Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson

Under the Sea-Wind (1941) was Rachel Carson’s literary debut and the first title in her Sea Trilogy, three books she wrote about the sea, the second The Sea Around Us (1951) and finally The Edge of the Sea (1955).

I discovered Under the Sea-Wind one day because I felt sure someone must have written a book about the sea, as I had imagined.

I like to read page-turning, lyrical nature writing, the kind of prose written by poets, though not poetry; authors like Kathleen Jamie who wrote Findings (my review here) and Sightlines, Barry Lopez and his Arctic Dreams (review here), Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. They are all books that fascinate, entertain and enthrall on the subject of nature, in a way that traditional, factual texts about those subjects rarely inspire.

So I asked myself, well who has written in this form, about the sea? Because the sea is my muse, my resting place, that living, moody, playful, dangerous place that I never tire of and rarely get enough of and I wanted to read something that attempted to articulate the essence of it. So I could bring the sea nearer to me, when I can’t go to her. In that search I discovered Rachel Carson’s literary debut, her personal favourite book of all those she wrote, a book all about the sea, invoking its mystery and wonder.

The book started out as an assignment she completed in 1936, when she was an unemployed zoologist and freelance writer for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Asked to write an introduction to a brochure on marine life, she submitted an essay entitled “The World of Waters” neatly typed by her mother, as all her manuscripts would be.

The next day Carson sat in Higgins’s Washington D.C. office waiting for his verdict.The government ichthyologist knew at once that it was unsuitable. What he was reading was a piece of literature. Carson never forgot the conversation: ‘My chief…handed it back with a twinkle in his eye. ‘I don’t think it will do,’ he said. ‘Better try again. But send this one to the Atlantic Monthly.’

The essay was a narrative account of the countless sea creatures that cohabit in and underwater and introduced her two most enduring and renowned themes: the ecological relationships of ocean life that have been in existence for millenia and the material immortality that embraces even the tiniest organism. It was the essay that spawned a classic in nature literature.

A sanderling shore bird

A sanderling shore bird

Under the Sea-Wind is structured in three parts, and in each part, we view the sea and sea life from the point of view of one of its inhabitants.

In Part One, Edge of the Sea, written for the life of the shore, and inspired by a stretch of North Carolina sea-coast, we meet a female sanderling she names Silverbar, it is Spring and the great Spring migration of shore birds is at its height and concludes with the end of summer where the movements of  birds, fish, shrimp and other water creatures heralds the changing of the seasons.

“Pressing close to the backwash, Silverbar saw two shining air bubbles pushing away the sand grains and she knew that a crab was beneath. Even as she watched the bubbles her bright eyes saw that a wave was taking form in the tumbling confusion of the surf. She gauged the speed of the mound of water as it ran, toppling, up the beach. Above the deeper undertones of moving water she heard the lighter hiss that came as the crest began to spill. Almost in the same instant the feathered antennae of the crab appeared above the sand. Running under the very crest of the green water hill, Silverbar probed vigorously in the wet sand with opened bill and drew out the crab. Before the water could so much as wet her legs she turned and fled up the beach.”

She describes the terror of the shore birds as they hide in the beach grass from the noisy, boisterous migrating flocks that briefly occupy their territory; the terrible snow storm that will freeze hundreds of egg embryos, where only the fittest and strongest survive; the way the birds lure a fox away from their nests and the day the parents finally abandon their young, their job complete.

A school of Mackerel

A school of Mackerel

Part Two The Gull’s Way, is dedicated to the open sea, a parallel time period in the open ocean and here we encounter Scomber the mackerel, following his journey from birth through infancy and youth in a quiet New England harbour, only to join a school that follows its instinct into the great sea where numerous predators await. As the fish move from one location to the next, trying to outwit predators, including man, the sea becomes the scene of a thriller and Scomber the mackerel, our fugitive!

Anguilla, the eel

Anguilla, the eel

Part Three River and Sea is written in the deepest, darkest, fathoms, we follow Anguilla, the eel from the far tributaries of a coastal river pool, downstream to the gently sloping depths of the sea, ‘the steep descent of the continental slopes and finally the abyss’.

