The first generation of divers freed by the Aqua-Lung to rummage in coral reefs and plumb the dimmer depths of the sea found themselves at a loss for words when asked to talk about what they saw. “It’s not possible. You can’t describe it,” said Philippe Tailliez, a pioneer of oceanic exploration and a leader, with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, of the French navy’s underwater research group in the 1940s. Speaking to his fellow divemaster Philippe Diolé—as Diolé recounts in his memoir The Undersea Adventure (1951)—Tailliez then asked for a volume of verse by Rimbaud, leafed to “The Drunken Boat,” and pointed to this passage:
I dreamed the green night of extravagant snow;
Kiss of the ocean, unhurried, climbing the eyes,
Stirred saps, ineffable humours whirled away;
And phosphorus singers, a blue and gold alarm.
“The poet,” Diolé wrote, “is the precursor even of the expert in the exploration of the sea.”1
If the underwater environment eluded conventional depiction, it was in part because divers like Tailliez experienced the sea as a powerful sense distorter. Beneath the waves, refracted light and billowy particulate conspired to impair a diver’s apprehension of color, distance, and form. The “green night of extravagant snow” meant marine debris—a constant, gauzy fall of organic iotas, spawn, dust, and soot. Creatures defying creatureliness wafted in the currents: ectoplasmic things with no apparent organs, and what Tailliez later characterized as “fungosities [that] softly irradiated the gloom.” What was life if animacy sparked in these beings? What was humanity, for that matter, in this unbreathable sphere?
As divers challenged the limit of accessibility (then around forty-five fathoms, or 270 feet) they found themselves baffled by conditions within as much as without. Tailliez and Cousteau are credited with determining the causes of nitrogen narcosis (the “raptures of the deep”)—a potentially lethal condition experienced by divers inhaling pressurized gases, symptoms of which include disorientation, idea fixation, euphoria, and hallucinations. Before the development of a protocol to fend off the raptures, there was every chance that what a diver witnessed on their descent was a phantasmagoria of the mind, as much as of the ocean. To go down was to adopt, of necessity, the constitution of an unreliable narrator.
Rachel Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), took on the task of describing the ocean’s untold dimensions. Written just before the invention of the Aqua-Lung, Under the Sea-Wind cast light on marine environs most readers had yet to form a clear picture of—the domains of far-off albatross and sailfish, sea turtles and colossal squid. But the book arrived in stores just weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and as the war expanded sales suffered. By 1946 it had fallen out of print. Carson’s next book, The Sea Around Us (1951), was a more scientific work; it became a best seller and won the National Book Award. Its popularity spurred a reprint of Under the Sea-Wind and led to a third volume, The Edge of the Sea (1955)—this one attentive to the shorelines of the Atlantic coast and garlanded with sharp little pencil drawings of sea creatures by her friend the artist Bob Hines.
Carson’s landmark treatise on pollutants, Silent Spring (1962), has since dominated discussion of her legacy. In that book she showed how certain industrial toxins, rather than dissipating across time, might collect and persist in unforeseen sites. Chemicals intended to suppress noxious fire ants, mosquitoes, and crop-tattering bugs accumulated in the bodies of insectivores, and remained also as residue in waterways and soil. Immoderate use of pesticides and herbicides—even kitchen sprays for mothproofing and snubbing out pantry pests—exterminated many more animals than were targeted. Pollutants could circulate through agricultural food chains to eventually enter human diets. The allegorical silent springtime—a future prospect Carson wrote to avert—was one in which no birds sang, their flocks having been decimated by the “biocide” poisons that kept the fields green.
Perhaps because Silent Spring did so much to change the way we think about what is at stake in conservation, it can be easy to overlook how prescient Carson’s books on the oceans were. But if Silent Spring is about rupture, then the overarching project of Carson’s sea writing was to achieve a feat of connection—these are profoundly holistic books, tracing the bonds between natural forces and organisms. Now Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea have been collected in a single volume, The Sea Trilogy, edited by Sandra Steingraber and produced with great care by the Library of America. I read the trilogy recently within earshot of the Pacific, in a house I’ve never known to be swept clean of beach sand on Australia’s southeastern edge. The books reveal an author profoundly engaged with the problem of how to convey ecological knowledge—and how to decenter human life—within the existing precepts of literary form. The writing is by no means experimental or avant-garde, but the slipperiness of the perspective feels innately poetic.
