Rachel Carson's writing is animated by a desire to make sea creatures understandable. Photo: Barcroft Media/Getty
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Fifty years on, we should celebrate the sea writings of Rachel Carson

With Silent Spring, Rachel Carson helped to launch the modern ecology movement – but it is her sea trilogy that captures her spirit.

It is 50 years since Rachel Carson died, her indomitable spirit finally exhausted by a long struggle with cancer and by a necessary but disheartening battle against the smear campaigns, misinformation and outright lies of the chemical industry she had challenged in her book Silent Spring. In 1964, it must have seemed that she had died victorious: the blanket spraying of DDT had ceased and a new wave of environmental awareness had taken hold, first in the United States and then worldwide. Indeed, many date the beginnings of the modern ecology movement to 1962, when Silent Spring first appeared, and although far too many compromises have been made since then a strong current of committed “dark green” or deep ecological thinking has developed out of her work and that of others.

The irony is that Carson would probably not have considered her role as anything like as important as has been made out (she saw herself as a nature writer who, somewhat unwillingly, got caught up in an environmental campaign), and in terms of her place in literary history the success of that campaign overshadowed the work she would have considered more her own – the great “sea trilogy”, comprising Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955). The commercial success of these books drove a concerned public to seek Carson out as a spokesperson on DDT, which led to Silent Spring. Yet it is the sea trilogy that ought to stand as her true legacy and finest achievement, both artistic and scientific, for it was in these books that she set a standard for nature writing that has rarely, if ever, been surpassed.

A marine biologist by education and employment, Carson was never far from the sea and treasured the shore, the ever-shifting line between land and water, as a place where we sense “that intricate fabric of life by which one creature is linked with another, and each with its surroundings”. It was that intricacy – a sense of continuity, rather than connectedness; of inter-animation, even – that she sought to convey in her writing, an intricacy that offers us an intimation of meaning, however difficult it may be to pin down.

Breaking the waves: Carson in 1962. Photo: Getty Images

“The meaning haunts and ever eludes us,” she writes, in the concluding lines of the trilogy, “and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.” As the origin of that life, the sea became, inevitably, a source of infinite study and infinite wonder – a word that features strongly in her work, along with unashamed invocations of “mystery” and “beauty”. Yet in spite of, or perhaps because of, her commitment to such seemingly unscientific experiences, she never forgot to ground them in rigorous observation.

The habits of sanderlings and ghost crabs, of mackerels and sea hares, are carefully detailed throughout the trilogy. We always feel that our guide not only knows these creatures intimately but feels a genuine fondness for their lives and habits. Indeed, it is this marriage of scientific accuracy with wonder that sets Carson above other writers of her ilk.

Yet how is this sense of fondness, of intimacy, achieved? Mere description is not enough, and sentimentality would be intolerable. Carson knew this and she also knew that, sooner or later, the business of art is to take risks – at a certain point, a writer’s success lies in what he or she can get away with. At the outset, Carson thought carefully (and out loud, as it were) about the biggest risk that she had decided to take. “To get the feeling of what it is like to be a creature of the sea requires the active exercise of the imagination and the temporary abandonment of many human concepts and human yardsticks,” she argues.

For example, time measured by the clock or the calendar means nothing if you are a shore bird or a fish, but the succession of light and darkness and the ebb and flow of the tides mean the difference between the time to eat and the time  to fast, between the time an enemy  can find you easily and the time you are relatively safe. We cannot get the full flavour of marine life – cannot project  ourselves vicariously into it – unless we make these adjustments in our thinking.

None of this is at all surprising; to imagine ourselves outside clock and calendar time is a salutary reminder of our own deeper nature and of how artificial our societally determined concepts and yardsticks are. Carson’s next step, however, is more controversial. “On the other hand . . . we must not depart too far from analogy with human conduct if a fish, shrimp, comb jelly or bird is to seem real to us – as real a living creature as he actually is,” she writes. “I have deliberately used certain expressions which would be objected to in formal scientific writing. I have spoken of a fish ‘fearing’ his enemies, for example, not because I suppose a fish experiences fear in the same way that we do, but because I think he behaves as though he were frightened . . . If the behaviour of the fish is to be understandable to us, we must describe it in the words that most properly belong to human psychological states.”

