Speaking of the Sea
FYI I took out my in-line citations for easier reading. If you are truly concerned feel free to check out my sources listed at the end.
There is something that happens to human skin when enveloped in the ocean’s salt air—it is an exfoliating experience matched by none other in the natural world, save maybe the weight of the sea’s great waves crashing upon your chest. Unfortunately, many people are disconnected from the blue water that covers 70% of the earth and contains 97% of it’s liquid water. Those who have had the opportunity to truly explore the mystery, and feel the power of our marine mother, return to the public like Odysseus back at Ithaca; changed, charged, and desperate to share the implications of what they’ve encountered.
Fifty-nine years after Rachel Carson first published The Sea Around Us, a best selling book inviting the American public to take a closer look at the ocean, Sylvia Earle eloquently reminded us that “even if you never have the chance to see or touch the ocean, the ocean touches you with every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, every bite you consume." Upon deeper inquiry into Earle’s writing you can see that her use of narrative, expressive prose, and ability to convey scientific information somewhat mirrors Carson’s earlier writing about the ocean and it’s abundant biodiversity. However, her sense of environmental urgency, and criticism of our modern society, truly echos that of Carson’s more well known 1962 book, Silent Spring.
The ocean is in trouble.
We are in trouble.
It’s our fault; but we also have the power to fix it. This is the cry of Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer, engineer, philanthropist, environmentalist, explorer, and author who has spent over 7,000 hours immersed in that ever elusive, big blue. She’s won hundreds of awards and honors, served as the first female chief scientist of NOAA, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, and led the first team of all female aquanauts. Her career began in the 1950’s, just as Rachel Carson was publishing the three books that immersed mid-century Americans in, at what the time seemed like, a foreign salt water world. The accepted line of thinking then was that the ocean was too big to fail; that while early environmentalists were in agreement that we were plundering and destroying the green part of this marble we call home, the blue parts were all powerful and immune to the selfish shortsightedness of man. What Earle learned over the next 50 years, and works tirelessly to communicate, proves the falsity of that claim.
Those experiences—from the first time she used SCUBA, to her personal investment in progressing the technology of diving gear and submersibles, to her documentary “Mission Blue” and all the environmental and exploration writing in between— all rely heavily on her personal perspective. So much so that The World is Blue begins with the story of how and why she fell in love with the ocean. It’s a narrative that you can connect with, that I can connect with, that the public can connect with. It’s effective. In both Sea Change and The World is Blue she jumps around chronologically, which can be frustrating for some readers. Essentially it works though, because both books are arranged to tell the story of the ocean and how we impact its future (and our own). When necessary she calls upon a personal experience to help tell that story, and it doesn’t matter when in time it happened to her. Carson’s narrative of the sea on the other hand, while quite splendid and rich with ecological story, is devoid of a personal touch. As one reviewer remarked, “Miss Carson’s books have no element of personal adventure in their narration. There seem to be no human beings on the scene. The pervading feeling is one of disembodiment."
The prose of both Carson and Earle do however awaken the deep connection humans have with the natural world. For example, in The Sea Around Us Carson’s style moves the reader by applying common human feelings to metaphors of the ocean using words like “bitter,” “sinister,” and “freshly torn from it’s parent sun.” She also says within that same text that “as life began in the sea, so each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his mother’s womb,” calling once again for us to connect through common understanding. In the same vein, Earle describes in The World is Blue the time she felt “the insistent pulse of the sea below, gently lifting the ice, then falling away, like gentle breathing.” There is also a beauty in how she sees the world apparent when she reveals that “carbon in the sea is stored not in centuries-old trees, peat, and soil but rather, in the steady rain of small creatures falling to the seafloor” and in her depiction of bioluminescent creatures that “flash and sparkle and glow with their own living light."
Among the flowery prose within the pages of The Sea Around Us, as well as The World is Blue, both authors are also able to present scientific information in an accessible way; through the explorers sense of wonder. For example both books touch on the microbial life and chemical processes so dominant and important within the ocean (although Carson’s is somewhat dated) in an emotionally stirring way:
“Even the protoplasm that streams within each cell of our bodies has the chemical structure impressed upon all living matter when the first simple creatures were brought forth in the ancient sea."
