Reading Closely

I have quoted from the nature writer Rachel Carson before. Here is another passage from her The Edge of the Sea. She is describing a place she knows on the eastern seacoast of the United States:

One of my own favorite approaches to a rocky seacoast is by a rough path through an evergreen forest that has its own peculiar enchantment. It is usually an early morning tide that takes me along that forest path, so that the light is still pale and fog drifts in from the sea beyond. It is almost a ghost forest, for among the living spruce and balsam are many dead trees—some still erect, some sagging earthward, some lying on the floor of the forest. All the trees, the living and the dead, are clothed with green and silver crusts of lichens. Tufts of the bearded lichen or old man’s beard hang from the branches like bits of sea mist tangled there. Green woodland mosses and a yielding carpet of reindeer moss cover the ground. In the quiet of that place even the voice of the surf is reduced to a whispered echo and the sounds of the forest are but the ghosts of sound—the faint sighing of evergreen needles in the moving air; the creaks and heavier groans of half-fallen trees resting against their neighbors and rubbing bark against bark; the light rattling fall of a dead branch broken under the feet of a squirrel and sent bouncing and ricocheting earthward.

I find this passage quite beautiful: its rich detail, its depth of vision, its demand, even, for close and careful and inevitably slow reading. To appreciate something means to appraise its value (the words derive from price and praise), but if that is not to be a merely subjective enterprise (it’s good because I like it), we have to be able to point to something objective—its form or structure—that may account for the effect it has on us. Understanding the structure of a sentence or paragraph (or any other art form) helps assure us that we have not retreated to our own private world of likes and dislikes, and cut ourselves off from values that hold us together.

Structure, then, carries meaning to us. Appreciating something like this paragraph by Carson means being moved by it and understanding in some degree how it is that we are moved. What is the writer actually doing here to bring an experience forward in my mind? To ask such a question is not to explain the experience away, as if seeing her choice of words and understanding sentence structure will answer why it is affecting. Rather, recognizing those devices deepens our experience of the meaning, making us conscious of both the what and the how.

Notice, for example, how the paragraph conveys the idea to us that the seacoast is alive, that it confronts the writer almost as another person might. Trees are clothed, groan, and have neighbors; voices and echoes are heard, and the entire scene is personified by a vivid, concrete vocabulary. And then there is the magisterial cumulative last sentence of 79 words, the three phrases after the hyphen putting detail to the ghosts of sound, as if some intelligence we can’t see but only hear is present there.

All of which is to say that we know something and value it (good or bad) through the form in which it comes to us. So we are well advised to examine more closely a paragraph or even a sentence that touches us. If it has made us pause a moment, then we should read it again, looking closely at the structure to find out how it had such an effect. But all this analyzing should not lead us to conclude that our original response was manufactured; rather, it should deepen our appreciation—and wonder, really—that the art of language can contain and pass on to us the actuality and insight of someone else’s direct and living experience.

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