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Mother Sea:
The Gray Beginnings

Rachel Carson

edited by Raymond Soulard, Jr.
& Kassandra Soulard

Number Fifty-five

Mother Sea: The Gray Beginnings
by Rachel Carson

excerpt from The Sea Around Us (1950, 1951, 1961)

Burning Man Books is
an imprint of
Scriptor Press

2442 NW Market Street—#363
Seattle, Washington 98107

This volume was composed
in the AGaramond font
in PageMaker 7.0 on the

Macintosh G4 and MacBook Pro computers

For Al Gore,
with deepest respect and affection

Mother Sea: The Gray Beginnings • 5

And the Earth was without form, and void;
and Darkness was upon the face of the Deep.


eginnings are apt to be shadowy, and so it is with the beginnings
of that great mother of life, the sea. Many people have debated
how and when the earth got its ocean, and it is not surprising

that their explanations do not always agree. For the plain and inescapable
truth is that no one was there to see and, in the absence of eyewitness
accounts, there is bound to be a certain amount of disagreement. So if I
tell here the story of how the young planet Earth acquired an ocean, it
must be a story pieced together from many sources and containing whole
chapters the details of which we can only imagine. The story is founded
on the testimony of the earth’s most ancient rocks, which were young
when the earth was young; on other evidence written on the face of the
earth’s satellite, the moon; and on hints contained in the history of the
sun and the whole universe of star-filled space. For although no man
was there to witness this cosmic birth, the stars and moon and the rocks
were there and, indeed, had much to do with the fact that there is an

The events of which I write must have occurred somewhat more
than 2 billion years ago. As nearly as science can tell, that is the
approximate age of the earth, and the ocean must be very nearly as old.
It is possible now to discover the age of the rocks that compose the crust
of the earth by measuring the rate of decay of the radioactive materials
they contain. The oldest rocks found anywhere on earth—in Manitoba—
are about 2.3 billion years old. Allowing 100 million years or so for the
cooling of the earth’s materials to form a rocky crust, we arrive at the
supposition that the tempestuous and violent events connected with
our planet’s birth occurred nearly 2 billion years ago. But this is only a
minimum estimate, for rocks indicating an even greater age may be
found at any time.

The new earth, freshly torn from its parent sun, was a ball of
whirling gases, intensely hot, rushing through the black spaces of the
universe on a path and at a speed controlled by immense forces. Gradually
the ball of flaming gases cooled. The gases began to liquefy, and Earth
became a molten mass. The materials of this mass eventually became

6 • RACHEL CARSON Mother Sea: The Gray Beginnings • 7

sorted out in a definite pattern: the heaviest in the center, the less heavy
surrounding them, and the least heavy forming the outer rim. This is
the pattern which persists today—a central sphere of molten iron, very
nearly as hot as it was 2 billion years ago, an intermediate sphere of
semiplastic basalt, and a hard outer shell, relatively quite thin and
composed of solid basalt and granite.

The outer shell of the young earth must have been a good many
millions of years changing from the liquid to the solid state, and it is
believed that, before this change was completed, an event of the greatest
importance took place—the formation of the moon. The next time you
stand on a beach at night, watching the moon’s bright path across the
water, and conscious of the moon-drawn tides, remember that the moon
itself may have been born of a great tidal wave of earthly substance, torn
off into space. And remember that if the moon was formed in this
fashion, the event may have had much to do with shaping the ocean
basins and the continents as we know them.

There were tides in the new earth, long before there was an
ocean. In response to the pull of the sun, the molten liquids of the
earth’s whole surface rose in tides that rolled unhindered around the
globe, and only gradually slackened and diminished as the earthly shell
cooled, congealed, and hardened. Those who believe that the moon is a
child of Earth say that during an early state of the earth’s development
something happened that caused this rolling, viscid tide to gather speed
and momentum and rise to unimaginable heights. Apparently the force
that created these greatest tides the earth has ever known was the force
of resonance, for at this time the period of the solar tides had come to
approach, then equal, the period of the free oscillation of the liquid
earth. And so every sun tide was given increased momentum by the
push of the earth’s oscillation, and each of the twice-daily tides was
larger than the one before it. Physicists have calculated that, after 500
years of such monstrous, steadily increasing tides, those on the side
toward the sun became too high for stability, and a great wave was torn
away and hurled into space. But immediately, of course, the newly created
satellite became subject to physical laws that sent it spinning in an orbit
of its own about the earth. This is what we call the moon.