I believe this tension between what would be “objected to in formal scientific writing” and the desire to make living creatures real for her human reader is the key to Carson’s art. The risk she feels she must run is to flirt with anthropomorphism (even to the extent of creating individual, named characters to play out her dramas), just as the love poet must flirt with sentimentality, or the social realist with disgust, on the one hand, and determinism on the other – and her success in treading that thin line is one of the great triumphs. Rather than merely anthropomorphising her animal protagonists (in the manner of children’s books or old-style television nature shows), she animates our imaginations so that what could have seemed alien to the reader – and so inconsequential – becomes humanly vivid.

At the same time, because of the emotional investment she somehow persuades us to make in her animal characters, the general, purely “scientific” points she makes are more fully realised – a source of wonder that is not merely abstract but felt in kinship, as it were, with creatures whose experiences we could not otherwise comprehend. Such a fellowship of experience can be found, to give one example, at the culmination of Carson’s narrative of the eel’s life cycle that runs through Under the Sea Wind, in which she describes the mysterious process of spawning:

So once a year the mature eels of Europe set out across the ocean on a journey of three to four thousand miles; and once a year the mature eels of eastern America go out as though to meet them. In the westernmost part of the drifting sea of sargassum weed some of them meet and intermingle – those that travel farthest west from Europe and farthest east from America. So in the central part of the vast spawning grounds of the eels, the eggs and young of two species float side by side in the water. They are so alike in appearance that only by counting with infinite care the vertebrae that make up their backbones and the plates of muscle that flank their spines can  they be distinguished. Yet some, toward the end of their period of larval life, seek the coast of America and others the coast of Europe, and none ever stray to the wrong continent.

This is writing that cannot be objected to in formal scientific circles – yet, because the lives of the eels have been characterised to just the right extent, we feel the mystery of their world so much more keenly. It is as if Carson has singled out and reanimated that small area of our lower brains that is still part eel.

With the sea trilogy completed, Carson had intended to work on climate change. She had little time left for this – her cancer had already been diagnosed when she began working on Silent Spring – and we will never know what the outcome of her research would have been. As it happened, she was diverted into a task that she felt she was unqualified to complete (she would have preferred to hand over her work on DDT to an investigative journalist) and, as it happened, Silent Spring was a triumph. Yet we should not let it overshadow the sea trilogy, for these books contain Carson’s true spirit: her sharp eye, her measured lyricism, her curious mind. No other writer speaks so unabashedly about beauty and wonder; no other writer gets away with it so well. Today, half a century after her death, we would do well to remember her, not only as a combatant in the battle against greed and ignorance but also as an incomparable and exemplary celebrant of “Life itself”.

A new edition of “The Sea Around Us” is published by Unicorn Press next month

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WALES, CARDIFF
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Everything is illuminated: Rowan Williams on the art and faith of David Jones

Haunted by his time in the trenches and disturbed by the modern marketplace, Jones formed a world-view full of symbols and connections.

In 1967, the poetry magazine Agenda published a special David Jones issue, including a number of unpublished fragments of his work. The first of these was the brief piece entitled “A, a, a DOMINE DEUS”, often reprinted as Jones’s most poignant statement of his sense that the world of technology was making the writing of poetry – and indeed the other arts – impossible: “I have watched the wheels go round in case I/. . . might see the Living God projected/from the Machine . . ./my hands found the glazed work unrefined and the terrible/crystal a stage-paste”.

He had elaborated on this two decades earlier in a note addressed to the doctor who was treating his paralysing depression and anxiety. We are living, he wrote, in a culture where objects are thought of in terms of their usefulness. An electric light bulb is designed to illuminate human dwellings or workplaces; if an artist wants to evoke something about light more generally, the light bulb is not a good metaphor, because it is merely a functional object. It is what it is because of the job it has to do. But we need images that are allowed to resonate more freely because they are not determined in this way – fires, stars, the sun. How then does the artist avoid “a kind of invalidity”, a corrupting distance from the actual world of his or her experience?

Jones often wrote about “the Break”, the cultural moment somewhere around the beginning of modernity when the European world-view shifted decisively. Instead of a world where things were unique but linked by an unimaginable density of connection and cross-reference, we had created one in which things were unconnected but endlessly repeatable and where everything could be exchanged in the market for an agreed equivalent: above all, for money. Jones saw his work – both as a visual artist and as a poet – as a sustained protest against the Break and an effort to show that the older picture could, after all, be brought to life.

