Fifty years ago this month, Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking book Silent Spring – arguably the book that launched the modern environmental movement. Despite victories along the way, we seem to have learned relatively little in that fifty years about the impacts of recklessly sending chemicals into our natural environment. Carson would be astounded and likely quite angry at the extent of our dependence on harmful chemicals and by our failure to address climate change and our current planetary environmental crisis – for which we seem largely in denial.
She would also be alarmed by the immense (and growing) disconnect between humans and the natural systems that sustain us, and it is this legacy of thinking and writing that may receive less attention when we remember Carson. Rachel Carson fell in love with nature at a very early age and her sense of wonder and fascination with the natural world, and desire to share this with others, lasted until her tragic early death from breast cancer.
I had the chance earlier this year to visit the suburban Maryland home where she wrote Silent Spring, over the course of four years. While Carson worked in all the rooms of this house, the large living room window appears a magical place where she enjoyed watching birds and other life attracted to her small oasis. I can picture her there intently watching, listening, alert to the life around her, and ever mindful that the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides, about which she was so alarmed, had such severe and lasting impacts on the nature she loved. It is a modest window in a modest house, but knowing the time she spent there it seemed a kind of sacred space to me.
Carson’s sense of wonder found expression in a clear and eloquent prose, the kinds of words that move and motivate us. She wrote passionately, of course, about ocean and coastal environments, and spent many of her summers at a cabin along the Maine coast. It was here that she shared her personal love of nature with her nephew Roger, whom she later adopted. Carson wrote eloquently of mysteries and discoveries to be found in these dynamic edge environments, and one of my favorite images of her is walking along the shoreline with a young Roger, pointing out, uncovering, relishing the wonders deposited and seen at low tide.
Carson was a keen observer and nature chronicler, and she wrote with glee about the nature she saw around her. Though the main focus of her work and writing was not cities, she did in fact write some about urban environments. In 1939, she wrote an interesting essay “How About Citizenship Papers for the Starling,” in which she argued on behalf of this oft-maligned species, noting their insect-controlling benefits for farmers, and speculating on the of reasons for their roosting and flocking behaviors:“One of the most fascinating sights I have ever witnessed is that of starlings in their aerial maneuverings before settle for the night. In night flocks…they wheel and turn above the buildings, patterning the evening sky with intricate designs. Leaderless, apparently animated by the pure joy of flight, their performance is one of indescribable beauty.” Here Carson here shows her keen awareness of a non-native species most might not even notice, or care about, in an urban setting largely viewed as not very natural.
My favorite piece of her writing appeared in July 1956, long before Silent Spring was published. It was an essay published in a magazine called Woman’s Home Companion and entitled “Help Your Child To Wonder” (and later re-published as an illustrated book under the title of Sense of Wonder). It is a powerful piece, and perhaps the most eloquent plea to ensure that kids today grow up exposed to the wonder and enduring magic of the natural environment.
Carson wrote so beautifully:
“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
A sense of wonder to stand us in good stead as we make our way through a world often banal and soul-deadening. Cultivating a wonder, a curiosity, an ability to be awed by nature, Carson says, is kind an inoculation against the drab and dull forces of the modern world. How we do this, in a society where we are competing for kids’ attention with computer games, TV, social networking, and busy jam- packed school schedules and calendars (not much of it having to do with nature). The lack of passionate and guiding mentors in most young people’s lives remains a challenge, and she likely would have been saddened by a dominant modern culture that often demonizes nature.
Carson has practical advice, such as suggesting that parents invest in a “good hand lens or magnifying glass,” to help see nature better, or rising early to hear the spring birds, or watching migrating birds against the backdrop of a full moon.
And she modeled the behavior she wanted to see, in her time with Roger, demonstrating the absolutely essential role for parents and extended families in imparting the value and pleasure of time spent in nature. She astutely challenges the presumption that parents (then and today) don’t feel they know enough about nature – the names of common species of plants and animals, for example – to share it with their children . For her, it is the attitude of wonder, of attentive awe that parents share, the demonstrating of their own fascination with the world around them that will carry the day. As she says: “I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel…It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.”
For Carson, the experience of nature was multisensory. She wrote of the smells of low tide, “that marvelous evocation combined of many separate odors, of the world of seaweeds and fishes and creatures of bizarre shape and habit, of tides rising and falling…of exposed mud flats and salt rime drying on the rocks.” And there were the many sounds, of course, the “living music” as she called it, insect and birds and the many other “voices” of life that needed listening to.
Cultivating a sense of wonder was a way to infuse a resilience quite useful later in weathering life’s challenges and adversities:
“Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauty and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
Here in the UVA School of Architecture we are celebrating Carson’s life and legacy through an exhibition of words and photographs (from September 24 through October 12). As a step in collecting materials for the exhibition, we solicited quotes from leading contemporary writers and environmentalists, testimonials, if you will, of the influence Carson’s work and ideas . We will be displaying incredibly eloquent statements from people such as Bill McKibben, Vandana Shiva, Hunter Lovens, David Orr, Bill McDonough, and Terry Tempest Williams. William’s statement of Carson’s impact of her own work is especially move – indicating of Carson’s lasting influence. She says:
“Her words, each sentence, be it lyrical or hard-edged awakens our consciousness to the understanding all life is interrelated and interconnected. Miss Carson remains both a hero and on ongoing mentor in my life. I feel her hand on my shoulder each time I pick up my pencil.”
Many of us who, of course, never knew her personally, are equally and profoundly affected. When we remember this month Carson’s immense legacy and her contributions to science, activism and environmental citizenship, we should also recall that for her the deep and steady rudder of life was the nature around her. We have lost some of that nature in the last fifty years, but there is much left to savor, celebrate and ultimately protect. We can honor Carson’s legacy by going outside and listening intently, gazing at the stars, and watching for the birds that Carson loved so much.
Images courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council, Silver Spring, MD, and ArtStor.