Rachel Carson would have been 104 today. If you don't know anything about her, you still might know about Silent Spring, her book about chemical contamination. Thing is, Silent Spring never really moved me. I think I was a spoiled specimen: I grew up in the late seventies, in a place where people taught me from early on the value of a pristine watershed. The way Rachel Carson banged the drum in Silent Spring just wasn't my jam.
So for me, today's an even better day to celebrate Carson's poetic, National Book Award winning, Burroughs Award winning book, The Sea Around Us.
BEGINNINGS are apt to be shadowy, and so it is with the beginnings of 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 eye-witness 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 the moon and the rocks were there, and, indeed, had much to do with the fact that there is an ocean.
I'm not alone in loving this book. You got bands named for it. You got songs named for it - from The Ludlows in the sixties - and from lately (Maine's Derby Line sings, "if it wasn't for the ocean we wouldn't have a coast no seagull song would ever be calling me...") You got a research consortium named for it. Rachel Carson's name rings out; so does this book.
Oceanographers and marine scientists have grown savvy about how they present their science in the last decade and a half. There's no dearth of stunning imagery and romance about their discipline. But if you swim up stream through time, you find that Carson helped lay the groundwork for that...long before we found deep-sea vents, and knew as much about methane-eating microbes, and expected so much of a deep sea world without photosynthesis.
So here and there, in a few out-of-the-way places, the darkness of antiquity still lingers over the surface of the waters. But it is rapidly being dispelled and most of the length and breadth of the ocean is known; it is only in thinking of its third dimension that we can still apply the concept of the Sea of Darkness. It took centuries to chart the surface of the sea; our progress in delineating the unseen world beneath it seems by comparison phenomenally rapid. But even with all our modern instruments for probing and sampling the deep ocean, no-one now can say that we shall ever resolve the last, the ultimate mysteries of the sea. In its broader meaning that other concept of the ancients remains.
For the sea lies all about us. The commerce of all lands must cross it. The very winds that move over the lands have been cradled on its broad expanse and seek ever to return to it. The continents themselves dissolve and pass to the sea, in grain after grain of eroded land. So the rains that rose from it return again in rivers. In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.
The book was a bestseller 60 years ago for EIGHTY SIX WEEKS running. My copy - given to me by KPCC's own Frank Stoltze - is 60 years old, and falling terribly apart. For this anniversary, a company called Open Road Integrated Media is publishing The Sea Around us in e-book form. "This ebook features an illustrated biography of Rachel Carson including rare photos and never-before-seen documents from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University."
I'm skeptical of ebooks and their weird segregated worlds. But this book, you can get in any form, to read anyplace. And no matter how you're reading those words, Rachel Carson, fisheries biologist, naturalist writer, will take your breath away.