Can Springtime Soothe Us?
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
I have been trying to write about the glories of spring at least since the crocuses first peeked out at the start of March. Each year, it has become a ritual for me. Walking my neighborhood, strolling out along the C&O Canal, kneeling before wildflowers — spring beauties, Dutchman’s breeches, Virginia bluebells. Taking pictures, then writing lyrically about the sustaining, healing, restorative power of spring. I remind myself and others that Rachel Carson walked here and mused, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
Not this year. Spring has been mostly cloudy, rainy, and cold. Except when a hot day intervenes. In March, temperatures roamed unpredictably between a balmy 73˚F and a frigid 19˚F. April was stranger still with a high of 90˚F and a wintry low of 28˚F. A perfect match for the gloomy, grim, often grizzly photos of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
I struggle to enjoy the spring, to feel any joy, to be renewed, restored. Days go by. I write about Putin’s nuclear war threats, threats to democracy and the rule of law. I protest the invasion, wear yellow and blue in solidarity with the brave citizens of Ukraine. And there are still COVID restrictions, that may or may not be lifted, as yet another new strain arrives. The rain, the clouds, the gloom continues. My world is constricted. My own yard, my little neighborhood, the only respite. And when the sun does show up, the Song sparrow sings a shortened, broken version of “Hip, hip, hooray, boys, spring is here again!” Even then, I still feel some guilt. I am watching birds and blossoms while Americans die of COVID and bombs, rockets, artillery, missiles, rain down upon Ukraine.
Rachel Carson also wrote of the “dawn chorus of spring,” and the sound of robins. It is the robins who fell dead in yards and on campuses from DDT and gave rise to Silent Spring. I have loved them since my childhood with their cheery songs, nearby muddy nests, light blue eggs, and cocked heads. This year, the robins are everywhere, in far greater numbers than I remember. Perhaps fleeing disaster in other places, other climes? I watch them incessantly, hoping for real spring, for the return of whatever “normal” now will be.
I think again of Rachel Carson, wracked with pain while trying to write. It is as if she is speaking to her own wrestling with woe. “Those who dwell among the beauties and mystery of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”
I begin with the neighbor’s tiny daffodils whose very planting is an act of faith. I get down to look more closely and snap a photo of life emerging from the earth whether human’s wish it or not. Purple dead nettle, a weed by the standards of “lawn care” herbicide companies, is beginning to spread, each minute blossom an undersized orchid. As it spreads and grows and soon attracts the bees, I find myself cheering on this hardy, edible native with the unfortunate name.
Carson again, dying of cancer, on how to truly open one’s eyes. She asks, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” I hope the local gardeners who lovingly maintain a small, nearby triangle garden with native plants don’t wonder why I am oddly peering at them. They tenderly pat the earth around some Virginia blue bells they have put here, perhaps to ward off the gloom as well.
Even straight-row, standard, suburban flower beds strike me now as conscious gestures to bring color and hope to a world of gray. A simple statement of solidarity with me and others. Old staples like azaleas, a cliché from the 1950s, call me close, to examine them, to see them, as if I never had before. Sweet, spicy, woody, floral aromas fill my lungs. I breathe deeply into my andromeda, layered like a bridal gown with small, white bells. A honeybee drinks deeply, perhaps giddy with the odor, more interested in this bower of bliss than in my nearby nose. I follow scents down the block now, checking color and sniffing aroma like a sommelier. I pause overlong at an old-fashioned lilac, now blooming like Whitman’s at the time of Lincoln’s death. Solace in a time of civil war and sorrow. These favorites from the days of my parents and grandparents are rare now, found mostly in the corners of the barely-tended yards of older residents. What if I knew that I would never see them again?
Seeing with fresh eyes, wandering and wondering at the irrepressible glories of spring in my own yard, feeling the fleeting and floral gifts offered up to others by my neighbors, I am ready to expand my world again, to pump up the flat tires on my trusty Trek, long jammed in a corner of my garage. I head to the C&O Canal, another broken ritual of spring from the days before COVID.
I ride out from Great Falls, fearing I may have already missed my favorite spring wildflowers. But given the unseasonal cold, spring beauties are blooming later and greet me in abundance. I may indeed never see this again, at least this year. As I kneel close enough to see their tiny, pale pink stripes, a world opens up to me. A minute fly-like bee reveals itself to me as if curious about its enormous visitor with giant eyes, but without antennae. There are swaths of Virginia blue bells, bunches of Dutchman’s breeches trying to find sun enough to bloom at last, wild phlox, and more.
But my mood is elevated more by the humans that I come upon. Like the neighbors in Bethesda holding the gloom at bay with acts of gardening and generosity, I ride past groups of young, eager volunteers pulling up and bagging piles of garlic mustard, a pleasant looking, but highly invasive, non-native plant. My mood, my senses, sharpen. Hundreds of turtles line the logs that crisscross the canal. They bask in the sun today, emerging, as if they, too, have been stuck in the mud, the cold, the gloom. They let me come close, perhaps in kinship. They do not slide or plop into the murky water. They stare, instead, at this large creature with a bicycle shell upon his head.
A pair of small, active, tail-flitting Blue-gray gnatcatchers snatch bugs off branches near me and deposit them into a tiny nest made out of lichens and moss. New life is being nourished just above my head. The Great Blue Herons, too, stop their hunting to examine me intently, steadily, eye to eye. When I am still and silent, poised and posed, like a heron, more life emerges, springs up to greet me. Tiger Swallow-tail butterflies glide and circle and land to slowly taste of the minerals in the mud on the edge of the canal. As I move on, I am given escort by the Zebra Swallowtails that fly straight and swiftly by my side.
I am transported to a world of beauty that is irrepressible, that will continue long after I am gone, that is a gift. My old friend, Daisy Fleabane, forms a circle in the sun, a small chorus of yellow and orange singing to me to join them in springing forth from stony, unsettled soil. A muskrat nips a branch at canal side, then ferries it across and dives into the home it is erecting beneath the water. An eagle, saved by Rachel Carson, sits majestically across the river, a sentry near its two-ton nest in the crotch of a giant sycamore.
I return somehow transformed to my neighborhood, my news, my narrow, troubled, unpeaceful world. I pass one of the last old bungalows left standing in Bethesda. A kindly, old, lichen-covered statute of St. Francis has given me solace and sustenance over the years. But since Easter or Earth Day, it has been transformed by a small, Dr. Seuss-like, whimsical piece of metal art placed lovingly beside it. A space age carrot has brought the patron of the environment and of peace directly into our troubled, war-torn time. Rachel Carson lived amidst war-torn times and the threat of nuclear extinction. It is why she said, “The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction. “
Similar beliefs led St. Francis, amidst the carnage and massacres of the Fifth Crusade, to go to the tent of Sultan Malek al-Kamil, at the risk of beheading, to ask for peace. Francis’ love of nature, of animals and birds, of moon and stars, nine hundred years ago, gave him more than pleasant distractions. It was his source of strength, as it was for Rachel Carson, and clearly is for my neighbor. And, it can be for you and me, throughout whatever gray, gloomy, and sometimes grisly, times we face.
— Bob Musil is the President & CEO of the Rachel Carson Council and author of Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment (Rutgers, 2016) and Washington in Spring: A Nature Journal for a Changing Capital (Bartleby, 2016). He is also the editor of the forthcoming annotated edition from Rutgers University Press of Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea-Wind with his Introduction, updated marine science, and historic and contemporary illustrations and photographs.
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