September 28, 2007


For the month of October, we will welcome science students from Shippensburg University who will be participating in our online discussion of "The Sea Around Us" as part of an innovative course inspired by Rachel Carson and developed by the University’s science department faculty.

Beginning October 8, the students will also share their experiences from a service-learning field trip to the Chesapeake Bay area by publishing their field notes and photos in a new section, titled "Field Notes," which will be inter-linked to the blog.

Special thanks go to our moderator Jim Lynch, author of "The Highest Tide", for working with us and helping to bring the project together.

Have a look at the Reading Schedule and please be sure to join us, starting October 1st, for what promises to be a lively and memorable discussion.

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.

September 21, 2007

Bill Moyer's Journal Tonight

Bill Moyer's Journal on PBS will feature a segment on Rachel Carson at 9 p.m. (check local listings) tonight (9/21/07). Actress Kaiulani Lee, is also featured in a segment called "Reimagining a Life" where she shares her thoughts about her one-woman show and the 15 years she has reimagined herself as Rachel Carson.

See also the Bill Moyer' Journal Blog where Edward O. Wilson has posted a remark. All are welcome to comment.

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.

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.

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?

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