After 10 years of uneventful river habitation, the eels are drawn by instinct downriver returning to their place of birth, a deep abyss near the Sargasso Sea where they will spawn and die. It is the most remarkable journey, as is that of the newborn spawn originating from two continents, who float side by side and drift towards those same coastal rivers their parents swam from, a voyage of years and over time the two species will separate and veer towards their continent, the US or Europe.

“Anguilla had entered Bittern Pond as a finger-long elver ten years before. She had lived in the pond through its summers and autumns and winters and springs, hiding in its weed beds by day and prowling through it waters by night, for like all eels she was a lover of darkness…Now it was autumn again… a strange restiveness was growing in Anguilla the eel. For the first time in her adult life, the food hunger was forgotten. In its place was a strange, new hunger, formless and ill-defined. Its dimly perceived object was a place of warmth and darkness – darker than the blackest night over Bitten Pond.  She had known such a place once – in the dim beginnings of life, before memory began. Many times that night, as the wind and rain tore at the surface film of the pond, Anguilla was drawn irresistibly towards the outlet over which the water was spilling on its journey to the sea.”

Rachel Carson writes about the sea, the sand, the birds, fish and the smallest of creatures and organisms in a way that makes us realise how little we observe of what is occurring around us, though we may stand, swim, float or fish in the midst of it. For the sea, its shore and the air above thrum like a thriving city of predator and prey of all sizes and character, constantly fluctuating, its citizens ever alert to when it is prudent to move and when it is necessary to be still.

Original, enthralling, it opens our eyes to much that we do not see or understand, I am in awe of shore birds, mackerel, eels, the sea, streams, rivers, ponds and the interconnectedness of them all.

Man, when his ambitions were more local, was once a balanced part of this ecosystem, though many of the practices of today appear to have stretched the boundaries of our role too far towards destructive exploitation, in our ignorance, we are upsetting this delicate yet complex ecosystem, which will be to our detriment if not stopped.

Fortunately, we have people like Captain Paul Watson and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who have made themselves guardians of marine wildlife, actively pursuing  and preventing those who exploit and destroy without regard for the destructive effect of their pillaging the oceans.

Rachel Carson explores the sea-shore, the shallow and the deep, seeing them from the point of view of three species natural to those habitats, while mentioning so many more that they encounter, in a narrative that makes nature writing absolutely thrilling and survival an astounding feat.

Highly Recommended!

32 thoughts on “Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson

  1. So pleased we were able to share time at the beach this year. I really look forward to one day taking you to Smugglers Cove to enjoy the sea both on it and in it:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s a beautiful book Heather and a wonderful collaboration between mother and daughter in putting it together, I’m happy to have discovered it and to share it. Looking forward to read the next one in the trilogy. You’re right, I could see and feel what the bird, the fish and eel were doing, feeling, exquisitely written!

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  2. I have to agree with your other commenters. This sounds terrific, definitely one for the wishlist. I love how some of the best nature writing can make us more aware of the wonders around us.

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    • It does make us more aware Jacqui, your comment reminds me of something Kathleen Jamie says in Findings, about what she wanted to learn from her walking among the birds and nature and which she succeeds in doing on the page, one of the reasons I believe it is so accessible to the common reader:

      This is what I want to learn: to notice, but not to analyse. To still the part of the brain that’s yammering, ‘My God, what’s that? A stork, a crane, an ibis – don’t be silly, it’s just a wild heron.’ Sometimes we have to hush the frantic inner voice that says ‘Don’t be stupid,’ and learn again to look, to listen.

      It’s like that classic writer’s adage of show, don’t tell, and when a writer does this, it inspires the reader’s imagination and takes them on the journey too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I have heard of Silent Spring, of course, but not this trilogy. And, I find that good nature writing is not what is talked about and seen around the most, so it’s good to have some recommendations for it!

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    • I bought Silent Spring at the same time after reading that this is the work that she is most well known for, but in fact just as you say, it is the little known work that appeals to me most and so I’m going to stick to reading them first before getting to the popular bestseller, which wasn’t the book I was looking for initially.

