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Undersea - Rachel Carson

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Originally Published as Rachel Louise Carson (1937). Undersea. Atlantic Monthly, 78:55–67
Visions for Sustainability 3:62-67, 2015
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COMMENTARY
Undersea
Rachel Carson
Proposed by
Enzo Ferara, Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica INRIM, Italy
Originally Published as
Rachel Louise Carson (1937). Undersea. Atlantic Monthly, 78:5567
ISSN 2384-8677 DOI: 10.7401/visions.03.06
Article history: Accepted in revised form June, 6, 2015
Published: June, 21, 2015
Citation: Ferrara, E. (2014). Rachel Carson - Undersea. Visions for Sustainability 3:62-67.
Copyright: ©2014 Ferrara. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons
Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original author and source are credited.
Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.
Corresponding Author: Enzo Ferrara, Istituto Nazionale di Ricerca Metrologica, Strada delle Caccie 91, 10135,
Torino, Italy. E.mail: e.ferrara@inrim.it
Perspective: Educational vision
Fields: Human sciences
Issues: Bio-geological equilibrium and ecological decay
DOI:10.7401/visions.03.06
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Rachel Carson is renown thanks to the
publication of Silent Spring, a path-breaking
account of the myriad ways that pesticides
damage the natural environment and threaten
human health. However, as an author Rachel
Carson wrote four books: Under the Sea-wind
(Oxford University Press, New York, 1941), The
Sea Around Us (Oxford University Press, New
York, 1951), The Edge of the Sea (Houghton
Mifflin Company, Boston 1955), and Silent
Spring (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston
1962). Her fifth book, The Sense of Wonder,
appeared posthumously in 1965. She also
wrote a number of pamphlets for a Fish and
wildlife Service series, called Conservation in
Action. The here presented text, Undersea, is
among Carson's earliest published work.
Originally, its title was The World of Waters,
intended as an introduction to a U.S. Bureau of
Fisheries brochure issued in 1935. Its
publication as an essay on the pages of the
Atlantic Monthly magazine marked Carson’s
literary debut as a writer. Subsequently that
very same pamphlet became the basis of her
first book, Under the Sea-Wind, introducing
two of Carson writing signatures: the enduring
ecology that dominates ocean life, and the
material immortality that among water
encompasses even the smallest organism.
UNDERSEA
I 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
the 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. For to the
sea’s children nothing is so important as the
fluidity of their world. It is water that they
breathe; water that brings them food; water
through which they see, by filtered sunshine
from which first the red rays, then the greens,
and finally the purples have been strained;
water through which they sense vibrations
equivalent to sound. And indeed it is nothing
more or less than sea water, in all its varying
conditions of temperature, saltiness, and
pressure, that forms the invisible barriers
that confine each marine type within a special
zone of life one to the shore line, another to
some submarine chasm on the far slopes of
the continental shelf, and yet another,
perhaps, to an imperceptibly defined stratum
at mid-depths of ocean.
There are comparatively few living things
whose shifting pattern of life embraces both
land and sea. Such are creatures of the tide
pools among the rocks and of the mud flats
sloping away from dune and beach grass to
the water’s edge. Between low water and the
flotsam and jetsam of the high-tide mark, land
and sea wage a never-ending conflict for
possession.
As on land the coming of night brings a
change over the face of field and forest,
sending some wild things into the save
retreat of their burrows and bringing others
forth to prowl and forage, so at ebb tide the
creatures of the waters largely disappear
from sight, and in their place come marauders
from the land to search the tide pools and to
probe the sands for the silent, waiting fauna
of the shore.
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Twice between succeeding dawns, as the
waters abandon pursuit of the beckoning
moon and fall back, foot by foot, periwinkle
and starfish and crab are cast upon the mercy
of the sands. Every heap of brine-drenched
seaweed, every pool forgotten by the
retreating sea in recess of sand or rock, offers
sanctuary from sun and biting sand.
In the tide pools, seas in miniature, sponges of
the simpler kinds encrust the rocks, each
hungrily drawing in through its myriad
mouths the nutriment-laden water. Starfishes
and sea anemones are common dwellers in
such rock-grit pools. Shell-less cousins of the
snail, the naked sea slugs are spots of brilliant
rose and bronze, spreading arborescent gills
to the waters, while the tube worms,
architects of the tide pools, fashion their
conical dwellings of sand grains, cemented on
against another in glistening mosai.
