Research Proposal: World Religions and Ecology

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Rachel Carson -- Under the Sea-Wind

Under the Sea-Wind is not Rachel Carson's best-known book; her most heralded book is Silent Spring. But Under the Sea-Wind, her first book, is very well written and contains a wealth of solid environmental information for the reader. Many years before Jacques Cousteau began his televised explorations into the depths of the oceans and seas, Rachel Carson was already doing her best through literature to awaken the public to the workings of Earth's fresh and salt waters -- and all the living creatures making home in those waters.

Under the Sea-Wind uses descriptive narrative and real science to explain migrations, seasonal patterns, and how the animals live and interact with their ecological homes. There is a great deal of information in this work, which has three separate books. Book I is "Edge of the Sea." In the first chapter of Book I Carson names a black skimmer "Rynchops." The reader is taken on the wings of Rynchops as the bird skims along an estuary and makes its rounds. It is an unusual approach but is entertaining and creative. The reader gets the idea in the first part of Book I that Carson is on the side of the natural world. In the 2nd chapter of Book I Carson introduces a bird species (sanderlings) named Silverbar and Blackfoot, and she follows the birds through their migratory pattern.

In Book II ("The Gull's Way") the central character is a mackerel named Scomber; the narrative follows along with Scomber's life and along the way readers learn about all the creatures and organisms that live in the sea, on the shore, and all of it is in context with the life of the mackerel. Book III ("River and Sea") takes the reader from a fresh water pond to the open sea and concentrates on the main character "Anguilla" the eel. Throughout the book the natural world characters that are introduced in each chapter interact with each other as they encounter one another and the natural processes of nature.

Purposes: There are several purposes that are intended by Carson. One, it seems that Carson wants to engage readers, interest them by making science into entertaining and easy-to-read fiction. She does that well. Another purpose is to point out the cruelty when precious natural world creatures are killed needlessly because they got caught in a net. Still another point is to educate readers about migratory patterns of birds and fish. And a fourth purpose, as Bernard Ouetchenbach writes (American Biologist, 2007), is to achieve "a unity" within the ecology of oceans and fresh water dynamics. That unity is based on Carson's skill at interweaving the sections and "cross-referencing" the birds and fish as they come into contact with one another, Ouetchenback asserts.

By covering the migration of birds and fish, Ouetchenbach continues, Carson accomplishes her purpose of introduce "freshwater ecology" that includes herons, ospreys, and raccoons. The technique "…along with the reiteration of descriptive circular motifs and ideas, gives the book coherence" (Ouetchenbach, 2007).

Always in her writing she keeps the accuracy of the science totally above board. She was after all a biologist, and she worked for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service so she knew what she was talking about, and she had such a passion for the natural world that she couldn't help but share that passion at every possible opening. She does present human beings as intruders into the natural world, more like invaders, but also as explorers. Still, a reader understands that in this book Carson has faith that the sea can withstand any human-caused disturbance.

Carson basically believes at this point in her career (1941) that humans are not very well adapted to the oceans and seas -- but humans have a need to harvest the creatures from the sea -- and so some of their fishing experiences turn out to be wasteful. There are many examples of this wastefulness, though Carson doesn't harp on it a lot. On pages 98-100 fishermen are bringing in a catch of mullet; "As the first waves of panic pass from fish to fish they dash shoreward, seeking a way of escape" from the nets. The mullet in the net try "frantic efforts" to escape, and some do escape. When the "whole school surges upward" in a sudden move, they "pelt against the fishermen" and fish are suddenly "raining about them" (p. 99). These passages zeroing in on the mullet catch is an example of how Carson portrays the "man against nature" theme.

As the nets are brought in, "bulging with fish," a thousand or more mullet unleash "all the fury of their last strength" and "flap on the wet sand." That picture presented by Carson may be a scene of joy for fishermen, but for others it is pathetic. Even more pathetic is the fact that "young sea trout and pompano" that are left to die and rot on the beach when the mullet are plucked from the net and tossed into the fishing boats. Along with the sea trout and pompano are young ceros, sheepshead and sea bass. The life is "oozing from them" because as fish they cannot get across "a few yards of dry sand and return to the sea," their home until uprooted by the fishermen (Carson, p. 100). But while that image of dying and dead fish is somewhat unpleasant, Carson lets the reader know that "hunters of the tide lines" get meals out of the cast away fish.

The gulls, the fish crows and crabs will take care of those dead fish, which of course is part of the aquatic food chain, and this is important for Carson to convey to readers. Every part of the ocean and fresh water is linked to every other part.

Carson's argument is presented in several ways. Susan Power Bratton believes she has a handle on points Carson was making. Bratton writes in the journal Ethics & The Environment, "Humans need to understand the scale and complexity of ocean ecosystems" (Bratton, 2004, p. 1). Another of Carson's arguments that Bratton references is that "Humans disrupt ocean ecosystems by over-harvesting their productivity, and modifying ecosystem processes and linkages, such as migration" (Bratton, p. 1).

Bratton refers to Carson's three books on the sea (Under the Sea-Wind; The Sea Around Us; and The Edge of the Sea) as "masterpieces" partly because in writing those books Carson was actually "popularizing scientific marine ecology" (Bratton, p. 5). Most people take science classes in high school and find the outdated textbooks boring; but reading Carson's book, which is very interesting, helps the average person understand the science of marine ecology while being entertained at the same time. She goes about "gently pulling her reader along, like a mermaid guiding a bewildered sailor into the magical kingdoms below" (Bratton, p. 6).

In Book III, as in everything she writes, Carson clearly has a purpose in mind; namely in this instance her purpose is to entertain the reader with the life cycle of the eel ("Anguilla"). But in presenting the life of the eel, there is a broader purpose, and that is educating readers about the other life forms that exist near where Anguilla hangs out. Obviously the purpose in this context is to inform the reader of the ecology period, and the eel is just the protagonist in a play that has many other actors and characters.

The insect known as "marsh treader" forages for mosquito larvae on the surface above the eel. The midges lay their eggs and "bright-eyed little birds" sit on branches and dart "open-mouthed into the clouds of midges" that have hatched (p. 218). Beetle larvae, the larvae of flies, live in the moss in the pool where the eel resides temporarily. Leaves fall in the season of autumn; and "all day" high above the pond with the eel there are broad-winged hawks heading south. While on their southward trek, the hawks hitch rides on the "updrafts of air made as the west wind" hits the hills and is pushed upwards (p. 220). The purpose in all of these descriptions is of course to broaden the knowledge of readers. And on page 221 it is nighttime and the only creatures besides the eel that are moving are frogs. They have been "started" by a raccoon, who knows where the "foolish frogs would hide" (p. 222). So, again and again readers are treated to a story of many animals interacting and interdependent as well.

Not only are these creatures worthy of study and interesting in the context Carson places them, but the book itself has "…combined informative fact with vivid narrative," according to an article in the New York Times (1941). The writer refers to the eel's trek from the pond to the sea 200 miles away as "one of the strangest phenomena among all nature's mysteries." Among the strengths of Under the Sea-Wind, according to the Times -- "perhaps the outstanding feature" -- is that she "never… [END OF PREVIEW]

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