The ability to weave together poetry and science is something of a lost art, yet there was a time when the two were nearly inextricable. In the 1700s for instance, scientific theory and treatises were written in poetic form, and poets such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, author of Faust, were as deeply involved in the cutting edge science of their day as the likes of Newton.
In our modern world, though, the two pursuits sit worlds apart; one seeking to capture the wonder of nature in words, inspiring the imagination to run wild like the Lost Boys in Neverland; the other seeking to take a scalpel to it all, cutting it open, spilling its guts, and ordering its secrets. Maybe the poet John Keats best served justice to this point when he declared that Newton had destroyed the poetry of rainbows by reducing them to mere prisms of light, revealing that even at the height of the Enlightenment, poetry and science were suspiciously seen as strange bedfellows by some.
By the 20th century, this union between poetry and science was dying. Modernization was compartmentalizing all aspects of life. Art and science were collateral damage. Yet there was one discipline, that clung to this union with everything it had. The keystone that held together the bridge between two seemingly opposite intellectual realms was nature writing.
None of this was lost to a young Rachel Carson as she swung her feet over the side of the small wooden skiff and into the shallows at the foot of Bird Shoal off Beaufort for the first time. The year was 1938. Hitler was busy goose stepping Europe toward another World War, and on the home front the United States had just established the first minimum wage. As for Carson, her recent success with a Readers Digest article titled “Undersea,” and the encouragement of editors at Simon & Schuster, led her to the sleepy fishing village of Beaufort to collect experiences and begin work on her first book, Under the Sea-Wind.
Today, Rachel Carson is best known by most people for her fourth and most-famous book Silent Spring, which many credit as the spark that ignited the modern-day environmental movement. But long before Silent Spring was a twinkle in her mind’s eye, Carson published a series of books about the sea that stand beside the likes of Thoreau’s Walden and Burroughs’ Signs and Seasons, taking their place as some of the most important American nature writing.
The genius of Carson’s writing was how it wove together enchanting literary prose with cutting edge marine biology. This was new, a style and content unseen and unread by the American public. Her role as a biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, renamed U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the 1940s, gave her access to the intricate scientific knowledge she needed for creating such books. By the time Silent Spring was published, Carson was a known entity, a literary giant in her own right, whose books were read on both sides of the Atlantic.
WALKING IN HER FOOTSTEPS
In the gin clear shallows, I find myself wading through both water and the world so vividly painted in Under the Sea-Wind. My skiff is being held by a sand anchor on the eastern edge of the reserve that now bears her name in front of Beaufort.
With flooding tide, I am able to cast off any worry about becoming stranded here. And thanks to the full moon overhead, I am afforded the astronomical spring tide and therefore the opportunity to penetrate deeper than usual into the labyrinth of shoals and oysters, and maybe even the murky waters of history, that bisect this little complex of islands. Cautiously I plant my feet trying not to step onto the backs of hidden stingrays or into historical quagmires whose holes pock mark these shallows like so many dimples on a golf ball as I walk in the footsteps of Rachel Carson.
Looking south and to the east, I stare out across a vast expanse of water to a black and white thimble on the horizon. A light flashes every 15 seconds from a first order Fresnel lens, signaling to passing ships both the location of Cape Lookout and the 9 miles of shoals that thrust out to sea where countless sailors have met their maker.
It is there, somewhere beneath the breakers that roll over those shoals that the wreck of the El Salvador rests, a Spanish treasure galleon that once sailed as part of Spain’s Flota de Indias. When she came to rest on the ocean floor during a hurricane in August of 1750, she did so with 16 chests of silver and four chests of gold valued at $124 million today, and is acknowledged to be the largest unfound treasure in the North Atlantic.
Following the ribbon of sand that runs west from Cape Lookout Bight to Beaufort Inlet, I trace the contour of Shackleford Banks. This island plays home to wild horses whose origins may very well date back to one of the first English expeditions to Roanoke Island when sir Richard Grenville’s flagship, the Tiger, ran aground in this vicinity in 1585, forcing his men to offload the livestock they had recently traded for in Puerto Rico and Hispaniola.
Across the inlet sits Fort Macon and roughly the site of where a pirate by the name of Blackbeard once had his flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge, run aground, stranding some 300 of his compatriots as a form of corporate downsizing before he and a small handful of men quickly set sail with the syndicates’ collective wealth.
