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Rachel Carson's AHA! moment, Chapter 3

3. As Rachel worked on the book, which required considerable research and uncompromising attention to detail, Marie Rodell shopped it to potential publishers. The delivery date of the text remained an open one. After all, Rachel was still working full-time at FWS to support herself and her extended family, who lived with her. She often had to wait until the house was quiet late at night to write.

It was a challenging situation that might never have yielded results if this project was not so close to Rachel’s heart.

The Sea Around Us begins with a description of how and when the oceans came into existence and life first emerged there, later to move onto land. This evolutionary process continued until, much later, humans appeared.

The next section is devoted to life in the shallow waters of the coastline. She describes food chains in detail, the foundation of which was plankton, and then compared cold water versus tropical environments, stating that the “differences in the kinds and abundance of life are tremendous.”

Her vivid and evocative prose then extends to the renewal of ocean life, much like the spring renewal on land. Sea plants and sea creatures come alive. Then Rachel delves into deeper waters, discovering abundant life at mid-depths. As she goes even deeper, she finds life where it was once believed nothing could survive. She also reveals the strange effects of the darkness and intense pressure of deep ocean waters on flora, fauna, and living fossils.

The technological advances of the 1940s had allowed much more research into life in the ocean depths. She writes, “like the details of a huge map being filled in by an artist, the hidden depths of the ocean are emerging,” then discusses continental shelves and the ruggedness of the ocean floor. She spends considerable time describing the characteristics of ocean floors in different parts of the world, including sub-marine mountains, again acknowledging that much is still to be learned about these fascinating ecosystems.

She describes the phenomena of sedimentary “snowfall” and the dramatic volcanic birth of islands. In addition, she references the indisputable fact of rising sea levels on both U.S. coast since 1930, giving an historical view of the rising and falling of oceans levels over vast periods of time. Then she goes on to address waves, and their effects on the marine life of the deep sea, acknowledging that “. . . in the deep and turbulent accesses of the sea are hidden mysteries far greater than any we have solved.”

The Sea Around Us culminates with a review of waves, currents and tides, and the effects of the sun and moon on them. Carson also describes the ocean as the “great stabilizer of temperatures,” and describes how that process works. She also includes information on how civilizations throughout the ages have viewed the ocean, both its gifts and its wonders.

Rachel was never a fast writer, but as she produced more excerpts from the manuscript and Marie continued to promote the book, they began to get nibbles of interest. The most important one was from the New Yorker, a magazine with a wide readership and stellar reputation for publishing distinctive writings from new voices. When they learned that their editors wanted to publish not just one or two chapters, but ten, Rachel and Marie were stunned.

And thrilled.

While she worked away at her job and this exciting project, Rachel, now forty-two years old, had her first real health scare. Her doctor recommended that she have a mass removed from her left breast, and she agreed to the minor surgery. The mass turned out to be benign, which was obviously a great relief, and Rachel took a short vacation in North Carolina. At the seashore, of course.

The New Yorker serialization of The Sea Around Us began in the summer of 1951. The reaction from the public was swift and almost universally positive. It seemed like Rachel Carson’s name was suddenly on everyone’s lips. Soon thereafter, Oxford Press offered to publish her second book, and Rachel and Marie worked out an agreement with one of the world’s leading publishers.

The Sea Around Us was an immediate bestseller when it was released. The reviews were excellent, just as the reviews of Under the Sea-Wind had been. The difference was that this time, not only did she have greater knowledge of ocean life and more polish as a writer, but the New Yorker pieces had made her a household name.

The Sea Around Us reached the New York Times bestseller list, and soon afterward, so did Under the Sea Wind. All of a sudden, everyone wanted more Rachel Carson. And it was not only readers. Rachel would win the National Book Award, and RKO wanted to produce a documentary based on The Sea Around Us. Rachel had suddenly become one of America’s most famous writers, and her days of barely making ends meet to support her family were behind her.

At this point, Rachel decided to resign from the FWS and devote herself completely to writing and promoting her books. She was not a natural public speaker, and remained somewhat shy before an audience, but she had a distinctive presence, confident and respectful. She was also passionate about the subject, which helped to establish a rapport with her audience.

Rachel also addressed controversial topics, not afraid to confront the damage to nature sometimes caused by the expansion of civilization. But she was not an ideologue. She was a responsible scientist who now had a much bigger voice than she had ever imagined.

She also made a purchase that she probably never imagined she could make. She bought land on Southport Island off the coast of Maine and had a writing cottage built upon it. It was a beautiful spot, perfect for the purpose.

The country’s leading nature writer was living at the ocean at last.

At least some of the time.

Other times, Rachel was staying with her family, traveling to South Carolina or other destinations to do research, or making promotional or professional appearances. She gave a presentation to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, but it wasn’t to hawk her book. Rather, she discussed the disturbing effect on sea life of climate change and the warming temperature of ocean waters.

When the house on Southport Island was finished, Rachel went to check it out. It was not fancy, but it fit in with the wooded environment near the beach. She had a view from her writing desk of the rough-and-tumble Maine coastline. It was a dream come true to be there.

