Under the Sea Wind Critique

Under the Sea Wind

Rachel Carson introduced herself as an ecologist and a writer through publication of “Undersea.” The article met with considerable success and she was encouraged to develop her ideas into a book-length work. The result was Under the Sea Wind, a series of interconnected “short stories” told from the perspective of marine wildlife. Her status as both an ecologist and a writer was firmly established. Unfortunately a decade would pass before more than a few readers knew of it.

Under the Sea Wind goes further than establishing Carson’s credentials, however. She used the book as a vehicle for pointing out errors committed by humans in their interactions with marine life, in addition to simply describing life from the vantage point of inhabitants of the sea. Humans are the only species in Carson’s work that fight among themselves for economic gain, and their methods of capturing prey are cruel and inhumane. One easily detects a note of misanthropy whenever humans are on the water. Or is there something darker at work here?

All of the humans encountered are male. Of course—they are fishermen, ruthless exterminators of marine wildlife upsetting the natural order of things and all the while bickering over the best fishing spots. But when we look at all of the species’ habits a pattern emerges: males prey; females spawn. If Abbey can be accused of misogyny, I think it is only fair to raise the question in Carson’s work. The only problem is, the English language does not have a male equivalent for misogyny, the mistrust or hatred of women. Misanthropy does not work because it refers to all of mankind — Homo sapiens — including the female of the species. No, I believe we need a new word, one that describes the mistrust or hatred of men. I would like to submit misandry. I admit it does not roll off the tongue as easily as the four-syllable words applied to men who mistrust or hate women, or people who mistrust or hate all mankind. But now that women are speaking their mind, it is clear we need a word to describe the feelings of mistrust or hatred women may feel toward men.

Labeling Carson as a misandrist does not in the least, however, detract from her ability to describe the world of ecology. On the contrary, a writer unwilling to overlook the undesirable characteristics of the male of the species will be more effective in speaking out against the atrocities committed by mankind. Human atrocities are usually committed by men. More importantly, Carson uses a voice at once confident and inoffensive. In Under the Sea Wind, male cruelties are simply a part of life.

The book begins by setting the reader in a monochrome world dominated by the presence of ocean water. The tone of “Flood Tide” is detached, descriptive. There is no nostalgia for this world, only water, a bit of land surrounded by water, and a solitary flyer called Rynchops, the scientific name for the black skimmer. We watch without affection as Rynchops plies his trade as a flying fisher of shallow waters. Gray turns nearly black as the cloudy twilight becomes night, the moon mostly obscured. We observe others. Diamondback terrapins finish laying their eggs and head back to the relative safety of the sea. A male rat, “crafty with the cunning of years and filled with the lust for blood,” detects the scent of terrapin eggs, finds their nest, and feasts on them, including a young hatchling from another nest. Justice is immediately served by a male blue heron who surprises the rat, spears him and eats him.

We enter the water to follow roe shad returning to spawn, become caught up in a fight between gill-netting fishermen and those who utilize pound nets as we watch innumerable fish die unseemly deaths by suffocation in the inhumane devices of the gill-netters. Justice is served this time by the eels of the estuary, all male, who attack the netted shad, gorge themselves on shad caviar, and leave the fishermen with nets full of bones and fish heads. Males prey—females spawn.

Still there is no denying the truth in Carson’s arguments. Gill nets are cruel. Fishermen are infamous for bickering among themselves. I have no doubt eels will take advantage of fish caught in gill nets, given half a chance. Carson could have written the predaceous rat as a female character, or the blue heron that spears the rat—in real life, females eat too—but she chose not to. In one simple, seemingly innocuous opening chapter, Carson reveals herself as a knowledgeable ecologist, a confident writer, and a woman on a mission. We immediately accept her version of marine ecology, including its misandrist implications.

In “Seine Haul” we board a fishing vessel as its crew works the offshore waters for mackerel. The vessel and crew coalesce into one predatory organism: “a giant fish swimming at the surface.” The reader is tempted to accuse Carson of anthropomorphism, but she is well ahead of us and not about to fall into that trap. Instead she employs the perspective of the prey mackerel, in particular an individual named Scomber—the scientific name for mackerel—to describe the activities of the fishermen. This reverse anthropomorphism might be better called piscimorphism, as the protaganist ascribes fishlike qualities to the preying humans and their machinery. This clever device enables Carson to portray the world of the mackerel, including the mackerel’s most dangerous predator, in a way that strikes the reader as completely trustworthy. Our confidence in Carson’s ecology deepens.

She completes the cycle of food web death and rebirth with the final chapter, called “Return,” in which we follow migrating eels from birth in the twilight zone depths above the abyssal floor of the Atlantic, up to the feeding grounds of the surface sargassum, and along the coast of North America as they drift with warmwater currents toward their instinctual destinations, the estuaries (males) and streams (females) of the eastern seaboard.

Carson makes this impossible journey believable by freely admitting unknown facts where they are unknowable. “No one knows how the eels traveled to their common destination,” she says, then offers plausible explanations using current knowledge along with intelligent use of evolutionary theory to move the eels from their North American habitats to their mid-Atlantic spawning grounds. In her “Preface to the 1961 Edition” of her bestseller, The Sea Around Us, Carson corrects her previous descriptions of the abyss. She undoubtedly would have done the same for Under the Sea Wind if she had lived to see a second edition.

She guides us along the route of heroic elvers following the trail of their mothers, against the currents of rushing streams swollen with newly melted snows, forcing rapid physiological changes to tolerate and thrive in fresh waters where they had previously known only salt. The males do not take this plunge, so remain in the brackish waters of coastal estuaries, yet the females swim onward — “No hardship and no obstacle would deter them.” If Carson were not a preeminent ecologist, she would surely have been a prominent feminist. She ends the book on an evolutionary note, rapidly taking the reader through geological epochs of sea waters rising and falling, mountains eroding and forming, the cities of men long since forgotten while the eels swim on, ever navigating old waters anew.

Under the Sea Wind is significant for the radiant scientific confidence that it establishes for the author in the mind of her reader. We are convinced Carson understands the food web, the foundation of that branch of biology known as ecology. It firmly establishes the voice of a writer with a message, a qualified critic of the society in which she lives. The book failed to immediately gain the audience it deserved due to the economic facts of World War II (an atrocity foisted upon the world largely by the male of the species). Regardless, it sets the stage for Carson’s later writings, including Silent Spring, to which we now turn.

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Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold

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