To the northwest is the town of Beaufort itself, founded in 1713 and home to the Old Burying Grounds, where the mass graves for those who died in the Tuscarora Indian War and the sailors who perished from the shipwreck of the Chrissie Wright sit next to that of famed privateer Captain Otway Burns. He who once plundered some 2 million dollars’ worth of goods from British ships in a single voyage, and whose grave is now surmounted by a canon taken from his privateer, the Snapdragon.
This landscape drips with history – 400 years’ worth to be exact. And these are the borders to the world Rachel Carson would depict in Under the Sea Wind, as well as sections of later books, The Sea Around Us and Edge of the Sea. Here, time moves slowly. Glacially so. And change rolls in and out with the ebb and flow of the tides.
HORSES AND THE RESERVE
So much has changed here since Carson waded these shallows waxing poetically about black skimmers, shad fisherman and sanderlings. The wild horses that now roam these little islands were absent when she first came here. It would be nearly a decade before Luther Fulcher of Beaufort would transport six horses from Core Banks across the sound to these little islands and release them to graze; though a map produced for the U.S. Coast Survey by Alexander Bache in 1857 clearly labels Horse Island, which remains on maps today as part of the reserve, giving any student of history reason to pause and consider the possibility that horses have probably long been an off-and-on fixture of these islands.
And why not? During hurricane Isabel in 2003, three of the horses on the reserve were washed off the islands and out to sea where it would appear Poseidon, both god of the sea and horses, took pity and landed them ashore on Shackleford Banks some two miles distant. One of those horses was a young colt named Sugarfoot for his white socks. He can be found today playing out his role as a lead stallion with accompanying harem of mares on the reserve – a living testament that horses can and do both survive storms and mysteriously wash up on the shores of barrier islands.
The old fisherman’s shack described by Carson is long gone. The shack, which reserve Manager Paula Gillikin’s father remembers as being little more than a “glorified duck blind,” belonged to Coot Willis and was at Guthrie Shoal on the east side of the island. And although fisherman still work their trade around the island, pound netters no longer battle it out with gill netters for territory when the shad run up the river, and the great wheel that stands upon the shores of Taylors Creek no longer reels in nets strained by the weight of menhaden – maybe the most important fish in the Atlantic. But at night, the occasional skiff can still be seen with a torch, albeit battery operated, hanging over the water in search for flounder to gig.
Other things never changed, despite what many a blog and local folktale would have you believe. One such instance of this is the naming of Carrot Island. As the story goes, the island was once named “Cart” Island for all of the fisherman’s carts left there. Over the years, outsiders misunderstood the Ocracoke or Down East brogue that so distinguishes the local dialect and mistook the name Cart for Carrot, forever bastardizing the name of this island. Yet a cursory look over the historical maps of the area tell a different tale – namely the Mosely Map of 1733, which labels the island “Carrot” and was drawn up just two decades after the town of Beaufort was founded. Even John Shackleford Jr., for whom Shackleford Banks is named, distinctly refers to the land in question as “Carrot Island.” The distinctive brogue and the nature of southern dialect tends to phonetically smooth out and round off words. Therefore over the years a name such as Carrot would actually come to be pronounced as Cart – similar to how “brown” became “brain” and “tide” become “toide.” And let’s not even get into words like “mehonky.”
But more important than such changes documented through the local annals of history, are the ones that were occurring in the natural world when Carson first came to Beaufort. With over two hundred years’ worth of a world view that suggested America’s so called “natural resources” were inexhaustible, and practices that took from the land hand over fist, unregulated, unrestricted, for greed of the wallet, or the greed of the stomach, it is quite possible that we would not even recognize the living landscape that Carson described.
When Rachel Carson put pen to paper in the small cottage she rented on Atlantic Beach, she was doing so at a time of great change. The currents of history were shifting course both for the good and for the bad. And the very same species that she depicted the daily dramas of in Under the Sea Wind stand testament to this fact today.
RACHEL CARSON AND THE GREAT AWAKENING
In his autobiography, Benjamin Franklin famously declared that it was “So convenient a thing to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.” Such was the driving ideology behind Manifest Destiny. The rise and fall of empires are hinged upon these words. As is the lengths to which we will go in order to rationalize our pursuit of money and profit.
