Nonfiction Short Review: The Marginal World

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I recently needed to assign my students a brief bit of nonfiction in order to write a summary paper. While choosing Rachel Carson’s “The Marginal World” is a little unorthodox for this assignment, I wanted something they could both enjoy (more than other options, at least) and learn from. “The Marginal World” is an oft-forced-upon-students piece of science essay/creative nonfiction that I found to be beautiful and engaging.

Rachel Carson is the famous/infamous bestselling author of Silent Spring which led to, among other things, a ban on DDT and the founding of the EPA. She was a nature writer, marine biologist and editor-in-chief who launched the modern conservation/environmental movement. She lived from 1907-1964 and her other books are The Sea Around Us (which won a National Book Award), The Edge of the Sea, and Under the Sea Wind.

“The Marginal World” is from her earlier period of writing, when she had discovered that marine ecology was very interesting to her and had written solely about that. “The Marginal World” was in The Edge of the Sea and then was condensed and appeared in The New York Times, among other places. Not much happens in the piece, and yet millions of years are spanned. On its surface, it is about a woman who is interacting with tidal zones in three different places at three different times. Carson describes each of them (a hidden cave in the Northeast, a mangrove island in Florida, and twilight in Georgia) in luxurious depth, painting a picture that only a nature-lover can appreciate but appreciate with all their senses. In the introduction and conclusion, she makes her point, which has something to do with the space between and a meaning behind the drama of change that we can’t quite put into words.

This is a beautiful piece of literature and it certainly makes me want to read more of her Sea Trilogy. At times you don’t know where she’s going or where she’s gone, but it’s a lush journey with someone who is in love with the nature that she is presenting us. (There is probably some outdated science in her stuff, but not too much in this piece.) Lovely words. Awe-inspired author. Either give it a read (especially if you would be interested in marine biology, as I am) or just go straight to the source and begin the Sea Trilogy with The Sea Around Us. Then let me know how that goes.


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