There are reasons for believing that this event took place after

the earth’s crust had become slightly hardened, instead of during its
partly liquid state. There is to this day a great scar on the surface of the
globe. This scar or depression holds the Pacific Ocean. According to
some geophysicists, the floor of the Pacific is composed of basalt, the
substance of the earth’s middle layer, while all other oceans are floored
with a thin layer of granite, which makes up most of the earth’s outer
layer. We immediately wonder what became of the Pacific’s granite
covering and the most convenient assumption is that it was torn away
when the moon was formed. There is supporting evidence. The mean
density of the moon is much less than that of earth (3.3 compared with
5.5), suggesting that the moon took away none of the earth’s heavy iron
core, but that it is composed only of the granite and some of the basalt
of the outer layers.

The birth of the moon probably helped shape other regions of
the world’s ocean besides the Pacific. When part of the crust was torn
away, strains must have been set up in the remaining granite envelope.
Perhaps the granite mass cracked open on the side opposite the moon
scar. Perhaps, as the earth spun on its axis and rushed on its orbit through
space, the cracks widened and the masses of granite began to drift apart,
moving over a tarry, slowly hardening layer of basalt. Gradually, the
outer portions of the basalt layer became solid and the wandering
continents came to rest frozen into place with oceans between them. In
spite of theories to the contrary, the weight of geologic evidence seems
to be that the locations of the major ocean basins and the major
continental land masses are today much the same as they have been
since a very early period of the earth’s history.

But this is to anticipate the story, for when the moon was born
there was no ocean. The gradually cooling earth was enveloped in heavy
layers of cloud, which contained much of the water of the new planet.
For a long time its surface was so hot that no moisture could fall without
immediately being reconverted to steam. This dense, perpetually renewed
cloud covering must have been thick enough that no rays of sunlight
could penetrate it. And so the rough outlines of the continents and the
empty ocean basins were sculptured out of the earth in darkness, in a
Stygian world of heated rock and swirling clouds and gloom.

As soon as the earth’s crust cooled enough, the rains began to

8 • RACHEL CARSON Mother Sea: The Gray Beginnings • 9

fall. Never have there been such rains since that time. They fell
continuously, day and night, days passing into months, into years, into
centuries. They poured into the waiting ocean basins or, falling upon
the continental masses, drained away to become sea.

That primeval ocean, growing in bulk as the rains slowly filled
its basins, must have been only faintly salt. But the falling rains were the
symbol of the dissolution of the continents. From the moment the rain
began to fall, the lands began to be worn away and carried to the 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

In what manner the sea produced the mysterious and wonderful
stuff called protoplasm we cannot say. In its warm, dimly lit waters, the
unknown conditions of temperature and pressure and saltiness must
have been the critical ones for the creation of life from non-life. At any
rate they produced the result that neither the alchemists with their
crucibles nor modern scientists in their laboratories have been able to

Before the first living cell was created, there may have been many
trials and failures. It seems probable that, within the warm saltiness of
the primeval sea, certain organic substances were fashioned from carbon
dioxide, sulphur, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium. Perhaps
these were transition steps from which the complex molecules of
protoplasm arose—molecules that somehow acquired the ability to
reproduce themselves and begin the endless stream of life. But at present
no one is wise enough to be sure.

Those first living things may have been simple microorganisms
rather like some of the bacteria we know today—mysterious borderline
forms that were not quite plants, not quite animals, barely over the
intangible line that separates the non-living from the living. It is doubtful
that this first life possessed the substance chlorophyll, with which plants
in sunlight transform lifeless chemicals into the living stuff of their tissues.
Little sunshine could enter their dim world, penetrating the cloud banks
from which fell the endless rains. Probably the sea’s first children lived

on the organic substances then present in the ocean waters or, like the
iron and sulphur bacteria that exist today, lived directly on inorganic

All the while the cloud cover was thinning, the darkness of the
nights alternated with palely illumined days, and finally the sun for the
first time shone through upon the sea. By this time some of the living
things that floated in the sea must have developed the magic of
chlorophyll. Now they were able to take the carbon dioxide of the air
and the water of the sea and of these elements, in sunlight, build the
organic substances they needed. So the first true plants came into being.

Another group of organisms, lacking the chlorophyll but needing
organic food, found they could make a way of life for themselves by
devouring the plants. So the first animals arose, and from that day to
this, every animal in the world has followed the habit it learned in the
ancient seas and depends, directly or through complex food chains, on
the plants for food and life.

As the years passed, and the centuries, and the millions of years,
the stream of life grew more and more complex. From simple, one-
celled creatures, others that were aggregations of specialized cells arose,
and then creatures with organs for feeding, digesting, breathing,
reproducing. Sponges grew on the rocky bottom of the sea’s edge and
coral animals built their habitations in warm, clear waters. Jellyfish swam
and drifted in the sea. Worms evolved, and starfish, and hard-shelled
creatures with many-jointed legs, the arthropods. The plants, too,
progressed, from the microscopic algae to branched and curiously fruiting
seaweeds that swayed with the tides and were plucked from the coastal
rocks by the surf and cast adrift.

