Issue Forty-Four - Summer 2024

A Posthumous Conversation with Rachel Carson

By Iris Graville

~ after a Kathleen Dean Moore “interview”
with Edward Abbey, Great Tide Rising

When I embarked on writing about threats to the Salish Sea off the northwest coast of Washington state, I read at least as much as I wrote. One author I studied hungrily was Rachel Carson—marine scientist, writer, and editor. Perhaps best known for Silent Spring (1962), she also wrote two earlier books about the ocean. The first one, Under the Sea-Wind (1941) is an account of the interactions of a sea bird (a sanderling), a mackerel, and an eel off the Atlantic coast. The Sea Around Us (1951), serves as a biography of the sea and is noted for both its science and its poetic prose.

Carson was born in 1907 just upstream of the Allegheny River from heavily industrialized Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From her bedroom window, she could see smoke billow from the stacks of the American Glue Factory, which slaughtered horses. A graduate of Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), Carson studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and received an MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. In Silent Spring, she wrote about the interrelationship of all life and revealed the dangers of the pesticide DDT. After the book’s publication, she was attacked by the chemical industry and accused by some government leaders as an alarmist. Testifying before Congress in 1963, Carson called for new policies to protect human health and the environment. She died in 1964 from breast cancer.

Although I didn’t read Carson’s work in its early days (my parents likely would have been in the “alarmist” camp), I know her writing inspired many to better understand the environment and to become its protectors. The Salish Sea desperately needs her.

Borrowing author Kathleen Dean Moore’s approach in Great Tide Rising (Counterpoint Press, 2017) for a posthumous “interview” of Edward Abbey, I devised questions for Carson and used her previously-published words for her replies. I imagine our conversation going something like this.


IRIS GRAVILLE: You’re a well-respected thinker and writer about conservation, Ms. Carson, and you spent a lot of time studying the sea. What drew you to the ocean?

RACHEL CARSON: As long as I can remember, it [the sea] has fascinated me. Even as a child—long before I had ever seen it—I used to imagine what it would look like, and what the surf sounded like. Since I grew up in an inland community, where we hadn’t even a migrating seagull, I had to wait a long time to have my curiosity satisfied. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until I had graduated from college and gone to Woods Hole… that I saw the ocean. There, I began to get my first real understanding of the real sea world, that is, the world as it is known by shore-birds and fishes and beach crabs and all the other creatures that live in the sea or along its edge. (Note 1)

All through the long history of Earth, it has been an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land, where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded, and then returned. (Note 2) Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal—each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in seawater. (Note 3)

IG: I live on an island on the Salish Sea in Washington State, and I never tire of looking at the water’s many shades of blue. But I’m embarrassed to admit there’s a great deal I don’t know about this body of water. For example, what makes it that color?

RC: The sea is blue because the sunlight is reflected back to our eyes from the water molecules or from very minute particles suspended in the sea. In the journey of the light rays downward into the water and back to our eyes, all the red rays of the spectrum and most of the yellow have been absorbed, so it is chiefly the cool, blue light that we see. (Note 4)

IG: I feel both fortunate to live so close to the sea and distressed by the visible effects of climate change around me. But so many people don’t live anywhere near an ocean. Why should they care?

RC: Even in the vast and mysterious reaches of the sea, we are brought back to the fundamental truth that nothing lives to itself. (Note 5) Water must be thought of in terms of the chains of life it supports. (Note 6)

IG: At the centennial of your birth, forty-three years after your death, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution in your honor. Here’s one portion of the 2007 resolution:

Resolved, That the House of Representatives—
recognizes that we could learn much from her today,
especially as we increasingly feel the effects
of climate change and consider measures to lessen
and eventually, reverse the impact it has on our planet.

What do you think is the most important learning we could gain from you today?