There were other rustic homes on the island, but none too close. A couple from one of them had written a nice note of welcome. Despite a deluge of mail associated with her newfound celebrity, Rachel had responded in kind, inviting them to the house when it was done.

The neighbors, Dorothy and Stan Freeman, arrived on her doorstep on a cool, sunny day in July 1953. They seemed just a little intimidated because this was, after all, the famous nature writer whose books they had both avidly read. But Rachel Carson, the writer, turned out to be just Rachel the neighbor. Soon, the three residents of Southport were conversing easily about life at the Maine coast. Dorothy’s family had owned their cottage for generations, and she was a wealth of information. She tantalized Rachel with stories of the wildlife, and as an experienced photographer, Stan promised to show her his extensive wildlife collection.

The visit could not have gone better, and they agreed to meet in September for a tide-pooling expedition.

In the meantime, Rachel already had an idea for her next book. It would be entitled The Edge of the Sea and focus this time not on what was in the ocean, but what bordered it. In language that mirrored the harmony of nature, she wanted to describe the diverse world of flora and fauna at the seashore as one interconnected and inter-dependent whole.

As she would write, “The present is linked with the past and future, and each living thing with all that surrounds it.”

It was a very ambitious plan, and as she pushed it forward, she felt something was missing. She knew big projects like this came together in one of two ways. One was that progress was made gradually over time, and she would be able to measure it as it happened. The other was one where progress was not incremental or even measurable; it happened behind the scenes and would come together all at once in a kind of epiphany.

Unfortunately, Rachel had the feeling neither was happening with The Edge of the Sea. It was going nowhere.

But she did not give up.

It helped to have a sympathetic ear in Dorothy. After their tide-pooling event in September, which they all enjoyed immensely, Rachel and Dorothy met more regularly. They shared a love for nature as well as a love for literature, and they had a great rapport. When Rachel was away from the island, they wrote letters, and Dorothy joined Rachel when she gave a speech in Boston. In May 1954 Stan went away for five days, and Dorothy spent almost all the time at Rachel’s cottage.

Finally, The Edge of the Sea began to come together. Rachel decided to start it with a vivid description of the constantly changing shore, where plants and animals live almost in a world apart, a world that changes dramatically at night, where, Rachel wrote, “. . . the spectacle of living creatures faced by the cosmic realities of their world is crystal clear.”

Then she goes on to discuss the emergence of life on earth and the role that the currents of the sea play in spreading that life. She references tides, which reflect the ebb and flow of life, and introduces creatures of all shapes and sizes. They are sustained by the salt water even as their existence is threatened by predators. In the sea and at the seashore, life exists at its most basic level but also its most complex, where every interaction is unpredictable and unscripted, yet part of the whole, the incessantly moving, changing panorama of life: “[T]he present is linked with past and future, and each living thing with all that surround it.”

The drawings that showed the sea life help bring Rachel’s descriptions of the creatures to life for the reader. They depict the natural wonders of the sea, including the basket sponge, mud crab, hermit crab, smooth periwinkle, barnacle, limpet, sea potato, sea squirt, ragworm, great red or arctic jellyfish, sea lace, horse mussel, breadcrumb sponge, star coral, sea mouse, horseshoe crab, sea pansy, sand dollar, heart urchin, mole crab, Portuguese man o’ war, ponderous ark, angel wing, sea roach, snapping shrimp, rock-boring sea urchin, gorgonian sea whip, West Indian sea cucumber, fiddler crab, and many others.

Sample chapters of The Edge of the Sea were once again published in the New Yorker, whetting the public’s appetite for Rachel Carson’s new book. It came out in 1955 and was an immediate hit, climbing quickly up the New York Times bestseller list. The reviews were mostly excellent, but there were those who thought it might be time for Rachel Carson to branch out with a different topic.

The sea was where her writing heart was, however. And there was so much still to learn and tell the world about.

Rachel was pleased with the reception, and she and Marie Rodell were fielding a variety of offers. CBS’s Omnibus invited her to write the script for a segment on the sea, which she did, though it was not the same as having the medium completely within her control. The program was well-received, but Rachel thought it could have been better. She also wrote a piece with a personal dimension for Women’s Home Companion, which others liked but made her a little uneasy. Despite her widespread popularity, she remained a private person.

This wave of success was interrupted by a personal tragedy, the sudden death of her niece, Marjorie. She was only 31-years-old and left a son named, Roger, who was only five. At the same time, Rachel’s mother, Maria, was still living in Silver Spring, Maryland, and dealing more and more with the effects of age.

There was no question in Rachel’s mind what she needed to do. Without hesitation, she moved to Silver Spring to live with Maria, and filed the papers to adopt Roger.

There were many advantages to Rachel’s living day-to-day surrounded by family, as a parent to young Roger and as a helping-hand to her mother. On the other hand, it wasn’t the ideal situation for a writer. Roger needed more attention than Rachel could have foreseen, and as she tried to balance her home life with writing life, writing tended to lose out. It didn’t help that she needed peace and quiet to concentrate, like she had at her Maine cabin, which was now left vacant most of the time.

In point of fact, however, it didn’t matter that much because Rachel was mostly just puttering around at this point. She had not yet decided upon a topic for her next book.


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