes clear that the majesty and poetry of the sea is as much the subject matter here as the science.
The first chapter of the book, describing the origins of the oceans, reads like a creation myth – one that has some science behind it, however! It just begs to be read by a sonorous, James Earl Jones-type voice, and captures perfectly what it is about the ocean that fascinates us. Here is the first paragraph:
Beginnings are apt to be shadowy, and so it is with that great mother of life, the sea. Many people have debated how and when the earth got its ocean, and it is not surprising that their explanations do not always agree. For the plain and inescapable truth is that no one was there to see, and in the absence of eyewitness accounts there is bound to be a certain amount of disagreement. So if I tell here the story of how the young planet Earth acquired an ocean, it must be a story pieced together from many sources and containing whole chapters the details of which we can only imagine. The story is founded on the testimony of the earth’s most ancient rocks, which were young when the earth was young; on other evidence written on the face of the earth’s satellite, the moon; and on hints contained in the history of the sun and the whole universe of star-filled space. For although no man was there to witness this cosmic birth, the stars and moon and the rocks were there, and, indeed, had much to do with the fact that there is an ocean.
The Sea Around Us, Chapter 1, “The Gray Beginnings”
Carson’s focus is more on oceanographic information than on marine biology, although she does devote several chapters to the life found within the oceans. It was lovely to read about the palolo worms of Samoa, after seeing the BBC South Pacific episode that deals with them. Carson also writes with reverence about the sargassum weed that is captured in a massive gyre in the Atlantic ocean, and describes the hosts of small creatures that make their homes in and beneath the weed.
My favourite sections were the chapter on the birth of an island through volcanic processes, and her explanation of tides. In my reading prior to our Malta holiday last year, I tried desperately to figure out why in Malta there is almost no tidal movement, and in other places (Jersey in the Channel Islands and the Bay of Fundy spring to mind) the tidal range is so vast. Moreover, not all parts of the world experience two high tides per day – some regions, such as the Gulf of Mexico, only experience one high and low tide daily. How could this possibly be the case? Carson explains tidal science as simply as it can be done, and in the process gave me just enough information to satisfy my curiosity but not enough to give me a headache. Tides are determined by the moon and to a lesser extent the sun – every school pupil knows this – but the shape of the coastline, ocean basins and nearby land masses also go a long way to determining tidal range and frequency. If you’re interested in this subject you could do some preliminary reading here, here and here.
This is one of those books that will delight ocean-minded people, but that will also persuade those who are less fascinated with the sea that it is something wonderful and worth thinking about. Carson’s conservationist urgency is less to the forefront of this book than, say, Carl Safina‘s is in his books, but it is there nonetheless. I found it deeply disturbing that sixty years ago it was already painfully obvious that fishing pressure at its then-current levels (nowhere near as technologically advanced as it is today) was removing marine life from the ocean faster than natural processes of birth and growth could replace it.
The Sea Around Us is a beautiful and important book that will occupy your thoughts long after you finish reading it. You can buy the book here if you are in South Africa, and here if you’re not. For Kindle, try here or here.