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Undersea: Rachel Carson’s Lyrical and Revolutionary 1937 Masterpiece Inviting Humans to Explore Earth from the Perspective of Other Creatures

“Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”

Undersea: Rachel Carson’s Lyrical and Revolutionary 1937 Masterpiece Inviting Humans to Explore Earth from the Perspective of Other Creatures

Pioneering biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) catalyzed the modern environmental movement with the groundbreaking publication of Silent Spring in 1962, but the spark for this slow-burning revolution was kindled a quarter century earlier, while 28-year-old Carson was working for what would later become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. When she was tasked with writing a brochure for the Fisheries Bureau, summarizing their annual research findings, Carson transmuted the science into poetry and turned in something so exquisitely lyrical that her supervisor told her they simply couldn’t publish it as their standard government report. But he encouraged her to submit it to The Atlantic Monthly as an essay. She did. It was enthusiastically accepted and published in the September 1937 issue as the trailblazing masterpiece “Undersea” under the byline R.L. Carson — a choice reflective of Carson’s era-calibrated fear that her writing wouldn’t be taken as seriously if her gender was known. Ironically, of the twenty-one contributors in that issue of the magazine, Carson’s name is the only one widely recognized today.

The essay became the backbone of Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, which remained her favorite piece of writing, and was later included in the excellent Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson (public library).

Rachel Carson

Creatively, “Undersea” was unlike anything ever published before — Carson brought a strong literary aesthetic to science, which over the next two decades would establish her as the most celebrated science writer of her time. Conceptually, it accomplished something even Darwin hadn’t — it invited the reader to step beyond our reflexive human hubris and empathically explore this Pale Blue Dot from the vantage point of the innumerable other creatures with which we share it. Decades before philosopher Thomas Nagel wrote his iconic essay “What Is it Like to Be a Bat?” and nearly a century before Sy Montgomery’s beautiful inquiry into the soul of an octopus, Carson considered the experience of other consciousnesses. What the nature writer Henry Beston, one of Carson’s great heroes, brought to the land, she brought first to the sea, then to all of Earth — intensely lyrical prose undergirded by a lively reverence for nature and a sympathetic curiosity about the reality of other living beings.

Long before scientists like pioneering oceanographer Sylvia “Her Deepness” Earle plunged into the depths of the ocean, Carson shepherds the human imagination to the mysterious wonderland thriving below the surface of the seas that envelop Earth:

Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere. Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor, where sunlight, filtering through a hundred feet of water, makes but a fleeting, bluish twilight, in which dwell sponge and mollusk and starfish and coral, where swarms of diminutive fish twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal night.

To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.

North Pacific Giant Octopus by photographer Mark Laita from his project Sea

After a tour of some of the ocean’s most unusual and dazzling creatures, Carson considers the glorious and inevitable interconnectedness of the natural world, no different from the “inescapable network of mutuality” which Martin Luther King so passionately championed in the human world. She writes:

The ocean is a place of paradoxes. It is the home of the great white shark, two thousand pound killer of the seas. And of the hundred foot blue whale, the largest animal that ever lived. It is also the home of living things so small that your two hands may scoop up as many of them as there are stars in the Milky Way. And it is becoming of the flowering of astronomical numbers of these diminutive plants known as diatoms, that the surface waters of the ocean are in reality boundless pastures.

Every marine animal, from the smallest to the sharks and whales is ultimately dependent for its food upon these microscopic entities of the vegetable life of the ocean. Within their fragile walls, the sea performs a vital alchemy that utilizes the sterile chemical elements dissolved in the water and welds them with the torch of sunlight into the stuff of life. Only through the little-understood synthesis of proteins, fats and carbohydrates by myriad plant “producers” is the mineral wealth of the sea made available to the animal “consumers” that browse as they float with the currents. Drifting endlessly, midway between the sea of air above and the depths of the abyss below, these strange creatures and the marine inflorescence that sustains them are called “plankton” — the wanderers.

Art by Rambharos Jha from Waterlife

Carson continues her marine expedition farther and deeper into the ocean, to return in the final paragraphs to this central interconnectedness of life — perhaps, she poetically suggests, our only real taste of immortality:

While bottoms near the shore are covered with detritus from the land, the remains of the floating and swimming creatures of the sea prevail in the deep waters of the open ocean. Beneath the tropical seas, in depths of 1000 to 1500 fathoms, calcareous oozes cover nearly a third of the ocean floor; while the colder waters of the temperate and polar regions release to the underlying bottom the silicious remains of diatoms and Radiolaria. In the red clay that carpets the great deeps at 5000 fathoms or more, such delicate skeletons are extremely rare. Among the few organic remains not dissolved before they reach these cold and silent depths are the ear bones of whales and the teeth of sharks.

