Posted by: rebeccanmckinnon | September 4, 2011

My First Encounter with Ecocritical Thinking

Black Rock Beach with its black "rocks" and slanted trees

For me, nostalgia is headed north on Heckscher Drive. Miles ahead, past power plants, fishing villages, Kingsley Plantation, and Kayak Amelia, Big Talbot conceals a small hiking trail that dead ends into the St. John’s. Black Rock Beach is accessible only by this trail and a ladder downward from the woods onto its sandy floor. Environmentalist and author of “Under the Sea-Wind,” Rachel Carson, said that when entering into the study and analysis of the natural world, one must “abandon …  human concepts and human yardsticks” (5). I’m going to write about my failure to do so while visiting Black Rock with my boyfriend Topher four months ago. The following quote by Simon C. Estok describes the mindset I entered the beach with that day:

“Equating nature studies and ecocriticism is a dangerous practice that runs the risk of leading us into thematic criticism … that is all dressed up in a flashy and fashionable new outfit, criticism that underneath the fluff is really the same old tedious rubbish, criticism that does not promise to get us far in changing the way we think about the world in which we live” (Estok, PMLA ASLE Forum).

Large driftwood trees at Black Rock Beach, white in death

I’d been to Black Rock Beach before, and I visited that day with a myriad of expectations; I expected the sun’s warmth on my skin, the feel of the sand between my toes, and the river’s relaxation surrounding my swimming body. I expected to write about all manner of positive “natural” sensations. I did not expect to encounter negative sensations, because all the best poets adored this sort of day. Nothing could go wrong. Of course, I was wrong.

At Black Rock, time, elusive even as a human concept, became not only difficult to grasp but also dangerous to overlook. You see, when the tide rises at Black Rock, it floods the land of tree corpses, trapping anyone left beyond the curve of the beach. In the first chapter of “Under the Sea-Wind,” Carson explored how the “flood tide” not only completely changes an oceanic atmosphere but also supports a range of hierarchical species that exist within its turbulent shallows.

“I realized the sea itself must be the central character whether I wished it or not; for the sense of the sea, holding the power of life and death over every one of its creatures from the smallest to the largest, would inevitably pervade every page” (Carson 3).

The St. John's River and infinite sky beyond this driftwood branch

I finally understood this statement as I stood on the beach’s black “rocks,” watching wide-eyed as the waves crashed and crashed again into the exit ladder, the cloudy, knee-deep river water concealing sharp obstacles along the path toward it. I was no better than the rest of the beach’s creatures, and perhaps worse off, with no idea how to safely reach the beach beneath the ladder that, only a few hours earlier, had been dry enough to squish between my toes.

Topher and I chose to wade it, venturing into the waves and climbing over reachable branches along the way. A family carrying colorful foldable chairs and SpongeBob Squarepants towels watched us from the top of the ladder, looking frightened and unsure what to do. Half way there. At that point, I mistakenly thought we’d outsmarted nature. Topher slipped on a branch made slimy by the insistent waves, splashed into the water bare feet first, and howled in pain. He’d landed on a sharp underwater branch. His heel remained bruised for a month following. He limped a mile and a half back to the car, truly appreciating the damage overlooked time and the flood tide had inflicted.

All photos courtesy of © Chris Hicks


  1. I love your blog! I agree, for the most part we tend to idealize nature as a beautiful, majestic place that only produces life–the “Disney” outlook. We ignore nature’s everlasting cycle of life and death. As Carson narrates in “Under the Sea-Wind” nature is a cycle of life and death to sustain the livelihood of other creatures which progresses life for all species. Love the pictures, Chris did a great job!

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