The Edge of the Sea
by Rachel Carson
Cindy Lee Van Dover, Director, Duke University Marine Laboratory, Beaufort, NC
The Edge of the Sea was originally conceived as a practical field guide to the seashore life of the east coast – a reference book to aid intrepid explorers of tide pools, sandy beaches, mudflats, and reefs. A residual compendium of major groups of microorganisms, plants, and animals persists as an appendix. But as Mark Lytle describes in The Gentle Subversive, Rachel Carson’s vision for the book evolved as the project proceeded. It was not enough to list names and describe peculiarities of one organism after another. Instead, Carson uses her mastery of the narrative essay, rich in figurative language and word pictures, to describe life at the edge of the sea. She draws us into this tidal world, makes us want to see, touch, listen, to discover the myriad ways in which the lives of sea creatures and their environment are intertwined.
The enduring nature of Rachel Carson’s narratives intrigues me, draws me to her prose to discover how she achieves this. The August RC Book Club discussions will begin with explorations of what gives power to her writing. I use as my guide to this topic John A. Murray’s excellent Nature Writing Handbook: A Creative Guide (Sierra Club Books 1995).
Week of August 6 – Finding the ‘I’: Where and how does Rachel Carson use the first person narrative most effectively in The Edge of the Sea? Why does it work? Browse through your shelf of Carson books – where else do you find effective use of the first person in her prose?
Week of August 13 – Word pictures and figurative language: The Edge of the Sea is filled with word pictures, similes, and sensory perceptions. Keep a logbook of your favorites and share the best one. Explain why it works so well, how it engages the reader.
We will then consider perceptions of the contemporary seashore, while looking back through time for a glimpse of how these perceptions have evolved. There are undoubtedly many scholarly volumes on this topic. One I was recently introduced to is The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside 1750-1840 by Alain Corbin (1988, published by Penguin Books in 1995).
Week of August 20 – How we perceive the edge of the sea: What value does Rachel Carson give to this narrow zone that separates land and ocean? How do these values transcend the east-coast setting of The Edge of the Sea? How well do our current sensibilities about development and use of coastal zones map to these values?
Our final week of discussion will indulge my interests in how contemporary scientists and policy-makers interact, as a context for appreciating the magnitude of Rachel Carson’s achievements in the environmental movement. In initiating this discussion, I will draw from a 1974 scholarly article by H. Russell Bernard entitled Scientists and Policy Makers: An Ethnography of Communication (Human Organization 23:261-275) and then look the environmental program at my home institution for examples of ways in which the gap between science and policy can be narrowed.
Week of August 27 – Rachel Carson Book Club members have the opportunity to study how Carson’s work influenced the environmental movement and environmental policy. This leadership comes from her understanding and knowledge of how organisms interact with one another and the environment, as well as a set of values and ethics that places human beings within the context of the environment, rather than apart from it. To all this, Carson added an ability to communicate. What is included in the suite of tools that contemporary scientists must use to influence environmental policy?