“…to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.” — R.L. Carson
Some of the finest nature writing about the Chesapeake Bay scarcely mentions the great estuary by name and studiously avoids naming specific places. Its author, for years, chose not to use her given name, Rachel, presuming readers would think “R. L. Carson” male and more credible.
I don’t know why in her first book in 1941, Under the Sea Wind, the writer most famous for Silent Spring (1962) minimized the Chesapeake as the setting and inspiration for many of the delightful essays.
Perhaps it was to avoid pigeonholing her writing as “local” or “regional,” the bane of nature writers whose nonfiction can be transcendent. Easier for localized fiction to pass for universal — Faulkner’s Nobel Prize-winning novels about his tiny corner of Mississippi come to mind.
But Carson came to know the Chesapeake region and its birds and fishes well, starting in 1929, when she began work at Johns Hopkins on a masters in zoology and rented a house in Stemmers Run in eastern Baltimore County, a couple of miles from the Bay’s edge.
Dissecting and analyzing the urinary system in catfish earned her the degree, but she kept a tank of American eels in her laboratory in Gilman Hall on the Homewood campus.
She found the catadromous (running downstream to spawn) Anguilla rostrata fascinating. Indeed, the inexplicable impulse of adult eels, after living in Chesapeake streams and ponds and rivers for years or even decades, to suddenly seek the abyss of the Sargasso Sea to spawn and die at depths still unobserved by humans, remains almost as mysterious now as in Carson’s day.
Anguilla’s epic fall journey, and the equally improbable spring return of its offspring to every rivulet of a watershed they never knew, anchor the last third of Under the Sea Wind in beautifully detailed prose, weaving together the biological and the poetic as only Carson could.
Always strapped for money, the main breadwinner of her family, Carson for years refined her craft with more prosaic stuff. She wrote scripts for Romance Under the Water, a lengthy series of U.S. Bureau of Fisheries radio shows aimed at the public. For this she earned $6.50 a day.
In 1936, “R. L.” Carson sold the first of many articles on the Chesapeake to Mark Watson, editor of the Baltimore Sunday Sun. It was about the decline of the shad — from pollution, overfishing and development. I was writing the same sad story 42 years later for the Sun when fishing for shad in Maryland was closed, never to reopen.
She would go on to write (for $20 each) well-researched pieces on everything from mackerel to oysters, waterfowl and shorebirds to invasive species. Only when she submitted a piece about ticks did editor Watson reject it, fearing the piece would unduly alarm readers.
Also during the 1930s, she began working in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries field station in Baltimore, a job that took her all over the Chesapeake, talking to watermen and biologists, who also keenly observed the region’s bird life.
In 1937, Carson sold a larger essay, The World of Waters, to The Atlantic magazine, an acclaimed piece that would lead to Under the Sea Wind four years later.
I don’t want to imply that this classic, which earned its writer a paltry $689.17 in royalties before going out of print for years, was only about our Bay. Carson spent important field time elsewhere along the coast, from the Woods Hole laboratory in Massachusetts to North Carolina’s sounds and sea islands.
But from the intricate life cycles of mackerel, to gripping accounts of osprey-eagle interactions, this book illuminates Chesapeake nature in the fullest sense.
I particularly love her opening chapter, Flood Tide, describing the unique feeding flights of Rynchops niger, the black skimmer — one of the loveliest sights to be had on calm summer evenings as the tide floods in along the merges of marsh and sand and water:
“…where water no deeper than a man’s hand ran over gently ribbed bottom, Rynchops began to wheel and quarter.… [flying] with a curious lilting motion … head bent sharply so that the long lower bill, shaped like a scissor blade, might cut the water.
“The blade plowed a miniature furrow over the placid sheet of the sound, setting up wavelets of its own and sending vibrations thudding down through the water to be received by the blennies and killifish that were roving the shallows. … [T]he small fishes came nosing at the surface, curious and hungry. Rynchops, wheeling about, returned along the way he had come and snapped up three of the fishes.”
Every year, I gather my class at Salisbury University near a little pond that drains through a nondescript stream — a ditch really — that runs between parking lots and under trafficky MD Route 213 in downtown Centreville, on Maryland’s upper Eastern Shore.
“There is a pond that lies under a hill … two hundred miles from the sea,” I begin, reading from Carson’s essay on the departure of the eels for Sargassan depths from all over the Bay watershed, and, indeed, from the entire Eastern Seaboard. “When the cocks were crowing, saluting the third hour of the new day, Anguilla slipped into the channel spilling down to the stream below and followed the moving water.”
Could this be the actual “bittern pond” of Under the Sea Wind? Close enough. Like Carson, who would write movingly of educating by conveying “the wonder of the world,” I am inspired by the eels, who eternally connect this rude patch of Queen Anne’s County to the vast abyss of the Bermuda Triangle, to living circuits, energized by bright, silver snakes every year since the continents split apart.