The Sea Around Us, Rachel Carson. New York: Open Road Media, 2011 (first published 1951).
Summary: A survey of what is known about the oceans– including their beginnings, the dynamics of currents, tides and waves, the topography of the oceans, the life within, and our own relationship with this dominant feature of our planet.
Rachel Carson is probably best known for her book Silent Spring (reviewed here) on the environmental impacts of pesticides, notably DDT, that led to its eventual banning. However, it was The Sea Around Us, published eleven years earlier that brought Carson to national attention as a science writer. It sold over a million copies, won a National Book Award and was a New York Times bestseller.
Oceans cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface and account for 97 percent of the water on the planet. At points, oceans covered much of North America between the Appalachians and the Rockies and have left their traces to this day. Carson tells the story of oceans, mixing the latest scientific data available to her with a lyrical account of this most salient feature of our planet. Consider this passage about sedimentation:
“When I think of the floor of the deep sea, the single, overwhelming fact that possesses my imagination is the accumulation of sediments. I see the steady, unremitting, downward drift of materials from above, flake upon flake, layer upon layer–a drift that has continued for hundreds of millions of years, that will go on as long as there are seas and continents.
“For the sediments are the materials of the most stupendous ‘snowfall’ the earth has ever seen. It began when the first rains fell on the barren rocks and set in motion the forces of erosion. It was accelerated when living creatures developed in the surface waters and the discarded little shells of lime or silica that had encased them in life began to drift downward to the bottom. Silently, endlessly, with the deliberation of earth processes that can afford to be slow because they have so much time for completion, the accumulation of the sediments has proceeded. So little in a year, or in a human lifetime, but so enormous an amount in the life of earth and sea.”
With her writing, what sounds like a dull subject, sedimentation, takes on wonder as it is likened to an unremitting snowfall. It is a skill we see over and over in her work as she takes facts and explains them in a way that captures the imagination.
The Sea Around Us introduces us to oceanography from its account of the beginnings of the oceans on a cooling planet to the inhabitants of the seas on the ocean surface and in the dark depths (I found her discussion of squid, and their ubiquity especially fascinating). She explores the seasonal cycles of life, the topography of the ocean floor, the formation of volcanic islands (and their disappearances), and the evidence of historic rises and falls of the oceans, which in the past, and likely in the future, will inundate much of North America, as well as other coastal and low areas around the world. Even when she wrote, oceans were rising and glacial melts were in process, but in her time this was still seen as merely a cyclical occurrence, unrelated to human causes. Whatever you think about these things, one thing she makes clear–significant areas where humans make a home will be under water some day. The only questions are “how soon?” and “how will we prepare for that day?”
She explores the movements of the oceans, from wave actions to tidal patterns to the vast sea currents that circulate around the globe. The final part of her work considers the impacts of the oceans on our lives, from providing us life-giving salt to functioning as the earth’s thermostat (she emphasizes the incredible heat storage capacities of the ocean and how significant a one degree rise in ocean temperature can be), and finally our human quest to sail, circumnavigate, and explore the depths of the sea.
Those who associate Carson with environmental activism will be surprised at the lack of advocacy in this book. What one encounters instead is description that captures the imagination and awakens us to the wonder that surrounds us. And perhaps this is as vital as any advocacy, because we must first love and deeply care for that for which we advocate. Carson opens our eyes to the wonder of what we might sometimes take for granted and deepens the love many of us have for the sight and sound of waves, the smell of sea air, the delight we take in the creatures of the deep and the awe we have of the power of “the sea around us.”