Rachel Carson's writing is animated by a desire to make sea creatures understandable. Photo: Barcroft Media/Getty
Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Stanley Johnson's Diary

The author on iguana burgers, cricket with Boris – and what Russia really knew about Brexit.

My week began with the annual Earl Spencer v Boris Johnson cricket match, held at Charles Spencer’s Althorp House in Northamptonshire. This is a truly wonderful event in a wonderful setting. Boris’s team has not yet notched up a victory, even though we once fielded Kevin Pietersen. This year, we actually came close to winning. The Johnson team made 127. Charles Spencer’s, with one over left, was on 123. It was a nail-biting finish, and they finally beat us with only two balls left to bowl.

Clapping for Britain

The day after the match, I was invited to lunch at the Travellers Club to meet Alden McLaughlin, the premier of the Cayman Islands, and other members of his government who were travelling with him in London. I discovered that his vision for the islands’ future extended far beyond the financial sector, central though that is. He was, for example, proud that the Cayman Islands – like other UK overseas territories – contribute enormously to the UK’s biological diversity.

“The blue iguana is endemic to the Cayman Islands,” McLaughlin explained, “and it is one of the great environmental success stories of our time. It has been brought back from the brink of extinction.” If the blue iguana is on the way to recovery, it seems that the green iguana is superabundant. “We must have a million of them,” he said. “They are getting everywhere. We are working on a strategy to deal with them.” I told him that I once had an iguana burger in Honduras. He shook his head. “We don’t eat iguanas in the Caymans.”

Premier McLaughlin was also able to offer a useful insight into Britain’s current Brexit-related tensions. In 1962, the Cayman Islands were forced to decide whether to stay with Jamaica, as Jamaica became independent, or to stick with Britain as a separate crown colony. “We decided by acclamation,” McLaughlin told me. “One side clapped loudest; the other side clapped longest. The loudest side won. We stayed with Britain.” Like the latest Johnson-Spencer cricket match, it was a close-run thing.

Light touch

Last week, we went to the first night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and, in the course of an inspiring evening, heard Igor Levit, born in Nizhny Novgorod, give us a haunting version of Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto. There were mutterings afterwards that he shouldn’t have chosen Liszt’s transcription of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy as his encore, but if Levit meant this as a political statement – and he probably did – it was done with the lightest of touches. He doesn’t paint his message in huge capital letters on the side of a bus.

An open goal

My sister, Hilary, who emigrated to Australia in 1969, has been visiting. We spent two days on Exmoor in the middle of the week, on the family farm where we grew up, before coming back to London for the launch of my 25th book and tenth novel. Kompromat is a satirical political thriller that aims to recount the real story behind both the election of Donald Trump as US president and the pro-Brexit vote in last year’s referendum. There is a quotation from the former London mayor Ken Livingstone on the front cover: “It’s brilliant and, who knows, maybe it’s true.”

In interviews, I have been asked whether I really believe that the Russians might have been behind both Trump’s victory and Brexit. My response is simple. In the US, the idea of Russian interference in the election is being taken very seriously. Over here, we don’t seem to be bothered. I asked myself, when I started writing Kompromat in February, why wouldn’t the Russians have taken a shot at an open goal?

My fictional British prime minister, Jeremy Hartley, is a deeply patriotic man, convinced that the only way to take Britain out of the EU is to call a referendum – with a little help from his “friends”. But I don’t want to give too much away. Channel 4 has bought the rights and will be programming six half-hour episodes.

All in the family

Hilary and I went to Wimbledon for the ladies’ final as the guests of her old friend David Spearing. Usually referred to by tennis addicts as “the man in the black hat”, he first became a Wimbledon steward in 1974 and, even though he has lived in Abu Dhabi for the past 50 years, he never misses a season. As the longest-serving steward, he gets to sit (wearing his famous hat) in the “family box” at Wimbledon, the one where close relatives of the players are invariably placed.

We met Spearing in the officials’ buttery during one of the intervals (Venus Williams had just been walloped by Garbiñe Muguruza). Later, as he walked us back to our seats, people kept stopping to ask him for a selfie. “I’ve been on duty in the ‘family box’ for 20 years,” he explained. “They all know me, from the TV or in person, seeing me sitting there hour after hour. The first time Andy Murray won the championship, he climbed up into the box to hug his girlfriend. I noticed he had missed his mother, who was sitting over to the side. ‘Don’t forget about Mum, Andy,’ I told him!” 

Stanley Johnson’s novel “Kompromat” is published  by Oneworld

Stanley Johnson is an author, journalist and former Conservative member of the European Parliament. He has also worked in the European Commission. In 1984 Stanley was awarded the Greenpeace Prize for Outstanding Services to the Environment and in the same year the RSPCA Richard Martin award for services to animal welfare. In 1962 he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry. He also happens to be the father of Boris Johnson.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder