September 25, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Patricia Hynes

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

The theme of spirituality in these collected writings and speeches.
H. Patricia Hynes

Week of September 24, 2007

I do not think of Rachel Carson as a religious woman (although her biographers know more than I and can speak to this); yet her writings and speeches throughout this collection are infused with a deep sense of the spiritual, including themes of the eternal, of mystery “beyond time and place,” of creation, wonder and fascination. In a speech upon receiving the John Burroughs Medal for The Sea Around Us*, she cites letters from readers in which she has learned of their anxieties about the state of the world, the erosion of their faith in humankind, and their hunger and capacity for understanding the larger, longer life history of the natural world with its epic moments of “the birth and death of continents and seas.” As she explains, the almost infinite being and near timelessness of nature puts in perspective the limits and blunders of the far briefer human history.

In "Undersea,"* Carson calls the inexorable cycle -- in which earth and air carry nutrients to the sea which, in turn, feed the food chain of plants, planktonic animals, and shoals of fish which, in time, die and re-dissolve into their elemental components—“a kind of material immortality.” In a speech at the New York Herald-Tribune’s Book and Author Luncheon*, she admits to a “very unscientific hope”: As science resolves one mystery after another, may the ultimate mysteries of the sea never be solved. She hopes and expects that every human discovery in science will lead only to deeper mysteries and deeper quests.

“Water and wind and sand were the builders, and only the gulls and I were there to witness this act of creation.” This entry in a field notebook about dunes off the coast of Georgia captures Carson’s abiding awareness of the elemental, creative forces of the earth. In the dunes, her thoughts are firmly moored in natural history and marine biology and yet they read like meditations of one in the solitary presence of the holy. The speech given to the Sorority of Women Journalists impressed me as her most open and self-disclosing. And it is here that she also touched most directly on the deeper philosophical and spiritual power of nature. “No one can dwell long” on the mysteries and beauties of the earth, she said, “without thinking…deep thoughts, without asking…often unanswerable questions…I believe that natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society.”

Recently, there have been virulent debates among renowned biologists (all subscribers to the fact and theory of evolution) regarding the compatibility of faith and science. The majority, who identify as atheists and secular humanists, claim that the reliance on faith over reason regarding the origin of life is shallow, sentimental, and unscientific; and that religion has done more harm than good to humans and nature by supporting colonization, war, and various fundamentalisms. Speaking for the minority, Thomas Collins, head of the Human Genome Project and an avowed Christian, asserts that “the scientific net…does not catch the evidence of the spirit.” The truth of God…”can be tested only by the spiritual logic of the heart, the mind, and the soul.”

My sense of Carson is that she did not fall into the dualism between scientific reason and religious faith that reigns today, nor did she try to reconcile the two as does Collins. She was steeped in the rigor of scientific research and sought scientific truth; she subscribed to evolution as the path of life forms (albeit that the original spark of life was then and is yet a mystery); and she lived and wrote as an unapologetic witness to the wonders and mysteries of the earth. Was hers, perhaps, a secular spirituality with an openness to the not-yet-knowable, both scientific and spiritual? I am reminded, as I read Carson, of Emily Dickenson’s aphorism, “the soul should always stand ajar.” And elsewhere, the poet of Amherst speaks as much for the naturalist/scientist Carson as for herself: The examined life relies intensely on knowledge rather than faith and “accepts uncertainty and the mystery of the unknown.”

In his most recent book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, the prominent biologist and self-described secular humanist E.O. Wilson pens an impassioned plea to Christian ministers to join scientists in preserving the remaining critical biological life on earth. He expresses the same sense of wonder and inspirited love that Carson did for the biologically rich ecosystems of the earth and shares the same profound concern for their loss. That said, his eloquent and subtly desperate plea is based on preserving nature for the survival of the human species whereas Carson’s soulful appeals were more often directed toward preserving nature for its wondrous self, without which we humans would lose significant spiritual moorings.

My questions for Carson’s biographers are: What was her spiritual odyssey? Regarding religious affiliation, how was she raised; and what was her path as an adult?

And for other readers and contributors to this year-long dialogue, how does nature contribute to our spiritual development? How is this nature-inspired spiritual development, of which Carson wrote, different from that of formal religion? Does spirituality nourished by a love of nature also foster a love of humankind?

Conversely, do the major religions of the world that originate in a human-centered focus on salvation and that locate the deepest source of wonder, creation and mystery in a being beyond this earth, also nourish a love of nature? And if they do not, do we need or benefit from religion that does not cultivate an ethic of the earth?

…..the path to heaven
doesn’t lie down in flat miles
It’s in the imagination
with which you perceive this world

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

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