September 1, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator H. Patricia Hynes

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Linda Lear, Editor

See Introduction by Linda Lear (reprinted by permission from the publisher)
More information about H. Patricia Hynes

Rachel Carson brought perfectionism to nature writing, both in her scrupulous research and also in her structure of narrative, flow of language, imagism and choice of word. And, she stayed out of the way, so to speak, so that we enter the natural world through her acute perception as if it is our own alert senses, curiosity and wonderment at work. I chose to provide a brief commentary on Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, because I wanted to pore over unpublished and lesser known work to learn something new, if possible, about her perspective on the times in which she lived and the future she anticipated. And I suspected that some of the collection -- speeches and letters, particularly -- would give us the chance to hear her in the first person, something she avoided scrupulously in her books and government publications. Finally, contributing like this always offers the opportunity to pose some exploratory questions for discussion.

Lost Woods is organized into four parts which progress from the threshold of Carson’s writing career to the conclusion of her life. Part 1 offers a story she wrote for publication as a teenager and early writings of the 1930s and ‘40s, including a few preludes for Under the Sea-Wind, field notes from watching the fall migration of hawks, an imagistic portrait of an island on the Sheepscot River in Maine, and a section from a Conservation in Action publication on the national wildlife refuge at Mattamuskeet, North Carolina published by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There are a few observations that I came away with that I will share below.

First, Carson at 15 wrote a story for a children’s magazine about a day in May when she went off early with her dog, lunch and canteen, a field notebook and a camera to search out and photograph birds’ nests with their eggs. In “My Favorite Recreation,” she recounts a day full of adventure, tracking the familiar songs and warning calls of low-nesting birds to their nests; and it is replete with descriptions of successful finds. She returns home late in the day “gloriously tired, gloriously happy.” I finished this story, which is so pungent with happiness, with a longing for children today – particularly girls-- to have the same kind of secure freedom alone in nature; the same capacity to be so curious, informed, stirred and overjoyed by nature; and the same access to physical activity and outdoor life that characterized Carson’s youth in rural Pennsylvania. The loss of “nearby nature” in cities and suburbs, the immense pressure of the market on teenagers to seek happiness in consumer products and body image, and the epidemic of overweight among children because of inactivity and poor nutrition – all greatly magnified since Carson’s childhood -- need the counterweight of the simple (yet elusive) path to joy that she knew and sojourned as a child.

Are there successful programs that readers are familiar with which have as their purpose to cultivate a knowledge and sense of wonder about nature for children, particularly those in cities and suburbs?

As an editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson instigated a 12-part series on the national fish and wildlife refuge system that would constitute a nature guide and source of popular education in ecology for each refuge system. Her style in this richly informative booklet is that of a skilled teacher, providing first a background of cultural history and geography and then a catalogue of the birdlife of the refuge. She employs the Socratic Method, posing questions and using answers to explain the “scientific” management of the refuge for the purpose of maximizing the marsh food supply for waterfowl. She observes, as a sidebar, that that Mattamuskeet country has cachet among geese hunters far and wide for its wealth of waterfowl.

Upon finishing Carson’s essay about Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, the following questions posed themselves. Why would the Fish and Wildlife Service manage the refuge so to increase its natural capacity for wildlife, as she described? Was it because other unpreserved refuges were endangered by development, and, thus, these management techniques would create more habitat capacity for wildlife? Or was it to sustain better recreational hunting opportunities for hunters? Or both? If it was the latter (and it is alleged that the strong lobby of sports hunters was a considerable force in the creation of early wildlife organizations and early government refuge and national park initiatives), then has the advancement in environmental ethics since Carson’s time posed a challenge to the preservation and management of wildlife refuges for the recreation of sports hunters?

It would be especially beneficial to learn from staff of the Fish and Wildlife Service their thoughts on conservation and management of wildlife refuges for recreational hunting. Should we distinguish between hunting for sustenance, hunting for control of wildlife populations, and hunting for sport on publicly managed and conserved land?


Willow said...

I don't have personal knowledge of the Federal refuge system, but the Washington State one definitely was managed to maximize big game with little consideration for other species until fairly recently.
One refuge I know of even planted some areas with crops to provide feed for the game animals. But now managers are looking at refuges as a whole ecosystem, native plants, mammals, birds, insects. I had a long talk with a manager of one refuge here who is trying to reduce noxious weeds, reintroduce natural processes such as fire, and create a refuge for all, not just for game animals such as elk and deer. So it seems to me that hunters had a lot to do with the establishment of these refuges, but their purpose is now being broadened, and the management is less targeted towards maximizing game populations but creating a healthy habitat for all. Would be interested to know what's going on in other states, and on the federal level.

