THE SEA OR THE MOUNTAIN: Two Histories of Environmental Thinking

[A slightly modified version of this chapter will appear in Steve Mentz, Ocean (London: Bloomsbury, 2020)]

Artwork by Vanessa Daws.

By Steve Mentz

The Mountain rears itself high, aloof and majestic. He sees and knows. Nothing is alien to the Mountain because everything lies beneath his gaze. We who live beneath the Mountain await his opaque commands. His voice may yet repeal large codes of fraud and woe, because from his cloud-rimmed vantage point we are all the same, all connected, all miniscule.

The Mountain’s song rings out in many voices, from Percy Shelly to John Muir, but perhaps his clearest spokesman for many modern environmentalists is Aldo Leopold.


The Sea spreads and touches on every side, reaching crooked inviting fingers up and down each coastal plain. She feels and touches. She is alien to those of use who live terrestrially, but in her bitter salt we taste an ancient intimacy. We love and fear and do not understand her. Her murmurs trouble our dreams and freezes our tongues. She gnaws all shorelines as the cold hard mouth of the world, to which all chasms must open at last. The Sea connects and estranges, buoys and drowns, fascinates and repels.

No one touches closer to the saltwater heart of the matter than the poet-scientist of the tidepools, Rachel Carson. Her blue environmentalism counterflows Leopold’s Mountain-thinking. She reminds us that the Ocean, in time, will dissolve the Mountain. In that dissolution lies a blue environmental future.

“In the sea,” Carson wrote in the book whose reception was smothered in the wartime fervor of 1941, “nothing is lost” (65). Under the Sea Wind represents the intimate and emerging voice of the poet-scientist, including her recognition that “the sea itself must be the central character” (3) in the development of the book’s narrative voice. By entering into the voices of three maritime creatures – the gull, Rynchops ; the mackerel, Scomber; and the eel, Anguilla – Carson anthropomorphized herself and her readers into three different modes of oceanic experience. The gull observes tides and the sea’s changes, feeding himself from its bounty. The mackerel swims between deep and shallow water environments. The eel, smallest but most dramatic, transition from being born in fresh water rivers to their spawning grounds in the deep Atlantic. All three creatures attune themselves to the ocean’s rhythms and forces. Humans, when they appear in Carson’s narrative, often interrupt or violate natural spaces, as in the case of the “strange disturbance” that is the trawl net:

It was like nothing [the mackerel] had experienced in their life in the harbor, nor during that earlier period, now only the dimmest of memories, when they had drifted with the other plankton at the surface of the sea. It came to them as a heavy, thudding vibration felt with the lateral-line canals over their sensitive flanks. It was not the feel of water vibrations over a rocky reef, nor of waves on a tide rip – yet these sensations were perhaps the nearest akin to it of anything the young mackerel had known. (106)

The sinister arrival of the trawl, “something vast and dark, like a fish of monstrous and incredible size” (106), limns Carson’s undersea utopia. Writing well before the crash of fish-stocks in the late twentieth century, she nonetheless recognized the destructive force of industrial fishing methods. The “vast, gaping mouth” that is the trawl net represents the ocean’s cruel future.

The story of environmental degradation at which Carson would arrive two decades later in Silent Spring, however, did not overwrite her earliest work. Instead, Under the Sea Wind concludes with a scientist’s turn toward inhuman temporalities and the long conflict between erosive sea and assertive mountains. Although Leopold’s iconic “Thinking Like a Mountain” essay would not be published for another seven years, the final image of Carson’s book anticipates the conflict between sea and stone. “The sea, too,” she writes, “lay restless, awaiting the time when once more it should encroach upon the coastal plain” (162). She places this tension in geologic context:

[S]o the relation of sea and coast and mountain ranges was that of a moment in geologic time. For once more the mountains would be worn away by the endless erosion of water and carried in silt to the sea, and once more all the coast would be water again, and the places of its cities and towns would belong to the sea. (162)

In an age of rising sea levels and coastal superstorms, Carson’s words now carry a hint of menace and destruction that may not have occurred to her earliest readers in the 1940s. Her vision of a mountain-eating ocean that swamps coastal dwellings may now be transforming itself into the reality of human as well as geologic time.


Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1948, sits at the heart of twentieth-century American environmentalism. Along with the works of John Muir and the inspiration many writers and activists take from Henry David Thoreau, Leopold’s hymn to the sustaining power of “wild things” continues to suffuse popular and scholarly ideas about the value of wilderness and its conservation. The Thoreau-Muir version of the romance of the American West helped support the politics that founded the National Park system, but as ecofeminist scholar Catriona Sandilands has noted, their version of the need for wild places built itself atop racist and sexist about the need to cultivate masculinity away from feminized domestic space and also from growing urban and immigrant populations (“Unnatural Passions” 2005). Sandilands and others who have been arguing for queer ecologies and queer environments ask that we re-imagine the wild outside the monolithic masculinity of some of its influential champions. Leopold’s mountain-thinking bears reexamination in light of both Carson’s oceanic vision and Sandilands queer ecology.

At the core of Leopold’s vision is what he calls a “land ethic” (204) that envisions all the inhabitants of an ecosystem in mutual community. He fixes on the mountain as symbol of that community because “Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf” (129). On the mountain, Leopold surmises, has the perspective and distance necessary to see the environment whole. The powerful image invests the physical qualities of the mountain with insight and power. The mountain’s features – immense height, solitude, immobility, impassive silence – represent knowledge. Leopold’s vision of ecosystemic totality itself remains relatively bounded; he does not consider geologic time spans over the course of which mountains themselves flow, move, or erode. As Jeffrey Jerome Cohen observes in Stone: An Inhuman Ecology (2015), even these most inanimate of earthly objects carry liveliness and desire, given the right geological or poetic perspective.

