Friday, June 3, 2016

World Oceans Day and Rachel Carson

Review by Bill Doughty

Prose is poetry for Rachel Carson, whose "Silent Spring," published in 1962, awakened the ecology/environment movement in the United States. In "The Sea Around Us" (1951, Oxford University Press), she explains the oceans' relationship with the earth and our ties to the sea.

Perfect for World Oceans Day, June 8.

"The Sea Around Us" is a work of art. Carson's imagery is as fresh as when it was created mid-20th century. She shows how the earth and oceans formed and how life crawled from the sea, always dependent on "mother sea," but she presciently warns of a warming planet and rising seas.

Want to understand the science of the creation, tides, seasons and inhabitants of the oceans or how we are all connected by the oceans? Read Rachel Carson. 

Eventually after millions of years of evolution, "man, too, found his way back ..."
"And yet he 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 his planet and the long vistas of its history, in which the existence of the race of men has occupied a mere moment of time. The sense of all these things comes to him most clearly in the course of a long ocean voyage, when he watches day after day the receding rim of the horizon, ridged and furrowed by waves; when at night he becomes aware of the earth's rotation as the stars pass overhead; or when, alone in this world of water and sky, he feels the loneliness of his earth in space. And then, as never on land, he knows the truth that his world is a water world, a planet dominated by its covering mantle of ocean, in which the continents are but transient intrusions of land above the surface of the all-encircling sea."
Carson predicts global warming based on natural phenomenon and cycles she observed and studied in the last century. In the 1950s and 60s she wrote about erosion, pesticides and pollution, invasive species, endangered species, and ocean dumping. What would she say about our impact on the climate and our effect on the planet today?

"Unquestionably, there are other agents at work in bringing about the climatic changes in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions," she writes in the mid-1950s. "We have therefore begun to move strongly into a period of warmer, milder weather. There will be fluctuations, as earth and sun and moon move through space and the tidal power waxes and wanes. But the long trend is toward a warmer earth; the pendulum is swinging."

She acknowledges the challenges of exploring the seas for fossil fuels and other resources.
"So our search for mineral wealth often leads us back to the seas of ancient times – to the oil pressed from the bodies of fishes, seaweeds, and other forms of plant and animal life and then stored away in ancient rocks; to the rich brines hidden in subterranean pools where the fossil water of old seas still remains; to the layers of salts that are the mineral substances of those old seas laid down as a covering mantle over the continents."
According to biographer William Souder, author of "On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson," among Carson's admirers was Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz. (Both Nimitz and Carson were featured in the Great Americans series of stamps provided by the U.S. Postal Service in the 80s and 90s.)

Carson reminds us of the U.S. Navy's role in mapping and studying the oceans, especially by seafaring scientist Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury in the 19th century, prior to the Civil War. She writes of USS Ramapo's encounter with a 112-foot wave in 1933 while sailing from Manila, Philippines to San Diego. Carson shares discoveries in the Pacific by the U.S. Navy aboard USS Jasper, USS Henderson and USS Nereus in the Pacific during and just after World War II.

The ancients, she says, revered and respected the deep mysteries of the oceans.
"For the sea lies all about us. The commerce of all lands must cross it. The very winds that move over the lands have been cradled on its broad expanse and seek ever to return to it. The continents themselves dissolve and pass to the sea, in grain after grain of eroded land. So the rains that rose from it return again in rivers. In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutation, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea – to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end."
Curiosity about navigating the oceans began thousands of years ago. "Of the methods of those secretive master mariners, the Phoenicians, we cannot even guess. We have more basis for conjecture about the Polynesians, for we can study their descendants today, and those who have done so find hits of the methods that led ancient colonizers of the Pacific on their course from island to island."

Ancient voyagers sailed by the stars, understood "the varying color of the water," read the clouds, felt the winds, interpreted the currents and followed the migration of birds to lead them to different lands.

Aboard the Hōkūle'a canoe, the Polynesian Voyaging Society's Malama Honua  voyagers are in New York this week during World Oceans Day, sharing their vision for a sustainable earth. No doubt the spirit of Rachel Carson sails aboard Hōkūle'a.

Rachel Carson with a feline friend and her 1951 book, “The Sea Around Us.” (A. Aubrey Bodine, Baltimore Sun file photo, 1954)

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