The Sea Around Us & The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson

About Rachel Carson

Rachel Louise Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) was an American marine biologist, writer, and conservationist whose influential book Silent Spring (1962) and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement. Carson began her career as an aquatic biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and became a full-time nature writer in the 1950s. (Source: Wiki)

The Sea Around us – A Summary

Her widely praised 1951 bestseller The Sea Around Us was written in 1951 and won Carson a U.S. National Book Award. Her next book, The Edge of the Sea, and the reissued version of her first book, Under the Sea Wind, were also bestsellers. Together they came to be known as the sea trilogy and explore the whole of ocean life from the shores to the depths. The Sea Around Us is divided into three sections: mother sea; the restless sea; and finally, man and the sea about him.

In the first section, mother sea, Carson takes on the tremendous task of outlining for the reader the shadowy ‘beginnings of that great mother of life, the sea’. With great poetic beauty she begins by sharing how ‘the young planet Earth acquired an ocean’: : “As soon as the earth’s crust cooled enough, the rains began to fall. Never have there been such rains since that time. They fell continuously, day and night, days passing into months, into years, into centuries. They poured into the waiting ocean basins, or, falling upon the continental masses, drained away to become sea”.

In the chapters ahead she uses witness accounts and diary entries of early travellers, explorers and researchers intermingled with scientific knowledge, to take us along in this journey of experiencing the beauty, scale and mystery of the seas. For the reader she breaks down the various complexities of the inner workings of the sea: the multitudinous and strange life that dwells in it from the tiny diatom and plankton to the ancient frill sharks and gigantic whales; the layout and interaction of the various structures and layers of the ocean; the movement of creatures and minerals through it’s seasonal cycles; the flow and settling of sediments on the ocean floor; the volatile volcanic power that sometimes pushes through to create and destroy islands; the rising and falling of the seas through the ages and their effects on land and the larger environment; and, the various evolving scientific theories around the seas many strange machinations.

In the second section, the restless sea, Carson tells us of the ways in which the seas intertwine with and are changed by planetary systems outside of it. She begins by sharing how the winds interact with this large body of water; expands into the influence of the sun and the spinning of the Earth on seas; and finally outlines the profound influence of the moon on the shifting tides of the oceans. She peppers the chapters with examples from across the planet, stitches it with the emerging science and adds rich literary flourishes by painting with words the happenings on distant shores.

In the last and third section, man and the sea about him, Carson tells us the story of how mankind has interacted with the ocean thus far: “Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity, compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage. He could not physically re-enter the ocean as the seals and whales had done. But over the centuries, with all the skill and ingenuity and reasoning powers of his mind, he has sought to explore and investigate even its most remote parts, so that he might re-enter it mentally and imaginatively.”

Even as she traces the heroic attempts of humans to follow their curiosity into the unknown seas, Carson shares alongside the dire and heartbreaking outcomes of unthinking intervention or entry into fragile eco-systems. She points out: “Although man’s record as a steward of the natural resources of the earth has been a discouraging one, there has long been a certain comfort in the belief that the sea, at least, was inviolate, beyond man’s ability to change and to despoil. But this belief, unfortunately, has proved to be naïve.” This prescient warning has now been well-backed by climate change science. Due to human tinkering oceanic eco-systems are showing dramatic shifts, rapid glacial melts are taking place making sea rise a dire reality in the near future.

Carson viewed herself first as a poet of the sea and then as a scientist. Both these qualities have combined in this still deeply relevant classic to create prose that carries us back to reflect on our origins and how we might change paths to side with life.

The Sense of Wonder – A summary

First published a half-century ago, Rachel Carson’s award-winning The Sense of Wonder remains the classic guide to introducing children to the marvels of nature.

In 1955, acclaimed conservationist Rachel Carson—author of Silent Spring—began work on an essay that she would come to consider one of her life’s most important projects. Her grandnephew, Roger Christie, had visited Carson that summer at her cottage in Maine, and together they had wandered the surrounding woods and tide pools. Teaching Roger about the natural wonders around them, Carson began to see them anew herself, and wanted to relate that same magical feeling to others who might hope to introduce a child to the beauty of nature. (Source: Barnes and Nobles)

She herself summarises the essay in this quote: “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the soil. Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love – then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”

The Sense of Wonder remains one of the most timeless and beloved essays by Rachel Carson. A must-read for all those with children in their lives.

Further reading and listening:

Discussion Themes and Questions:

  • What were your thoughts on the book and essay?
  • What did you think of the author’s writing style?
  • Which elements/themes covered in the book or essay stand out for you?
  • Does the book help you make connections on well-being you had previously not considered? If yes, please share them.
  • How does this book connect to the ideas of well-being we have been discussing?