From The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson
by Leland Waldrip
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Rated "G" by the Author.
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Of course, it was Rachel Carson who wrote the blockbuster book Silent Spring, castigating our careless use of pesticides, particularly DDT, and set off an uproar that culminated in the environmental movement of the last half of the twentieth century. I read a prose excerpt from another of her books, The Sea Around Us and was impressed by the poetic verve I found there. I copied the entire excerpt and created the following free-form verse from her words. Her words are classic biological science at its best, couched in language at its best. I hope the readers on AD enjoy Ms. Carson’s imagery and knowledge in this new form as much as I have enjoyed parsing the text.
The Changing Year
For the sea as a whole, the alternation
of day and night, the passage
of the seasons, the procession
of the years, are lost
in its vastness, obliterated
in its own changeless eternity.
But the surface waters are different.
The face of the sea is always
changing. Crossed by
colors, lights, and moving shadows,
sparkling in the sun, mysterious
in the twilight, its aspects
and its moods vary hour by hour.
The surface waters move
with the tides, stir to the breath
of the winds, and rise and fall
to the endless, hurrying
forms of the waves.
Most of all, they change
with the advance
of the seasons. Spring moves
over the temperate lands
of our Northern Hemisphere
in a tide of new life,
of pushing green shoots and unfolding
buds, all its mysteries and meanings
symbolized in the northward migration
of the birds, the awakening of sluggish
amphibian life as the chorus
of frogs rises again from the wet
lands, the different sound
of the wind stirs the young
leaves where a month ago
it rattled the bare branches.
These things we associate
with the land, and it is easy
to suppose that at sea there could be
no such feeling of advancing spring.
But the signs are there, and seen
with understanding eye, they bring
the same magical sense of awakening.
In the sea, as on land, spring
is a time for the renewal of life.
During the long months of winter
in the temperate zones the surface
waters have been absorbing
the cold. Now the heavy
water begins to sink, slipping
down and displacing
the warmer layers below.
Rich stores of minerals have
been accumulating on the floor
of the continental shelf—some
freighted down the rivers
from the lands; some
derived from sea creatures
that have died and
whose remains have drifted
down to the bottom; some
from the shells that once
encased a diatom, the streaming
protoplasm of a radiolarian,
or the transparent tissues
of a pteropod. Nothing is
wasted in the sea; every
particle of material is used over
and over again, first by one
creature, then by another.
And when in spring the waters
are deeply stirred, the warm bottom
water brings to the surface a rich
supply of minerals, ready
for use by new forms of life.
Just as land plants depend
on minerals in the soil
for their growth, every marine
plant, even the smallest, is
dependent upon the nutrient
salts or minerals in the sea water.
Diatoms must have silica, the element
of which their fragile shells
are fashioned. For these
and all other micro-plants,
phosphorus is an indispensable
mineral. Some of these
elements are in short supply
and in winter may be reduced below
the minimum necessary for growth.
The diatom population must tide
itself over this season as best
it can. It faces a stark problem
of survival, with no opportunity
to increase, a problem of keeping
alive the spark of life by forming
tough protective spores against
the stringency of winter, a matter
of existing in a dormant state
in which no demands shall be
made on an environment that already
withholds all but the most
meager necessities of life.
So the diatoms hold their
place in the winter sea, like seeds
of wheat in a field under snow and ice,
the seeds from which the spring
growth will come.
These, then, are the elements
of the vernal blooming of the sea:
the ‘seeds’ of the dormant plants,
the fertilizing chemicals, the warmth
of the spring sun.
In a sudden awakening, incredible
in its swiftness, the simplest plants
of the sea begin to multiply.
Their increase is of astronomical proportions.
The spring sea belongs at first
to the diatoms and to all the other
microscopic plant life of the plankton.
In the fierce intensity of their growth
they cover vast areas of ocean
with a living blanket of their cells.
Mile after mile of water may appear
red or brown or green, the whole surface
taking on the color of the infinitesimal
grains of pigment contained
in each of the plant cells.
