“The Marginal World” by Rachel Carson: Enjoy this!

Rachel Carson (Z907-Z964) is best remembered today for her
hook Silent Spring (z962), which dramatically exposed the dangers,
hoth to the environment and to human health, of agricultural
pesticides. She was also throughout her career a passionate
observer and defender of the oceans. Born in Springdale, Pennsylvania,
she first saw the sea as a college senior. Becoming a
specialist in marine hiology, she spent her summers at the Woods
Hole Oceanographic Institute and took herfirst joh as an aquatic
biologist with the federal Bureau of Fisheries. Five years later
she published the first’ of three eloquent and popular works on
marine science, Under the Sea Wind (Z94Z); it was followed by
The Sea Around Us (Z95z), winner of the National Book
Award, and The Edge of the Sea (Z956), from which this excerpt
has been taken .
The Marginal World

THE edge of the sea is a strange and beautiful place. All
through the long history of Earth it has been an area of
unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land,
where the tides have pressed forward over the continents, receded,
and then returned. For no two successive days is the
shore line precisely the same. Not only do the tides advance
and retreat in their eternal rhythms, but the level of the sea itself
is never at rest. It rises or falls as the glaciers melt or grow,
as the floor of the deep ocean basins shifts under its increasing
load of sediments, or as the earth’s crust along the continental
margins warps up or down in adjustment to strain and tension.
Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorrow a
little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and
indefinable boundary.
The shore has a dual nature, changing with the swing of
the tides, belonging now to the land, now to the sea. On the
ebb tide it knows the harsh extremes of the land world, being
exposed to heat and cold, to wind, to rain and drying sun. On
the flood tide it is a water world, returning briefly to the relative
stability of the open sea.
Only the most hardy and adaptable can survive in a region
so mutable, yet the area between the tide lines is crowded with
plants and animals. In this difficult world of the shore, life displays
its enormous toughness and vitality by occupying almost
every conceivable niche. Visibly, it carpets the intertidal
rocks; or half hidden, it descends into fissures and crevices, or
hides under boulders, or lurks in the wet gloom of sea caves.
Invisibly, where the casual observer would say there is no life,
it lies deep in the sand, in burrows and tubes and passageways.
It tunnels into solid rock and bores into peat and clay. It encrusts
weeds or drifting spars or the hard, chitinous shell of a
lobster. It exists minutely, as the film of bacteria that spreads
over a rock surface or a wharf piling; as spheres of protozoa,
small as pinpricks, sparkling at the surface of the sea; and as
Lilliputian beings swimming through dark pools that lie between
the grains of sand.
The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been
an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of
land and water. Yet it is a world that keeps alive the sense of
continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life. Each
time that I enter it, I gain some new awareness of its beauty
and its deeper meanings, sensing that intricate fabric of life by
which one creature is linked with another, and each with its
In my thoughts of the shore, one place stands apart for its surroundings.
In my thoughts of the shore, one place stands apart for its
revelation of exquisite beauty. It is a pool hidden within a cave
that one can visit only rarely and briefly when the lowest of
the year’s low tides fall below it, and perhaps from that very
fact it acquires some of its special beauty. Choosing such a
tide, I hoped for a glimpse of the pool. The ebb was to fall
early in the morning. I knew that if the wind held from the
northwest and no interfering swell ran in from a distant storm
the level of the sea should drop below the entrance to the
pool. There had been sudden ominous showers in the night,
with rain like handfuls of gravel flung on the roof. When I
looked out into the early morning the sky was full of a gray
dawn light but the sun had not yet risen. Water and air were
pallid. Across the bay the moon was a luminous disc in the
western sky, suspended above the dim line of distant shorethe
full August moon, drawing the tide to the low, low levels
of the threshold of the alien sea world. As I watched, a gull
flew by, above the spruces. Its breast was rosy with the light of
the unrisen sun. The day was, after all, to be fair.