Born in 1895, he had family roots that helped to shape his interests from the beginning. His mother’s father had been a London shipwright and his father’s origins were in North Wales. Both Wales and London kept a central place in his imagination throughout his life. It was not surprising that when the First World War broke out, he enlisted in the 1st London Welsh Battalion of the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His 1937 masterpiece, the astonishing book-length poem In Parenthesis, describes the experience of foot soldiers in the First World War, revisiting his own experiences up to and including the disastrous engagement at Mametz Wood in July 1916. Jones was wounded in the leg during the battle (a wound described by the medical orderly as “a beautiful blighty” – serious enough to get him off the front line, yet not life-threatening). But he was back in the trenches in a matter of months.

The traumas of war stayed with him to the end. In Parenthesis, which he struggled with painfully over many years, is one of the most unsparing accounts of the life of infantry soldiers in the trenches and of the horrors of the Somme; but at the same time it meditates on any number of connections – echoes of conflict, from Troy to the struggles of the British against the Saxons in the 6th century to Malory’s Arthurian narratives, and, woven through it all, the founding act of bloodshed that is the death of Christ. Jones was raised an Anglican, but by the time he wrote In Parenthesis he was a Catholic, and believed passionately that the Church’s sacramental theology was what made sense of a world of symbolic connection, where nothing existed as an atom but where everything enriched the perception of everything else. For him, all art rested on the conviction that God had made a world of endless cross-reference, and that humanity was most fully human when it acknowledged this. Art was humanity doing what only humanity could do.

Thomas Dilworth’s welcome (and superbly produced) biography will clearly be the point of reference for Jones’s life for a long time to come. Dilworth has already written extensively about Jones, most recently a full and valuable account of the wartime years, and his research is exhaustive. He quietly corrects a number of errors in earlier biographical sketches and provides a wealth of detail at every stage – and he tells us that this substantial book is only part of a longer document that he intends to publish online. In all the detail, it is hard to pick out a single thesis; but in so far as there is one, it is that Jones is “the foremost native British modernist”, as Dilworth claims in his concluding paragraph.

This may sound strange, given what we know about “the Break”. But in fact, Jones himself believed that the modernist, post-impressionist aesthetic was a decisive break of its own kind – a break with representation as a sort of substitution, a recognition that a work of art is a thing in which something else is allowed to come to life, in a new medium: a picture is the scene or the human figure existing in the form of paint, as the Mass is the flesh of Jesus existing as bread. He insisted that his Catholic conversion began with his artistic conversion, and tried persistently, in his superb essays as well as his artistic output, to show what this meant.

The artistic conversion was dramatic enough. Dilworth reproduces some of the technically skilful and aesthetically awful work of Jones’s early art-school days, as well as some startling propaganda pictures from the war years: languishing virgins being threatened by hairy medieval Teutons, and so on. Jones needed to rediscover the extraordinary talent of his early childhood, when he produced sketches of a delicacy and vigour that foreshadow the very best of his mature work. Immediately after the war, back at the art school in Camberwell, he let his imagination be opened up by a variety of new impulses, ranging from El Greco to Samuel Palmer and Pierre Bonnard.

But Jones’s distinctive touch as an artist came to life when he threw in his lot with his fellow Catholic convert Eric Gill. He shared the life of the Gill family frequently for nearly a decade, in both Sussex and the Welsh borders, imbibing Gill’s distinctive artistic philosophy and gently but steadily distancing himself from it, and was for a while engaged to Gill’s second daughter, Petra. Gill mocked Jones for continuing to paint watercolours, insisting that carving and engraving were intrinsically more serious matters because of the manual work involved: watercolours were just decorative, the worst possible thing for a work of art to be, in his book. The Gill circle was a crucial stimulus for Jones, but ultimately one that allowed him to sharpen up his own understanding rather than adopt an orthodoxy. The watercolours, gouaches and engravings of the 1920s show a striking confidence. In 1928 he was nominated by Ben Nicholson for membership of the “7 & 5 Society”, probably the leading group of artistic innovators in 1920s Britain.

Jones’s acute and recurrent depression and worsening anxiety held back his output in the 1930s, though he struggled through to the completion of In Parenthesis. The later visual works – drawings, paintings, inscriptions – display an exceptional range of idioms and are increasingly characterised by abundant detail that is of filigree precision as well as unusual fluidity. There are religiously themed pictures: Vexilla Regis (1948), the great symbolic tree in the forests of post-Roman Britain standing for the cross as a sort of world-tree; the Welsh hill landscape framing the Annunciation in Y Cyfarchiad i Fair (1963), with its abundance of exquisitely observed small native birds. There are the “calix” paintings of glass vessels holding flowers, which deliver an effect of profound translucency. There are the inscriptions of Latin, Welsh and English texts, a unique corpus of work in which he defined a new approach to “monumental” lettering as an art form. These are perhaps the lasting legacy of his apprenticeship to Gill, yet they are anything but derivative.