The sea absorbed Carson long before she ever dipped a toe in a rock pool or watched a sandpiper stilt-walk across the mirrored flat of a beach. Born in 1907, she grew up landlocked on farmland in western Pennsylvania, sixteen miles from Pittsburgh. Though the tale may be apocryphal, Linda Lear writes in Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1997), as a child Carson is said to have stumbled on an ancient seashell, a large fossil dislodged from the rubble of an outcropping on the family’s property. What gluey animal of what watery kingdom once inhabited it? she wondered.
Maria Carson, Rachel’s mother, nurtured her daughter’s curiosity about the natural world, teaching her plant names and birdsongs and encouraging her to ramble in the marshlands that spilled off the Allegheny River. The young Rachel wrote stories about wrens and rabbits, and turned out longer pieces she titled “A Famous Sea-Flight” and “Just Dogs.” By eleven she saw her first piece published in St. Nicholas magazine. When she headed to college—first to study literature, then biology and zoology—her mother helped type her papers on an old black Smith-Corona. (Later she also pounded out the book manuscripts.) At the urging of a mentor, the naturalist Mary Scott Skinker, Rachel steered her graduate studies toward animal physiology and comparative anatomy, delving into the embryology of catfish and the salt tolerance of eels.
In 1935, after having been forced for financial reasons to drop her studies during the Depression, Carson found a use for her writing talents as a part-time field aide for the US Bureau of Fisheries. By then her father had died and she was living in Maryland with her aging mother, two nieces, and her sister, whose ailing health left Carson the sole earner in the household. A series of educational “fish tales”—short, factual reports composed for radio—marked a rerouting of her career away from laboratory research and toward public engagement. When Carson delivered the draft of an introduction to a brochure headed “The World of Waters” to her boss, Elmer Higgins, he handed it back with a benevolent directive: “Better try again. But send this one to the Atlantic.”
“The ocean is a place of paradoxes,” Carson wrote in that essay, which was published as “Undersea” in The Atlantic’s September 1937 issue. “It is the home of the great white shark, two-thousand-pound killer of the seas, and of the hundred-foot blue whale,” yet also of “living things so small that your two hands might scoop up as many of them as there are stars in the Milky Way.” She described undersea plateaus as “submerged islands…richly carpeted with sluggish or sessile forms of life” and grazed over by dandling halibut and haddock. She took pains to point out the regenerative economy of the ocean on a molecular level, where “individual elements are lost to view, only to reappear again and again in different incarnations, in a kind of material immortality.” Among correspondence from many readers came at least one inquiry from an editor eager for a book that would extend Carson’s tour of the seafloor—and a letter sent by the journalist Hendrik Willem van Loon, who compared the discovery of a voice like hers to “finding a new sort of…”—and then, as though the word had slipped through his fingers, he drew a nameless little seahorse.
The most trite synonym for “nature” today is “ecosystem”—a flat-footed, if useful, shorthand to signal environmental value that ranks ecological function above aesthetic virtues such as beauty, grandeur, or mere peacefulness. Though Carson herself seldom used the word, her writing popularized the idea of nature as a complex system, marking a profound shift in how its worth was measured. Maybe only because she started with the ocean was this possible.
The Sea Trilogy concerns itself with the entire net of marine life: how oceanic entities and energies touch, where they merge, where things come apart, reorient, or repel. And yet is this not also the only way to write about the sea? The flux of the oceans seems at odds with any settled portrait of their moods. Certain parts of the sea might be set off as environments with a specific, if mercurial, character: the hush-hush of a mangrove at high tide, say, or a bay where icebergs bump shoulders. But can a single, immense wave have a presence in history the way a redwood or a canyon might? Can a tranche of underwater dunes be as inspirited as a forest, as humbling as mountains, when those dunes are always being moved, toppled, and refashioned by storms? The surface of the moon may be even more foreign, but it is steadfast by comparison to the bottom of the ocean.