Leopold recognized his task as one of ethical development, and explicitly thought about the land ethic as part of an “ethical sequence” (202). His moral counter-example, interestingly, is the sailor Odysseus, who after he arrives home from his wanderings, hangs the slave girls who had been sleeping with the suitors. According to Leopold, Odysseus did not hesitate to execute the slaves because he owned them: “The disposal of property was then, as now, a matter of expediency, not of right or wrong” (201). Leopold extends his metaphor by noting that in the mid-twentieth century “Land, like Odysseus’s slave-girls, is still property” (203); here Leopold aims to change a purely instrumental understanding of the land into a sympathetic one. He may, however, has oversimplified Homer’s complex presentation of the execution of the slave girls. The execution gets performed by Telemachus, not his father. The poem noted that the son’s plans to hang the girls represents his own “initiative” (22.461). But the girls’ death becomes an occasion for tragic pathos, not simple justice:

As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly

home to their nests, but someone sets a trap—

they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;

just so the girls, their heads all in a row;

were strung up with the noose around their necks

to make their death an agony. They gasped,

feet twitching for a while, but not for long. (22.468-74).

As the poem’s most recent and first female translator, Emily Wilson, has observed, the long history of the translation of this passage has included a series of slurs against the girls as “sluts” or “whores,” neither of which accusations seems merited by the Greek text. As her version makes clear, these deaths are morally dubious, rather than a matter of the neutral disposal of property. Perhaps Homer was farther along the ethical sequence than Leopold realized.


In the two volumes she published in the 1950s, The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955), Carson completed her sea trilogy by expanding as both scientist and poet. The earlier volume begins with the “shadowy…beginnings of that great mother of life, the sea” (3). Carson tells of endless ocean-filling rains after the hardening of the planet’s crust and the tearing away of a massive layer of granite to form the moon, leaving behind a depression that now comprises the Pacific basin. The tension she observes between dissolving salt water and eroding rock remains the essential contrapuntal narrative of land and sea:

It is an endless, inexorable process that has never stopped—the dissolving of the rocks, the leaching out of their contained minerals, the carrying of the rock fragments and dissolved minerals to the ocean. And over the eons of time, the sea has grown ever more bitter with the salt of the continents. (7)

None of the many subjects Carson touches on in The Sea Around Us gives rise to more resonant poetry than the subject of ocean sediments. She describes the sinking of biotic materials from dead microbes and other living creatures as a “long snowfall” (75). “The sediments” that fall, she writes, “are a sort of epic poem of the earth” (76). Falling into the deep ocean as if into endless history, ocean sediments represent an archive of natural processes, “the outpouring of volcanoes, the advance and retreat of the ice, the searing aridity of desert lands, the sweeping destruction of floods” (76). In the vertical dimension, oceans record planetary history.

Within the vast expanse of her break-out volume contains the seeds of what would be the particular stance of the last of the sea books. Writing that “the boundary between sea and land is the most fleeting and transitory feature of the earth” (97), Carson foreshadows the wet margins that are the center of The Edge of the Sea (1955). Revealing herself to be a tide-pool gatherer more than a swimmer, this volume isolates “an area of unrest where waves have broken heavily against the land” (1). The not-sameness of the seashore defines its attraction: “For no two successive days is the shore line precisely the same” (1). After a long ramble along rocky, marshy, and sandy shores, she arrives at “the unifying touch of the sea” (249) as marker of sameness and difference. On the salty edge, Carson’s poetic voice momentarily anticipates by a half-century the visionary ecopoetics of Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway, and Bruno Latour. Her sea is alien and core, a not-place “in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality – earth becoming fluid as the sea itself” (150). She poises her voice on the cusp of sea and land and balances in that precarious place. The murmuring sea-voice almost whispers to her, or rather it whispers and she can almost imagine she understands, that the tide on her toes proffers “an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp” (250). That’s where I like to leave Carson in my imagination: with wet feet, on the beach, listening to the dying echoes of the retreating wave.


That’s not where environmental history usually places Carson, because although The Edge of the Sea was not only the third volume of her sea trilogy, her most influential and least oceanic volume, Silent Spring, would not appear until seven years later in 1962. The pastoral vision of small-town America that opens her expose of the evils of DDT powerfully choreographs a green utopia:

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of blooms drifted above green fields. (1)

Into this suddenly song-less paradise the chemical trail of DDT burns. The ideal “harmony” of Carson’s idyll includes agriculture and human industry, and the “checkerboard” even suggests a place for cultures of play. The ambiguously alien ocean, however, remains out of sight. She has not forgotten the sea entirely – she details the poisoning of oysters and clams among the detriments of chemical pesticides (150-51) – but her focus has shifted. Like Aldo Leopold, she’s drawn to terrestrial landscapes and the worlds humans shape with them. Much as I admire the political consequences of Silent Spring, which include the banning of DDT in just over a decade, the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and the celebration of the first Earth Day in 1970, my deepest devotion remains in her ocean books, among the eels and mackerel, splashing in opaque and moving tidal pools.

One response to “THE SEA OR THE MOUNTAIN: Two Histories of Environmental Thinking”

  1. […] In April, the good people at the Glasgow Review of Books excerpted a chapter from OCEAN that contrasted the viewpoints of Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold, “The Sea and the Mountain: Two Histories of Environmental Thinking.” […]

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