In the 18th and 19th centuries America was seen as a ripened fruit ready to be plucked. With maps that still contained the phrase Terra incognito scribbled out across blanks spots, this was a land of seemingly inexhaustible resources. Great forests stretched further than a man could walk in a month’s time. Schools of fish leaped into boats on their own accord. Waterfowl along the coastal marshes blackened skies during the migration. And it was such images of America’s low hanging fruit that ultimately drove the colonization of and immigration to this New World.
Take a moment to consider this. If it was inexhaustible natural capital that was a driving force for the creation of America’s colonies, and the ambition to exploit and profit from such resources fueling the motivations of those who risked everything to travel oceans to reach these shores, then what does this say about the ideological seeds from which our culture and civilization grew?
Such notions are not lost to the primary sources of history. Upon returning home to his native France, Alexis Tocqueville compiled a book that today continues to stand as one of the most important historical accounts of pre-Civil War American society – Democracy in America. In discussing the general mindset of the people that he met on his travels in 1831, Tocqueville observed, “the American calls noble and praiseworthy that ambition which our medieval ancestors used to describe as slavish greed …” He explains that “This love of money has, therefore never been stigmatized in America and … it is held in high esteem.”
This was the ideological underpinnings from which natural resources were exploited and profits were made. And it was this backdrop from which the commodification of nature would become rationalized, institutionalized, protected by the fullest extent of the law and practiced with religious fervor. To commodify nature effectively turned everything from fish, fowl, forests and rivers into inanimate lifeless items for sale. To think of such things as resources or capital effectively shrink wraps and sticks a smiling label on such “products” and “goods,” to borrow a modern-day concept, forever severing their connection to a once living, breathing member of this world. Fish becomes seafood. Forests become lumber. And all of it is for sale in the land of milk and honey.
THEN ALONG CAME RACHEL CARSON
Rachel Carson’s arrival in Beaufort in the 1930s coincided with a larger American cultural and political paradigm shift.The wanton destruction of 19th century had not been without its detractors. Emerson and Thoreau helped bring about an American romantic movement in the early part of that century, followed by artists such as the landscape painter Thomas Cole. In 1864 George Perkins Marsh published his groundbreaking book Man and Nature that for the first time rationally and scientifically detailed the effects of America’s fire sale of nature. And all of this would culminate at the turn of the 20th century in Theodore Roosevelt, a self-taught ornithologist and naturalist and then president of the United States, declaring that “The United States at this moment occupies a lamentable position as being perhaps the chief offender among civilized nations in permitting the destruction and pollution of nature.”
Of all the hidden worlds that Carson reveals to us in her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, of all the species that she details the daily dramas of life and death, the American shad stands as an important example of how the whims of the market can have a ripple effect through entire ecosystems and human communities that depend on them. Ironically, nearly every species that she depicts in her books can stand in as an example of this, but it is the decline of shad that had the greatest impact on North Carolina.
In Under the Sea-Wind, Carson paints a picture of an emblematic moonlit night in the month of May, where fisherman of various sorts fought both nature and each other for access to the annual spring run of roe-filled shad moving into the estuaries and up the rivers. Mobile gill netters argued bitterly with the workers of stationary pound nets for a piece of the action each night. The west bank of the North River in eastern Carteret County was choked so tightly with impoundment nets that navigation itself was nearly impossible, and to set a gill net meant to sabotage other fisherman in the process.
Yet, what is not revealed in her story, is that these watermen were fighting for mere scraps left over from the great feast that was once the spring shad run in North Carolina.
The great spawning runs of fish across North America are by and large a thing of the past now remembered only in accounts from a time before markets got a hold of them. The one notable exception, of course, is salmon, and only in British Columbia and Alaska due to some of the most austere commercial fishing regulations on the continent. Whether we are speaking of American shad runs on the Roanoke River or Yellowstone cutthroat trout on the Snake River, the scenario was quite similar to the picture we have today of salmon in coastal Alaska with both man and beasts lining the riverbanks to reap the harvest of one of nature’s most extraordinary bounties.
THE FOUNDING FISH
In North Carolina, the American shad was the lifeblood of the land, driving both ecosystems and settlement patterns of natives and colonists alike. A hundred miles from the coast, the density of these shad runs meant that little more than a basket was needed for scooping fish from the rivers and packing barrels with a year’s supply of protein. This was a subsistence way of life that stretched all the way to the foot of that Appalachian Mountains where shad were once harvested as far west as Wilkesboro – a run of 450 miles upriver from the coast.
