Guest Review: Rachel Carson’s Sea Trilogy

By Jennifer Edgecombe

Rachel Carson’s seminal ‘Sea’ trilogy – Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955) – has been reissued by Canongate in the publisher’s modern classics series, ‘The Canons’. The beautifully-produced paperbacks – each a celebration of the sea told through poetic nature writing – include a full set of integrated illustrations and a pertinent new introduction by Margaret Atwood. 

Atwood’s own frighteningly prophetic ‘MaddAddam’ trilogy of novels (2003-2013) draw on what Carson wrote about and campaigned to end throughout her lifetime – from the damage being inflicted on fragile coastlines by man, to the fruitlessness of using chemical pesticides on crops. Carson is even depicted in book two of the MaddAddam series as a saint – honoured for being a pioneer of the global environmental movement.

In her introduction to Carson’s trilogy, Atwood urges us to listen, belatedly, to this ‘pivotal figure’ and heed the ecological messages she espoused. Carson – a marine biologist by training – not only ensured that her research for each book was evidence-based (as Chief Editor for the governmental department the US Fish and Wildlife Serviceshe regularly reported on the latest data available on fish populations) but also conducted self-led field research. She was often pictured wading knee-deep in seawater and famously explored the Maine shoreline with a torch at night, as told in her later book The Sense of Wonder (1965).

Studying her field notes compiled with this scrupulousness and scientific integrity, Carson developed her underlining theory: all things in nature are inherently interconnected and in fragile balance. Therefore, to survive, humanity must work in harmony with nature, not against it. Under the Sea-Wind explores this interconnectedness through the behaviour of different sea organisms as they interact with their surroundings – readers learn the lifecycle of the sanderling, the mackerel, the eel. When humans appear, they are relegated to a supporting role, simply one lifeform among a multitude. Just as the shoal of shad instinctively return to their birthplace to spawn, the fishermen arrive at a good fishing spot with their nets that ‘they knew from their fathers, who had it from their fathers’. The lesson that in order to live sustainably we must consider ourselves only one small part of nature – instead of arrogantly viewing ourselves as apart from it – is allegorised when the fishermen attempt to overfish: the net breaks and they lose their catch.

This simple, overarching ecological principal – that the natural world must be viewed holistically – changed the future of environmental policies and law. When another of Carson’s later books, Silent Spring (1962), railed against the over-application of harmful pesticides (such as the extensive spraying of DDT), usage restrictions were subsequently imposed on some of the most dangerous compounds and society moved towards environmentally-friendly alternatives. Combining acute observational skills with an analytic mindset, Carson was able to see not only the harm being done to the ecosystem at first-hand but – more importantly – was able to predict the health consequences on later generations of affected species. 

Rachel Carson ‘Sea’ trilogy has been reissued by Canongate this month. Photos by Jennifer Edgecombe.

Atwood recognises that we “would not be where we are without her”. That said, although numerous awards and honours have since been created in Carson’s name, we as a species continue to be at odds with nature. Greta Thunberg – winner of the Rachel Carson Prize in 2019 for her work raising environmental awareness – often remonstrates in her campaign speeches against world leaders who are not listening to the available science in regards to climate change. She forcefully argues that the health of the planet is on a devastating trajectory due to humanity’s inability to concertedly act in nature’s best interests instead of economic advancement. The environment is off-balance: rising temperatures have led to coastal flooding, contaminated runoff from farms is impairing biodiversity, and microplastics – ingested by many species – have polluted the food chain. The seas are defined by Atwood as ‘the living heart and lungs of the planet’, and right now the prognosis for the planet is not good. Since publication day of Canongate’s new editions of the ‘Sea’ trilogy, readers across social media have been nostalgically sharing images of their well-thumbed old editions. It is time (again) for this trilogy to be read and disseminated widely, for a new generation to be awoken to environmentalism by the essential voice of Rachel Carson – and to turn the tide.

Jennifer Edgecombe grew up in Cornwall and now lives on the Kent coast. Her poems and reviews have appeared in Ambit, Caught by the River, Lighthouse, PN Review and elsewhere. Her debut pamphlet, ‘The Grief of the Sea’, was published in June 2020 and is available in the Sea Library.

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