Rachel Carson AHA! Moment - Chapter 2 (bryantwieneke.com/blog)
2. The Great Depression was in full swing by this time, and when Rachel’s father died, Rachel knew that it was up to her to support her mother and sister, who had been forced to leave their house in Pennsylvania and now lived in Baltimore.
Mary Scott, who had completed her doctorate at George Washington University and taken a position in the zoological division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was disappointed to hear that Rachel would not finish her Ph.D. When she was advised of Rachel’s situation, Mary Scott suggested her friend and protegee take the civil service examinations. Mary Scott also provided her an excellent recommendation.
Rachel did as she was advised and was hired into a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing for a weekly radio show that educated the public about aquatic life and the biology of fish.
The opportunity to write about ocean life was perfect for the twenty-eight-year-old Carson. She had always loved to write, just as she had loved to read, and she had written her first award-winning article at age eleven. The position at the Bureau of Fisheries combined her affinity for nature with her affinity for writing. As she wrote her weekly scripts, as well as other timely pieces for the Bureau, she discovered that having to write about a subject forced her to understand it at a deeper level than just reading about it. She became completely absorbed in the details of ocean life.
Of course, there were many stresses in her life, and throughout the country, as the Great Depression continued. Rachel continued to support her family. She found refuge in her work, however, even though it was only part time. She looked forward to receiving new subjects to translate into non-scientific language for the general public. Just a year into her job, she wrote a piece on Chesapeake Bay shad fishing that was, amazingly, picked up by the Baltimore Sun, reinforcing her sense that this job was the right place for her at this point in her career.
The U.S. Bureau of Fisheries agreed, and in July 1936 appointed her to a full-time position as a junior aquatic biologist, writing reports on conservation issues. She applied herself to this new position with enthusiasm, expanding upon the skills she had demonstrated as a part-time employee and becoming surer all the time that she had found her niche in life.
At the same time, she was learning a lot about conservation and the threats to it posed by the expansion of human habitats. She wrote an essay describing the continuity of ocean life, insightfully depicting the individual creatures as part of a magnificent, harmonious whole. This piece was picked up and published by the Atlantic Monthly, which not only paid well, but provided national exposure.
An editor named Quincy Howe at Simon and Schuster was the next to show interest in Rachel’s unique and compelling writing style. To her astonishment, he suggested that she write a book describing life in the ocean through the eyes of the creatures she so sensitively depicted in her essay. A novel called Solar the Salmon by Henry Williamson had been successful using that format.
Rachel was flattered at being approached for such a project, and, given the stresses of the Depression, she was also practical. She insisted upon an advance before she provided an outline for a story that would be set, for the most part, at Shackleford Banks, North Carolina. She proposed that her book provide an insider’s view of how organisms interact in the ocean and of their eternal quest for survival in a complex, yet beautiful environment.
When her editor agreed to the format, Rachel set about writing Under the Sea Wind. It was a slow process, partly because of her methodical style and meticulous attention to detail, but also because she had a full-time job at the Bureau of Fisheries. Rachel had been transferred to College Park, Maryland and was now writing press releases and brochures and editing technical reports. The family had moved to Silver Spring and now included the two daughters of Rachel’s sister, Marian, who had died at age 39.
As challenging as it may have been to find time to write, Rachel found the process of producing a book extremely rewarding. Her research had always been comprehensive, and she had learned much from her Woods Hole experience about the scientific method, but producing a book put additional pressure on her to be meticulous and, to put it bluntly, to be right.
Rachel Carson was determined that her book would contain nothing but absolutely first-rate, state-of-the-art, professional research.
She had support from Mary Scott in this approach, even if it slowed the process. They continued to communicate regularly, and Rachel was pleased that she was still able to bounce ideas off her long-time mentor.
In the spring of 1940 Rachel submitted the first five chapters of Under the Sea Wind, which was only about one-third of the book. But the subject matter and the style were both evident from this sample, and it showed Rachel Carson’s extraordinary ability to capture the wonder of nature. She used a variety of techniques, including providing the perspective of various animals as they experience the adventure, and sometimes the terror, of life. Her descriptions were vivid without being technical, and her study of nature was direct and personal.
Her editor, Quincy Howe, said everyone at Simon and Schuster loved it.
“Keep it coming!” Howe wrote cheerily, probably hoping the other chapters would be done faster.
However, even with her motivation and the encouragement, the book was not done until well into the following year. It was finally published in November 1941. Rachel was proud of her book, and Quincy Howe seemed very satisfied.
The story in Under the Sea Wind begins with a lyrical description of an island full of birds. The island was draped in light and shadows, the color of steel, “so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.” A group of new birds appear. Rachel gives one of the black skimmers a name, Ryndrops. With the other skimmers, Ryndrops settles on a strip of sand that the flock would use as their nesting grounds.
The reader is allowed into Ryndrops’ thoughts as he takes flight over the shallow water. His long, slender beak causes vibrations that bring the small fish to the surface. Turning around at the end of the bank, Ryndrops swoops back over the water, lapping up the small fishes as he goes. He shouts his success to the other skimmers, who screech in response.
