Carson researched and wrote The Sea Around Us during a great increase of oceanic information. The war had catalyzed research and technological capabilities to study and explore the sea, which had long been mostly myth and mystery. By way of illustration, Carson pointed out that human knowledge about the sea floor lagged behind knowledge of the moon’s topography.
Carson lived through discovery after discovery, assimilating them into her growing understanding of the sea. Historian Stephen Pyne
(one of my graduate mentors) characterized this transformative period as the Third Age of Discovery, the time when human understanding pushed deeper into the ocean and farther into space. Carson served as a scientific translator of this scientific renaissance.
In some ways, her book was premature, because scientific information kept coming so quickly.
The Theme of The Sea Around Us
For readers interested in marine life and oceanography, The Sea Around Us undoubtedly is a treasure trove. I came to the book without those special interests, so what stood out to me were somewhat broader themes.
A central theme that emerges in the book is the ocean’s paradoxes. Carson opens one chapter, “The Changing Year,” stating, “For the sea as a whole, the alternation of day and night, the passage of the seasons, the procession of the years, are lost in its vastness, obliterated in its own changeless eternity. But the surface waters are different. The face of the sea is always changing.” She captures that simultaneous timelessness and dynamism within a few sharp phrases.
Similarly, when describing an undersea volcano in “The Birth of an Island” chapter (my favorite), Carson writes, “It is one of the paradoxes in the ways of earth and sea that a process seemingly so destructive, so catastrophic in nature, can result in an act of creation.” For Carson, this juxtaposition is wondrous and why she never tired of learning.