The difficulty can be stated, in a word, as vantage. As in, where should an author narrate from—where should their perspective be anchored—to best come to grips with the sea? Any answer to that question is bound up with the effects of scale. The fundaments of sea life can only be seen with extreme nearness: the minuscule confetti of nekton and plankton, the wavy flagella of a sponge pulsing on the seafloor. Other ocean dynamics—tides, bathymetry, sea winds—demand a higher overlook. Life cycles and marine food webs invite sustained scrutiny so as to observe how organisms grow, eat and get eaten, reproduce, die, and decompose.
In Under the Sea-Wind Carson solved this problem by positioning the reader to trail closely alongside thirteen animal protagonists, including birds of prey, fish of the Atlantic, a lemming in its burrow lined with seaside grasses, an eel nosing through the rubbery stems of pond plants toward saltier water. Although the creatures are given proper names and origin stories, they are imagined: each is concocted by Carson from her scientific knowledge to stand as an archetype. Take Lophius, the anglerfish,
a squat, misshapen creature formed like a bellows, with a wide gash of a mouth set with rows of sharp teeth. A curious wand grew above the mouth, like a supple fishing rod at the end of which dangled a lure, or leaflike flap of flesh.
Lophius isn’t real—this is not a document of animal visitation in the mode lately hyped by the Netflix film My Octopus Teacher (2020). But Carson gives him such specificity that he might as well exist, and that his supposed exploits take place without human witness adds to the impression of candor. He mushrooms up from a misty sandbank, quintessentially one of Tailliez’s fungosities. He stalks ducks above:
The forms of the floating ducks looked from below like dark oval shadows encased in a silvery sheen of air imprisoned between their feathers and the surface film. The eiders were watched from below by a pair of small, malignant eyes…. Lophius was well aware that birds were somewhere near, for the scent and taste of duck were strong in the water that passed over the taste buds covering his tongue and the sensitive skin within his mouth. Even before the growing light had brought the surface shadows within his cone-shaped field of vision, he had seen phosphorescent flashes as the feet of the ducks stirred the water.
Notice how we are positioned to view the undersides of the ducks in their cellophane wrappers of air even before Lophius enters the picture. What a strange effect that is. It’s as though the fish’s gestalt could hover somewhere separate, detached from the animal and beneath the water—a bubble of perception that Lophius ultimately erupts through in his pursuit of one tantalizing webbed foot. We soon learn that vision is not the only, or even the primary, means by which the anglerfish becomes aware of prey. He tastes as we might smell, discerning gustatory hints of feathers in the water as fragrance floats to us on air. All this sense-data brings us closer to an understanding of how an anglerfish registers its environment, what triggers and trammels its behavior.
Are we seeing through Lophius’s eyes then, apprehending the world as he does, savoring the tang of eider, and trailing sensitive fin tips in the mud? Not quite. The vantage Under the Sea-Wind takes on its main characters is close-range, but it is not internalized and so the animals’ feelings remain inaccessible. It’s the GoPro POV, an angle familiar to us today from sports videography—tethered to the activity (and decision-making) of an individual. As readers, our focus converges in the territory ahead of and around the fish; nearly all of the information we take in proceeds from what the fish perceives.
The effect of this is that, though Under the Sea-Wind takes no overt stance on animal consciousness, the outlook on the ocean is inflected by whichever creature Carson places us next to. What we see gets tinted by a sensibility seeped out of nonhuman bodies and minds, as though color gels are being affixed to a lens. The ocean is manifold and unalike, as it turns out, to an owl, a raven, and a sanderling, or to a trout, an eel, and an anglerfish. To borrow an expression from the American critic Lawrence Buell, Carson’s writing in Under the Sea-Wind proves an exercise in “disciplined extrospection”—the studied relinquishment of a self-centered perspective, guided by reaching out toward, but never quite enclosing, the viewpoint of another species.
All this might start to feel like a didactic puppet show, were the transitions between animals not so supple. Two chapters into Under the Sea-Wind and a beach flea peeps out from beneath a piece of sea lettuce. For a moment we are shrunken down in the scribbly flotsam along with the flea; we see it ping across a stem of sea oats as sizable to it (and, momentarily, to us) as the trunk of a fallen tree. Looming above is a ghost crab. The crab “steal[s] on silent feet from one vantage point to another.” Now “like a pouncing cat” it launches, seizes our flea, and devours it. Dot, dot, dot: we see leaping beach fleas through the eyes of the predatory crab.