All of this changed when shad become a commodity, a marketable resource. More shad meant more money and in short order commercial fisherman began stretching seine nets across entire river mouths effectively cutting off entire shad runs to all points west. Whole ecosystems struggled to function. Upriver, poor farmers and wealthy plantation owners alike banded together to declare that shad was the “common rights of mankind” for which they were being deprived of by the greed of the few.
What had once been a free and natural bounty that most of the North Carolina colony had come to depend upon, was now a commodity for which most of the colony was forced to purchase. Some historians have argued that it was the destruction of the shad runs by the likes of commercial fishing operations along the coast that helped force a market economy on North Carolina, pushing the colony toward large-scale agriculture and dependency on the slave trade.
By the mid-1700s, the writing was already on the wall as to how all of this would ultimately play out. In 1764, North Carolina’s colonial assembly began the first attempts at putting reigns on the coastal fishery when they tried to ban the use of double seine nets by “avaricious persons.” Gov. William Tryon, the same governor that crushed the North Carolina Regulators, claimed this to be “destructive of the spirit of industry and commerce” and set about vetoing any bill that attempted to ban, limit or regulate the commercial seine netters. Coincidentally, the famed Tryon’s Palace sits along the Neuse River in New Bern, where many commercial seine netters hailed from. Political positions wax and wane, and the natural lifespan of politicians necessitates change to some degree. In 1787, with the free-market evangelist Tryon out of the picture, North Carolina enacted a general statute authorizing counties to appoint commissioners for the purposes of inspecting rivers and streams to make sure that at least a quarter of the channels was left open for runs of fish during the spawning season.
Try as the state may however, such measures had already come half a century too late. Between over-harvesting at the coast and the mills damming up creeks and rivers inland, populations of American shad began to plummet. Half of the state had long turned away from its dependency on spring shad runs and even coastal markets were beginning to look to other species of fish such as mullet, given the sad state of shad populations.
By 1852, the Select Committee on Fisheries reported that North Carolina’s rivers which were once overflowing with shad in the springtime were now virtually empty. The fishery had been abandoned on most of the principle rivers. Only the Chowan River and Albemarle Sound could the commercial shad fisherman still be found, according to the Select Committee’s report “where seins are used of more than a mile in length and thousands of drag and set nets dot over the waters in every direction” – all desperately clinging to a fish and a way of life that they had come to destroy.
The story of North Carolina’s shad fishery is not unique. Similar stories played out along the Eastern Seaboard from Florida to the Canadian border. And it was the overfishing and complete collapse of certain fisheries like shad that would lead to the creation of the U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries in the Department of Commerce in 1871 for the purpose of investigating why fish stocks were declining. Shad populations, it was discovered, had declined 99 percent by then.
It is said that drastic times call for drastic measures and by the following year, a fortune was being spent on the construction of fish hatcheries in order to artificially stock rivers to keep the fishery alive. In 1873, North Carolina’s first hatch of some 45,000 shad were released in the Neuse River from the site of the new federal fish hatchery in New Bern, ironically near Tryon’s Palace.
FEDS TO THE RESCUE
Over the coming years, some 4 billion baby shad would be hatched and released in waters up and down the East Coast in a desperate attempt to save the species from oblivion. Yet even now, after 142 years of annually raising and releasing shad into the waters of North Carolina to compensate for the fire sale that once took place here, the shad population is “stable but low,” according to the latest assessment. North Carolina is one of the few states that still allows for a commercial fishery for shad and two hatcheries continue to operate for this reason – one in Edenton, the other in Watha in Pender County, which dump millions of dollars and shad into trying to keep this industry artificially alive.
The U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries underwent a name change to the Bureau of Fisheries in 1903, which employed Carson when she arrived in Beaufort. And it was in Beaufort, or more specifically, Piver’s Island, that the second-largest bureau laboratory was located – established as the southern counterpart to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts and strategically located for its proximity to what was the most important commercial fisheries in the South.
Shad were not the only species that toed the line of extinction by the end of the 19th century. Nearly every single species described in Under the Sea-Wind came a hair’s breadth away from never making it into Carson’s book for the simple fact that they almost didn’t make it to the century.
