Nature, Empathy, and the Fight for Democracy

Traveling through villages, an abbey, and a concentration camp in the beautiful landscapes of Alsace, France, Musil is reminded of Rachel Carson’s values of caring, empathy, and inner strength found through nature. As Carson wrote, “those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” The abbey atop Mont Sainte Odile was founded by Saint Odile, a woman who, miraculously cured of blindness after baptism, dedicated her life to helping others. In stark contrast, the only Nazi concentration camp in France is nearby; a tragic place that stands in memory of those lost to the dehumanizing effects of ruthless quests for efficiency and power. Reflecting on the current threats to our democracy and free thought, Musil emphasizes the interconnectedness of the issues we face today and the role of humanities in cultivating compassion.

The abbey atop Mont Sainte Odile near Obernai in the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, France, is reached by a winding drive through lush, fragrant forests of fir and pine. Pilgrims have headed here for centuries seeking spiritual serenity, insight and sight. Saint Odile, who lived nearly 1300 years ago, founded the abbey that sits on what was her father’s ducal lands. She was born blind, and, as a handicapped girl, was rejected and sent away. Miraculously cured of blindness during childhood baptism, Odile is brought home by her brother who is then killed during his father’s rage at this disobedience. Thus begins Odile’s lifelong quest for peace, a deep spiritual life, and help for the poor, needy, and vision-impaired. She touches a rock in the forest and finds an unknown spring to succor a sick, thirsty traveler whose sight is restored.

The spring remains below the abbey to this day. I walk down a woodland path with mossy boulders, ferns, and wildflowers to find modern pilgrims seeking refreshment and renewal. For today’s travelers, the abbey is a place of remarkable beauty and quiet, interrupted only by the rich, deep tolling of bells. The focus here is on caring, empathy and restored sight, or seeing with fresh vision, eyes open to beauty and compassion.

As I approach the abbey entrance, I am entranced by the glorious singing of some small bird I cannot see. It is surely a sign, as I feel the anxieties and anger of a world slipping into climate crisis, authoritarianism, and war fade from my consciousness. The bird, a Bullfinch, lands, shows itself and sits near me, continuing to sing. The beauty of its notes is matched by the subtle black, blues, and pinks of its feathers that I now can see. I seek out an enclosed courtyard where Sainte Odile herself and the stillness of the place touches my spirit. I am drawn to think of Rachel Carson in our own time, also unmarried, who gave herself to help others to see, to feel, and to act in new ways.

Rachel Carson had reason to look to nature and to special places like the rocky shore of Maine for strength. Throughout adulthood, she suffered serious health ailments, including devastating metastatic breast cancer as she struggled to finish Silent Spring. She wrote, “Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

But even as she sought solace, insight and spiritual depth, Carson was not naïve about the destructive social and political forces facing humanity, even as she warned about and fought against them. In a scathing foreword to Animal Machines (1964), she was among the first to condemn modern factory farming, not just for its harm to animals and human health, but for its ideology of efficiency over feeling. The modern world worships the gods of speed and quantity, and of the quick and easy profit, and out of this idolatry monstrous evils have arisen.”

The antidote to our rush to destruction and hate, Carson believed, was in developing empathy and love for all living things, especially by closely observing, seeing, and feeling a sense of awe and wonder at the marvelously complex, interconnected, and beautiful forms of life that have evolved over the eons.

And so, with eyes open and renewed feeling, I make my way, somewhat reluctantly, to another site in the Vosges Mountains, not far from Mont Sainte Odile, and its horrifying opposite, the Struthof or Natzweiler Nazi concentration camp. It is the only concentration camp in France, a place where 22,000 people, mostly resisters to the Nazis occupying Alsace, were worked to death, executed, gassed. I have moved, in a short distance, from heaven to the entrance of hell. Ironically, Struthof shares the same beautiful surroundings as Mont Sainte Odile, a fact remarked upon by both the Nazis and their prisoners.

The difference lies in the beliefs of the men who have erected this monument to brutality. The camp is purposely far from Strasbourg the capital of the region; it is purposely close to a quarry (visible from the camp) for pink Alsatian granite that has graced cathedrals and abbeys. Now, it is being dug and dragged from the earth by the hands of sick, starving prisoners in order to feed the deluded dream of huge buildings and stadiums for the “Thousand Year Reich” designed by Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer. As I walk along the paths followed by the prisoners, I see the fifteen-foot wide strip between the path and the camp fences and guard towers. Anyone who strays or staggers into this zone is automatically shot. In some cases, prisoners are executed by sadistic guards who, on a whim, shove them into the lethal space.

As I grieve over the killings here, I wonder how humans can bear such barbarity. I am reminded by the displays I saw in the museum before entering the camp of the small acts of kindness to each other that many prisoners showed. I am deeply touched by their own awareness that the beauty of this place in the Vosges gives them strength and a sense that there is in nature a world that transcends and will outlive Struthof. As if to confirm this, I see small blue and gray birds around the guard towers and along the barbed wire. They are gentle, almost tame, reminding me of our own bluebirds. I get a closer look and see European Robins, the much smaller version of our American Robin that our early British colonists named mistakenly after these lovely little birds from home that they so sorely missed.