The plants have undisputed sway
in the sea for only a short time.
Almost at once their own burst
of multiplication is matched by a similar
increase in the small animals
of the plankton. It is the spawning
time of the copepod and the glassworm,
the pelagic shrimp and the winged snail.
Hungry swarms of these little beasts
of the plankton roam through
the waters, feeding on the abundant
plants and themselves falling
prey to larger creatures. Now
in the spring the surface waters
become a vast nursery. From
the hills and valleys
of the continent’s edge lying far below,
and from the scattered shoals
and banks, the eggs or young of many
of the bottom animals rise to the surface
of the sea. Even those which, in their maturity,
will sink down to a sedentary life
on the bottom, spend the first weeks
of life as freely swimming hunters
of the plankton. So as spring
progresses new batches of larvae rise
into the surface each day, the young
of fishes and crabs and mussels
and tube worms, mingling for a time
with the regular members of the plankton.
Under the steady and voracious grazing,
the grasslands of the surface are soon
depleted. The diatoms become more
and more scarce, and with them
the other simple plants.
Still there are brief explosions
of one or another form, when
in a sudden orgy of cell division
it comes to claim whole areas
of the sea for its own. So, for a time
each spring, the waters may become
blotched with brown, jelly-like masses,
and the fishermen’s nets come up dripping
a brown slime and containing no fish,
for the herring have turned away
from these waters as though in loathing
of the viscid, foul-smelling algae.
But in less time than passes between
the full moon and the new, the spring
flowering of Phaeocystis is past
and the waters have cleared again.
In the spring the sea is filled
with migrating fishes, some of them bound
for the mouths of great rivers,
which they will ascend to deposit their spawn.
Such are the spring-run Chinooks coming
in from the deep Pacific feeding grounds
to breast the rolling flood of the Columbia,
the shad moving into the Chesapeake
and the Hudson and the Connecticut,
the alewives seeking a hundred coastal streams
of New England, the salmon feeling their way
to the Penobscot and the Kennebec.
For months or years these fish have known
only the vast spaces of the ocean.
Now the spring sea and the maturing
of their own bodies lead them back
to the rivers of their birth.
Other mysterious comings and goings
are linked with the advance of the year.
Capelin gather in the deep, cold
water of the Barents Sea, their shoals
followed and preyed upon by flocks
of auks, fulmars, and kittiwakes. Cod
approach the banks of Lofoten, and gather
off the shores of Ireland. Birds
whose winter feeding territory may
have encompassed the whole Atlantic
or the whole Pacific converge
upon some small island, the entire breeding
population arriving within the space
of a few days. Whales suddenly appear
off the slopes of the coastal banks where
the swarms of shrimp-like krill
are spawning, the whales having come
from no one knows where,
by no one knows what route.
With the subsiding of the diatoms
and the completed spawning of many
of the plankton animals and most
of the fish, life in the surface
waters slackens to the slower
pace of midsummer. Along
the meeting places of the currents
the pale moon jelly Aurelia gathers
in thousands, forming sinuous lines
or windrows across miles of sea,
and the birds see their pale forms
shimmering deep down in the green water.
By midsummer the large red jellyfish Cyanea
may have grown from the size
of a thimble to that of an umbrella.
The great jellyfish moves through
the sea with rhythmic pulsations, trailing
long tentacles and as likely as not
shepherding a little group of young cod
or haddock, which find shelter
under its bell and travel with it.
A hard, brilliant, coruscating phosphorescence
often illuminates the summer sea. In waters
where the protozoa Noctiluca is abundant
it is the chief source of this summer
luminescence, causing fishes, squids, or dolphins
to fill the water with racing flames and to clothe
themselves in a ghostly radiance. Or again
the summer sea may glitter with a thousand
thousand moving pinpricks of light, like
an immense swarm of fireflies moving
through a dark wood. Such an effect
is produced by a shoal of the brilliantly
phosphorescent shrimp Meganyctiphanes,
a creature of cold and darkness
and of the places where icy water
rolls upward from the depths and bubbles
with white rippling at the surface.