During all this time the continents had no life. There was little
to induce living things to come ashore, forsaking their all-providing,
all-embracing mother sea. The lands must have been bleak and hostile
beyond the power of words to describe. Imagine a whole continent of
naked rock, across which no covering mantle of green had been drawn—
a continent without soil, for there were no land plants to aid in its
formation and bind it to the rocks with their roots. Imagine a land of
stone, a silent land, except for the sound of the rains and winds that
swept across it. For there was no living voice, and no living thing moved

10 • RACHEL CARSON Mother Sea: The Gray Beginnings • 11

over the surface of the rocks.
Meanwhile, the gradual cooling of the planet, which had first

given the earth its hard granite crust, was progressing into its deeper
layers; and as the interior slowly cooled and contracted, it drew away
from the outer shell. This shell, accommodating itself to the shrinking
sphere within it, fell into folds and wrinkles—the earth’s first mountain

Geologists tell us that there must have been at least two periods
of mountain building (often called “revolutions”) in that dim period, so
long ago that the rocks have no record of it, so long ago that the
mountains themselves have long since been worn away. Then there came
a third great period of upheaval and readjustment of the earth’s crust,
about a billion years ago, but of all its majestic mountains the only
reminders today are the Laurentian hills of eastern Canada, and a great
shield of granite over the flat country around Hudson Bay.

The epochs of mountain building only served to speed up the
processes of erosion by which the continents were worn down and their
crumbling rock and contained minerals returned to the sea. The uplifted
masses of the mountains were prey to the bitter cold of the upper
atmosphere and, under the attacks of frost and snow and ice, the rocks
cracked and crumbled away. The rains beat with greater violence upon
the slopes of the hills and carried away the substance of the mountains
in torrential streams. There was still no plant covering to modify and
resist the power of the rains.

And in the sea, life continued to evolve. The earliest forms have
left no fossils by which we can identify them. Probably they were soft-
bodied, with no hard parts that could be preserved. Then, too, the rock
layers formed in those early days have since been so altered by enormous
heat and pressure, under the foldings of the earth’s crust, that any fossils
they might have contained would have been destroyed.

For the past 500 million years, however, the rocks have preserved
the fossil record. By the dawn of the Cambrian period, when the history
of living things was first inscribed on rock pages, life in the sea had
progressed so far that all the main groups of backboneless or invertebrate
animals had been developed. But there were no animals with backbones,
no insects or spiders, and still no plant or animal had been evolved that

was capable of venturing onto the forbidding land. So for more than
three-fourths of geologic time the continents were desolate and
uninhabited, while the sea prepared the life that was later to invade
them and make them habitable. Meanwhile, with violent tremblings of
the earth and with the fire and smoke of roaring volcanoes, mountains
rose and wore away, glaciers moved to and fro over the earth, and the
sea crept over the continents and again receded.

It was not until Silurian time, some 350 million years ago, that
the first pioneer of land life crept out on the shore. It was an arthropod,
one of the great tribe that later produced crabs and lobsters and insects.
It must have been something like a modern scorpion but, unlike some
of its descendants, it never wholly severed the ties that united it to the
sea. It lived a strange life, half-terrestrial, half-aquatic, something like
that of the ghost crabs that speed along the beaches today, now and
then dashing into the surf to moisten their gills.

Fish, tapered of body and stream-molded by the press of running
waters, were evolving in Silurian rivers. In times of drought, in the drying
pools and lagoons, the shortage of oxygen forced them to develop swim
bladders for the storage of air. One form that possessed an air-breathing
lung was able to survive the dry periods by burying itself in mud, leaving
a passage to the surface through which it breathed.

It is very doubtful that the animals alone would have succeeded
in colonizing the land, for only the plants had the power to bring about
the first amelioration of its harsh conditions. They helped make soil of
the crumbling rocks, they held back the soil from the rains that would
have swept it away and, little by little, they softened and subdued the
bare rock, the lifeless desert. We know very little about the first land
plants, but they must have been closely related to some of the larger
seaweeds that had learned to live in the coastal shallows, developing
strengthened stems and grasping, rootlike holdfasts to resist the drag
and pull of the waves. Perhaps it was in some coastal lowlands,
periodically drained and flooded, that some such plants found it possible
to survive, though separated from the sea. This also seems to have taken
place in the Silurian period.

