Can't you just see it? Light flashing and fading away as surface plankton phosphoresce, so that the ocean displays "the blazing colors of the autumn leaves before they wither and fall."
These lines are from Rachel Carson's The Sea Around Us, a vivid, loving portrait of a region as familiar as it is strange, and the abundant and varied life within it. Carson's sea is a place where finger-long fish form a "silver shower," where "life is scattered almost everywhere through the surface waters like a fine dust." Swept up by the current of Carson's poetic prose, readers watch the seasons change far from shore, as autumn's bloom of plankton gives way to winter's gales. "There is the promise of a new spring in the very iciness of the winter sea," Carson reassures them. At sea it's just as on land, where trees only await the year's first warmth to burst into bud.
Carson asks readers to imagine themselves on the deck of an oceangoing vessel and invites them to stare down at "shimmering disks of jellyfish, their gently pulsating bells dotting the surface as far as you can see." She guides them to the Sargasso, "a place forgotten by the winds," where creatures have adapted to life in a tangle of seaweed miles above the ocean floor. And she reveals so much more to make readers wonder: undersea canyons and mountain ranges, swells raised by strong winds into towers sixty feet tall, or even taller. It's no mystery why I pick up Carson's beautiful book, read a few lines, and am hooked every time.
Rachel Carson published The Sea Around Us in 1951, more than a decade before Silent Spring, her landmark work that alerted the world to the dangers of pesticides. When The Sea Around Us appeared, Jacques Cousteau was only starting to bring his cameras underwater, so most people had never seen the natural wonders Carson wrote about. Like me, they were captivated and could easily imagine the fantastic creatures she brought to life or feel the pulsing tides she described. The reading public loved Carson's book well enough to keep it on the New York Times best-seller list for eighty-six weeks. The Sea Around Us won the National Book Award and the John Burroughs Medal.
Carson was a marine biologist who thoroughly researched her book, but she insisted she had been collecting material for it all her life. "Ever since childhood I've been fascinated by the sea," she said. "And my mind has stored up everything I have ever learned about it as well as my own thoughts, impressions and emotions." She also said, "If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry." I don't question the sea's poetic nature, but I do believe it takes a gifted writer to capture it in words.
The Sea Around Us is something rare, a science book that is timeless. Researchers have added significantly to our knowledge of the sea in the sixty years since it was published, but nothing about The Sea Around Us feels dated. It stands up as literature.