Thus we see parts of the plan fall into place: the water receiving from earth and air the simple materials, storing them up into the gathering energy of the spring wakens the sleeping plants to a burst of dynamic energy, hungry swarms of planktonic animals growing and multiplying upon the abundant plants, and themselves falling prey to the shoals of fish; all, in the end; to be redissolved into their component substances when the inexorable laws of the sea demand it. Individual elements are lost to view, only to repair again and again in different incarnations in a kind material immortality. Kindred forces to those which, in some period inconceivably remote, gave birth to that primeval bit of protoplasm tossing on the ancient seas continue their mighty and incomprehensible work. Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.

Complement the altogether fantastic Lost Woods with Carson courageous and prescient 1953 protest against the government’s assault on science and nature, the story of how she awakened the modern environmental conscience, and her touching farewell to her beloved, then revisit these gorgeous illustrations of sea creatures from Indian folklore and Susan Middleton’s mesmerizing photographs of marine invertebrates.

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Friend or Foe?: A Lovely Illustrated Fable About Making Sense of Otherness

A playful illustrated inquiry into whether mutual attentiveness is enough to dissolve enmity into friendship.

“The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy,” the wise and wonderful Parker Palmer wrote in his treatise on healing the heart of society. Yet, paradoxically enough, it is often our stories — those involuntary circumstances of our lives dictated by accidents of birth and chance — that cast the air of enmity in another’s eyes: that we were born one race and not another, that we came from one country and not another, that we fell in love with a person of one gender and not another. (This, perhaps, is why the ancient Greek notion of agape is directed equally at friends and enemies.) But the heartening counterpoint to these tragic polarizations is that they can often be undone just as easily, by another accidental flip of circumstance.

That’s what Canadian writer John Sobol and Brooklyn-based Russian illustrator Dasha Tolstikova explore with delightful levity in Friend or Foe? (public library) — a charming modern-day fable, without a simplistic moral, about what makes for and what undoes the sense of otherness.

We meet a lonely mouse who lives in a small house beneath a lavish castle, and a white cat who lives in the castle above. (It is a modernist castle, to be sure — portraits of same-sex royal couples grace its walls and lightbulbs like the kind you’d see in a Brooklyn bar illuminate its halls.) Every evening, the two look at one another for hours on end — the mouse sitting atop the little house, the cat perched at the window of the big palace.

One day, the mouse discovers a tiny hole in the wall of the castle that could bypass the stringently guarded main entrance. Sobol writes:

He stared at the hole for a whole day. He was wondering if — after all those hours of looking at each other — he and the cat were friends.

It’s a lovely question — can sustained mutual attentiveness turn natural enemies into friends? — a question evocative of Simone Weil’s abiding assertion that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

Finally, the mouse decides that he cannot go on living lonesome and friendless, and must find out if a friend or a foe resides in the castle. So he skulks inside, past the garrulous royalty in their glittering gowns, and makes his way to the top.

It took all day to climb the stairs. But finally, as the sun was setting, the mouse reached the top step. He peered around the great oak door and there was the cat, sitting on the window sill, staring at the empty roof below.

The mouse creeps quietly up the lush velvet curtain and positions himself on the stone ledge next to the unwitting cat, where he gathers the courage to speak up.

But when he finally does, posing his existential question — “Hello, are you friend or foe?” — the cat is so alarmed by the surprise visitor that she leaps into the air.

The mouse studied the cat’s whiskered face as she flew through the air. At first he felt sure he was about to be eaten. Then he changed his mind. Perhaps they were to be friends after all.

Friend or foe, thought the mouse. In a moment I’ll know.

But in her startled pirouette, the cat slips and falls out the window, landing to safety, in perfect feline fashion, near the little house below.

A moment later, a woman came out of the small house and scooped up the cat.

“Why, we’ve been wanting a cat, and now here you are. Dropped right out of the sky, didn’t you, puss?”

Hopeful that the fortuitous cat will solve the household’s mouse problem, the woman takes her in. And, just like that, the tables have turned, and one can almost hear Bob Dylan singing: “The order is rapidly fading / And the first one now will later be last / Cause the times they are a-changing.”

A cat lives in a small house beside a great palace. In the great palace lives a mouse.

Every evening the mouse creeps up the stairs to the palace tower. Every evening the cat climbs to the roof of the house.

In the end, the mouse once again confronts his question, this time from the other side of privilege. The answer offered in the final page is perhaps the only real answer that existential question has.

Complement the quietly delightful Friend or Foe? with this visual taxonomy of platonic relationships, then revisit the Tolstikova-illustrated The Jacket — a lovely meta-book about how we fall in love with books.

