Ephemeral Waters

Rachel Carson exploring tidal pool, at low tide, near her summer home in West Southport, ME. 1955. Photo credit: Shirley A. Briggs

In graduate school in marine biology at Johns Hopkins, Rachel Carson conducted research on eels that sparked a fascination in the mysteries of eel migration. This fascination shines through in her later writing on ocean life. “From every river and stream along the whole Atlantic Coast, eels are hurrying to the sea,” Carson wrote in an October 1938 article for the Baltimore Sun. Today, Rachel Carson would be deeply disturbed to know that the waters of the United States, which feed the streams and rivers that eels travel, are at a greater risk of pollution and degradation than they have been in decades.

In 1941, in her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, Rachel Carson writes about eels in the chapter “Journey to the Sea.” The journey starts inland, 200 miles, “as the fish swims,” away from the salty ocean in a freshwater pond that Carson describes with characteristic lyricism and ecological detail. The carefully wrought scene reveals how run-off, streams, and small ponds cross landscapes and connect ecosystems:

There is a pond that lies under a hill, where the threading roots of many trees—mountain ash, hickory, chestnut oak, and hemlock—hold the rains in a deep sponge of humus. The pond is fed by two streams that carry the runoff of higher ground to the west, coming down over rocky beds grooved in the hill. Cattails, bur reeds, spike rushes, and pickerel weeds stand rooted in the soft mud around its shores and, on the side under the hill, wade out halfway into its waters. Willows grow in the wet ground along the eastern shore of the pond, where the overflow seeps down a grass-lined spillway, seeking its passage to the sea.

What Carson paints for us is not simply a pond, but a nursery of life that flows through streams and rivers into estuaries and seas. Carson, who, her biographer Linda Lear tells us, thought of herself as a “poet of the sea,” is known for her ability to breathe poetry into scientific fact. Poetry connects disparate elements, conveying new ideas, vibrant images, perhaps meaning or feeling. It is no wonder, then, that poetry fits beautifully into the science and ecology of life on earth, for earthly life is connected at junctions we are still discovering. As Carson put it eloquently: “the aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history… it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”

And yet, how separate literature and science remain. Repealing decades of protection for bodies of water and wetlands disregards intricate, ecological linkages. We may see these connections more clearly, when we allow literature to guide us, as water guides an eel, tumbling through frothing streams and rivers, floating into placid ponds, breathing sharp smells of brackish marshes, spilling into estuaries, and returning, at last, to open ocean. In this way, Under the Sea-Wind carries us in collective imagination across varied waters traversed by migratory species, reminding readers that no body of water flows in isolation. Rather, each wave moves by the force of the wave before. Each river is fed by many streams. Each ocean fed by many rivers trickling through land, shaping and carving earth.

In “Journey to the Sea,” Carson describes Anguilla, the eel, drawn to the Sargasso Sea, the beginning and the end of the eel life cycle:

Now it was autumn again, and the water was chilling to the cold rains shed off the hard backbones of the hills. A strange restiveness was growing in Anguilla the eel. For the first time in her adult life, the food hunger was forgotten. In its place was a strange, new hunger, formless and ill-defined. Its dimly perceived object was a place of warmth and darkness––darker than the blackest night over Bittern Pond. She has known such a place once––in the dim beginnings of life, before memory began…Anguilla was drawn irresistibly toward the outlet over which the water was spilling on its journey to the sea.

Passing through streams and ponds, eels eventually reach the mouths of estuaries and marshes, where tides carry them “through the surf and out to sea… pass[ing] from human sight and almost from human knowledge.”

Today, eels could pass from human knowledge and earth itself. Accumulation of contaminants in eels has contributed to their population collapse. Evidence of our interconnectedness, pollutants disperse through mobile elements of water and air. And all elements: water, air, earth, and fire, are now influenced by a fifth element, The Human Element (also a powerfully moving film by environmental photographer James Balog). Traveling by air and water, microplastics have reached every corner of the earth, even Arctic snow. PCBs, persistent pollutants once popular in coolant fluids, were banned in the US in 1979, yet today killer whale bodies are so laden that, unable to reproduce, some populations may not survive. Persistent pollutants are also found in human breastmilk, and long-term exposure is linked to harmful health effects.

What enters earth, air, and water today matters. It matters not just to our health but to the health of all forms of life.

In 2015, the final Clean Water Rule was published, defining which wetlands and streams are subject to protection under the Clean Water Act of 1972, including small, ephemeral waters. By defining which waters are under federal protection, the regulation placed limits on the use of chemical pollutants near waterways, aiming to protect 60% of the nation’s water bodies. In 2017, the EPA moved to rescind the Clean Water Rule, also known as Waters of the United States (or WOTUS). In 2019, the Trump administration announced the repeal of WOTUS, with the immediate effect that permits are no longer required to discharge pollutants into streams and rivers. By January 2020, President Trump finalized the replacement, the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, published just before Earth day on April 21st 2020 and effective June 22nd of this year.

Constructed on no scientific ground, the replacement of WOTUS ignores the interconnectedness of water bodies so evocatively brought to life by Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind, written over 80 years ago. Merely one of 100 environmental regulations rolled back by the president, the removal of clean water protections reveals a larger pattern of rollbacks that threaten safe drinking water, integrity of ecosystems, and public health, especially for people of color who are unjustly and disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards.

Amidst these threats to our waterways and our well-being, I cling to cautious hope as I read and admire the beauties of ecosystems, and even eels, so lovingly revealed by Rachel Carson in Under the Sea-Wind. I hope wetlands and ephemeral waters that have lost protection do not indeed live up to their name and become transient, fleeting, and momentary in our minds and on the earth. I hope that Anguilla the eel does not cease her journey to the sea and permanently slip from human knowledge and planetary life. I hope that all communities may still have clean water to drink. And, clinging to this hope, I resolve to act.

Kendall Jefferys – Rachel Carson Council Presidential Stanback Intern.
Kendall Jefferys is a rising senior and Rachel Carson Scholar at Duke University and a dual major in Environmental Science and English. [email protected]