THE EDGE OF THE SEA
By Rachel Carson
Rachel Carson wrote the book every conservationist has heard of: Silent Spring. Often described as the book that kicked off the environmental movement, it's been on my list for a long time.
But Carson also wrote some lesser-known but no less beautiful books: books about the sea.
The Edge of the Sea teaches us about life in the intertidal zone. Where 'the life of the land grades into the life of the sea, perhaps with less abruptness than one would expect, for by various little interlacing ties the ancient unity of the two is made clear.' Carson helps us to discover those interlacing ties and wonder at the beauty of the shore, for 'tide pools contain mysterious worlds within their depths, where all the beauty of the sea is subtly suggested and portrayed in miniature.'
My favourite thing about this book is that it contains very little of what I uncharitably call filler. Often, trying to find information about nature within a nature book is like panning for gold: you have to sift out a lot of soil - details about the author's everyday life, or the life of other people, travel details, other mundanities - before you get to the treasure.
Once the soil is out of the way, beautiful descriptive nature writing lies atop your sieve, glittering in the sunshine and there, amongst the gems, lies the gold: things you're learning about the natural world.
Sometimes the soil you sift through is like real soil: rich and interesting, full of life and meaning. A lot of the time it's just dirt.
The Edge of the Sea is almost entirely natural history knowledge, with some lovely descriptive writing to guide your learning.
Unlike many modern nature writers, Carson didn't feel the need to frame her writing around something other than the natural world (a life event perhaps, or a journey). She gives us pure, unbridled nature.
The book is grouped by tidal zone and this is enough to make the book flow without attempting to squash nature into a pattern or series. Carson weaves a narrative of fascination without requiring a clothes horse to prop it up.
Carson writes mostly of the shores of America but there is so much in common with the UK that I learnt about several things I'd seen on holiday purely by stumbling across them in the book.
When I reviewed Braiding Sweetgrass I said I have an imaginary library, with a shelf for Very Special Books. There's some overlap with the Very Important Books, but not all important books are special. Like Braiding Sweetgrass, The Edge of the Sea is both special and important.
Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp...The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.
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