The seaside scientific scribe

or advice from Rachel Carson's ghost

Those of us who live near the edge of the sea are so fortunate. We have a unique experience of the eternal. As we walk the beach, collecting shells and pebbles, we sense how we are enveloped in nature, the universal. We feel the very meaning of life.

Our culture was blessed by having a writer, Rachel Carson, trained in marine biology, poetry, and prose. Her sensitive writing documents those experiences of wonder and cautions that man is partly responsible for the changes taking place on this planet.

Here's the opening paragraph of her essay "The Marginal World."

"The edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All through the long history of Earth it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same. Not only do the tides advance and retreat in their eternal rhythms, but the level of the sea itself is never at rest. It rises and falls as the glaciers melt and grow, as the floor of the the deep ocean basins shifts under its increasing load of sediments, or as the earth's crust along the continental margins warps up and down in adjustment to strain and tension. Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow  a little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.

"The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and  of the relentless drive of life. Each time that I enter it I gain some new awareness of its beauty and its deeper meanings, sensing that intricate fabric of life by which one creature is linked with another, and each with its surroundings."

Three Carson books on life at the edge of the sea preceded her 1962 chart-buster, "Silent Spring." She made graphic DDT's effects on birds and fish. This heavily used pesticide was banned in 1972 in spite of a massive campaign by the chemical industry spewing misinformation and lavish lobbying. Sadly, she died early, at 56.

We could use her persuasive writing today as we see vested interests and some radical politicians denying climate change with its ocean rise, and blithely ignorant of the sea's chemical changes from fossil fuel use, and the warming of the seas which makes hurricanes more powerful and alters the fish population. I'd love to hear the ghost of this environmental crusader chastising BP, Exxon, the Kochs, the gas frackers, and the tar sands refiners.

We have some good science writers today dealing with these problems: Bill McKibben, Mark Hertsberger, Al Gore, NASA's Jim Hansen. But Rachel Carson, with her track record of closing down the production of DDT would be a most welcome player in the new range of environmental contests.

"The Marginal World" blends her sense of wonder at seeing flowers and starfish in a tidal pool with her scientist's concern with ocean rise. If her typewriter were still active you can be certain she would be writing about glacial core samples and disappearing snow caps on mountains. Her concern for ocean rise was prescient.

I'm sure she would be urging us all to wake up and reduce our carbon footprints. We have a very short time to act to avoid unprecedented disasters.
She would write another alarm-clock best seller.

The last paragraph of her essay is a reprise:

"There is a common thread that links these scenes and memories --- the spectacle of life in all its varied manifestations as it has appeared, evolved, and sometimes died out. Underlying the beauty of the spectacle there is meaning and significance. It is the elusiveness of that meaning that haunts us, that sends us again and again into the natural world where the key to the riddle is hidden. It sends us back to the edge of the sea, where the drama of life played its first scene on earth and perhaps even its prelude; where the forces of evolution are at work today, even as they have been since the appearance of what we know as life; and where the spectacle of living creatures faced by the cosmic realities of their world is crystal clear."

Richard C. Bartlett
Cotuit, MA

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