And even more resonating:
“The capacity for such staggering diversity seems to me to be one of the two great miracles of life. The other is the common water-based chemistry that unites all."
These are just a few examples, among many more, of their combined ability to teach the reader about Earth’s oceans through gracefully articulating the common humanity we all share with the natural world.
Despite their striking similarities, Earle regularly opposes Carson’s initial claims regarding the misconception of the ocean’s “inviolate” nature. Yet in the preface to the 1961 edition of The Sea Around Us, Carson admits that “this belief, unfortunately, has proved to be naive [and that] the mistakes made now are made for all time. It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose, should be be threatened by the activities of one form of that life.” Carson then went on to publish Silent Spring where she shifted her focus to “underground seas,” cementing her legacy and arguably sparking the modern environmental movement. She certainly expanded the collected knowledge of her time about underwater landscapes, but her most influential writing was a critique of pesticides and their devastating impacts on the natural world (and in essence, ourselves). Similarly, Sylvia Earle has pioneered impactful and diverse messaging to champion the farthest reaches of the ocean’s beating heart—a deep, dark, mesmerising world teeming with extraordinary living and nonliving characters essential to our very existence—which we are also slowly destroying (along with the future of our species).
Sylvia Earle said:
“I wish that you would use all the means at your disposal to create a campaign to ignite public support… to save and restore the ocean, the blue heart of the planet. How much? Some say 10 percent. Some say 30 percent. You decide: How much of your heart do you want to protect? Whatever it is, a fraction of one percent is not enough."
Just as Carson framed her story in Silent Spring to convince us not only of how our choices impact the future of our world, but also of the beauty and value of that world with which we are also intrinsically linked, so does Earle. Consider this excerpt from Silent Spring:
“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… 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."
In both instances the authors use language that ignites us, the reader, and propels us to feel something; to take action around the issue. The backlash around Silent Spring was a bit more dramatic as Carson was sued (among other negative responses) and the institutions she critiqued continually tried to discredit her. On the contrary, the reception of Earle’s slams to the downsides of progress have been more widely received.
Earle has made it her life’s mission to connect people back to the sea on the heels of an environmental revolution that, in 1995, still seemed to “regard the sea and all that it provides as somehow not as relevant… as terrestrial and freshwater environments." Undertones of that sentiment are slowly starting to fade because of her robust call to the public. Through strong personal narrative delivered in the spirit of Rachel Carson’s poignant prose, potent delivery of scientific knowledge, and compelling environmental rhetoric—through numerous books, articles, essays, lectures, video, photography, speeches and even public policy work—Sylvia Earle continues to make a lasting and unparalleled contribution to the field of nature, science, and environmental writing. Furthermore her charisma, knowledge, and influence have shed light on the need to focus more attentively to the deep ocean and its importance within the current environmental movement.
We may be the planet's worst nightmare, but we are also its best hope.
Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1962.
Carson, Rachel. The Sea around Us. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.
Earle, Sylvia A. “My Wish: Protect Our Oceans.” TED. Feb. 2009.
Earle, Sylvia A. Sea Change: A Message of the Oceans. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.
Earle, Sylvia A. The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2009.
Earle, Sylvia. “The Sweet Spot in Time. Why the Ocean Matters to Everyone, Everywhere.” Virginia Quarterly Review, Fall, 2012 pp. 54-75.
Hagood, Amanda. “Wonders with the Sea: Rachel Carson’s Ecological Aesthetic and the Mid-Century Reader” Environmantal Humanities, 2, 2013 pp. 57-77.
Montefiore, Janet. "'The Fact That Possesses My Imagination': Rachel Carson, Science and Writing." Women: A Cultural Review 12.1 (2001): 44-56. Web.
“Sylvia Earle: Oceanographer” http://www.nationalgeographic.com/explorers/bios/sylvia-earle/