In the middle of all this, in the postwar period, he continued to write, producing another unclassifiable poetic masterpiece, The Anathemata (1952), an exploration of both personal and cultural history, with the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday at the centre of everything. Other “fragments”, many of them very long, were worked on over years but never found their connecting thread; most of these were not published until after his death.

Dilworth provides a comprehensive account of Jones’s struggles with mental health. He was fortunate enough to find a sympathetic therapist who strongly encouraged him to keep working; but later on, a formidable regime of antidepressant and other drugs left him less able to focus – “groggy and slow”, as he said – and his productivity declined sharply. A temperamental indifference to social encounters combined with tormenting agoraphobia to make him ever more of a recluse in a succession of north London boarding houses and nursing homes until his death in 1974.

Yet his friendships were immensely important to him – friendships with members of the lively and critical world of Catholic artists in the 1920s, with younger artists and writers, to whom he was unfailingly generous, and with the two young women, Prudence Pelham and Valerie Wynne-Williams, who were the recipients of his strongest (but unconsummated) attachments. The breaking of his engagement to Petra Gill had been a great trauma, and his lifelong celibacy seems to have been the result both of this shock and of a deep-seated conviction that his artistic vocation could not accommodate ordinary family life.

He was a wonderful letter-writer; anyone wanting to get to know Jones should start with Dai Greatcoat, the selection from his letters published in 1980 by his friend René Hague (Gill’s son-in-law). Funny, ­affectionate, eccentrically learned, curious, irreverent and sad, they give a good sense of why Jones was so deeply loved by those who knew him. He viewed the world – and his own work and calling – with a gentle and vulnerable bafflement, but also with patience and humility. He seems to have had no malice in his make-up.

Dilworth does not, however, shirk the embarrassing fact that Jones expressed a measure of sympathy for Hitler in the 1930s. This should not be misunderstood. What Jones says is that, having read Mein Kampf, he feels it is almost right, but ruined by hatred and racial triumphalism. Hitler appears to him more appealing than most of his opponents, who represent international finance and impersonal bureaucracy, or Marxist collectivism. He later admits that he was simply wrong. But it is a revealing wrongness: he accepts at face value a rhetoric that opposes the market, and he seems to see Hitler’s passion and violence as at least a more honest response to national or global crisis than the “business as usual” of mainstream politicians. And how far are Hitler’s “opponents” being tacitly understood as the cosmopolitan financiers of anti-Semitic myth? Dilworth does not absolve Jones for dipping his toe into this swamp; but he does note that Jones was – more than many of his Catholic colleagues – intolerant of the anti-Semitism of much traditional Catholic thought and shocked by the persecution of the Jews in Germany. It is another sidelight on his fundamental artistic problem: a disgust with managerial, commodified mod­ernity that, in his case as in some others, can make a quite different anti-modernity, the fascist refusal of public reasoning and political pluralism, fleetingly attractive.

The other delicate issue that Dilworth handles carefully and candidly is whether Jones was aware that Eric Gill had sexually abused two of his daughters (including Petra). His conclusion is that it is very unlikely, and this is almost certainly right. And yet, looking at Jones’s haunting painting of 1924 The Garden Enclosed, with its depiction of himself and Petra embracing awkwardly, Petra apparently pushing him away, with a broken doll lying on the path behind her, it is hard not to believe that he intuited something deeply awry somewhere. The background presence of Gill’s omnivorous sexual appetite can hardly not have been a further complication in an already complicated relationship.

Jones’s reputation has probably never been higher. There have been several important exhibitions in recent years and Dilworth’s assessment of his standing among British modernists is increasingly shared. His thoughts as an essayist on theology as well as aesthetics have been increasingly influential. This biography is a landmark. It would be good if it stirred an interest not only in Jones as an artist and poet, but in the questions he faced about modernity: what happens to art in a culture where each thing is no more than itself, or its market price?

"David Jones: Engraver, Soldier, Painter, Poet" by Thomas Dilworth is published by Jonathan Cape (432pp, £25)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution