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

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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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