Introduction She was always a writer and she always knew that. Like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and other American contemporaries with the same affliction, ten-year-old Rachel Louise Carson, born in 1907 in the Allegheny Valley in Springdale, Pennsylvania, was first published in the St. Nicholas literary magazine for children. A loner and a reader and a devotee of birds and indeed all nature, the slim, shy girl of plain face and dark curly hair continued writing throughout adolescence: she chose an English major at Pennsylvania College for Women and continued to submit poetry to periodicals. Not until her junior year, when a biology course reawakened the “sense of wonder” with which she had always encountered the natural world, did she switch her major to zoology, still unaware that these passions might be complementary.
Graduating magna cum laude in 1929, Carson went on to Johns Hopkins to complete her master’s degree in zoology, but increasing family responsibilities caused her to abandon her quest for a doctorate. For a few years she would teach zoology at the University of Maryland, continuing her studies in the summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It was there, in her early twenties, that she first fell under the spell of the eternal mysteries of the sea.
In 1932, “Ray” Carson, as some friends knew her, took part-time work as a writer-editor for the old Bureau of Fisheries, a job that led, in 1936, to a full-time appointment as a junior aquatic biologist. To eke out her small salary, she contributed feature articles to the Baltimore Sun, most of them related to marine fisheries and the sea. Though her poetry was never to be published, a strong lyrical prose was already evolving, and one of her pieces for a government publication seemed to the editor so elegant and unusual that he urged her to submit it to the Atlantic Monthly.
Thus . . . the parts of the plan fall into place: the water receiving from earth and air the simple materials, storing them until the gathering energy of the spring sun wakens the sleeping plants to a burst of dynamic activity, hungry swarms of planktonic animals growing and multiplying upon the abundant plants, and themselves falling prey to the shoals of fish; all, in the end, to be redissolved into their component substances . . . Individual elements are lost to view, only to reappear again and again in different incarnations in a kind of material immortality.
“Undersea,” the young writer’s first publication in a national magazine (September 1937), was seminal in theme and tone to all her later writing. Together with an evocative Sun feature, “Chesapeake Eels Seek the Sargasso Sea” (“From every river and stream along the whole Atlantic Coast, eels are hurrying to the sea . . .”), it was the starting point for her first book, Under the Sea-Wind. Though its feeling was near-mystical — the ever- changing changelessness of life on earth — the book’s method took after Salar the Salmon and Taka the Otter, two popular tales by the British writer Henry Williamson. (Carson’s other revered Henrys were Thoreau, Beston (The Outermost House), and Tomlinson, the literary editor of the Nation and Athenaeum, whose vacation chronicle, The Sea and the Jungle, described a voyage from England to South America, then up the Amazon; The Sea and the Jungle may well be the finest writing on the sea, Conrad included.) Like Williamson, Carson used anthropomorphic characters to carry the narrative, notably Scomber the Mackerel (from Scomber scombrus, the Atlantic mackerel’s taxonomic name).
He came into being as a tiny globule no larger than a poppy seed, drifting in the surface layers of pale-green water. The globule carried an amber droplet of oil that served to keep it afloat and it carried also a gray particle of living matter so small that it could have been picked up on the point of a needle. In time this particle was to become Scomber, the mackerel, a powerful fish, streamlined after the manner of his kind, and a rover of the seas.
However, the real protagonist of this work (as of its better known successors) was the sea itself — “whether I wished it or not,” as Carson explained in her original foreword, “for the sense of the sea, holding the power of life and death over every one of its creatures from the smallest to the largest, would inevitably pervade every page.”
To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shorebirds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and tthe young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be. These things were before mannnnn ever stood on the shore of the ocean and looked out upon it with wonder; they continue year in, year out, throughout the centuries and ages, while man’s kingdoms rise and fall.
Under the Sea-Wind was to remain Carson’s favorite among her books. Published in 1941, on the eve of World War II, it sold less than two thousand copies and passed almost unnoticed. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Fisheries had joined in 1940 with the old Biological Survey to become the Fish and Wildlife Service, and her editorial duties had increased, together with her biological assignments; she was specializing now in marine zoology and was later promoted to chief editor of publications.
Although gentle with contributors, Carson the editor (according to her colleagues) could be “tart and wry” about lackluster writing. Toward her own work, she was ever more rigorous and demanding, not only in regard to the depth and breadth of her research but in the economy and clarity of her style, which she revised, read aloud, and tightened with the glad exhilaration of the born writer.
Colleagues enjoyed working with her because of her uncommon competence and dedication but also because of her childlike enthusiasm and undiminished wonder at the myriad ways of nature, which made a scientific expedition out of the simplest foray into field or tide pool. In their first meeting, the naturalist Louis Halle (Springtime in Washington) found Carson “quiet, diffident, neat, proper, and without affectation — serious, dignified, with a gentle voice.” Nothing written about her since seems to dispute this. But for all her modesty and restraint, she had confidence in her own literary worth and was neither prim nor meek; she had a mischievous streak and an edge to her tongue, and once she was published, became an astute businesswoman and career tactician.
A decade after Carson’s first book, her agent, Marie Rodell, circulated a second work in progress that proposed to explore the origins and geological aspects of the sea. Already the author was corresponding with marine scientists everywhere and had even embarked on a Woods Hole research vessel for a sea voyage — her first and last — to the Georges Banks. Because her first book was unsuccessful and its author little known, the new one was widely rejected, despite strong endorsements and support from such influential eminences as the great Woods Hole oceanographer Dr. Henry Bigelow, Dr. Robert C. Murphy of the American Museum of Natural History, Dr. William Beebe of the New York Zoological Society, Thor Heyerdahl of Kon-tiki, and the best-selling naturalist-writer Edwin Way Teale. The material was refused by fifteen magazines, including National Geographic. In September 1950, however, a section titled “The Birth of an