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In the Abyss

In response to:

A Heroine in Defense of Nature from the November 22, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

In his review of my book, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson [NYR, November 22], Tim Flannery claims that I misused the word “abysmal” in a discussion of early attempts to measure the deep ocean using sounding lines. Flannery believes the word I wanted “was abyssal.” He is incorrect.

“Abysmal” refers to something that is like an abyss—such as the open ocean beyond the shallow continental shelf. It can also mean “unfathomable,” a perfectly literal description of the unknown and seemingly unknowable depth of the ocean that had not yielded to the usual sounding methods of the early nineteenth century. It is exactly the word I wanted.

“Abyssal,” on the other hand, usually has a more particular meaning pertaining to biologic or geologic features within a specific layer of the ocean between depths of 13,000 and 16,500 feet. I wouldn’t freak out if someone used “abyssal” in the same sense I use “abysmal”—but I fail to see the former as preferable.

Flannery doubles down, however, in ridiculing my use of quotation marks around “abysmal,” saying he can’t imagine whom I am quoting. I’m happy to tell him. I am quoting one of the foundational texts of modern oceanography, the 1912 classic The Depths of the Ocean, by John Murray and Johan Hjort, which uses “abysmal” in exactly the same way I do. The book is listed in my bibliography and I cite it multiple times in my endnotes covering the section on ocean sounding.

Meanwhile, as long as we’re correcting the record, my last name is Souder—not, as Flannery has it partway through his review, “Sauder.”

William Souder
Grant, Minnesota

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