Bruce Freske, Refuge Manager, Mattamuskeet NWR said...

I am the Manager of Mattamuskeet NWR and would like to respond to some of the questions posed by Patricia Hynes.

Mattamuskeet Refuge was established at a time when waterfowl numbers were plummeting due to the loss of habitat and over-hunting. In fact, even Lake Mattamuskeet, all 40,000 acres of it, was drained by a corporation which tried to farm the lake for nearly 30 years before the Great Depression made the venture unprofitable. The lake and surrounding land was purchased by the Federal Government in 1934 for use as a national wildlife refuge. At the time the refuge was established there was very little regard for wildlife or wild places. Certainly the lake was purchased to benefit waterfowl and certainly the only reason this happened was because waterfowl hunters were supportive of it. If not for the early efforts of hunters there probably wouldn't be a refuge here today and instead there would be a 40,000 acre corporate farm.
Yes, times have changed, but the primary reason the refuge was established, which was to provide waterfowl habitat, has not. Despite the early habitat restoration efforts, habitat for waterfowl and consequently waterfowl populations have declined significantly since the refuge was established in 1934. Today, many yearn for the good ole days of the 1970's waterfowl population levels and, unfortunately, I suspect in 2037 some will yearn for the good ole days of the waterfowl population levels of the early 2000's. Thus, the habitat needs of waterfowl today are actually even more urgent then they were in the 1930's - significantly so. Today, the lake winters 25% of the tundra swan and 50%-75% of the northern pintail in the Atlantic Flyway. Certainly this is a tribute to the quality of the habitat but it is also a result of few other places for waterfowl to go.

Despite the importance of the refuge to waterfowl, many other species of wildlife use the refuge including 60 nesting pair of osprey, 25 wintering bald eagles, thousands of egrets, herons, and ibis and tens of thousands of frogs, turtles, and fish.

As far as active management, only 3,000 acres, approximately 6% of the refuge, is actively managed for waterfowl. However, these 3,000 acres generally support 50% of the waterfowl on the refuge and nearly all of the northern pintail.

Though these 3,000 acres require a lot of staff time and funding, a significant amount of resources is also devoted to public use programs and fighting noxious weeds (primarily alligator weed, phragmites, and sensbania).

The lake itself does't need much direct management other than maintaining the four sets of tide gates which prevent saltwater from coming up lake drainage canals. However, early restoration efforts following refuge establishment did entail the construction of the tide gates, planting of aquatic plants, and blocking of some canals.

As to who are the public beneficiaries of the refuge I would have to say all Americans. Approximately 2% of the refuge is open to highly controlled waterfowl hunting and nearly 1,000 hunters hunt on the refuge for the three controlled hunts for waterfowl, deer, and geese. However, direct hunter use is less than 1% of the total public visitation of 100,000. The largest user group is actually fishermen and crabbers followed by bird watchers and photographers.

I have never viewed the management of wildlife refuges as being for the primary benefit of any specific human user group. Refuges are first and foremest for the benefit of wildlife - not humans. That said, if a group of folks can witness thousands of tundra swan tumbling out of the air and into the Refuge then I believe it's a good day for both man and swan.

Anonymous said...

Go to the Children and Nature Network to see links to many programs that connect children with nature.

stephen williams said...

The Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, Maryland (where Rachel Carson once served as an officer/leader, along with Shirley Briggs)in past summers has done a very successful Harriet Tubman walk/run with children that combines Underground Railroad history with natural history.

Thanks to Bruce Freske for addressing some of the questions posed by moderator Patricia Haynes. It does sound like Mattamuskeet NWR is in good hands. If I may ask a followup question Bruce, Rachel Carson wrote in her Conservation in Action publication that large numbers of geese are shot in the countryside surrounding Mattamuskeet NWR; is that still the case?

Bookclub members sometimes share favorite quotes. Here is one about geese from the Mattamuskeet writing in Lost Woods, which editor and biographer Linda Lear also noted.

"As you stand quietly in the thickets along the canal, they pass so close overhead that you can hear their wings cutting the air, and see their plumage tinged with golden brown by the early morning sun."

willow said...

on birds being shot outside of refuges--don't know about Mattamuskeet, but I know that situation exists for a refuge in British Columbia, the Reifel Refuge. The birds don't of course know where the refuge ends and private property begins, and there the hunters wait each fall.

Bruce Freske, Refuge Manager, Mattamuskeet said...

