UNDER THE SEA WIND. By Rachel Carson. 50th anniversary edition. Truman Talley Books/Dutton. 304 pages with illustrations. $19.95.
RACHEL CARSON'S first book, "Under the Sea Wind," published 50 years ago, can still captivate anyone who gets hooked on television nature programs. The book, based on Carson's research and experience, offers the reader a fictional (but not a fantasy) account of the lives of three species of animals living along the Atlantic coast.
Unlike the producer of nature films, Carson is not dependent on capturing spectacular film footage. She has the powerful tool of imagination. Using that tool, Carson takes the reader into the lives of her animal characters.
Because this is fiction, Carson is able to put together concepts rarely combined in the realm of straight science. She narrates, for example, the first year of life of a mackerel. The mackerel develops as an egg at sea, survives the immense dangers of the early stages of life, spends a juvenile season in a New England harbor and goes back to sea, becoming a yearling member of a large school. Carson also documents the journey of a pair of sanderlings (a species of shore bird) to the arctic and back and follows the mysterious migration of an American eel.
In these fascinating stories, Carson taps the drama inherent in the life cycles of the creatures that spend much of their lives on, above or near the Atlantic coast. Through the eyes of her main characters, we glimpse the feeding and breeding habits of creatures ranging from sea birds, raccoons and sharks to various forms of plankton. In fact, there is so much information that this seemingly light book is best read a section at a time.
Humans aren't neglected here. Those Carson discusses are fishermen. They're portrayed not as villains, but as predators. The book describes several methods of commercial fishing. It could be argued that Carson sentimentalizes the relationship of humans to the sea, but it isn't the goal of this book to criticize that relationship.
Carson is careful to avoid the trap of sentimentalizing the animals. Though she gives the individual creatures names (based on their scientific name or traits), she does not anthropomorphize them. Her animals feel hunger, coldness, fear, pleasure and pain that can be expected of most sentient beings, but Carson avoids human emotions like love and hate. Also, while the survival of her characters against immense odds is necessary to the book, Carson doesn't hide the harsher realities of the natural world. In fact, it is the intricate relationships among the species in the book, the death providing for life, that make it so exciting. At one point the reader sees the growing mackerel feed on young, drifting crustaceans, the likes of which just a few days earlier had been its predator. In another instance a rat who has just devoured a young terrapin falls prey to a great blue heron.
"Under the Sea Wind" is unusual among Carson's books in not discussing the relationship of humans and nature. Her last book, "Silent Spring," cataloged the deleterious effects of DDT and other chemicals and became perhaps the most successful catalyst for change in the history of the environmental movement.
The reader who takes this book "downy ashen" this summer, whether an avid environmentalist or a potential one, isn't going to be hit over the head with a lesson in ethics, but his or her imagination will be captured by something under the sea wind that isn't wearing lotion. Were Carson still alive, yesterday would have been her 84th birthday. Though she has been dead for 27 years, her work still engages readers.
Stephen P. Bowler is a volunteer guide at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.