Later, as I stood above the tide near the entrance to the
pool, the promise of that rosy light was sustained. From the
base of the steep wall of rock on which I stood, a mosscovered
ledge jutted seaward into deep water. In the surge at
the rim of the ledge the dark fronds of oarweeds swayed,
smooth and gleaming as leather. The projecting ledge was the
path to the small hidden cave and its pooL Occasionally a
swell, stronger than the rest, rolled smoothly over the rim and
broke in foam against the cliff. But the intervals between such
swells were long enough to admit me to the ledge and long
enough for a glimpse of that fairy pool, so seldom and so
briefly exposed.
And so I knelt on the wet carpet of sea moss and looked
back into the dark cavern that held the pool in a shallow basin.
The floor of the cave was only a few inches below the roof,
and a mirror had been created in which all that grew on the
ceiling was reflected in the still water below.
Under water that was clear as glass the pool was carpeted
with green sponge. Gray patches of sea squirts glistened on
the ceiling and colonies of soft coral were a pale apricot color.
In the moment when I looked into the cave a little elfin starfish
hung down, suspended by the merest thread, perhaps by only
a single tube foot. It reached down to touch its own reflection,
so perfectly delineated that there might have been, not one
starfish, but two. The beauty of the reflected images and of
the limpid pool itself was the poignant beauty of things that
are ephemeral, existing only until the sea should return to fill
the little cave.
Whenever I go down into this magical zone of the low
water of the spring tides, I look for the most delicately beautiful
of all the shore’s inhabitants-flowers that are not plant
but animal, blooming on the threshold of the deeper sea. In
that fairy cave I was not disappointed. Hanging from its roof
, were the pendent flowers of the hydroid. Tubularia, pale pink,
fringed and delicate as the wind flower. Here were creatures
so exquisitely fashioned that they seemed unreal, their beauty
too fragile to exist in a world of crushing force. Yet every detail
was functionally useful, every stalk and hydranth and
petal-like tentacle fashioned for dealing with the realities of
existence. I knew that they were merely waiting, in that moment
of the tide’s ebbing, for the return of the sea. Then in
the rush of water, in the surge of surf and the pressure of the
incoming tide, the delicate flower heads would stir with life.
They would sway on their slender stalks, and their long tentacles
would sweep the returning water, finding in it all that they
needed for life.
And so in that enchanted place on the threshold of the sea
the realities that possessed my mind were far from those of the
land world I had left an hour before. In a different way the
same sense of remoteness and of a world apart came to me in
a twilight hour on a great beach on the coast of Georgia. I had
come down after sunset and walked far out over sands that lay
wet and gleaming, to the very edge of the retreating sea.
Looking back across that immense flat, crossed by winding,
water-filled gullies and here and there holding shallow pools
left by the tide, I was filled with awareness that this intertidal
area, although abandoned briefly and rhythmically by the sea,
is always reclaimed by the rising tide. There at the edge of
low water the beach with its reminders of the land seemed far
away. The only sounds were those of the wind and the sea and
the birds. There was one sound of wind moving over water,
and another of water sliding over the sand and tumbling down
the faces of its own wave forms. The flats were astir with
birds, and the voice of the willet rang insistently. One of them
stood at the edge of the water and gave its loud, urgent cry; an
answer came from far up the beach and the two birds flew to
join each other.
The flats took on a mysterious quality as dusk approached
and the last evening light was reflected from the scattered
pools and creeks. Then birds became only dark shadows, with
no color discernible. Sanderlings scurried across the beach
like little ghosts, and here and there the darker forms of the
willets stood out. Often I could come very close to them before
they would start up in alarm-the sanderlings running,
the willets flying up, crying. Black skimmers flew along the
ocean’s edge silhouetted against the dull, metallic gleam, or
they went flitting above the sand like large, dimly seen moths.
Sometimes they “skimmed” the winding creeks of tidal water,
where little spreading surface ripples marked the presence of
small fish.
