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A Water World

Even during the recent days of fire-smoke, I relished my late afternoon swims. The tide is high. The water is clear and flat, often with barely a ripple on the surface. I stand knee-deep on the foreshore, looking out at the pink sky or into the smoky murk. I’m surrounded by the familiar landscapes, the rocky cliffs behind, the Living Rock Island in our little bay, the rocks 30 feet offshore I like to swim out to. And when the air is clear, the dark contours of Stuart Island, with Turn Point Lighthouse beckoning to passing ships.

None of these places have a name, really. I only know their shapes, their places in the world: familiar pieces of land rising out of the sea. I’m cold standing there in the water, in a meditative state. I pause before my swim. I’m about to immerse myself in these frigid waters. I am aware more than ever that our planet is a water world, not continents, mountains, and islands. The earth is dominated by a mantle of ocean, teeming with watery life. The lands are mere intrusions above the surface of the “all-encircling sea.”

Rachel Carson and the Sea

Rachel Carson

I’m paraphrasing here. I’ve been revelling in the works of Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, the landmark book about the adverse effects and indiscriminate use of pesticides. It was published in the early 1960s and became the basis of the modern environmental movement.

Carson is best known for Silent Spring, but I’m thinking of her earlier books about the ocean and the life within them. The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award in 1951 and cemented her reputation as an authority on the oceans. It is a stunning work about the oceans, their formation, the physical forces that make up their character, and the wildlife that lives in them. The Sea Around Us carries the weight of her scholarship and story. But is imbued with poetry, the passion and urgency Carson feels for her topic.

Another book, Under the Sea Wind, is her first published work. It’s more a novel, though it carries the same sweeping knowledge of the ocean and its sea life. She indulges in anthropomorphism, where she attributes human characteristics to a few of the sea creatures she discusses.

Bird’s eye view; Eel’s eye view

For a scientist like Carson, this is a bit controversial. She gives names to three creatures she uses to discuss different aspects of ocean life, characters who each see the ocean differently. Scomber is a haddock, Silverbar, a sanderling (a wading shorebird), and Anguilla an eel. 1.

But Carson’s conceit stops well short of banality. It goes only as far as the animals’ perceptions, the instincts which cause them to behave the way they do, their responses to changes in currents or vibrations in the water. She doesn’t explain why Anguilla wants to return to her birthplace in the Sargasso Sea from her lake somewhere near the Atlantic coast. … just that she does. It’s a strangely beautiful technique that does not feel forced. A skillful writer!

A salty stream

Standing on the little beach at the foot of our cliff, I understand Carson’s meaning when she says that we carry a part of the sea in our bodies. How we land animals have in our veins “a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in seawater.”

And how we look out upon the sea and sense something familiar, a sense of “wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of [our] lineage.”

“And yet [man] has returned to his mother sea only on her own terms. He cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents. In the artificial world of his cities and towns, he often forgets the true nature of the planet and the long vistas of its history, in which the existence of the race of men has occupied a mere moment of time.”

Benign indifference of the sea

As I find when I wade out into the frigid water and experience that long, deep breath, as the water grips me and, at least on some level, I feel at home. The current carries me out and past the rocks. I sense the ocean’s strength, its vitality, its benign indifference.

I drift, staying close to the rocks, never moving too far from the shore. The darkening rim of the horizon stretches out before me, “ridged and furrowed by waves.” The first stars peek through darkening sky. There is a sense of loneliness, being here on these rocks, on this earth in space. The truth is that this world is a water world.

By the time I’m back on the shore, I’m reluctant to leave the water. I linger awhile, watch a seal eyeing me from a distance—a heron drifting on a tangle of bull kelp. A gull resting on the rock, I just swam past. Bits of green seaweed flutter in the current.

My skin tingles as I walk out of the water. The ocean will be there tomorrow, I think.


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  1. Carson’s Anguilla is referred to in the brilliant new book, The Book of Eels by the Swedish journalist Patrik Svensson. It’s a searching book about this common sea animal, of which very little is known.

2 thoughts on “A Water World

  1. I bet your calm sea is roiling this windy morning.

  2. […] In an earlier blog post, I wrote of Rachel Carson’s view 3that we carry a part of the sea in our bodies. How we have in our human veins “a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in seawater.” […]

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