Under the Sea-Wind, Rachel Carson’s first book, was published in November of 1941, barely a month before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This wonderfully written book was considered by one critic to be ‘one of the greatest natural histories of the seashore of all time,’ but as the author herself noted, ‘The world received the event with superb indifference.’ The United States was preparing to enter into World War II, and this eclipsed everything else.
Ten years later, The Sea Around Us was published and became a best-seller. The success of this book resulted in the reissue of the author’s first book and guaranteed Carson’s fame as a scientist and literary genius.
‘Under the Sea-Wind was written to make the sea and its life as vivid a reality for those who may read the book as it has become for me during the past decade.’
The book is a series of descriptive narratives of creatures found on the shore, the open sea and the sea bottom. It’s divided into three parts:
Edge of the Sea: a re-creation of what the author observed on the North Carolina sea coast.
The Gull’s Way: a ‘parallel picture’ of the same time period on the open sea where the life of a sea-roving mackerel is followed.
‘There could be scarcely a stranger place in the world in which to begin life than this universe of sky and water, peopled with strange creatures and governed by wind and sun and ocean currents. It was a place of silence, except when the wind went whispering or blustering over the vast sheet of water, or when sea gulls came down the wind with their high, wild mewing, or when whales broke the surface, expelled the long-held breath, and rolled again into the sea…
It was indeed a strange world in which to set adrift anything so fragile as a mackerel egg.’
River & Sea: this follows the life span of the eel.
‘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…
She had known such a place once – in the dim beginnings of life, before memory began. She could not know that the way to it lay beyond the pond outlet over which she had clambered ten years before. But many times that night, as the wind and the rain tore at the surface film of the pond, Anguilla was drawn irresistibly toward the outlet over which water was spilling on its journey to the sea.’
I usually take my time with scientific books and plod along at a slowish rate but at times the tension of Carson’s narrative compelled me to keep reading!
She has a unique voice and writes in such a way that the reader is vicariously projected into the different experiences these creatures undergo. She attributed human traits to her creatures and the book reads like fiction while being scientifically accurate.
‘A dark form moved across the sand and through the rivulet of water. The rat seized the baby terrapin and carried it in his teeth through the marsh grasses to a hummock of higher ground. Engrossed in gnawing away the thin shell of the terrapin, he did not notice how the tide was creeping up about him and running deeper around the hummock. It was thus that the blue hero , wading back around the shore of the island, came upon the rat and speared him.’
One of my favourite parts of the book was Carson’s writing on eel migration. Here is a BBC article on their mysterious life cycle. The population of European eels has dropped by up to 98% over the past fifty years.
I highly recommend Under the Sea-Wind as part of a Charlotte Mason science/natural history/living books curriculum.
In the early 1900’s when Charlotte Mason wrote A Philosophy of Education, she observed that,
‘No doubt there are many scientific men who are also men of letters, and some scientific books as inspiring as great poems – but science is waiting for its literature; and, though we cannot live in shameful ignorance and must get what we can out of the sources open to us, science as it is too commonly taught tends to leave us crude in thought and hard and narrow in judgment.’
I think she would have been delighted to know that just over twenty years later a literary scientist would be writing with that sense of wonder Mason considered to be essential in the teaching of science.