New York Review of Books
Sponsored by Columbia Global Reports
In the December 22, 2022, issue of the magazine, Rebecca Giggs reviews The Sea Trilogy, an omnibus edition of Rachel Carson’s books from the 1940s about ocean life. While Carson was a marine biologist, she is best known for her landmark 1962 book, Silent Spring, which highlighted the environmental harms of pesticides—and, by extension, the insidious effects of humans on the planet. “But if Silent Spring is about rupture,” Giggs writes, “then the overarching project of Carson’s sea writing was to achieve a feat of connection—these are profoundly holistic books, tracing the bonds between natural forces and organisms.”
Giggs is a science writer from Perth, Australia, who has written about, among other subjects, jellyfish swarms and the history of leeches. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and The New York Times Magazine and has been anthologized in The Best Australian Science Writing. Her debut book, Fathoms: The World in the Whale (2020), explored the lives of whales and the pollution of their habitats, and won the 2021 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.
I e-mailed Giggs last week to discuss Carson’s legacy, the future of the oceans, and the tragedy of beached whales.
Arianne Gonzalez: Are there specific natural history books or authors you encountered early in your development as a writer that you continue to return to?
Rebecca Giggs: Throughout my twenties I kept a quote from the Western Australian novelist Randolph Stow taped to the inside cover of my diary:
[The] environment, as the artist meets it, is almost too complex a thing to be written about at all. The boundary between an individual and his environment is not his skin. It is the point where mind verges on the pure essence of him, that unchanging observer that for want of a better term we must call the soul. The external factors, geographical and sociological, are so mingled with his ways of seeing and states of mind that he may find it impossible to say what he means by his environment, except in the most personal and introspective terms.
Stow wasn’t a natural history writer, though he wrote powerfully about drought and desert and the extractive industries that have shaped (or cursed) the fortunes of many in my home state. Rereading the quote I remember how much this idea once appealed to me: “the artist” with their “pure essence,” driven to depict an environment that betrays their inner life as much as their place in the world and landscape. How hyperbolic that sounds now! Though I stand by the idea that “the environment” is an intimate subject. What we go to nature in search of, whether it sparks feelings of homeliness, duty, estrangement, or enchantment—this isn’t a neutral, intuitive matter. There is no way to write about nature impartially, I think, and there is no nature we can describe that is separate from the contours of our own personal and social histories. Each time I return to this passage by Stow, it reminds me that my central project as a writer is not writing about nature but writing about where self, culture, and nature touch: an intertidal zone where we are changed and (consciously or unconsciously) create change around us.
The first book in Rachel Carson’s Sea Trilogy, Under the Sea Wind (1941), assumes the viewpoints of several marine animals to explore the ocean as it is experienced by nonhuman beings. Her intention, it seems, was to find ways to access environments that are not easy for humans to inhabit (especially before the invention of SCUBA equipment). Are there also limitations to this approach?
I found this strategy bold and offbeat. Particularly when you consider that in 1941, documentary films featuring animal protagonists were still years away from becoming mainstream entertainment. Even underwater color photos were a rarity when Carson was drafting the book. Using a troupe of animals to marshal the narrative allowed her to direct readers’ attention to obscure parts of the ocean—the seafloor prowled by starfish, crabs’ burrows, open ocean waves surfed by dolphins. It’s also a tactic that suggests our human experience is restricted, defined by senses that were (mostly) evolved to befit terrestrial creatures. Yet because Carson is so absent from the book as a narrator, and these animal playlets take place seemingly without human witness, the whole premise of her first book feels lightly fictional, or like a fable. The animals aren’t personified—Carson goes to great lengths to avoid giving them human attributes—but we’re still left wondering how she knows what she knows about their lives and habitats.
There are limitations: Under the Sea Wind cannot provide a historical perspective because each animal lives in the present tense, with no access to the deeper past. The biological research Carson integrated into her account of each animal’s life is fascinating and detailed, but the source and reliability of that research is not parsed. And because Carson resists imputing all but the most basic emotional states to any of the animals she describes, the range of feelings she can provoke in her audience is curtailed too. When a tiny mackerel we’re following narrowly misses being scooped up by a trawler’s net, the fish doesn’t marvel at its luck; it can’t know about the gruesome end it’s bypassed on the other side of the surface. Though we do, of course—we know the alternate future for a fish hauled up, processed, and tinned.
Carson is perhaps better known today for Silent Spring (1962), her treatise on pollution, than for The Sea Trilogy. Should we read these earlier books as a kind of rehearsal for what she eventually achieved with Silent Spring, or do the books in The Sea Trilogy strive to do something distinct?
