Science and Imagination Under the Sea-Wind

William Trost Richards - Seascape at Dusk

Science seeks to objectively report on life and other natural phenomena. As I wrote in a previous post (Savoring What We Cannot Know), the subjective experiences of other living beings are left a mystery to us. Is there any way we can peek inside this unknown world?

One person who tried to do this was Rachel Carson. Carson was a scientist who did research in marine biology. Before her involvement in science she was a writer. Eventually she combined her two occupations in works devoted to communicating the wonder of the natural world.

In the 1930s, Carson set out to write her first book, which was eventually titled Under the Sea-Wind. She had studied the ocean and its life and received her Master’s in Zoology from Johns Hopkins University. She was armed with a multitude of data gleaned during her employment as an aquatic biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. But she did not want to write simply of the scientific facts. She wanted to convey what it was like to be an animal whose life was lived in the ocean.

“To sense this world of waters,” Carson wrote, “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.”

What is needed to do this is something that so far as we know is uniquely human–imagination. Can imagination—a space inside the minds of humans—show us what Carson sought, “a true picture of the sea?”

The truth found in scientific explorations and the world imagined in the human mind—aren’t these two vastly different things? How can a writer bring to life a vision in which, as Carson put it, “my readers…feel that they [are], for a time, actually living the lives of sea creatures,” unless she relies deeply on imagination? But doesn’t such imagining lead one away from the real world to one that is solely a human creation?

Carson spoke of her own experiences of beginning to understand the life in the sea in explaining how she wrote Under the Sea-Wind. She recalled her first trip as a scientist to the Woods Hole research station. “Probably,” Carson wrote, “that was when I first began to let my imagination go down through the waters and piece together bits of scientific fact until I could see the whole of life of those creatures as they lived them in that strange world.”

Much can be gained by compiling scientific facts into an objective picture of sea life. But how much can we really understand about the sea or other facets of non-human nature without engaging our imaginations?

It is something of a paradox but Rachel Carson made a convincing effort to use both science and imagination in Under the Sea-Wind. She wrote of fish and the environment they inhabited:

“The ebbing tide carried the mullet through the deeper green glooms and over the white sandy bottom of the channel, scoured clean of living things by the strong currents that raced through it twice each day. Above them, as they moved, the surface of the water was broken into a thousand glittering facets that shone with the sun’s gold. One after another the mullet rose to the shimmering ceiling of the sound. One after another they flexed their bodies in a quickening rhythm, gathering their strength and leaping into the air.”

She described the experience of comb jellies:

“At the first ruffling of the surface calm the comb jellies began to sink into deep water. Even in these simple creatures, which consist of little more than two layers of cells, one inside the other, there exists the counterpart of an instinct of self-preservation, causing them in some way to sense the threat of destruction which rough water holds for so fragile a body.”

She seemed to go inside the mind of a bird:

“As the two sanderlings probed the wet sand for small, thin-shelled crustaceans, they forgot the long flight of the night before in the excitement of the hunt. For the moment, they forgot, too, that faraway place which they must reach before many days had passed—a place of vast tundras, of snow-fed lakes, and midnight sun.”

She imagined “seeing” with a fish’s senses. She spoke of emotions such as fear and excitement when describing birds and crab. She wrote of the memories of migrating creatures. Had she stepped beyond science or had she made science more penetrable?

Of this she wrote: “I have spoken of a fish ‘fearing’ his enemies…not because I suppose a fish experiences fear in the same way that we do, but because I think he behaves as though he were frightened. With the fish, the response is primarily physical; with us, primarily psychological. Yet if the behavior of the fish is to be understandable to us, we must describe it in the words that most properly belong to human psychological states.”

A scientist may study how a sea animal’s blood flows and under what circumstances it quickens, but without imagination what can these objective studies really convey to us about life in the sea? Nerve endings may be found to quiver but if we do not imagine excitement or fear, what really do we understand?

Carson answers:

“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are nearly as eternal as any earthly life can be.”

Still Carson uses the word “strange” repeatedly to describe the undersea world. It seems most apt, yet with this word she reveals that, after all, she is seeing from a human perspective. That sea world is not strange to its own creatures. It is strange to us, the human creatures of the land. Our research and our imaginations can only take us so far.

–Vicki Linton

Painting: “Seascape at Dusk” by William Trost Richards

Rachel Carson quotations are from the following:
Under the Sea-Wind by Rachel Carson
Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson Edited by Linda Lear
Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear

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  1. Perfect autumn walk, Rachel Carson NWR | Millard Fillmore's Bathtub - September 24, 2013

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