The Nazis are gone now, but Struthof is a keen reminder of the lack of feeling and empathy, the drive for power, the dehumanization of the “other,” and the ruthless efficiency that, along with anti-Semitism, racism, homophobia, and arrogant scientism, marked their rule. And, it is a reminder of the best of humanity — those who care for others, who perceive evil and act against it, and see and actually perceive, the healing power of beauty and of nature.

Since Alsace often changed hands because of war between the French and Germans and perhaps because of its beauty, it is an appropriate home for Dr. Albert Schweitzer, winner of the 1952 Nobel Prize for Peace, awarded for his opposition to nuclear weapons and open-air nuclear testing. Schweitzer’s home and a museum about him are in the picturesque village of Kaysersburg, not far from Mont Sainte Odile and Struthof. Schweitzer studied medicine at the University of Strasbourg. Then, since Alsace was German at the time, Schweitzer, who was also a theologian and a world-class Bach scholar and organist, was interned by the French during World War. Only later was he able to devote his life to peace and continuing medical care for Africans at his clinic at Lambaréné in today’s Gabon.

Rachel Carson admired and shared Schweitzer’s philosophy of a “reverence for life,” corresponded with him, and included Schweitzer’s warning about the destructiveness of mankind as an epigraph in Silent Spring. Both decried the arrogance of humans who believed they could use unfettered technology and science to control nature and their fellow humans.

Schweitzer proudly claimed French citizenship after the Treaty of Versailles returned Alsace to France. Given his humanitarian and pacifist views, he must have been horrified at the Nazi occupation of Strasbourg where the Nazis triumphantly hung the Swastika and surveyed their conquests from the high balcony of the city’s famous cathedral. Once in control of all Alsatian institutions, the Nazis were able to carry out the vilest acts. Nazi Doctor August Hirt, for example, carried out medical experiments with mustard gas on Jewish prisoners at Struthof. He also directed the murder of 86 Jewish prisoners taken from Auschwitz and then sent to Struthof/Natzweiler in order to create a collection of skeletons for the study of racial superiority at the very medical school where Schweitzer had earned his degree.

Such atrocities and violations of fundamental human rights led, at the end of World War II, to the UN Charter, the Declaration of Human Rights, and, at Strasbourg, to the formation of the Council of Europe, an official body designed specifically to defend human rights, democracy and the rule of law and to promote cooperation between European nations.

That is why my wife, Caryn, and I participated at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in a conference for American college presidents, rectors of European universities, heads of non-profit educational associations, and other leaders. The conference produced a public declaration, signed by all participants, to promote democratic values, human rights, and autonomy in higher education — especially in Europe and the United States, where demagoguery, along with increasingly reactionary and authoritarian leaders and political parties are on the rise. The steady reduction or elimination of free inquiry, of teaching and research to benefit humanity, and of the autonomy of educational institutions was one of the first steps in the rise of fascism and Nazism in Europe.

Never before have I worried about the strength and persistence of democracy and free thought in the United States. But the rise of fake news, of attacks on the very value of higher education itself, of widespread cuts in funding, the elimination of entire departments and disciplines, especially in the humanities, and the direct intervention of state governments, as in North Carolina — where academic centers concerned with poverty and civil rights were both forced to close — is deeply troubling.

How best to find the strength to continue the opposition to such trends? The answer in part is to seek and hold up the best, the most beautiful in nature and in humanity. But, it also is to realize that “monstrous evils” have indeed been unleashed. Caring solely about the environment, or climate change, or the threat of war, or the rise of hate and the denial of rights is not sufficient. These are deeply connected. We must combine our study and work against such existential threats in our lives, in our organizations, and on our campuses. The study of music, art, literature, theater, philosophy, and ethics are not luxuries. They are fundamental to educating human beings who will neither contemplate nor abide genocide or the destruction of the earth. The understanding, appreciation and love of the natural world through science and interdisciplinary study is essential, too, if we are to save ourselves and end the extinction crisis now upon us.

That is why I was constantly reminded of Rachel Carson’s beliefs throughout my travels in Alsace — from village to village, through an abbey, a concentration camp, and on to the Council of Europe. We must struggle to find some balance between seeking beauty, solace and strength, and a fierce opposition to the growing threats to the environment, to human rights, and to democracy, both in Europe and in the United States. At the Rachel Carson Council, we focus on the existential danger of global climate change, but recognize that to combat it requires the pursuit of truth, the exchange of ideas, and open, democratic societies where citizens can be heard and have a hand in shaping their own destiny. Autonomous colleges and universities free to pursue the truth and to act upon it, and whose graduates have developed open and democratic habits of heart and mind are essential to creating a just, peaceful and sustainable future. It is why the Rachel Carson Campus Network, the development of young Rachel Carson Fellows, and the inclusion of communities and people who suffer most is central to our work.