      I do often see the same names promoted, but find it’s worth digging a little deeper and looking in the less traditional places for reviews to hunt out the works that really appeal to me.

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  4. Hi Claire. Your article sparked my interest in Rachel Carson, so I found out more information. She was a pioneer in raising awareness about the effects of pesticides on living beings. Her book Silent Spring caused outrage in the sixties because the manufacturers of pesticides were concerned about their business.80% of the streams and lakes in the United States of America are now polluted with pesticides and we don’t know the future impact of the ongoing use of pesticides. This is taboo. This matter is ignored for the sake of profits.  It is important to raise awareness and to do our best to reduce the use of these chemicals.

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    • Hi Julia, I am so pleased you read more about Rachel Carson, she really did a lot to raise awareness of the damage humans are doing to the environment and inspired many to take up careers in order to do something proactive. I have a copy of Silent Spring to read as well, I couldn’t help but notice the importance of that work when I was looking at her work too, it’s great that she was able to reach so many through he knowledge and sharing it through literature. An inspirational woman!

      I love that this little known first work, which was her personal favourite has been reissued as a Penguin Classic, I hope they think to republish the next two as well. Silent Spring was published as a Modern Classic in 2000.

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  5. I love Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and I really want to read Arctic Dreams! I knew of this book by Rachel Carson, but I didn’t pay it much attention. Sounds very interesting.

    I do have to add, though, that in my opinion factual science books can be completely inspiring too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is so true about factual science books, you are right, I witness it every time I take my son to the library, he heads straight for the science, nature and life sections, it’s only facts for him! I think the non-fiction books I like to read on the subjects are a little like listening to a good documentary, the voice is important in carrying the reader along to want to read every word, unless its a subject that one is completely passionate about, in which case we would read anything and everything about that topic.

      I do hope you give this one a try and that you get to read Arctic Dreams, Barry Lopez can write on any subject and be captivating.

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  6. Another hidden gem you have uncovered, the sea is such a fascinating place and the varied places with which Carson writes about sounds wonderful, especially the Sargasso Sea which has always interested me since I started reading about Atlantis myths.

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  7. I love nature writing, too, and with ‘Silent Spring’ affecting me so profoundly when I first read it, I would remiss in not reading ‘Under the Sea-Wind.’ My own fascination with all things under the sea had me very curious about Marie Tharp when this book came out a few years ago: “Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor.”

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  8. I have all of her books (including ‘A Sense of Wonder’!) and love to re-read her work, especially ‘The Sea Around Us’. Her descriptions of our planet are often poetic and such page turners! I’m so sorry she died so young.

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  9. Lovely post Claire… hadn’t realised that Rachel Carson had written anything before Silent Spring… they sound wonderful and right up my alley…
    Another classic about the sea and nature is Henry Beston’s ‘The outermost house’, which never leaves my bed-side, and I’ve just finished Robert Macfarlane’s book ‘The Wild Places’… now looking for Roger Deakin’s ‘Waterlog.’.. and am about to re-read ‘The Kontiki Expedition’, which is a wonderful saga about the sea… you’ve really pressed my buttons with this post !!!!

    And oh yes, wonderful Annie Dillard… PIlgrim…. is also by my bedside.. have you read her ‘Teaching a stone to talk ‘?
    Do love your posts, Claire – food for the soul for a bookomaniac !!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Valerie for your kind words. Based on your bedside favourites this does sound right up your alley. Funny you mention ‘The Outermost House’ as a Goodreads friend recommended it to me when I indicated I like to read about the sea and then in the introduction to Under the Sea-Wind, we discover that it was also a favourite of Rachel Carson’s and that in 1952 Henry Beston wrote what was considered the best review of her book. She considered his book one of the greatest natural histories of the seashore of all time. I love how the discovery of one gem can unearth others!

      I wasn’t aware of Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk, what a great title, thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: Top Reads 2015 | Word by Word

  11. this is an amazing review, i’m doing a project on Rachel Carson and this has helped. Im reading Silent Spring but hopefully sometime I will be able to read this book,

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