The great animating principal of Silent Spring was that pollution spread ecologically; that is, industrial chemicals, deployed on agricultural fields, entered into the environment via food-webs, the water cycle, nutrient cycling and so forth, accumulating in unanticipated places and harming unforeseen organisms. This kind of reticular thinking—seeing the interconnectedness of organic and inorganic things—came to be a core precept of conservation movements.
But the dramatic impact of this ecological consciousness was built on concepts established in The Sea Trilogy. If Silent Spring is a book about what happens when pesticides spread through an ecological system, The Sea Trilogy illustrates precisely what an ecosystem is in the first place. We see this in all three books: Carson describes mineral cycling in the sea, decomposition, growth, seasonality, who eats what. At the time, this was a departure from the usual tone of environmental literature, which had tended to focus on the sublime or adventurous aspects of rugged landscapes: places meant to test human endurance or lift the human spirit. Not to say Carson doesn’t also play on the beautiful or intrepid aspects of the sea, though she seemed to always bring in a sense of alienation in tandem with wonder. A rockpool might bewitch us with its tiny gem-like beings and swathes of soft color, but it is beautiful despite us, with no regard for human aesthetics. And what is most beautiful about a rockpool in Carson’s worldview is how it functions across the course of a day’s tidal inflow and outflow; how those living things that appear most fragile and squashy are built to absorb the punishing surf, or how hard-shelled creatures contain these unspooling, filigree bodies, extruded for only a few moonlit hours each night. The pulse of change was her biggest theme.
Carson died in 1964 at the age of fifty-six, but had she lived into the present day, what do you think she might have contributed to our thinking about the global climate crisis?
As a thought experiment it is so pleasing to imagine her surviving into her eighties and sitting up at her desk one day to write a contemplative, rigorous response to Bill McKibben’s End of Nature (1989) for The New York Review. I believe that book in particular would have moved her, and I think that in her later years she would have been a passionate advocate for writing that attempted to engage with large-scale change, for writers willing to speculate about the future. Carson’s legacy can still be seen in movements for downwinder communities, people subject to what the writer Rob Nixon has called the “slow violence” of long-term exposure to noxious air or water pollution, and then in movements for organic farming and gardening, too.
If a reader is energized by Carson’s writing to strive to do more to protect the oceans, where should they start?
The future of Earth’s oceans is being built not on the shorefront or in the deeps, but in the human world of shopping, commuting, and consuming. We each have a different set of maneuvers and opportunities available to us, according to our contexts and communities. A reader might reflect on ways to limit plastic pollution, or how containment agriculture and food waste has drastic effects on the climate system. But environmentalism shouldn’t have to mean wearing a hair shirt and living an austere existence, divided from worldly pleasures. I believe a meaningful life comes from working in the service of your talents—whatever strengths and qualities you have, unique to you or rare in your circles, try to rally that talent in order to create change. Hopefulness follows on from feeling useful; too often people believe it’s the other way around.
In your book Fathoms: The World in the Whale (2020—reviewed in the magazine’s August 19, 2021 issue), you wrote about the lives of whales in the oceans of the twenty-first century. How did you get started on that project?
Some years ago, I helped push a beached whale back out into the sea after it got stranded on the coast in Western Australia. The whale washed ashore again shortly afterward, and sadly it died there. People on the beach harbored various suspicions as to why the whale had run aground: Was it sick? Had it been attacked by sharks? A few onlookers even speculated that the whale might have misjudged the depth of the shallows because there had been falling stars the night before. These explanations were interesting because they pointed to different ways of understanding events in the natural world: microbial, predatory, cosmological. Though its death was tragic, the whale’s sudden appearance in our world, there on the sand, was also a source of great wonder.
It took a second whale beaching—one I only read about in the news—to give me the impetus to actually begin writing Fathoms. In 2013 a whale of a different species washed up dead on the Spanish coast, south of Granada. The animal had an entire greenhouse in its stomach: long reels of green plastic sheeting, flowerpots, pieces of hosepipe, a spray can, plus bits of a mattress, an empty ice-cream tub, a clothes hanger. I couldn’t understand why the whale had mistaken all those objects for food. Or, more importantly, how bundles of stuffing and springs from a mattress had ended up in the whale’s habitat in the first place! As I wrote, the project broadened to bigger concerns about the impacts we have on nature. Ultimately, what anchors the book is the question: How do we stay open to the possibility of hope and awe, when so much of nature feels haunted by human problems?
More to read at nybooks.com
Rachel Carson’s ocean books reveal an author profoundly engaged with the problem of how to convey ecological knowledge—and how to decenter human life.