The shore at night is a different world, in which the very
darkness that hides the distractions of daylight brings into
sharper focus the. elemental realities. Once, exploring the
night beach, I surprised a small ghost crab in the searchingbeam
of my torch. He was lying in a pit he had dug just above
the surf, as though watching the sea and waiting. The blackness
of the night possessed water, air, and beach.  It was the
darkness of an older world, before Man. There was no sound
but the all-enveloping, primeval sounds of wind blowing over
water and sand, and of waves crashing on the beach. There
was no other visible life-just one small crab near the sea. I
have seen hundreds of ghost crabs in other settings, but suddenly
I was filled with the odd sensation that for the first time
I knew the creature in its own world-that I understood, as
never before, the essence of its being. In that moment time
was suspended; the world to which I belonged did not exist
and I might have been an onlooker from outer space. The little
crab alone with the sea became a symbol that stood for life
itself-for the delicate, destructible, yet incredibly vital force
that somehow holds its place amid the harsh realities of the inorganic
The sense of creation comes with memories of a southern
coast, where the sea and the mangroves, working together, are
building a wilderness of thousands of small islands off the
southwestern coast of Florida, separated from each other by a
tortuous pattern of bays, lagoons, and narrow waterways. I
remember a winter day when the sky was blue and drenched
with sunlight; though there was no wind one was conscious of
flowing air like cold clear crystal. I had landed on the surf washed
tip of one of those islands, and then worked my way
around to the sheltered bay side. There I found the tide far
out, exposing the broad mud flat of a cove bordered by the
mangroves with their twisted branches, their glossy leaves,
and their long prop roots reaching down, grasping and holding
the mud, building the land out a little more, then again a
little more.
The mud flats were strewn with the shells of that small, exquisitely
colored mollusk, the rose tellin, looking like scattered
petals of pink roses. There must have been a colony
nearby, living buried just under the surface of the mud. At
first the only creature visible was a small heron in gray and
rusty plumage-a reddish egret that waded across the flat
with the stealthy, hesitant movements of its kind. But other
land creatures had been there, for a line of fresh tracks wound
in and out among the mangrove roots, marking the path of a
raccoon feeding on the oysters that gripped the supporting
roots with projections from their shells. Soon I found the
tracks of a shore bird, probably a sanderling, and followed
them a little; then they turned toward the water and were lost,
for the tide had erased them and made them as though they
had never been.
Looking out over the cove Ifelt a strong sense of the interchangeability
of land and sea in this marginal world of the
shore, and of the links between the life of the two. There was
also an awareness of the past and of the continuing flow of
time, obliterating much that had gone before, as the sea had
that morning washed away the tracks of the bird.
The sequence and meaning of the drift of time were quietly
summarized in the existence of hundreds of small snails
-the mangrove periwinkles-browsing on the branches and
f’ roots of the trees. Once their ancestors had been sea dwellers, (
~.’ bound to the salt waters by every tie of their life processes.
f Little by little over the thousands and millions of years the ties l had been broken, the snails had adjusted themselves to life out
t of water, and now today they were living many feet above the
tide to which they only occasionally returned. And perhaps,
who could say how many ages hence, there would be in their
descendants not even this gesture of remembrance for the sea.
The spiral shells of other snails-these quite minute-left
winding tracks on the mud as they moved about in search of
food. They were horn shells, and when I saw them I had a
nostalgic moment when I wished I might see what Audubon
saw, a century and more ago. For such little horn shells were
the food of the flamingo, once so numerous on this coast, and
when I half closed my eyes I could almost imagine a flock of
these magnificent flame birds feeding in that cove, filling it
with their color. It was a mere yesterday in the life of the earth
that they were there; in nature, time and space are relative
matters, perhaps most truly perceived subjectively in occasional
flashes of insight, sparked by such a magical hour and
There is a common thread that links these scenes and
memories-the spectacle of life in all its varied manifestations
as it has appeared, evolved, and sometimes died out. Underlying
the beauty of the spectacle there is meaning and significance.
It is the elusiveness of that meaning that haunts us, that
sends us again and again into the natural world where the key
to the riddle is hidden. It sends us back to the edge of the sea,
where the drama of life played its first scene on earth and perhaps
even its prelude; where the forces of evolution are at
work today, as they have been since the appearance of what
we know as life; and where the spectacle of living creatures
faced by the cosmic realities of their world is crystal clear.


4 thoughts on ““The Marginal World” by Rachel Carson: Enjoy this!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s