Not for long. On the next page we are aloft with a flock of shorebirds, looking back at the beach. The cream-colored crab is camouflaged from the birds, save for the black dots of its eyes on their stalks. The birds’ racing shadows stipple the ground and panic the crab. We return to its side. The crab darts into a wave. Here comes the dark mass of a channel bass to eat the crab. Here comes a shark to eat the bass in a twinkling. What is left of the bass washes ashore, its carcass a groined vault for yet more beach fleas.
These wheeling connections are the principal means by which Carson varies the pace of her material, slowing or suspending our attention and then accelerating through several ecological touchpoints in quick succession. Pacing is of paramount importance throughout The Sea Trilogy, and especially in the first two books, because Carson has none of the traditional drivers of narrative progress at her disposal. Each of the animals steering the action in Under the Sea-Wind—whether Pandion the fish hawk, Scomber the mackerel, or Anguilla the eel—is limited to a narrow temporal envelope. Though they may live out their lives at distinctly different tempos, together these creatures share in a curtailed awareness of the past, and none contemplates the future (outside of, say, forming a premeditation to pursue prey). The past continuous is the only tense, hauling us forward from minute to minute.
Carson’s next ocean book, The Sea Around Us, broadened from a focus on wildlife to offer a more expansive, biospheric chronicle of ocean meteorology, geology, history, biology, and chemistry. A “biography of the sea” is how the Library of America describes it. Its publication in the spring of 1951 and serialization in The New Yorker coincided with the conclusion of Operation Greenhouse—one of numerous nuclear test series staged by the US on atolls in the Pacific. That the new threats of the atomic age could be at once transnational and obliterative (as a bomb) and disseminated and insidious (as radiation) only heightened the importance of a worldview capable of zooming from the planetary to the molecular.
Had The Sea Around Us been released two decades later, it might have found a dedicated readership in the psychedelic set. The accretion of detail is so fine-grained that it approaches the hallucinatory. Carson begins eons before human footfall, on an Earth as soft as an unshelled egg. The first ocean is tepid, elemental, and, after an eternity measured in mere paragraphs, bacterial: “The darkness of the nights alternated with palely illumined days, and finally the sun for the first time shone through upon the sea.” Unicellular protozoans blink out their existence underwater while the continents ripple with lifeless heat.
Then, “the seas crept out of their basins” to diffuse over the land. Vertebrates emerge. Next, terrestrial plants, then shorelines, amphibians, and onward through evolution’s grand zoetrope of life. The ocean takes its modern form: layered, salted, windswept, and whirled. The human body, when it arrives, holds the imprint of its aquatic evolution: its “lime-hardened skeleton” is “heritage from the calcium-rich ocean of Cambrian time,” and pregnancy is a float tank, an inward, miniature ocean.
The Sea Around Us is a more traditional book than Under the Sea-Wind, and more squarely settled within the genre of popular science writing as it is today. In learning about the sea, we are introduced to some of its most charismatic chroniclers, from Thor Heyerdahl to Edgar Allan Poe to Otto Pettersson. Carson moves to distinguish marine regions within a global ecology: sargasso jungles, dilute polar waters, abyssal troughs populated by beings as impressionable as plasticine. Each season is distinct: “Autumn comes to the sea with a fresh blaze of phosphorescence”—the flashy flowering of billions of algae in fall—“while below schools of fish pour through the water like molten metal.” Winter is when baubles of spawn begin “the swift divisions by which a granule of protoplasm becomes a living fishlet.”
There’s a treatise on sediment—its sparkling freight of meteorite fragments, shark teeth, and the ear bones of sunken whales. Only the fact that trenches and undersea dunes are hidden from sight beneath the surface “prevents them from being classed with the world’s most spectacular scenery.” Waves are shown to indeed have a life history, including one singular behemoth, a 112-footer, that loped past the USS Ramapo in 1933 and entered military record. Another documented wave tossed a 135-pound rock through the roof of a lighthouse keeper’s home in Oregon. Midway through the book a volcanic island is born: it’s Bermuda. Beyond that peak are more fractional and incorporeal subjects: the minerals dissolved in saltwater, the ocean’s temperature, a subsea sea of seabed petroleum, fog.