On the sands the clams burrow down in
search of coolness and moisture, and oysters
close their all-excluding shells and wait for
the return of the water. Crabs crowd into
damp rock caverns, where periwinkles cling
to the walls. Colonies of gnome-like shrimps
find refuge under dripping strands of brown,
leathery week heaped on the beach.
Hard upon the retreating sea press invaders
from the land. Shore birds patter along the
beach by day, and legions of the ghost crab
shuffle across the damp sands by night. Chief,
perhaps, among the plunderers is man,
probing the soft mud flats and dipping his
nets into the shallow waters.
At last comes a tentative ripple, then another,
and finally the full, surging sweep of the
incoming tide. The folk of the pools awake-
clams stir in the mud. Barnacles open their
shells and begin a rhythmic sifting of the
waters. One by one, brilliant-hued flowers
blossom in the shallow water as tubeworms
extend cautious tentacles.
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 might scoop up as
many of them as there are stars in the Milky
Way. And it is because of the flowering of
astronomical numbers of these diminutive
plants, known as diatoms, that the surface of
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
this 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.
Many of the fishes, as well as the bottom-
dwelling mollusks and worms and starfish,
begin life as temporary members of this
roving company, for the ocean cradles their
young in its surface waters. The sea is not a
solicitous foster mother. The delicate eggs
and fragile larvae are buffeted by storms
raging across the open ocean and preyed
upon by diminutive monsters, the hungry
glass worms and comb jellies of the plankton.
These ocean pastures are also the domain of
vast shoals of adult fishes: herring, anchovy,
menhaden, and mackerel, feeding upon the
animals of the plankton and in their turn
preyed upon; for here the dogfish hunt in
packs, and the ravenous bluefish, like roving
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buccaneers, take their booty where they find
it.
Dropping downward a scant hundred feet to
the white sand beneath, an undersea traveler
would discover a land where the noonday sun
is swathed in twilight blues and purples, and
where the blackness of midnight is eerily
aglow with the cold phosphorescence of
living things. Dwelling among the crepuscular
shadows of the ocean floor are creatures
whose terrestrial counterparts are drab and
commonplace, but which are themselves
invested with delicate beauty by the sea.
Crystal cones form the shells of pteropods or
winged snails hat drift downward from the
surface to these dim regions by day; and the
translucent spires of lovely ianthina are
tinged with Tyrian purple.
Other creatures of the sea’s bottom may be
fantastic rather than beautiful. Spine-studded
urchins, like rotund hedgehogs of the sea,
tumble over the sands, where mollusks lie
with slightly opened shells, busily straining
the water for debris. Life flows on
monotonously for these passive sifters of the
currents, who move little or not at all from
year to year. Among the rock ledges, eels and
cunners forage greedily, while the lobster
feels his way with nimble wariness through
the perpetual twilight.
Farther out on the continental shelf, the
ocean floor is scarred with deep ravines,
perhaps the valleys of drowned rivers, and
dotted with undersea plateaus. Hosts of fish
graze on these submerged islands, which are
richly carpeted with sluggish or sessile forms
of life. Chief among the ground fish are
haddock, cods, flounders and their mightier
relative, the halibut. From these and
shallower waters man, the predator, exacts a
yearly tribute of nearly thirty billion pounds
of fish.
If the underwater traveler might continue to
explore the ocean floor, he would traverse
miles of level prairie lands; he would ascend
the sloping sides of hills; and he would skirt
deep and ragged crevasses yawning suddenly
at his feet. Through the gathering darkness,
he would come at last to the edge of the
continental shelf. The ceiling of the ocean
would lie a hundred fathoms above him, and
his feet would rest upon the brink of a slope
that drops precipitously another mile, and
then descends more gently into an inky void
that is the abyss.