Canada Geese at Mattamuskeet are geatly reduced in number today thus few are shot by hunters. Only about 5,000 geese visit the refuge today compared to over 100,000 in the 1940'. Most of the decline is likely due to a combination of climate change (geese don't migrate any farther south than necessary), more corn being grown farther north, and early maturing corn varieties grown near the refuge (the new varieties sprout before the geese arrive). Hunting for migratory Canada geese was banned in the region in the 1970's and was not opened until last year (still very restrictive) when the state of NC decided that hunting had no significant impact on the number of Canada geese using the area.

On a side note however, swan use has replaced goose use with nearly 100,000 swan now wintering in NC. Swan feed heavily on aquatic plants and with the significant losses of aquatic plants in the Chesapeake Bay the swan, which once wintered there almost exclusively, have moved to NC where food resources are much better.

Mark Madison said...

Patricia does a good job reminding us that Carson was embedded throughout her career in various controversies within the government. Perhaps even more so than hunting, she chimed in regularly on the Fish and Wildlife Service's controversial "predator and rodent control" programs and, most famously, on various studies going on at Patuxent Research Refuge.

Because Carson was so intimately knowledgeable about refuges from Mattamuskeet to Patuxent she was probably more prepared than most to see the problems inherent in DDT and less likely to see any positive aspects. From a refuge, wildlife, or ecological research perspective there is not much to recommend DDT. Almost all its effects were deleterious to her agency's mission. I also think her colleagues within her agency gave her the strength to refute her vociferous critics in agencies like the USDA which saw more to commend in the new generation of pesticides.

Too often this intragovernmental debate is forgotten and Patricia has done us a favor by directing us to some writings by Carson during her formative years in the Fish and Wildlife Service. Perhaps the best visual documentation of this debate was a 1963 CBS documentary "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson" hosted by Eric Sevareid. A real period piece this documentary includes the best debate among government officials on DDT and the longest Carson interview I have ever seen. Unfortunately it is not shown a lot. Those in the D.C. area can see it Tuesday, September 11 from 10:00-11:00 am at the Department of Interior Auditorium ( Otherwise significant parts of this documentary where used in an American Experience film, "Rachel Carson's Silent Spring" which airs regularly.

Mark Madison said...
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Linda Lear said...

I am so gratified to have the writings I included in "Lost Woods" be so carefully analysed and celebrated. It was a wonderful collection to put together. Happily it continues to be used in the classroom as well as read by those interested in Carson's life and work.

I want to return to Patricia's comment about the origins or Carson's political sagacity and my note in "Lost Woods" about the freedom she felt once she had resigned. I think we must be certain that we are not reading history backwards here. How much Carson was really aware of the tenacules of what Eisenhower later called the "military industrial complex" in 1950 is very hard to determine. But when you read her speech to the National Women's Press Club in 1962, reprinted in "Lost Woods" you find this trenchant observation: "research supported by pesticide manufactuerers is not likely to be directed at discovering facts indication unfavorable effects of pesticides. Such a liasion between science and industry is a growing phenomenon, seen in other areas as well." What Carson observed in her years as a highly placed observer in USFWS, with what we would now call a first class political network throughout the federal system in 1952 when she resigned, and what she had discovered after dealing with ARS, working outside the system, and working inside the National Cancer Institute in 1962 are vastly different. I maintain that Carson was an acute political animal from the beginning and a very clever and careful infighter in FWS. She had to be, she survived the wartime employee relocations to other locations, and she had made key friends in high places by 1962. But she could not criticize from within and would never have done so. So her "retirement" from federal service in 1952 gave her the freedom to think about what she had learned and better yet to comment on it fearlessly by 1962.
This was the Cold War and it has always astonished me that Rachel was courageous enough to write that stinging letter "Mr. Day's Dismissal" in 1952 protesting the politics at work in FWS as early as she did, but she could never have done so, had she still be employed there! That letter, it seems to me, opened the door for the fiercely political Carson to emerge. And the speeches she made a decade later testify to how well she had followed the dots and made the connections in that crucial decade.

Mark Madison said...

Patricia ended her comments by wondering about the Fish and Wildlife Service's reaction to various forms of hunting. A recent FWS report just noted a decline in hunting and fishing. AP responded with a story exploring its implications for resource dollars and wildlife management. As the Service historian I am better at looking backward than forward. So I can only comment that traditionally hunters and anglers have been pioneers in conservation and bore a large share of the management and financial burden of wildlife conservation. If their numbers decline it will present new challenges and may have more far reaching implications than many in the public realize.

So Patricia brings up an important topic that I suspect will resonate throughout the upcoming decades as we all grapple with these sociocultural changes. Although Carson never forgot, we occassionally do forget that changes in our human lifestyles can have disproportionate effects on other living things.

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