The Pulse and Politics of the Environment, Peace, and Justice
Bob Musil, President, Rachel Carson Council
“In nature nothing exists alone.”
“The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history… It seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.”
“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
— Rachel Carson
The showy blossoms are out, shouting for attention. Released from a weary wet winter, wild cherries, Yoshino cherries, magnolias of many kinds — small, porcelain white or bone china dipped in wine — electrify our streets. It is not hard to see them, or to believe that their beauty is all there is.
I am dazzled, like those who drive or wander by, getting an aesthetic jolt and then moving on. Despite the end of rain, I do not see clearly the small signs of budding and bursting life, continuing and connecting long, long after the blinding blossoms have dropped down to rejoin the earth.
And so, I seek the simpler, smaller joys of the early days of spring amidst the leaf litter, beneath the still bare trees, and by the waters of the C&O Canal, that narrow strip of nature saved from development by Justice William O. Douglas and beloved by Rachel Carson.
I wheel along slowly, wobbling a bit on my Trek. It is a cool morning with strong sunlight that has brought out basking turtles — painted, sliders, red-bellied cooters — on every fallen branch and log.
I do the same, stopping here and there, to feel the warmth suffuse my body and my soul.
Heading up from the locks at Great Falls, if I stop or pedal slowly enough, I begin to see tiny, unobtrusive blossoms along the towpath and in open woods leading down to the Potomac. Barely a quarter inch wide, with five lightly striped petals in white or pink or lavender, spring beauties, the earliest, fragile wildflowers, or ephemerals, somehow push and poke and peer out from the scattered twigs and leaves that line my way. I can feel somehow the power of life pulsating from the ground, the power the ancients believed was from Persephone herself. She now has hung miniature white pantaloons that dangle just inches above the soil. Often sheltered on the leeward side of trees, small bunches of dutchman’s breeches, not fully emerged, are drying in the sun.
Nearby, I see a favorite white wildflower with a woeful name. It is the earliest, smallest cutleaf toothwort I have ever seen. In just a week or so, this and other cutleafs will stand over a foot tall with larger blossoms. At my current pace, I should be walking my bike; I am certain that William O. Douglas on foot would far outpace me. But I notice things that otherwise would be a blur. A very small yellow blossom appears amidst the brown and buff, the sepia and sere. It has miniscule, purplish black BBs around it – buds about to burst open on this undersized golden ragwort. It, too, will soon reach up over a foot with multiple, ragged, daisy-like flowers.
I sense some motion, a shadow, passing over me though I am kneeling, face on the ground, by elfin flowers. Above me, against a cerulean sky, slowly circles a dark phase Red-tailed hawk. It is keenly watching me, the flowers, and anything edible that dares to move. I marvel that it can survive at all, can find small mammals, rodents, amphibians to eat from such a lofty height. Slowed down, with my sight and senses fully engaged, I perceive small sounds as well – the wash and woosh and gurgle of water over low rocks in the Potomac to my left, the loud, steady singing and chirping of chorus frogs, wood frogs, spring peepers all around me. This is punctuated by a louder splash, as a pair of common mergansers fly upstream short distances, braking and landing with sprays of water, before floating calmly, elegantly downstream, whether to fish, or just for fun, I cannot tell.
I mosey forward, smiling, nodding at the wildflowers, at showy male cardinals, their crimson flashing in the sun, as they cross the canal to take up again their spring song “Good cheer! Good cheer!” that rings above the steady singing of the frogs.
Now, a couple of minute yellow flowers come into view. I have no idea what they are. The blossoms are symmetrical like a shrunken daisy fleabane, with barely opening buds like some form of hawkweed. I prostrate myself before them, noticing pale stems with dark slightly protruding clasps.
Only then do a notice a small, slim, black caterpillar with white spots nipping and taking nourishment from my newfound wildflower which turns out to be a coltsfoot. I feel a rush of exhilaration at my discovery, at my sense of kinship with this insect gnawing at my first-in-a lifetime flower.
With eyes attuned to the ground and the lack of brilliant colors, the tiniest of blossoms seem spectacular at my feet. Along the path and around the locks, even the flowers of germander speedwell, barely an eighth of an inch in diameter, are worthy of a corsage. Mixed with them is ground ivy, its almost invisible blue orchids left behind by fairies. Next to these, the few, small bloodroots that I see are giant specimens that would take first in show at Longwood Gardens. Only an inch wide, with eight pointed white petals surrounding golden stamens, these ephemerals, if copied in enamel, would be worn as pins or jewelry. Yet each bloodroot shines forth a mere few days. I think of Rachel Carson, her life shortened by cancer, who said, “One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’”
As I turn toward home, the spring beauties begin to close, as they do each day before sunset. The unmistakable shriek of a hawk stops me. I look up and across the dimming sky. It is another hunter, the Red-shouldered hawk, who flies above me. It sees things that I cannot. But perhaps it does not see a coltsfoot or a bloodroot. But we are here together; this raptor surely has signaled that to me with its shrieking farewell call. As the sun sinks lower, I am greeted by another sound, this one from a predator who shares the hawk’s hunting grounds once evening comes. I hear the deep, booming eight hoots of the Barred Owl that I have seen many times along this part of the canal. We think of the owl as wise. I suspect it is because of its dark, marble eyes, its vision.
I am tired, stopping often, as I near Great Falls. I have seen a few of my old friends the Great Blue Herons today. But now, standing beside my bike, my pupils widen as I see one of these primeval birds poised with it eyes and beak aimed downward, about to strike. It stabs suddenly at the edge of the canal, raising skyward a small coiling snake caught in its mighty bill. As the snake struggles, the heron shakes and snaps it like a rag. It dunks and holds it in the water for a time. The heron whips the still coiling garter snake back and forth, dunks it again, and, finally, lets it hang, lifeless like a rope, from its mouth. It then thoughtfully washes its dinner in the canal before swallowing it entirely in a quick gulp or two.
I pedal homeward. Abstractions like ecology, evolution, the web of life, the need to see things as they are, the fact that we are inextricably linked to every living thing, that we share a common fate, are alive in front of me. Even in the dimming, darkening light. I can see clearly now.