September 18, 2007

Remarks by Moderator Patricia Hynes

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, Linda Lear, Editor
Part 3

H. Patricia Hynes

Week of September 17, 2007

Part 3 of Lost Woods gathers some of Rachel Carson’s most beautiful writings, among them “Our Ever-Changing Shore.”* This magazine article is steeped in mystical insight into the place where land meets sea and enriched with her depth of knowledge of the organic and inorganic marine world. But it is also fortified, as it closes, with a bracing critique of the tawdry development rapidly encroaching on the wild seacoast in the late 1950s (“the untidy litter of what passes under the name of civilization”). Carson finishes with an eloquent and urgent plea for the National Park Service to purchase and preserve shoreline areas as wilderness, not even as public parks, so there remains forever some remnant of sea, wind and shore without human impact. Henry David Thoreau and William Blake live in her words here, the former for his animus toward humans’ ignorant and destructive impact on wilderness and the latter for his intuition of the immortal in the mortal, the spiritual in the material.

What strikes me in the entire collection of Lost Woods, but most poignantly in Part 3, is the effect of her era on Carson’s deepest reflection and heaviest concerns. Listening for her response to the historical period, politics, and cultural changes in the mid-twentieth century United States – a response which generally rises like a coda at the end of her speeches and articles -- I have noted that she is acutely preoccupied with the growing human footprint on nature and the artificial isolation of humans from nature. (She was moved to help organize the Maine chapter of the Nature Conservancy, with the dream of preserving forested coastline as “a cathedral of stillness and peace,” we learn in a letter to friends* in this collection).

The 1950s was an era of rapid change in the US, including post-war industrial development in the United States; rising prosperity, reduction of poverty and growth of the middle class; the construction of the interstate highway system and suburban development and sprawl; the war in Korea; and the escalation and hardening of the Cold War. The Cold War permeated politics and civil society. It was used to support an immense buildup of conventional and nuclear arms research, testing and development; and it engaged the two superpowers – the US and the Soviet Union – in competing militarily and economically for the allegiance of countries on every continent. The competition was responsible for internal wars and militarization within those countries, especially in Central America, Africa and Southeast Asia. The anxiety and loss of faith reflected in letters to Carson from her readers mirrored the times. So also did her growing direct and blunt salvos about the menace to human and natural life of the arms race, with the “lust for destruction” it embodied.

As a biologist and gifted naturalist who stayed close to her field of study and research, Carson was not prepared to challenge the risks of militarism to nature and humans with the same nuance and evidence basis of her forthcoming Silent Spring (1962). Thus, her warnings in this collection sound more like a prophet’s cry in the wilderness.

In 1954 Carson addressed nearly a thousand women gathered for the annual dinner of the Sorority of Women Journalists. In “The Real World Around Us,” she is at ease, candid, autobiographical, and humorous, so at home, one senses, in the sisterhood of women writers. “Beauty – and all the values that derive from beauty – are not measured and evaluated in terms of the dollar,” she says to her audience. She juxtaposes, more directly and comprehensively than ever, the necessity of nature for spiritual development and depth against the growing trends in materialism, commercialism, suburban homogeneity, and urban artificiality.

As compelling as this verity is, though, the more recent field of ecological economics has resorted to putting a price on beauty, as well as on the ecological functions of nature (to the degree they are understood), in order to argue for their preservation. Accordingly, the goods and services of nature (we might call it the global natural product) are estimated to be equivalent in worth to the global national product, some 33 trillion US dollars. And the economic value of a wilderness with vistas may be derived by estimating how many people would visit it and how much they are willing to pay. Nature is necessary for human survival; and preserving nature for the sake of the human economy has become the dominant paradigm for ecological preservation.

There are many difficult dilemmas posed by the necessity to impute an economic value to nature in order to preserve it.

My question for readers is: What do we gain and what do we lose with an economic paradigm, whereby, for the sake of preserving nature, wetlands are priced for their services in flood control and biodegradation; and marine ecosystems, for their commercial fisheries and shellfish habitats; and forests, for their capacity to offset CO2 emissions from new power plants?

What then is the value of birdsong? Does it become necessary to calculate the dollar value of the serenity and happiness that wood thrushes and veeries offer us, in order to justify preserving their habitats from commercial development?

Finally, since beauty is subjective (“in the eye of the beholder”) and one’s sense of beauty is mediated by environment and popular culture, some may find monocultural suburban lawns beautiful and support neighborhood covenants to prohibit wildflowers and vegetables in front yards. People who grow up in cities may find forests formidable with their dark interiors and wildlife. Others, influenced by thriller movies that terrify with sharks, may experience the sea as a high risk environment. How, then, in an increasingly urban world – in which 2 of 3 humans will life by 2050 – do we sustain an intuition of beauty steeped in the natural world and the intelligence to preserve it?

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


NCTC Librarian said...

For discussion purposes please see the following: Rachel Carson's influence in conservation, a video discussion by Shane Mahoney, Executive Director of Sustainable Development and Strategic Science at the Department of Environment and Conservation for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador.

stephen williams said...

Last night I heard someone (with a national following) speak in a house of worship who said the best things in life ARE free; gave weight to the qualities of inner calmness and strength; and compared out-of-control consumerism/materialism in America to an illness.

I like the Carson quote Patricia Hynes shared from The Real World Around Us.

"Beauty--and all the values that derive from beauty--are not measured and evaluated in terms of dollars."

Here is another quote from The Real World Around Us:

"In contemplating "the exceeding beauty of the earth" these people have found calmness and courage."

What then, is the value of birdsong? Well, we should not discount the value birdsong has for birds themselves.

But in certain times, especially times of human folly, birdsong helps remind us of a much needed alternative way.

Here is how the fiction writer Sebastian Faulks expresses it in his book entitled Birdsong. A very tired lead character has returned for a brief leave after a very long period of WWI trench fighting.

"The hedgerows were deep and ragged where he walked, covered with the lace of cow parsley. The air had a feeling of purity, as though it had never been breathed; it was just starting to be cool with the first breeze of evening. From the tall elms he could see at the end of the field there was a sound of rooks, and a gentler calling of wood pigeons close at hand. He stopped, and leaned against a gate. The quietness of the world about him seemed to stand outside time . . . ."

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