Celebrate Rachel Carson’s birthday with me and Clem

Posted on May 27, 2014 | 1 comment

Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 10.20.08 PMI didn’t realize today was Rachel Carson’s birthday (it would have been her 108th) until late in the day, alerted by Google’s lovely “doodle” celebrating her life. Better late than never, though. As a birthday present for Miss Carson, and for you, I’m posting a short excerpt from Washashore, a section in which Clem begins to see the connection between her own growing knowledge of nature and her attraction to Rachel Carson’s writing, in all its glorious specificity. Hope you like it, and want to read more!

Sometimes they walked the deserted beaches and watched the shorebirds. Until now, Clem had only noticed seagulls and sandpipers at the beach. But Daniel showed her how little she knew. There were loons, goldeneyes, kingfishers, scaup. Mergansers. Sometimes Harlequin ducks. Eiders. Cormorants. Kestrels. Scoters. Even the seagulls came in different varieties. Herring gulls, which she already knew about, but also laughing gulls and ring-billed gulls and black-backed gulls.


So many kinds of birds.


And Daniel knew the names of all of them. At first, Clem didn’t understand how he could remember them all, or how he could identify them from far away.


They would be walking along the beach when suddenly he would grab her arm and point.


“What?” She would peer through her binoculars. “I don’t see anything.”


“Out there between the second rock and the white buoy. Bobbing on the water. Do you see it? It’s a hooded merganser. Look—it’s about to take off.”


Then she would see it, as the bird flapped and rose above the horizon.


Back at the cottage, Clem thumbed through Adam’s Birds of North America, looking up the birds they had seen and memorizing their markings and their calls. Soon she could recognize the different sandpipers and plovers by the way they ran along the beach. Some zigzagged, others moved in a straight line. Some bobbed their heads rhythmically. She figured out how to identify birds in flight from the movements and the angle of their wings. She knew that the scaup in Menemsha Creek near Daniel’s house fed on tiny crabs, and that the sanderlings on the ocean beach ate the droppings of other birds to get the protein they needed during the winter. Once in a great while, she even spotted a bird before Daniel did. Or maybe he just let her think so.


They didn’t see osprey—they were not expected back from Mexico or South America until the middle of March or later. But Clem memorized the osprey silhouette in flight, with a broad wingspan and bent wings. When the ospreys did return, she would recognize them.


*        *        *
She finished reading Silent Spring and checked out another Rachel Carson book from the library: The Sea Around Us. Rachel Carson had a special way of looking at the beach and its creatures. Size didn’t matter. She could make a hermit crab, a shrimp, an eel, or even a strand of seaweed into something amazing and heroic. Clem also found a biography called Sea and Earth: The Life of Rachel Carson. Carson’s life was hard. After her father died, she took care of her mother. Then, when her older sister died, she raised her two nieces. Later, she adopted her niece’s son. During the Great Depression, Rachel Carson supported her whole family by working as a marine biologist.


Like Daniel, who didn’t just love birds but could tell you their names, Rachel Carson knew the name and story of every tiny sea worm buried in the sand. She pointed out that every pinch of sand was made from tiny bits of rock and shells from all over the world. Each grain had been carried by wind and water for thousands or millions of years before ending up on the beach. Clem looked very closely at the sand herself and saw red, white, green, orange, and hardly any boring beige.


Clem was amazed to learn that Rachel Carson never even saw the ocean until she was in college. Then she was hooked.


On second thought, maybe it wasn’t so amazing. Clem had spent almost all her life in the city, and she had fallen in love with the sea, too.


Rachel Carson died of cancer at fifty-six, just two years after Silent Spring was published. Her biography didn’t say what kind of cancer it was. Clem wondered if the chemicals she wrote about might have made her sick. She wished Rachel Carson had lived to see DDT banned in the US, but that didn’t happen until . . . 1972—eight years after she died.

One Comment

  1. We shall win this battle thanks to writers like Suzanne Goldsmith whose poetic book reminds us of the natural treasures around us.

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