What human mind can visualize conditions in
the uttermost depths of the ocean? Increasing
with every foot of depth, enormous pressures
reach, three thousand fathoms down, the
inconceivable magnitude of three tons to
every square inch of surface. In these silent
deeps a glacial cold prevails, a bleak iciness
which never varies, summer or winter, years
melting into centuries, and centuries into
ages of geologic time. There, too, darkness
reigns the blackness of primeval night in
which the ocean came into being, unbroken,
through eons of succeeding time, by the gray
light of dawn.
It is easy to understand why early students of
the ocean believed these regions were devoid
of life, but strange creatures have now been
dredged from the depths to bear mute and
fragmentary testimony concerning life in the
abyss.
The “monsters” of the deep sea are small,
voracious fishes with gaping, tooth-studded
jaws, some with sensitive feelers serving the
function of eyes, other bearing luminous
torches or lures to search out or entice their
living prey. Through the night of the abyss,
the flickering lights of these foragers move to
and fro. Many of the sessile bottom dwellers
glow with a strange radiance suffusing the
entire body, while other swimming creatures
may have tiny, glittering lights picked out in
rows and patterns.
The deep-sea prawn and the abyssal
cuttlefish eject a luminous cloud, and under
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cover of this pillar of fire escape from their
enemies.
Monotones of red and brown and lusterless
black are the prevailing colors in the deep
sea, allowing the wearers to reflect the
minimum of the phosphorescent gleams, and
to blend into the safe obscurity of the
surrounding gloom.
On the muddy bottom of the abyss,
treacherous oozes threaten to engulf small
scavengers as they busily sift the debris for
food. Crabs and prawns pick their way over
the yielding mud on stilt-like legs; sea spiders
creep over sponges raised on delicate stalks
above the slime.
Because the last vestige of plant life was left
behind in the shallow zone penetrated by the
rays of the sun, the inhabitants of these
depths contrast strangely with the self-
supporting assemblage of the surface waters.
Preying one upon another, the abyssal
creatures are ultimately dependent upon the
slow rain of dead plants and animals from
above. Every living thing of the ocean, plant
and animal alike, returns to the water at the
end of its own life span the materials that had
been temporarily assembled to form its body.
So there descends into the depths a gentle,
never-ending rain of the disintegrating
particles of what once were living creatures
of the sunlit surface waters, or of those
twilight regions beneath.
Here in the sea mingle elements which, in
their long and amazing history, have lent life
and strength and beauty to a bewildering
variety of living creatures. Ions of calcium,
now free in the water, were borrowed years
ago from the from the sea to form part of the
protective armor of a mollusk, returned to the
main reservoir when their temporary owner
had ceased to have need of them, and later
incorporated into the delicate statuary of a
coral reef. Here are atoms of silica, once
imprisoned in a layer of flint in the
subterranean darkness; later, within the
fragile shell of a diatom, tossed by waves and
warmed by the sun; and again entering into
the exquisite structure of a radiolarian shell,
that miracle of ephemeral beauty that might
be the work of a fairy glass-blower with a
snowflake as his pattern.
Except for the precipitous slopes and regions
swept bare by the submarine currents, the
ocean floor is covered with primeval oozes
which have been accumulating for eons
deposits of varied origins; earth-born
materials freighted seaward by rivers or
worn from the shores of continents by the
ceaseless grinding of waves; volcanic dust
transported long distances by wind, floating
lightly on the surface and eventually sinking
into the depths to mingle with the products of
no less mighty eruptions of submarine
volcanoes; spherules of iron and nickel from
interstellar space; and substances of organic
origin the siliceous skeletons of Radiolaria
and the frustules of diatoms, the limey
remains of algae and corals, and the shells of
minute Foraminifera and delicate pelagic
snails.
While the 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 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
siliceous remains of diatoms and Radiolaria.
In the red clay that carpets the great deeps at
3000 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 the parts of the plan fall into
place: the water receiving from earth and air
the simple materials, storing them up until
the gathering energy of the spring sun
wakens the sleeping plants to a burst of
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dynamic activity, 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 reappear again and again in
different incarnations in a kind of 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 life span of a particular plant
or animal appears, not as a drama complete
in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a
panorama of endless change.
References
Cleveland, C. (2007). Undersea (historical).
Retrieved from
http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/156768
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Undersea (historical)
  • C Cleveland
Cleveland, C. (2007). Undersea (historical). Retrieved from