For other treasures from independent Canadian powerhouse Groundwood Books, see The White Cat and the Monk, The King of the Birds, and Sidewalk Flowers.

Illustrations © Dasha Tolstikova courtesy of Groundwood Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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John Steinbeck on the Loneliness of Success and His Surprising Source of Self-Salvation

“The loneliness and discouragement… I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement.”

As a writer, John Steinbeck (February 27, 1902–December 20, 1968) remains one of the most beloved artists of the past century, whose exceptional work ethic and unrelenting pursuit of the impossible earned him both the Pulitzer Prize and the Nobel Prize. As a person, he was animated by a deep humanity, uncommon integrity, and lucid optimism.

Steinbeck: A Life in Letters (public library) unfolds the record of a rare man who was a Complete Human Being, a living spectrum, who would with equal earnestness give his son timeless advice on falling in love and perform the difficult art of the friend breakup, would visit the carpenter who built his house in the hospital when the man broke his back, would unselfconsciously sign his letters to friends “love, john,” and would write to President Roosevelt: “Please forgive this informality, but frankly, I don’t know anyone else in authority whom I can address informally.”

John Steinbeck

In the fall of 1940, two years after he had first begun to taste the dark side of success, Steinbeck contemplates the private loneliness of public acclaim in a letter to his dear friend and onetime college roommate, Carlton A. Sheffield:

The loneliness and discouragement are by no means a thing that has passed. In fact they seem to crowd in more than ever. Only now I can’t talk to anyone much about them or even admit having them because I now possess the things that the great majority of people think are the death of loneliness and discouragement. Only they aren’t. The last time I saw Chaplin (this don’t repeat please but it is a part of the same thing) it was the night when the little lady [Paulette Goddard] was leaving him for good. And he said, “When I get this picture opened and all the formal things done, can I please go up to your ranch and kick all the servants out and just talk a little bit quietly about how lonely and sad I am? It will be self indulgence but I’d like to do it.” He is a good little man. And he knows so much better than I do the horrors of being a celebrity.

Later that year, he writes to another old college friend from Stanford (after whom Steinbeck named his manuscript-devouring dog):

Dear Toby:

Why is it, do you suppose, that we don’t get together any more? Of course, I know you are carrying some big secret in you that is bigger than you and that you’ve turned inward on your secret. And I suppose I’ve turned inward on something too.

[…]

Sometimes I get so dreadfully homesick I can’t stand it and then realize that it’s not for any home I ever had. And the passionate youthful desire to communicate was the same kind of homesickness. It’s curious and it doesn’t get any better, only one learns not to talk about it. And if everyone is that way, I wonder why they all learn not to talk about it. Their eyes get dull with disgust or pain or tiredness. I haven’t crossed the hump I guess or I wouldn’t be writing this letter.

But I sit upon this beautiful ranch in this comfortable chair with a perfect servant and a beautiful dog and I think I’m more homesick than ever.

Steinbeck found one surprising way of transfiguring this homesick loneliness into nourishing aloneness. Upon approaching his fortieth birthday, he began taking flying lessons near his home in Northern California. In the skies, he shed all the earthly trappings with which success had trapped him. There, he was able to be his barest human self. He captures that transcendent freedom in another letter to Sheffield:

I’m taking flying lessons up at the Palo Alto Airport and I love it. There’s something so god damned remote and beautiful and detached about being way to hell and gone up on a little yellow leaf. It isn’t like the big transports at all because this little thing floats and bobs and yet is very steady and — there’s no sense of power at all but rather a sense of being alone in the best sense of the word, not loneliness at all but just an escape into something delightful. I think you used to get it after you had had a lot of guests and they all went home and the house was finally cleaned up and you could turn on the radio and cook your own kind of stew and read and look up and know god damned well that you were alone. And there’s something about seeing a cumulus cloud way off and going over there to see what it is like.

My first reason for getting a license was that here I am only about a year and a half from forty and I wanted to learn to handle the controls while my reflexes were still malleable. I saw my father try to learn to drive a car when he was sixty five and he never could do it unconsciously. He had to think every time for the gear shift and he had to think about how to get out of a mess. Well, I wanted to get the controls into my unconscious before I got too old. And the moment I began going up I found something much more than that. Some very delicious thing with no name for it yet anyway, but it does seem to be some extension of aesthetics.

Complement the endlessly rewarding Steinbeck: A Life in Letters with the beloved writer on racism and bigotry, the crucible of creativity, and the necessary contradictions of human nature, then revisit Bruce Lee on the only meaningful measure of achievement and Joni Mitchell on freedom, the source of creativity, and the paradox of success.

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