Imagining Water, #8: Rachel Carson’s Poet Heiress of the Sea

This post comes from the Artists and Climate Change Blog

The eighth in a year-long series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances and publications that are popping up in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.


Although most commonly known as the author of Silent Spring, the 1962 book that is credited with starting the environmental movement, Rachel Carson was also what historian and author Jill Lepore described as a “scientist poet of the sea.” In her recent article in the March 26, 2018 issue of The New Yorker, entitled “The Right Way to Remember Rachel Carson,” Lepore describes Carson’s enduring love of the ocean and its shorelines. Lepore notes that all of Carson’s books prior to Silent Spring, including Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955), focused on her decades of research on the life of the sea and her daily observations of ocean life. Carson’s lyrical and captivating writing style, which reinforces her own sense of herself as a poet of the sea is reflected in this excerpt from her first published work, “Undersea,” an essay that appeared in a 1934 issue of Atlantic Monthly.

Who knows the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere. Nor can we know the vicissitudes of life on the ocean floor, where the sunlight, filtering through a hundred feet of water, makes but a fleeting bluish twilight, in which dwell sponge and mollusk and starfish and coral, where swarms of diminutive fish twinkle through the dusk like a silver rain of meteors, and eels lie in wait among the rocks. Even less is it given to man to descend those six incomprehensible miles into the recesses of the abyss, where reign utter silence and unvarying cold and eternal night.

In 1964, right before she died and after Silent Spring brought environmental issues into public consciousness, Carson had been observing another puzzling phenomenon that, unfortunately, she did not have the chance to pursue. She wrote presciently: “We live in an age of rising seas…in our own lifetime we are witnessing a startling alteration of the climate.”


Rachel Carson observing the sea.

Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner is an internationally acclaimed poet and spoken word artist who was born and lives on the Marshall Islands, a remote chain of coral atolls located in the Northern Pacific Ocean halfway between Hawaii and Australia. Although she is not a scientist like Rachel Carson, Jetnil-Kijiner shares Carson’s love of the sea and her use of poetic language to express her feelings and concerns about the environment, especially her acute alarm about the rising tides that Carson had observed 54 years ago.

Jetnil-Kijiner’s poetry is focused primarily on her beloved Marshall Islands, which lay only six feet above sea level, the same six feet that scientists predict the seas will rise by the end of the century, and which are already experiencing significant tidal flooding once every month. According to Marshall Island Foreign Minister Tony de Brum, the island of his childhood is “not only getting narrower – it is getting shorter…There are coffins and dead people being washed from graves – it’s that serious.”


A seaside cemetery on the Marshall Islands that has been eroded due to rising tides. Credit: New York Times.

In 2014, Jetnil-Kijiner was catapulted from her relatively obscure presence as a “YouTube poet” into a highly sought-after global poet/climate activist after she was selected to perform as the Civil Society Speaker at the opening of the United Nations Climate Summit in New York City. In the poem she recited that day, “Dear Matafele Peinam,” Jetnil-Kijiner promised her baby daughter that she and an army of others would work ceaselessly to ensure that her homeland would not be overcome by the rising tides threatening its shores and that she would not become a homeless climate refugee.

This excerpt from “Dear Matafele Peinam” is followed by a video of her 2014 UN presentation.

dear matafele peinam,

you are a seven month old sunrise of gummy smiles
you are bald as an egg and bald as the Buddha
you are thighs that are thunder and shrieks that are lightning
so excited for bananas, hugs and
our morning walks past the lagoon

dear matafele peinam,
I want to tell you about that lagoon
that lucid, sleepy lagoon lounging against the sunrise

men say that one day
that lagoon will devour you

they say it will gnaw at the shoreline
chew at the roots of your breadfruit trees
gulp down rows of your seawalls
and crunch your island’s shattered bones

they say you, your daughter
and your granddaughter too
will wander rootless
with only a passport to call home

Since her breakout 2014 performance, Jentnil-Kijiner has been featured in numerous publications and broadcasts, including CNN, Democracy Now, Mother Jones, The Huffington Post, NBC News and National Geographic. In 2017, her first collection of poetry, entitled, Iep Jaltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter was published by the University of Arizona press, giving her the distinction of being the first published author from the Marshall Islands. Not limiting herself to poetry as her only form of action against the dangers of climate change, though, Jetnil-Kijiner has co-founded Jo-Jikum, an organization empowering Marshallese youth to “seek solutions to climate change and other environmental impacts threatening their home island” and has spoken all over the world on climate change including at COP (Conference of the Parties) 22 in 2016 and COP 21 in 2015.

As she warns in her poem “Butterfly Thief,”:

But what if we don’t save Tuvalu
what if bees and butterflies become extinct
what if our/my islands don’t survive

just who
do you think
will be next?

I’m taking you with me

As a poet lover of the sea and environmental activist, Kathy Jentnil-Kijiner is a legitimate heiress to the spirit and work of Rachel Carson.

(Top image: The Marshall Islands during a King Tide.)


Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides caused by climate change, the trillions of pieces of plastic in our oceans and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.

Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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