May 9, 2007

Moderator John Elder's Comment for Week of May 8

Carson as Writer--Inspiration and Influence

Thanks to everyone for last week's thoughtful comments about the relationship between Rachel Carson's historical moment and ours. There was a general sense that certain basic cultural and political conflicts remain the same today as in her lifetime. But some contributors also suggest that, in the debate over contemporary challenges like climate change, many people now are in fact less deferential toward the insights of science. Erroneous, and ideologically based, "facts" can certainly take on a life of their own in the era of the world-wide web and the Internet. One conclusion to draw might be that Carson's example of extreme clarity, careful documentation, and almost infinite patience will be more important than ever as we seek to educate policy-makers and the public about pressing scientific realities.

We are now starting a second set of readings from Courage for the Earth, in which our emphasis is on the literary context and influence of Rachel Carson's writing. Jim Lynch's excerpt comes from his acclaimed novel in which the young protagonist is inspired by her work; it is complemented by Lynch's commentary on his own writing. Sandra Steingraber responds to Carson in the form of a moving memoir about her father. My piece in this little cluster is an attempt to explore the relationship between Carson's scientific insights and the legacy of Romantic poetry which so inspired her. How, and to what effect, do you find literature and science to be interwoven in Rachel Carson's writing? When looking at our own environmental challenges, do you find literature an important part of the public dialogue that will guide our choices? How do other arts like painting, film, and television contribute?

When first talking with Anne Roy about helping to moderate this week I let her know that I would be traveling abroad to a conference next week. So Deanne Urmy and Anne will be helping to frame the following topics. But I will plan to rejoin this dialogue at the end of the present week and, if possible, to check in while traveling in the latter part of May.

Go to May Reading Schedule

To contribute to the discussion click here or go to "Comments" below. Problems? Email or


Anonymous said...

As to the question about "how do you find literature and science to be interwoven in Rachel Carson's writing?": I may be missing the whole point here, but to me the two disciplines are tightly tied together and one cannot exist without the other. Of course I am loosely classifying literature as the whole field of written expression. I am thinking as a math teacher. How can a student who is not literate and does not understand what is required or cannot follow instructions (or on the other hand, the instructions are not clear) in solving a problem arrive confidently or correctly at a solution? This may be an oversimplification or completely not in the ballpark, but in my perspective, there is a relationship. As Mr. Elder points out, "...Carson's example of extreme clarity, careful documentation, and almost infinite patience will be more important than ever as we seek to educate policy- makers and the public about pressing scientific realities." Perhaps not only the clarity of a writing, but its harmony, rhythm, and meaning would be inspiration enough for someone to follow its tenet. Am I making any sense here? I see a relationship, but perhaps I should be the one to work on the "clarity" of my expression!

A. R. said...

I heard a talk the other day that really struck a chord and I think it touches on this question. The talk was given by a female scientist and the essence of her theme was that science is not just a list of facts and numbers, it’s a way of looking at things. That certainly seems to be what science was to Rachel Carson, a way to look at the world. And through her writing she shared her vision. For humans story is a very important thing. And science, like everything else, has a story.

NCTC Librarian said...

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julie said...

Even before reading John Elder’s essay on poetry in Silent Spring, I’d been touched by Carson’s use of Robert Frost’s “Two Roads” poem. That poem resonates with me, probably because it was a favorite of my mother’s. Elder’s essay made me aware of Carson’s equally deft use of a Keats passage and other poetic imagery in her writing. Without much background in poetry, I hadn’t been alert to that aspect of Carson’s style.
Now I’m thinking about Elder’s question—is literature an important part of the public dialogue shaping environmental choices? I’m concerned that our culture has so few shared literary experiences that fine writing can’t have the impact it once did. Recently, I read a fully annotated version of Walden. The editor pointed out many allusions to classical and Biblical passages that Thoreau’s original audience would have recognized & responded to but that are unfamiliar to me. Perhaps our ultra-specialized educations is limiting literature’s role as the proportion of the populace that has experienced a given poem, essay, or book shrinks. One reason I think that An Inconvenient Truth has sparked national debate is that so many people saw it. Not many environmental books reach such big audiences. Thank goodness Rachel Carson was a best selling writer before Silent Spring so it was a blockbuster too.

stephen williams said...

I am enjoying reading Courage for the Earth. A special thank you to Houghton Mifflin and to all the contributing writers. I hope that public libraries as well as individuals will request this newly-published, excellent book.

To teach and to delight is noble. But to teach, delight and empower is revolutionary. Sandra Steingraber brings this point home in her quest for her father -- and for Rachel Carson.

"For my father, Rachel Carson is less Che Guevera and more Charles Darwin, quietly and objectively amassing evidence and presenting it to curious public. . . . Silent Spring was my father's armistice. It was my call to arms."

John Elder also touches on this empowerment when he links Rachel Carson's anger with that of the English Romantic "poet-prophets", and cites a favorite query from Silent Spring.

"Who has decided -- who has the right to decide -- for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?

May I share a family story?

It occurred in the 1950s, close in years to when Olga Owens Huckins wrote her 1958 letter of concern to Rachel Carson. My family was camping near the ocean on Maryland's Eastern Shore. During some stage of a family meal, the campground received a direct, overhead spraying from a plane, presumably with the aim of controlling mosquitoes. My parent's response was to pack up the gear and their small children and leave the campground.

What would you do if this happen to you today? Or, maybe, to update the what if, what would you do if you ate genetically-modified food without consumer labeling?

Back to this week's reading.

Rachel Carson's interweaving of Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" works amazing well.

I found John Elder's quest to better understand Rachel Carson by investigating issues of St. Nicholas magazine moving; it helps fill in an early picture of her as both a reader and a writer.

Herbert L. King said...

I'm also enjoying reading "Courage for the Earth". It's very interesting to think about what it takes to inspire people to action. I like the story Jim Lynch tells about inspiration. How he decided to transfer his own passion about Rachel Carson onto the protagonist in "The Highest Tide" which in turn inspired the readers so much that they went on to seek out and learn more about Rachel Carson. The fact that it was done with some humor, i.e., a teenage boy idolizing Rachel Carson (?), in this case adds a refreshing but authentic twist.

John Elder said...

I've enjoyed people's thoughtful comments this week, and hope that the rest of the exchanges go equally well. Tomorrow I'm off to a conference abroad, but will look forward to checking back in a couple of weeks.

How fortunate we are to have an inspiring example like Rachel Carson's as we strive to deal effectively with climate change--the paramount environmental challenge of our own day.

NCTC Librarian said...

To read a comment by Robert Michael Pyle, author of the essay, "Always a Naturalist" in Courage for the Earth go to Scroll down to comment #12.

Anonymous said...

Bob, I second the motion on your question "Where are you today, Rachel:" And also to the dedication by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring to Albert Schweitzer who said, "Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth." How can there be so much shortsightedness amongst us in this day and age to not see the inevitable of where our current course is leading us? I keep on pounding on this, but I sincerely believe that much of it has to do with the lust for power and greed without regard for the means to that end. Will we ever be able to reverse the trend towards that apparent destruction of our good earth? Are we such a masochistic society that the "Golden Rule" is being mutilated to the point where it says, " I will destroy others, and I expect the same of them"? From my viewpoint, it certainly does not look good. But we must keep on trying to do our part, as small as it may seem, to make a difference.

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