Seeing Through the Eyes of Rachel Carson
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
Walking with binoculars around my neck, as I often do, I have never known how to answer when a friendly passerby says, “Are you a birdwatcher? Seen anything interesting?” I want to reply, “It’s all interesting!” or “Ooh, yes! I just spotted a Red-bellied Woodpecker after I heard it down the block.”
Rachel Carson must have had similar encounters. She is often seen with binoculars, or peering through a microscope, or bending to examine the smallest of living things. A scientist, yes. But for Carson, observing closely, seeing, and feeling the wonder of nature and of life around us is a restorative, spiritual, ethical act. It is not a sport of finding interesting and unusual species. Rachel Carson suffered numerous serious ailments during her life and was often in agony — dying of metastasizing breast cancer — as she was writing Silent Spring. When she speaks about truly seeing, it is about living fully, even in the face of death.
Carson was an avid and accomplished birder and beach comber, but not a lister of species, shells, sightings. Such reductive science, or seeing nature as a collection of things apart from us, was for Carson a dangerous stance that lacked imagination and feeling. In the Preface to the Edge of the Sea (1955) she says: “To understand the life of the shore, it is not enough to pick up an empty shell and say “This is a murex,” or “That is an angel wing.” True understanding demands intuitive comprehension of the whole life of the creature that once inhabited this empty shell.”
If we are to feel a part of nature — of the beauty and interconnectedness of all life that evolved miraculously from the sea — and to cherish it as if it might be the last time we see it, we must look with new eyes. To see and feel the wholeness of life, our close, caring observation can be enhanced with an open heart, the detail and beauty of what we observe deepened and drawn nearer to us, like Carson, through binoculars, telescope, microscope, or magnifying glass. We will see things unnoticed, unbelieved, even dangerous to those who wish to control nature, or others, for their own ends.
In seeking the truth about the universe and the nature of things, Galileo fashioned the telescope to see the stars and planets more closely, more clearly. In doing so, he discovered that the sun does not circle the Earth, as science corrupted by dogma had long proclaimed. Compelled to speak the truth, he suffered as have scientists and seekers of truth to this day. Those who refuse to look, or to understand the observations that have led to the recognition of global climate change and the spread of toxic chemicals often retaliate in rage.
Carson’s calling was to reach out, to open the eyes of those who only see nature as something to be enjoyed or exploited. Only by exploring the world around us in awe and wonder, by learning to connect with and love what we observe can we avoid its destruction. As Carson put it, “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.”
Being in touch with Earth’s wonders can help protect and preserve its creatures and ourselves. But it can also restore us when we are ground down, depressed, depleted by climate change, toxic exposures, war, the loss of basic rights, and the pronouncements of polluters and their political allies.
Given her own physical frailty and the attacks on her character and politics following the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson often sought solace, as well as scientific and spiritual insight, in her encounters with nature.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.”
And so, as spring arrived extremely early in Washington this year, I set out to look for signs of life along the C&O Canal, one of Rachel Carson’s favorite haunts to explore with binoculars dangling from her neck. I ride slowly along the towpath on my Trek, armed only with binoculars and an iPhone. The trail, the trees, the canal are bare, cold, and empty. There is nothing here to see. I pedal on, slowly, slightly wobbly, with only the sound of my tires crunching along the path. I peer at leaf litter as I go, looking for signs of emerging life. In my binoculars, tiny specks of white stand out ahead. I dismount and descend upon a small, single, clump of Dutchman’s breeches, their tiny telltale, white pantaloons have just emerged. This is a surprise. I had been hoping to find the very first spring beauties of the year at this early date. But I break into a grin as I lumber onto to the ground, my nose and camera next to these flowers whose comic name and odd appearance have brought me mirth since I found my first ones a decade ago.
I am intent, silent, in wonder that these tiny plants exist at all, that they return each year without human help or intervention, when the days are still short, the season cold. I move forward slowly, hearing now the drumming of a pileated woodpecker on a nearby aging tree. Suddenly, I see amidst the tan and buff and sere that lines the towpath, a few miniscule spots of white – the very first appearance of spring beauties just now opening. A few more now are fully open, their pink stripes and anthers visible when magnified. In the miniature world I now have entered, I scan ahead with binoculars again. Seemingly huge plants with soft, velvet leaves loom up. I see here and there a single spot of blue, sometimes mixed with pink. Virginia bluebells, which in a few weeks will blanket the floodplain forest between the canal and Potomac River, are being born before my eyes.
As the sun rises and the morning begins to warm, a few humans begin to show along the trail. Seeing my binoculars, a friendly woman says, “Two women with binoculars up ahead say they saw some kind of owl. They left an arrow of branches pointing to it.” Soon I see an arrow of branches, but no owl — until I search the nearby trees. My binoculars gather enough light to reveal, blending in amidst the shade, a somnolent Barred Owl, unconcerned with this human staring with protruding metal eyes. Such a wondrous, wise, uncommon bird surely qualifies as something “interesting” to those who are able to see it. I recall just how appealing birds are to people who are seeing them for the very first time as another woman spies my binoculars and says “Oh, I just saw some beautiful, stunning bird around the bend in the canal!”
This is the response that Rachel Carson has been hoping for, a childlike sense of wonder that leads to love. I head around the bend. The stunning bird is a Great Blue Heron, common along the canal, that I have been taking too much for granted. It, along with egrets and other waders, was slaughtered nearly to extinction to provide feathers for fashionable women’s hats until the early twentieth century. That is until women, who appreciated its beauty and the danger to its existence, organized to stop the slaughter.
As I take in the long feathers of the heron in my binoculars and camera, a dark shadow passes overhead. I glance up. Crow, hawk, vulture? I think I see some white. I train my binoculars on it, following the bird’s flight. A mature American Bald Eagle comes into view, complete with talons and an impressive golden-yellow beak. This is our national bird, saved from extinction by Rachel Carson and her colleagues who fought the use of DDT that was causing the shells of eagles, osprey, pelicans, to thin and break before their offspring could be born. I feel my own spirits soar with its flight. Spring has returned, like the tiny, early ephemeral wildflowers, without the help of humans. I instinctively pat my binoculars and think of the poet, Theodore Roethke: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”