At the time that Carson arrived to the area, a team from the bureau in Beaufort was studying local population of diamondback terrapin, a species of turtle that Carson so elegantly described in her book. Throughout Colonial times and into 1800s, terrapins were seen as a nuisance species by commercial fisherman in North Carolina’s estuaries as they were so numerous that nets would oftentimes break under the weight of so many turtles. For this reason, an entire wagon load of these beautifully colored turtles of the salt marsh sold for a single dollar. By the 1920s, however, terrapins were so rare that a dozen of these turtles fetched $90 on the market in North Carolina and significantly more elsewhere. For a brief time, the bureau attempted to establish a diamondback terrapin hatchery in Beaufort, but by the end of World War I, the wild population was so low that the hatchery was closed and the idea abandoned.
Such destruction was not limited to life under the sea of course. Even the birds found themselves at the fate of the market. Looking back into the pages of history, we find that the first wave of outside interest along our coast was not for the fish but for the waterfowl. As Union soldiers filtered their way out of North Carolina and back north again after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, they took with them tales of inexhaustible numbers of ducks, geese and swans that blackened the skies over the sound country during fall migration.
PUNT GUNS AND LADIES' HATS
The first gunners who came south to confirm such stories were the wealthy captains of industry. Names like Carnegie, Mellon, Morgan and the Roosevelt family took great interest in the sport hunting opportunities along the barrier islands and sounds. But soon followed the market hunters, who employed the use of disastrous weapons called punt guns. These guns were little more than homemade cannons. Technically a shotgun, punt guns were often 10 feet long and so heavy that they had to be mounted to the front of the boats that gave them their names. These guns were loaded with enough shot that it was not uncommon to take out 50 – 100 birds in a single blast. Nets were strung between boats to scoop up the thousands of dead birds floating on the water’s surface at the end of a morning’s hunt.
The nuptial breeding plumes of egrets were once worth more than their weight in gold, leading to only a small handful of breeding colonies that survived the insatiable women’s fashion industry. Brown pelicans were shot and sold with such fervor that their entire eastern population had been reduced to one single breeding colony off the coast of Florida for which President Theodore Roosevelt protected as the first National Wildlife Refuge. Black skimmers, who figure prominently in Under the Sea-Wind, to this day are still a threatened species in North Carolina thanks to egg harvesters that would annually raid every nest they could get their hands on – colony sizes were once officially measured in the number of bushels of eggs that it contained.
From red wolves to red-cockaded woodpeckers, if it were not for a paradigm shift in America around the early 20th century, so much of the incredible diversity of this state and nation would be little more than sketches and watercolor paintings in obscure notebooks of 19th century naturalists.
This was the world in which Rachel Carson began her nature writing career within – one where stories like those detailed in the report from the first expedition to Roanoke describing natives stopping to fill multiple canoes with fish in a matter of half an hour to offer as gifts to the English ships were now a thing of the past. By the 1930s these stories were just that – stories. Such depictions were pure fiction, abstract words and concepts scribbled upon paper documenting a fantastical world of plenty that could only be dreamed of. But this was also a world in which the words of John Muir had been taken to heart, where giants like Teddy Roosevelt could come to power and bring about sweeping political change toward the natural world.
Rachel Carson waded the shallows around Bird Shoal when America’s culture had just pass through a great crossroads. Our society had been left with a decision to make at the outset of the 20th century: Would we allow for species such as the American shad, great egrets, diamondback terrapin, and black skimmers to slip over the edge of oblivion? Was this the legacy that we wanted to leave for future generations – a world devoid of that which both our nation and cultural identity had been built upon? Thankfully, the collective voice of America had cried, “No!”
Rachel Carson began her career as an author allowing her creative genius to drift across the salty waters of Back Sound. The words she set down in books like Under the Sea -Wind revealed to the nation a world unseen, largely unstudied, as unknown as outer space, yet as familiar as the old oak tree in the front yard. She would end her career by giving teeth to a movement that stood to shake the very foundation of America’s industry to its core. A smallish, soft-spoken woman, who never married, cared for her aging mother and orphaned niece, who wrote in first person about sanderlings and mackerel, who was entranced by the sea and the natural world, who would be labeled a communist operative in the age of McCarthyism for writing her book Silent Spring, who would be investigated by the FBI, stalked by men in dark suits hired by chemical corporations, and die of cancer – that plague of the 20th century she so passionately warned about. This was Rachel Carson. And her life and legacy lives on in the descendants of black skimmers, ospreys, and diamondback terrapins of North Carolina that she would bring to literary life in Under the Sea-Wind.