RC: We also need to see the problem as a whole, to look beyond the immediate and single event of the introduction of a pollutant into the environment, and to trace the chain of events thus set into motion. We must never forget the wholeness of that relationship. We cannot think of the living organism alone; nor can we think of the physical environment as a separate entity. The two exist together, each acting on the other to form an ecological complex or an ecosystem. With these surface waters, through a series of delicately adjusted, interlocking relationships, the life of all parts of the sea is linked. What happens to a diatom in the upper, sunlit strata of the sea may well determine what happens to a cod lying on a ledge of some rocky canyon a hundred fathoms below, or to a bed of multicolored, gorgeously plumed sea worms carpeting an underlying shoal, or to a prawn creeping over the soft oozes of the sea floor in the blackness of mile-deep water. (Note 7)

IG: It appears the more we learn, the more complicated the natural world is, and the more unattainable real change seems. How did we get here, and how can we change?

RC: We behave, not like people guided by scientific knowledge, but more like the proverbial bad housekeeper who sweeps the dirt under the rug in the hope of getting it out of sight. We dump wastes of all kinds into our streams, with the object of having them carried away from our shores. We discharge the smoke and fumes of a million smokestacks and burning rubbish heaps into the atmosphere in the hope that the ocean of air is somehow vast enough to contain them. Now, even the sea has become a dumping ground, not only for assorted rubbish, but for the poisonous garbage of the atomic age. And this is done, I repeat, without recognition of the fact that introducing harmful substances into the environment is not a one-step process. It is changing the nature of the complex ecological system and is changing it in ways that we usually do not foresee until it is too late. This lack of foresight is one of the most serious complications, I think. It is not half so important to know as to feel. The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction. (Note 8)

IG: It can be difficult for people to believe that climate change is truly a crisis and that we humans are responsible for it. It’s as if we’re unwilling or afraid to look at the damage we’ve caused for decades and continue to wreak. How would you convince us to take this destruction seriously?

RC: I suppose it is rather a new, and almost a humbling thought, and certainly one born of this atomic age, that man could be working against himself. In spite of our rather boastful talk about progress and our pride in the gadgets of civilization, there is, I think, a growing suspicion—indeed, perhaps an uneasy certainty—that we have been sometimes a little too ingenious for our own good. In spite of the truly marvelous inventiveness of the human brain, we are beginning to wonder whether our power to change the face of nature should not have been tempered with wisdom for our own good, and with a greater sense of responsibility for the welfare of generations to come. Contrary to the beliefs that seem often to guide our actions, man does not live apart from the world; he lives in the midst of a complex, dynamic interplay of physical, chemical, and biological forces, and between himself and this environment there are continuing, never-ending interactions. One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself—What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again? (Note 9)

IG: In 1952, you received the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us. At the time, it was described as poetic. Do you think of your writing as poetry?

RC: The winds, the sea, and the moving tides are what they are. If there is wonder and beauty and majesty in them, science will discover these qualities… If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry. (Note 10)

IG: I’m deeply grateful for the work you did to raise awareness about the ocean, the danger of pesticides, and environmental protection. Writing personal essays and poems is my response to the climate crisis, but I often question if that’s of any use. When did you decide to become a writer, and what are your thoughts about the value of creative writing?

RC: The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature. I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn’t assume I was going to be a writer. (Note 11) A good deal of poetry and stories have been focused on the sea, and quite a bit of science as well. But the best writing combines the two. The books that influence—that push movements forward—are the books that marry science and emotion. (Note 12)

IG: Every day, news reports about repealed environmental policies, extinction of animals, wildfires, oil spills, and rising seas cause fear and wear me (and many others) down. What advice can you offer to help us keep our spirits up?

RC: Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction. (Note 13) Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will last as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature—the assurance that dawn comes after night and spring after winter. (Note 14)

IG: How would you describe this present moment when it comes to the climate?

RC: We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road, the one less traveled by, offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth. (Note 15)
1 Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951.
2 Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1955.
3-4 Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951.
5-6 Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
7 Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951.
8 Excerpt from acceptance speech for the John Burroughs Medal in 1952 for The Sea
9 Carson, Rachel. The Sense of Wonder. New York: Harper Collins, 1956.
10 Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1951.
11 Lear, Linda, ed. Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
12 Excerpt from acceptance speech for the National Book Award in 1952 for The Sea Around Us
13 Lear, Linda, ed. Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Boston: Beacon Press, 1998.
14-15 Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.

An earlier version of “A Posthumous Conversation with Rachel Carson” was previously published in Writer in a Life Vest: Essays from the Salish Sea (Homebound Publications, 2022).