The mountains that had been thrown up by the Laurentian
revolution gradually wore away, and as the sediments were washed from

12 • RACHEL CARSON Mother Sea: The Gray Beginnings • 13

their summits and deposited on the lowlands, great areas of the continents
sank under the land. The seas crept out of their basins and spread over
the lands. Life fared well and was exceedingly abundant in those shallow,
sunlit seas. But with the later retreat of the ocean water into the deeper
basins, many creatures must have been left stranded in shallow,
landlocked bays. Some of these animals found means to survive on land.
The lakes, the shores of the rivers, and the coastal swamps of those days
were the testing grounds in which plants and animals either became
adapted to the new conditions or perished.

As the lands rose and the seas receded, a strange fishlike creature
emerged on the land, and over the thousands of years its fins became
legs, and instead of gills, it developed lungs. In the Devonian sandstone
this first amphibian left its footprint.

On land and sea the stream of life poured on. New forms evolved;
some old ones declined and disappeared. On land the mosses and the
ferns and the seed plants developed. The reptiles for a time dominated
the earth, gigantic, grotesque, and terrifying. Birds learned to live and
move in the ocean of air. The first small mammals lurked inconspicuously
in hidden crannies of the earth as though in fear of the reptiles.

When they went ashore the animals that took up a land life
carried with them a part of the sea in their bodies, a heritage which they
passed on to their children and which even today links each land animal
with its origin in the ancient sea. Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-
blooded bird and mammal—each of us carries in our veins a salty stream
in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined
in almost the same proportions as in sea water. This is our inheritance
from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor,
having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first
developed a circulatory system in which the fluid was merely the water
of the sea. In the same way, our lime-hardened skeletons are a heritage
from the calcium-rich ocean of Cambrian time. Even the protoplasm
that streams within each cell of our bodies has the chemical structure
impressed upon all living matter when the first simple creatures were
brought forth in the ancient sea. And as life itself began in the sea, so
each of us begins his individual life in a miniature ocean within his
mother’s womb, and in the stages of his embryonic development repeats

the steps by which his race evolved, from gill-breathing inhabitants of a
water world to creatures able to live on land.

Some of the land animals later returned to the ocean. After
perhaps 50 million years of land life, a number of reptiles entered the
sea about 170 million years ago, in the Triassic period. They were huge
and formidable creatures. Some had oarlike limbs by which they rowed
through the water; some were web-footed, with long, serpentine necks.
These grotesque monsters disappeared millions of years ago, but we
remember them when we come upon a large sea turtle swimming many
miles at sea, its barnacle-encrusted shell eloquent of its marine life. Much
later, perhaps no more than 50 million years ago, some of the mammals,
too, abandoned a land life for the ocean. Their descendants are the sea
lions, seals, sea elephants, and whales of today.

Among the land animals there was a race of creatures that took
to an arboreal existence. Their hands underwent remarkable
development, becoming skilled in manipulating and examining objects,
and along with this skill came a superior brain power that compensated
for what these comparatively small mammals lacked in strength. At last,
perhaps somewhere in the vast interior of Asia, they descended from
the trees and became again terrestrial. The past million years have seen
their transformation into beings with body and brain and spirit of man.

Eventually man, too, found his way back to the sea. Standing
on its shores, he must have looked out upon it with wonder and curiosity,
compounded with an unconscious recognition of his lineage. He could
not physically re-enter the ocean as the seals and whales had done. But
over the centuries, with all the skill and ingenuity and reasoning powers
of his mind, he has sought to explore and investigate even its most
remote parts, so that he might re-enter it mentally and imaginatively.

He built boats to venture out on its surface. Later he found
ways to descend to the shallow parts of its floor, carrying with him the
air that, as a land mammal long unaccustomed to aquatic life, he needed
to breathe. Moving in fascination over the deep sea he could not enter,
he found ways to probe its depths, he let down nets to capture its life,
he invented mechanical eyes and ears that would re-create for his senses
a world long lost, but a world that, in the deepest part of his subconscious
mind, he had never wholly forgotten.


And yet he has returned to his mother sea only on her own
terms. He cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of
earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents. In the artificial
world of his cities and towns, he often forgets the true nature of his
planet and the long vistas of its history, in which the existence of the
race of men has occupied a mere moment of time. The sense of all these
things comes to him most clearly in the course of a long ocean voyage,
when he watches day after day the receding rim of the horizon, ridged
and furrowed by waves; when at night he becomes aware of the earth’s
rotation as the stars pass overhead; or when, alone in this world of water
and sky, he feels the loneliness of his earth in space. And then, as never
on land, he knows the truth that his world is a water world, a planet
dominated by its covering mantle of ocean, in which the continents are
but transient intrusions of land above the surface of the all-encircling

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