Out over the plankton meadows of the North
Atlantic the dry twitter of the phalaropes,
small brown birds, wheeling and turning,
dipping and rising, is heard
for the first time since early spring.
The phalaropes have nested on the arctic
tundras, reared their young, and now
the first of them are returning to the sea.
Most of them will continue south over
the open water far from land, crossing
the equator into the South Atlantic. Here
they will follow where the great whales lead,
for where the whales are, there also are
the swarms of plankton on which
these strange little birds grow fat.
As the fall advances, there are other
movements, some in the surface, some
hidden in the green depths, that betoken
the end of summer. In the fog-covered waters
of Bering Sea, down through the treacherous
open Pacific, the herds of fur seals
are moving. Left behind are two small islands,
treeless bits of volcanic soil thrust up
into the waters of Bering Sea. The islands
are silent now, but for the several months of summer
they resounded with the roar of millions
of seals come ashore to bear and rear
their young—all the fur seals of the eastern Pacific
crowded into a few square miles of bare rock
and crumbling soil. Now once more the seals turn
south, to roam down along the sheer underwater cliffs
of the continent’s edge, where the rocky foundations fall
away steeply into the deep sea. Here, in a blackness
more absolute than that of arctic winter, the seals
will find rich feeding as they swim down to prey
on the fishes of this region of darkness.
Autumn comes to the sea with a fresh blaze
of phosphorescence, when every wave crest is aflame.
Here and there the whole surface may glow with sheets
of cold fire, while below schools of fish pour
through the water like molten metal.
Often the autumnal phosphorescence is caused by a fall
flowering of the dinoflagellates, multiplying furiously
in a short-lived repetition of their vernal blooming.
Sometimes the meaning of the glowing
water is ominous. Off the Pacific coast
of North America, it may mean that the sea is filled
with the dinoflagellate Gonyaulax, a minute plant
that contains a poison of strange and terrible virulence.
About four days after Gonyaulax comes
to dominate the coastal plankton, some
of the fishes and shellfish in the vicinity become
toxic. This is because, in their normal feeding,
they have strained the poisonous plankton out
of the water. Mussels accumulate
the Gonyaulax toxins in their livers,
and the toxins react on the human nervous system
with an effect similar to that of strychnine.
Because of these facts, it is generally understood
along the Pacific coast that it is unwise to eat
shellfish taken from coasts exposed to the open
sea when Gonyaulax may be abundant
in summer or early fall.
For generations before the white men
came, the Indians knew this. As soon
as the red streaks appeared in the sea
and the waves began to flicker
at night with the mysterious blue-green fires,
the tribal leaders forbade the taking of mussels
until these warning signals should have passed.
They even set guards at intervals
along the beaches to warn inlanders who
might come down for shellfish
and be unable to read the language of the sea.
But usually the blaze and glitter of the sea,
whatever its meaning for those who produce it,
implies no menace to man. Seen
from the deck of a vessel in open ocean,
a tiny, man-made observation point in the vast world
of sea and sky, it has an eerie and unearthly quality.
Man, in his vanity, subconsciously attributes
a human origin to any light not of moon or stars or sun.
Lights on the shore, lights moving over the water,
mean lights kindled and controlled by other men,
serving purposes understandable to the human mind.
Yet there are lights that flash and fade away.
Lights that come and go for reasons meaningless
to man, lights that have been doing this
very thing over the eons of time
in which there were no men to stir in vague disquiet.
Like the blazing colors of the autumn leaves
before they wither and fall, the autumnal phosphorescence
betokens the approach of winter.
After their brief renewal of life the flagellates
and the other minute algae dwindle away
to a scattered few; so do the shrimps and the copepods,
the glassworms and the comb jellies.
The larvae of the bottom fauna have long since completed
their development and drifted away
to take up whatever existence is their lot.
Even the roving fish schools have deserted
the surface waters and have migrated
into warmer latitudes or have found equivalent
warmth in the deep, quiet waters along the edge
of the continental shelf. There the torpor
of semi-hibernation descends upon them
and will possess them during the months of winter.
