September 10, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Patricia Hynes

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Linda Lear, Editor
Part 2

H. Patricia Hynes

Week of September 10, 2007

Part 2 of Lost Woods opens with a letter to the marketing department of Rachel Carson’s publisher,* in which she explains her intention and method in writing Under the Sea-Wind. The delight here is how fresh, direct and present she is in this letter, as a person and personality. As writers must do for their publishers, she underscored what set her book apart from others of similar subject, namely, that in order to successfully write their stories, she had to become a sanderling, a crab, a mackerel, an eel, and a half dozen other sea creatures, with the ocean as the central character. Not merely masterful biography, Under the Sea-Wind is, as she suggested, an autobiography of sea life!

This section of Lost Woods contains a selection from The Sea Around Us, entitled “Lost Worlds,”* and entries related to this acclaimed book, including speeches for book awards, jacket notes for a recording of Debussy’s La Mer, and a preface for a 1961 second edition. The preface updates key aspects of oceanography since the book’s publication in 1951 and registers Carson’s mounting anxiety about ocean dumping of radioactive waste.

In “Lost Worlds,”* Carson tells a suite of stories in which sea-faring explorers and colonizers settled or invaded remote, ecologically stable Pacific islands bringing domesticated animals and, inadvertently, snakes and rats; exotic plants and birds; and methods of clear cutting and burning that created vast extinction, loss of habitat, and impoverished ecosystems overrun by invasive species. War in the Pacific and subsequent atomic testing quickened and magnified the eco-cide. The reality of biological pollution and permanent loss of biodiversity described in “Lost Worlds” is much more trenchant in our times. The extinction rate today is estimated to be 100 times the rate before human appearance on the Earth and is expected to rise ten-fold in the next few decades. At current rates of ecosystem and habitat loss, half of the Earth’s species of animals and plants may disappear or be near extinction by the end of the century. The forces at work – industrial and military pollution, habitat destruction, climate change, the spread of invasive species, and unsustainable patterns of consumption - have all accelerated since the mid-20th century when she wrote. Conservation biologists affirm that the sixth mass extinction in the Earth’s history has begun, this one initiated by human activity.

In Part 2 of Lost Woods, Carson’s theme of human ignorance and apathy regarding the conservation of natural resources and habitats and the relentless development of destructive technology gains in volume and tone. The contrast of human haste to develop weapons and disregard for their impact on ecosystems with Nature’s “so deliberate, so unhurried, so inexorable” ways becomes progressively more marked in her work. Linda Lear, editor of Lost Woods, attributes Carson’s emerging political voice to her professional freedom: She resigned from the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 1952 to write fulltime.

Isn’t it also plausible that the escalation of the new postwar “military, industrial complex” in the 1950s, including atomic weapons manufacture and testing, nuclear power production under the mantra of “atoms for peace,” and hazardous waste dumping, heightened her awareness and apprehension about the growing and increasingly destructive human footprint on the Earth?

That said, I find that Carson was less precise about who than about what when she writes of “man’s ability…to despoil” in the Preface to the Second Edition of The Sea Around Us* and when, in her award speech for the John Burroughs Medal for excellence in nature writing,* she describes modern man as “intoxicated with a sense of his own power … going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.”

Are everyman and everywoman, the generic humans of modern industrial society, equally responsible for the growing despoliation? Or are there structures of power -- industrial, political, financial, military, and hyper-consumerist – in which some humans, with inordinate power and money, shape and magnify the destructive impact of all of us?

Her letter (1953) to the Washington Post,* which fiercely decries the firing of prominent conservationists from the Department of Interior and the appointment of a non-qualified businessman to head it in the new Eisenhower administration, on the other hand, does specify the agents of opportunism and greed, namely natural resource industries intent on “raid[ing]…national parks, forests, and other public lands.” (Indeed, such politically-motivated appointments are the norm in national politics today!) Carson concludes her letter to the editor with an irony that is as relevant today as in the 1950s climate of cold war fear and civilian defense alerts: While the federal administration constructs elaborate military defense systems to protect against outside enemies, it sacrifices our natural wealth and resources within.

Rachel Carson was a student of nature before she entered the laboratory. Her gift of natural intelligence, her aptitude for science, and her promethean talent for writing produced masterpieces on the sea. Her final work, Silent Spring – a model of evidence-based advocacy - steeped her in political science. Here Carson names most directly the vested interests that have turned chemicals developed for World War II into a “rain of death” on agriculture, namely chemical pesticide manufacturers, their business lobbies, and their political allies in the United States Department of Agriculture and Congress. More than 45 years later, they are still smarting from her salvos, judging by some of the editorials published on the occasion of her 100th birthday in May 2007!

Do any readers perceive as I, not only a growing urgency and forthrightness in Carson from the late 1940s onward, but also a growing clarity about what political and economic forces are most endangering ecosystems and environmental health?

What issues and opportunities for action do you think are the most strategic ones around which to organize and act in these times for the sake of planetary and human health?

*Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, publisher of Lost Woods.

1 comment:

stephen williams said...

Considering strategic actions brings to mind a comment Julie made a while back, which she attributed to Bill Mckibben, that we need to be thinking about changing more than just light bulbs.

During an interview last July with Bill Moyers, the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson spoke of the real possibility of about half of the species of plants and animals being either extinct or on the brink by the end of this century. Here is how Wilson articulates the need.

"We desperately need--leadership --that--works off of what we have learned through science, that has produced a consensus about what is happening to the Earth's environment, including the living creation."

One of the readings this week from Lost Woods that drew me in was Design for Nature Writing, a speech Rachel Carson gave in 1952 during a gala ceremony where she was awarded the John Burroughs Medal for her book The Sea Around Us. The urgency and forthrightness moderator H. Patricia Hynes perceives growing in Carson is certainly present in Design for Nature Writing, in which Carson calls for nature writers to rally and bring mankind back to true emotions -- wonder and humility -- away from a lust for destruction. Here is a favorite quote, part of a larger train of thought.

"Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed."

As for an opportunity for action, here is one idea. It may not be planetary in scope, but it does offer a connection. It involves one company making synthetic poop, and another company making worm poop. Acting like a billion dollar bully, the company making synthetic poop (Scotts) has filed an infringement lawsuit against the startup company (Terra Cycle) making worm poop. Has anyone seen the warm, fuzzy TV ad Scotts runs that ends by asking viewers if there is a better way to make a living, please let us know? I plan to purchase a bottle of Terra Cycle while it is still on the garden shelf next to Miracle-Gro.

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