In her acceptance speech for the National Book Award, Rachel Carson said this: "...no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry." Which was why her book The Sea Around Us (1951) was so popular. Rachel had the knack for making the sea sexy.
Of course, anyone who has visited the ocean is drawn to the undulating tides, but not everyone understands the machinations and the life forms dependent on them. Rachel describes it all in vivid detail. How the tides are drawn to the moon, following its waxing and waning, rising and falling with its cycles. One can visualize the neap tides, when the pull of the moon is in equilibrium with the sea and the highs and lows are not far apart. And the spring tides, twice monthly, when the moon is new or full, and the tides are at their highest. Rocks had "glistening backs...laid bare at low water." Waves are "armed with stones and fragments of rock." Her description of fog while aboard the research vessel The Albatross has an eeriness of a horror movie:
"Day after day, the Albatross moved in a small circular room, whose walls were soft gray curtains and whose floor had a glassy smoothness. Sometimes a petrel fluttered across this room, entering and leaving it by passing through its walls, as if by sorcery. Evenings, the sun before it set was a pale silver disc hung in the ship's rigging, the drifting streamers of fog picking up its diffused radiance. The sense of a powerful presence felt but not seen, made manifest but never revealed, was far more dramatic than a direct encounter with the current."
Her description of the grunion fish mating habits made me want to travel to California to witness it. But her words were enough to evoke the image of "shimmering" fish flinging themselves onshore on the crest of a wave. And once onshore, they lay "glittering" on the wet sand to mate. They bury their eggs before catching the next wave to return to the ocean - leaving behind their offspring. It's truly an art to distill the essence of an emotion, a place, an event in a format that is both brief and eloquent.
While her musings on the sea explain the technicalities, she brings the reader to a place where even the most minute organism holds a profound secret for all. Ending her essay titled The Sea: Wind, Sun and Moon in The New Yorker, Rachel describes how the tiny worm Convoluta, no matter where placed will not forget the tidal rhythm of its being.
This book was vindication for Rachel after the dismal failure of Under the Sea Wind. The New Yorker published a few chapters of The Sea Around Us pre-publication and by the time the book came out, readers were eager for more. In fact, publishing the chapters in serial format most likely propelled the book to best seller status. It stayed on the New York Times Best seller's list for 31 weeks, hitting number one. It sold over a million copies and was translated into 28 languages.
I've been told once my writing allows people to feel as if they are right there in the scene. I've also had a reader ask me why my work sometimes reads commercial and other times literary. Not all readers have the patience to divert their attention from the plot to a string of words that makes them pause for a moment to savor. I'm ok with that. In fact, reading Rachel's work makes me think I may be on the right path for my next novel featuring her as one of the characters.
Sources: Carson, Rachel. The Sea: Wind, Sun, and Moon. June 16, 1951. The New Yorker
Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. 1951.
Brooks, Paul. 1989. Rachel Carson: The Writer at Work.
Hi, I'm an author of contemporary and historical fiction. My next novel features a young protagonist from a lobstering family living on an island in Maine who pretends she's doing research for Rachel Carson to impress the people in her small town. Join me as I procrastinate writing the novel by blogging about Rachel.
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