November 1, 2011

Rachel Carson, naturalist ... and Scomber, mackerel under the sea-wind

by winecountrydog Tilin Corgi (with notes from Mum)

Upawn this occasion, the 70th anniversary of the 1941 publication of Under the Sea-Wind, Rachel Carson's first book, we are asked by Mum to paw-write a bit. As you doo know, Rachel L. Carson was a zoologist and naturalist whose last book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, awakened humans to the need to address environmental degradation.

Under the Sea-Wind, in Rachel Carson's words, is "a series of descriptive narratives unfolding successively the life of the shore, the open sea, and the sea bottom."

Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist's Picture of Ocean Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1941. 1st Edition.

The following excerpt is from "Birth of a Mackerel" -- in which Ms Carson wrote about the first days of Scomber's life. May this "wet" your appetite for devouring the whole book.
The life of the open sea -- miles beyond sight of land -- is various, strangely beautiful, and wholly unknown to all but a fortunate few. Book Two is the story of a true sea rover -- a mackerel -- from birth in the great ocean nursery of the surface waters . . . to membership in a wandering school of mackerel subject to the depredations of fish-eating birds, large fishes, and man.

Between the Chesapeake Capes and the elbow of Cape Cod . . . in the blue haze of the continent's edge, the mackerel tribes lie in torpor during the four coldest months of winter, resting from the eight months of strenuous life in the upper waters. On the threshold of the deep seas they live on the fat stored up from a summer's rich feeding, and toward the end of their winter's sleep their bodies begin to grow heavy with spawn.

In the month of April the mackerel are roused from their sleep as they lie at the edge of the continental shelf, off the Capes of Virginia. Perhaps the currents that drift down to bathe the resting places of the mackerel stir in the fish some dim perception of the progress of the ocean's seasons -- the old, unchanging cycle of the sea. For weeks now the cold, heavy surface water -- the winter water -- has been sinking, slipping under and displacing the warmer bottom water. The warm water is rising, carrying into the surface rich loads of phosphates and nitrates from the bottom. Spring sun and fertile water are wakening the dormant plants to a burst of activity, of growth and multiplication. Spring comes to the land with pale, green shoots and swelling buds; it brings to the sea a great increase in the number of simple, one-celled plants of microscopic size, the diatoms. Perhaps the currents bring down to the mackerel some awareness of the flourishing vegetation of the upper waters, of the rich pasturage for hordes of crustaceans that browse in the diatom meadows and in their turn fill the water with clouds of their goblin-headed young.

. . .

Perhaps, also, the currents moving over the place where the mackerel lie carry a message of the inpouring of fresh waters as ice and snow dissolve in floods to rush down the coastal rivers to the sea. . . . But however the feeling of awakening spring comes to the dormant fishes, the mackerel stir in swift response. Their caravans begin to form and to move through the dim-lit water, and by thousands and hundreds of thousands they set out for the upper sea.

. . .

In time the shoreward-running mackerel reach the inshore waters, where they ease their bodies of their burden of eggs and milt. . . . There are known to be hundreds of millions of eggs to the square mile . . . hundreds of trillions in the whole spawning area.

. . .

So it came about that Scomber, the mackerel, was born in the surface waters of the open sea, seventy miles to the south by east from the western tip of Long Island. 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.

. . .

In the first night of their existence more than ten out of every hundred mackerel eggs either had been eaten . . . or, from some inherent weakness, had died. . . .

. . .

The floating mackerel eggs were scattered and buffeted. . . . Again the egg that contained the embryonic Scomber had drifted unscathed while all above him other eggs had been seized and eaten.

. . .

. . . the surface currents of the sea were pouring steadily to the southwest, driven by the wind and carrying with them the clouds of plankton. During the six days since the spawning of the mackerel the toll of the ocean's predators had continued without abatement, so that already more than half of the eggs had been eaten or had died in development.

. . .

On the sixth night after the spawning of the mackerel the tough little skins of the eggs began to burst. One by one the tiny fishlets, so small that the combined length of twenty of them, head to tail, would have been scarcely an inch, slipped out of the confining spheres and knew for the first time the touch of the sea. Among these hatching fish was Scomber. . . .
An unfinished story, the ending for which awaits you in this beautiful book. Under the Sea-Wind is still in print and is unmatched in its sensitive, accurate observations of sealife.

Rachel Carson was born in 1907 and grew up in the lower Allegheny Valley of Pennsylvania. She was quoted as saying "I can remember no time when I wasn't interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature."

She spent important college summers studying at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. In 1935, during the Great Depression, Ms Carson took a position at the Bureau of Fisheries in Washington -- one of two federal agencies that were merged into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1940. As an agency biologist and publications editor, she was one of the first two women to be hired by FWS for a non-clerical position. Rachel Carson lived only until 1964, two years after Silent Spring.

Ms Carson's biographer and editor Paul Brooks pointed out that "Though Rachel Carson's last book, Silent Spring, may have changed the course of history, she was not at heart a crusader. . . . In her intense feeling for man's relationship to the living world around him, she was ahead of her time. When she began writing, the term 'environment' had few of the connotations it has today. Conservation was not yet a political force. To the public at large the word 'ecology' -- derived from the Greek for 'habitation' -- was unknown, as was the concept it stood for. This concept, however, is central to everything that Rachel Carson wrote."

Toward the end of Ms Carson's 56 years, when she was ill, it is said that "she liked to be read to. One of her favorites was Wind in the Willows. Then anything of E.B. White's -- also H.M. Tomlinson, Richard Jeffries, Henry Beston. . . ." We mention this 'cause Mum, who has always been drawn to the sea and draws meaning from Ms Carson's writings, loves all of these writers.

One is indebted to the late esteemed editor Paul Brooks, whose 1972 biography The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work, provides the above insights and quotes. Mum suggests this volume as an important, outstanding portrait of Rachel Carson and her work.