By Jay Parini
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Extra resources for American Writers, Supplement IX
It is a perception beyond human knowledge, but no less important for that fact. Perhaps because of the subtle link Carson creates through her description of the fish's eyes, we find it at least plausible that the mackerel has some sort of consciousness. Yet the fish, with its dawning awareness, remains most fascinating precisely because it is something other than human. The nonhuman fish glances back at the human reader. Human beings appear in Under the Sea-Wind infrequently, usually taking on the role of predators.
And at death their hard skeletons contribute calcium for the needs of other animals or for the building of the reefs. The actual building of the earth happens within the sea, and the importance of these little creatures begins to rival the efforts of human beings. For all our massive construction projects, the tiny creatures of the sea are essential to building the world itself, and they contain the potential for its future. Carson's assertions here are admittedly subtle, but we begin to sense that we destroy these other worlds only at dire risk to ourselves.
We share a similar pattern of evolution and adjustment. We are linked, and through Carson's prose that link is clarified and concentrated. And Carson perceives further relationships. Her experience does not stop with her thoughts on the snails in isolation—it has continuity. She notices other shells on the beach, horn shells, and wishes that I might see what Audubon saw, a century and more ago. For such little horn shells were the food of the flamingo, once so numerous on this coast, and when I half closed my eyes I could almost imagine a flock of these magnificent flame birds feeding in that cove, filling it with their color.