From there, Ryndrops and the other skimmers soar over the coastline, described by Carson in vivid prose that captures both the grandeur and intensity of the natural setting. Small waves splash onto the beach, then withdraw in a rhythm known to all creatures living at the seashore. Larger birds, like the terrapins, lay their eggs in the water as a great blue heron surveys the landscape, looking for food.
At dusk fisherman on the island go out to set their gill nets, as their families had done for generations, catching shad and other fish. Eels soon appear, taking advantage of the easy pickings. When the net is raised before dawn the next morning, the nets will be emptied into a boat and the unwanted fish parts tossed into the ocean, a feast for the marine life.
During the night, a diverse set of birds fly above and descend onto the shore. Sanderlings hunt sand fleas and crabs, competing with the terns. The tides change during the night and more waterfowl arrive, including showy egrets, which are a startling white color against the dark background, and great blue herons, who majestically survey their surroundings.
As the sun rises, a light wind picks up and the birds take flight. Many fish lay their eggs in the water, and they bob on the surface. The reader is introduced to a young mackerel named Scomber, who survives many hazards while drifting on the tide with the plankton. The reader follows the small fish’s development as he moves through waters replete with pollock, herring, big-eyed shrimp and squid. Yet, despite the dramatic moments, including a number of dangerous interactions with humans, the mackerel survives,
The book goes on to follow Anguilla, the eel, who lives in a pond at the base of a hill, two hundred miles from the sea. She follows the stormy water into a rushing stream over the falls and into another pond. Joined there by another eel, they slither through the countryside in the rivulets created by the rains until the many tributaries finally coalesce into a mighty river. The river connects to a bay and finally to the ocean.
Although the book had taken longer to write than she had anticipated, Rachel was pleased with the result. So was Simon and Schuster, which was hopeful that a solid promotional effort would lead to nice profits for both the publishing company and the author. They thought Under the Sea Wind could open the door to a new type of nature writing, with Rachel Carson at the helm.
It was not to be. Under the Sea Wind underperformed miserably. Rachel was disappointed, even though she understood that unless an author had a strong reputation and proven track record, every book was a crap shoot.
And she still had her full-time job.
At the Bureau of Fisheries, she continued to focus on conservation issues, as part of the U.S.’s growing interest in conservation of all animal life. The government reflected this national concern and built on Theodore Roosevelt’s turn-of-the-century efforts to preserve the American wilderness. It was clear that the threats to wildlife due to urbanization and industrialization were increasing exponentially. Species of birds were becoming endangered, and the bison were vanishing.
As an avid hiker and bird-watcher, Rachel endorsed efforts to protect birds and other wildlife. Her FWS press releases frequently mentioned the threat posed by an encroaching civilization, as well as the effects of pest-control chemicals used to protect farmland and eradicate pests throughout the United States. In August 1945, she wrote the first of three press releases about the use of DDT, or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which was being promoted as a kind of miracle elixir. However, there was increasing evidence that, even as DDT was effectively killing all kinds of pests, this powerful chemical also killed non-harmful insects and adversely affected fish and wildlife in and around the target areas.
In her next assignment, Rachel was sent to Chincoteague and Assateague Islands in Virginia to begin a series of pamphlets, labeled Conservation in Action. These pamphlets would describe the work the FWS was doing to preserve and protect the natural environment for migrating ducks, geese and other waterfowl, including the establishment of sanctuaries.
Of course, sanctuaries in beautiful areas where communities could be built – or already had been built – and businesses thrived were controversial. Her next trip, accompanied by Kay Howe Briggs, proved that point. The proposal for a wildlife refuge on Plum Island was vehemently opposed by many local farmers and businesses despite its demonstrated importance as a “flyway” for East Coast birds. The project moved forward, despite the vigorous opposition.
The Conservation in Action series continued to address issues raised by the FWS’s goal to protect lands and wildlife from existential threats. The pamphlets explained that the habit from the early days of American settlement by Europeans had been to develop wildlife habitats without regard for the natural flora and fauna. Through Rachel Carson’s writings, the FWS tried to demonstrate the importance of protecting the land, as well as the animals that depended on it, in what were now seven hundred National Wildlife Refuges.
About this time, despite the disappointing sales of Under the Sea Wind, Rachel began to consider a second book, one that would integrate conservation concerns into a broad introduction to the ocean, from its origins to recent scientific discoveries. She sensed that people were entranced, even captivated by the ocean, yet knew so little about it. While never arrogant, Rachel had the confidence that she could tell this story in a way that would interest everyone – from a reader who wanted to understand the ocean’s evolution to the one who was curious about why fish have gills.
When she had a sample of the first chapter and outline, Rachel sought an agent to promote her new book, as well as to help her avoid the disconcerting fate of her first one.
Among several possibilities, she chose Marie Rodell, who believed in the new project almost as much as Rachel.