Under the Sea Wind was Rachel Carson’s first book. It was released in 1941 and quickly became eclipsed by Pearl Harbor and the nation’s declaration of war. Sales were slow. Carson was disappointed. However, she contributed one of the finest examples of American nature writing. The little book of stories later became popular in its genre. I have a thumb worn, beloved copy printed in that year which I fortuitously uncovered at Bookman’s in Tucson, Arizona many years ago. In my Carson collection I also have a first edition copy of The Sea Around Us, the cover frayed and the binding in need of repair.
Why do I treasure these books so much? I believe it is the uniqueness of Carson’s perspective on wildlife and the intricate webs of life to which each is inextricably connected.
Carson did something in Under the Sea Wind that was unprecedented: she wrote adult stories about the life of a particular individual species giving them a first name derived from their scientific name. For example, she begins the book with the story of Rynchops, a black skimmer (Rynchops niger). It is the flood tide when she describes a strange black bird and its mate swooping low over the marshlands. The sun is setting and we learn that Rynchops and its kind migrated up from the coast of Yucatan and are summering on the Outer banks in marshes and barrier islands there. Rynchops drops his huge lower beak as he glides lower over the water, scooping up small fish. Rynchops has remembered this island from previous migrations as a good place to mate and raise the next generation.
Readers are gently inducted into a story – a drama – as real as any account of man or woman, and along the way they are learning about the ecology of the land and growing appreciation for the struggles and triumphs of just one natural character in Nature’s pageant.
While I am aware of many children- and youth-book authors who have written accounts about the life history of animals, I am not aware of any who have repeated what Carson so beautifully crafted when she was still working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There is also something more about her writing: it is superb by itself, an example of clear, forceful language. She will remain my primary mentor for writing. See her wonderful book about the shore: Edge of the Sea. Also, go to Rachel Carson Council to learn about the amazing women who are carrying forth Carson’s legacy.