By Zander Abranowicz
This June, we climbed into our Toyota 4Runner and drove on deflated tires down Ramp 72 to the pristine beachfront that spans Ocracoke’s Atlantic coast.
Along the way, we stopped to let a diamondback terrapin plod leisurely across our path and watched a tern plunge into the marsh beside us.
Plowing ahead through white sand, we reached our seaside nest, and after setting up chairs and a cooler, commenced our most sacred vacation ritual: beach reading.
From murder mysteries to bodice rippers, everyone’s ideal vacation book is different. I always reach for site-specific literature.
I’ve read “Zorba the Greek” in Crete. “All the Pretty Horses” in Texas.
Coloring everything I encounter with context, the right read brings a sense of wonder to any destination. This summer, I packed what proved to be the perfect one for Ocracoke: “Under the Sea-Wind,” the first book by the great American naturalist Rachel Carson, known for her groundbreaking “Silent Spring.”
“Under the Sea-Wind” plunges readers into the natural history of the Atlantic coastline and keeps us hooked to the last word. We meet Rynchops the black skimmer, Scomber the Atlantic mackerel, and my favorite, Anguilla the American eel, as they fight to survive and reproduce. Carson’s decision to name individual animals creates an intimacy one might never feel seeing an anonymous school of menhaden or squadron of pelicans.
“Under the Sea-Wind” emerged from a landscape not far from where we sat reading, and I could feel it in the unmistakable Outer Banks atmosphere in which the book opens.
In 1938, Carson’s research for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brought her to the (then) isolated fishing village of Beaufort.
Paddling creeks, picking through tidal zones, and mingling with local fishermen, she fell in love with the Carolina coast.
Beaufort also provided the perfect setting for the book she’d been working on since 1936. The project had started as a rejected introduction to a government brochure about fish and later came to the attention of a New York publisher, who encouraged Carson to write a book entirely from the perspective of sea creatures. When she arrived in Beaufort, she found their habitat.
That’s why, if you crack into “Under the Sea-Wind” anywhere on earth, you’ll feel the sea breeze drifting off the surf at Shackleford Banks, that “lovely stretch of wild ocean beach” Carson chose, along with Town Marsh, as the backdrop for her first book’s first chapters.
In 1985, a 2,315-acre nature reserve bearing her name was set aside in Beaufort to immortalize this connection.
Sitting on the beach, I read about Rynchops hunting for minnows, and looked up to find a black skimmer doing the very same thing. When Scomber escaped the jaws of a hundred-pound rock cod, I looked across the water and pictured the frenzy of life and death beneath the surface. By reading this book, I was learning to read my environment.
True to life, humans play an important part in “Under the Sea-Wind.” From pound netters and gill netters competing for shad, to seiners harvesting mullet from the shallows, Carson weaves early 20th-century maritime culture into her narrative.
Later that day, while cycling around Silver Lake Harbor past Ocracoke’s last remaining fish house, her words helped me imagine the hardy people who made a life here before tourists like me arrived on these shores. The thesis of Carson’s life and career was that a sense of wonder was essential to a sense of obligation to the natural world.
“Under the Sea-Wind” brought that sense of wonder to my (always too brief) time on Ocracoke this summer. I hope it does the same for you.]
An annual Ocracoke visitor, Zander Abranowicz is a writer and birder based in Richmond, Virginia.