Down by the Sea

‘Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary’. So wrote the great ecologist and writer, Rachel Carson, in her book, The Edge of the Sea (1955). The coast is impossible to define or to measure precisely because it is constantly changing. Tides, waves, erosion, the weather, and human actions – all have effects on the physical nature of the coastline, and also on how the coastline is perceived, used, and valued. Carson sought to explain what drew her, like a magnet, back to the coast. As an ecologist she undoubtedly learned from, and cherished, the diversity and dynamism of the coastal environment. Her books contain a wealth of scientific information about the life forms which thrive in this environment, and detailed explanations of the causes and effects of changes to the shoreline. But she also used words like ‘magical’, ‘exquisite beauty’, and ‘mystery’ to communicate the emotional and symbolic significance of the coast. These words registered a more subjective, personal response, which is nevertheless widely shared, and an abundance of evidence for which can be found in cultural representations of the coastline – in art, literature, music, film, photography – and in recreational and tourist activities. Carson explained this emotional importance of the coastline in several ways. It could be explained as a spiritual experience: ‘Contemplating the teeming life of the shore’, she wrote, ‘we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp’. Similarly, as the sea brought in the flotsam and jetsam from other shores and other environments, it was a place of connection and curiosity. As every child knows, the shoreline always turns up something new. Carson also believed that it was an intensely stimulating and inspiring environment as, subject to constant change, ‘it is a world that keeps alive the sense of continuing creation and of the relentless drive of life’. As an ecologist, however, she was profoundly aware of the vulnerability of our shores to the pressures which human habitation, exploitation, and transportation place upon them, and committed to understanding and preserving what makes the coastline precious.

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