When she was writing her first two ocean books, Carson might reasonably have expected that the mackerel of her day would live lives shaped by the same forces as the mackerel of the future. But by 1960, when she wrote a new preface for a revised edition of The Sea Around Us, not only had how we look at the sea changed; the sea itself was fundamentally altered. Men in a submersible vehicle, a bathyscaphe, had returned from a depth comparable to an upside-down Mount Everest. Dredges surfaced organisms from trenches once thought to be unendurable, and ocean “rivers,” greater in volume than a thousand Mississippis, were found to be coursing the globe. New seahorses were named.
Scientific discoveries also began undoing the belief that the sea was timeless and changeless. Whaling ships found once-abundant equatorial waters whaleless—their industry was revealing the sea to be a site of mass extinction. What agitated Carson most of all was the sequestering of atomic waste in cemented barrels on the seafloor; waste that promised to leach from containment and mix, along with fallout from nuclear tests, into seawater, bringing about “universal distribution of radioactive contaminants.”
Carson was a feeble swimmer her whole lifetime. She didn’t have the opportunity to dive until July 1949. Weighed down by an eighty-four-pound diving helmet, she hung from a ladder off the side of a vessel named Nauplius, eight feet below the water’s surface in the Florida Everglades. Having freed her foot from a tangle of gorgonians (sea fans), she later observed that the sound of her breathing was “an agonized gasping and gulping.” The water was roily, the current strong; she lasted fifteen minutes.
It was her only dive. Her field notes confess disappointment and discomfit, but in correspondence with the naturalist William Beebe, Carson described the experience as “tremendous,” “one of those milestones of life, after which everything seems a little different.” Less a lie than a wish. Perhaps the true significance of the dive was that it confirmed her belief that, however heroic and authoritative a personal account of underwater exploration might be, such a perspective constrained what could be learned from, and about, the sea.
In The Edge of the Sea Carson nonetheless steps forward as an observer-narrator. She drafted the book from Silverledges, her cottage on Southport Island, Maine, where she at last lived so near the ocean that its spray settled on the house’s exterior walls. She had only to follow a railing down over the rocks to greet the water. Her focus in The Edge of the Sea is the littoral—that slippy, erosive intertidal space between seascape and land, where her senses were keenest.
One night the beam of her flashlight surprises a crab, and ideas of mortality, impermanence, and time leap to the fore:
The blackness of the night possessed water, air, and beach. It was the darkness of an older world, before Man. There was no sound but the all-enveloping, primeval sounds of wind blowing over water and sand, and of waves crashing on the beach. There was no other visible life—just one small crab…. In that moment time was suspended; the world to which I belonged did not exist and I might have been an onlooker from outer space. The little crab alone with the sea became a symbol that stood for life itself—for the delicate, destructible, yet incredibly vital force that somehow holds its place amid the harsh realities of the inorganic world.
The Edge of the Sea offers all the satisfactions of picking through the jewelry box of a beloved relative, holding each twinkling earring or necklace out to learn its heritage. Up close, there are tiny periwinkles, barnacles, conches, urchins, limpets, sea squirts, and starfish. Beneath a prone forest of dusky kelp at low tide, Carson watches as
the shells of clams and mussels again open slightly and little vortices of water are drawn down, funnelling into the complex straining mechanisms within the shellfish all the little spheres of marine vegetables that are their food.
Later “the water of a receding wave flows seaward like a thin stream of liquid glass.”
In The Edge of the Sea the vantage is even more microscopic and intimate than in the earlier books. We see a sea snail’s serrated teeth in the socket of its tiny mouth, and golden hair protruding from a horse mussel. In one wondrous chapter titled “The Rim of Sand” Carson takes us into the capillaries of water between grains of sand to observe the “interstitial fauna” (mites, larvae, crustaceans) that exist there:
All living, dying, swimming, feeding, breathing, reproducing in a world so small that our human senses cannot grasp its scale, a world in which the micro-droplet of water separating one grain of sand from another is like a vast, dark sea.