The surface waters now become the plaything
of the winter gales. As the winds build up
the giant storm waves and roar along their crests,
lashing the water into foam and flying spray,
it seems that life must forever
have deserted this place.
For the mood of the winter sea, read Joseph Conrad’s description:
“The grayness of the whole immense surface,
the wind furrows upon the faces of the waves,
the great masses of foam, tossed about and waving,
like matted white locks, give to the sea in a gale
an appearance of hoary age, lusterless, dull, without gleams.
As though it had been created before light itself.”
But the symbols of hope are not lacking
even in the grayness and bleakness of the winter sea.
On land we know that the apparent lifelessness of winter
is an illusion. Look closely at the bare branches of a tree,
on which not the palest gleam of green can be discerned.
Yet spaced along each branch are the leaf buds,
all the spring’s magic of swelling green concealed
and safely preserved under the insulating, overlapping layers.
Pick off a piece of the rough bark of the trunk;
there you will find hibernating insects.
Dig down through the snow into the earth.
There are the eggs of next summer’s grasshoppers;
there are the dormant seeds from which will come
the grass, the herb, the oak tree.
So, too, the lifelessness, the hopelessness, the despair
of the winter sea are an illusion.
Everywhere are the assurances that the cycle has come
to the full, containing the means of its own renewal.
There is the promise of a new spring in the very iciness
of the winter sea, in the chilling of the water,
which must, before many weeks, become so heavy
that it will plunge downward, precipitating the overturn
that is the first act in the drama of spring.
There is the promise of new life in the small plantlike things
that cling to the rocks of the underlying bottom,
the almost formless polyps from which, in spring,
a new generation of jellyfish will bud off and rise
into the surface waters. There is unconscious purpose
in the sluggish forms of the copepods hibernating
on the bottom, safe from the surface storms,
life sustained in their tiny bodies by the extra store
of fat with which they went into this winter sleep.
Already, from the gray shapes of cod
that have moved, unseen by man,
through the cold sea to their spawning places,
the glassy globules of eggs are rising
into the surface waters. Even in the harsh world
of the winter sea, these eggs will begin the swift divisions
by which a granule of protoplasm becomes a living fish-let.
Most of all, perhaps, there is assurance in the fine dust of life
that remains in the surface waters, the invisible spores of the diatoms,
needing only the touch of warming sun and fertilizing chemicals
to repeat the magic of spring.
— Words by Rachel Carson,
— free verse format by R. Leland Waldrip
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|Reviewed by Jackie (Micke) Jinks
|Delight to read this as you have formed, Leland. You've enhanced R. Carson's message into lovely verse!
Blessings and Love - Micke
|Reviewed by OnepoetGem *the Poetic Rapper
|yes the sea around us, will certainly end up drowning us L, especially with the way man pollutes, give a hoot, don't pollute.
great throb, cheers
|Reviewed by C. J. Stevens
|And you have scuptured it into poetry at its best.
|Reviewed by Regis Auffray
|I remember the first time that I read "Silent Spring." It was the first time that I started to become truly pessimistic about what man was/is doing to this planet. Thank you for sharing this meaningful, apt, and timely offering, Leland. Love and peace to you,
|Reviewed by Ronald Hull
|Silent Spring was a dividing point in the understanding of our harm to nature. In this work Rachel Carson helps explain what Jacques Cousteau tried to show with his many forays into the troubled deep.
Thanks for bringing the magic of Carson's words to us..
|Reviewed by Aberjhani
|Surely the intellect of a scientist and the heart of a poet combined to make Carson the exceptional soul she was. Your reconstruction of her prose as poetry does her more than a little justice:
"Most of all, perhaps, there is assurance in the fine dust of life
that remains in the surface waters, the invisible spores of the diatoms,
needing only the touch of warming sun and fertilizing chemicals
to repeat the magic of spring. "
True music and magic in those lines. I call reconstructions like this one found literary art. Thank you for sharing this unearthed treasure.