Yet throughout the book, we also remain marooned in our own world, watching from without. We are the onlookers “from outer space,” the aliens in the atmosphere. “I have tried to interpret the shore in terms of that essential unity that binds life to the earth,” Carson wrote, though much of what she found there reminded her of “the continuing flow of time, obliterating much that had gone before”—as the sea is wont to wash away all footprints, of birds and crabs and people alike.
On the day I finished The Sea Trilogy—an overcast, windy morning—I walked down to the beach. Eastern Australia was in the grips of a La Niña summer, stormier and steamier than when the equatorial trade winds take their time tracking more slowly over the Pacific. Studding the tideline were dozens of bluebottles, a type of jellyfish known elsewhere as the Portuguese man-of-war. Their crimped float bladders are reminiscent of potsticker dumplings in shape, but are iridescent blue, translucent, and puffed up with nitrogen gas. I pondered a large one. Forking across the sand the tentacles might have been a diagram of nerves in the human hand, or a river delta viewed from a thousand feet. The French have a term for this, or a phrase that comes close anyhow: mise en abyme. The small scene replicated within the larger one.
Until I read Carson’s Sea Trilogy I would have told you that I knew as much as I ever wanted or needed to know about bluebottles, which are common all along this coastline and to be studiously avoided because of their sting. But now I saw them through fresh eyes. Toward the end of The Edge of the Sea Carson recalls returning a stranded man-of-war to the ocean, carrying it into incoming waves in a bucket and then flinging it as far as she can. As she watches, the jelly pilots itself around on the water’s surface, visibly angling its float against the wind to change direction, hustling, as best as it can, into deeper water. “There was nothing passive in the attitude of the creature,” she writes. “There was, instead, a strong illusion of sentience. This was no helpless bit of flotsam, but a living creature exerting every means at its disposal to control its fate.” Heart-wrenching, no?—that a being this flimsy, as trembly as a deflated balloon, might demonstrate such indefatigable intention.
Bluebottles have had a banner year, their armadas piled ashore by the surging northeasterlies. A warming climate likely favors their breeding conditions, and, like several jellies, they stand to benefit from shifts in temperature.2 To read The Sea Trilogy now—when marine acidification, sea-level rise, and smothering algae are top of mind in any contemplation of the oceans—is to have a vantage that was unavailable to Carson in her era. She was aware of saltwater incursion and writes of the ocean’s encroachment onto land as an inexorable cycle yet to be understood, perhaps linked to the “fiery center of the earth” or “the dark spaces of the universe.” Even geoengineering makes a fleeting appearance in The Sea Around Us, as “recurrent schemes for deliberately changing—or attempting to change—the pattern of the currents and so modifying climate at will.”
Carson can’t have known how indelible our impact on the world’s oceans would become. But the intervening decades have made her efforts appear all the more germane. Whether in respect to climate, digital culture, supply chains, or global health, this sort of networked perspective has a new political power. We see ourselves both as ecological beings and as actors in vastly disseminated technological systems.
When Carson encountered her crab on the beach in the night and felt “the darkness of an older world” come swimming up all around her, she was not yet aware of how that emblem might come to signify her more immediate mortality. The crab in the Western zodiac is, of course, Cancer—a fainter connotation that does not escape the reader familiar with the trajectory of Carson’s life story. She underwent a radical mastectomy five years after the publication of the last book in The Sea Trilogy. Her cancer, the rigors of her treatments, and the vulnerabilities brought about by both ended her life at age fifty-six in 1964, eighteen months after the release of Silent Spring. She asked that the last line of The Edge of the Sea be read at her funeral: “The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.”
I am indebted to the work of Margaret Cohen, who has written extensively about the history and literature of the oceans and describes the poetic impulses of Tailliez and Diolé in “Denotation in Alien Environments: The Underwater Je Ne Sais Quoi,” Representations, Vol. 125, No. 1 (Winter 2014). This particular translation of Rimbaud’s poem, by Ben Belitt, appears in Tailliez’s book To Hidden Depths (Dutton, 1954), excerpted in The Mammoth Book of the Deep: True Stories of Danger and Adventure Under the Sea, edited by Jon E. Lewis (Carroll and Graf, 2007). ↩