The Poetry of Rachel Carson

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By Lynn Scarlett
Sunday, May 27, 2007

I remember, as a child, learning from my mother how to discern the crest of the tufted titmouse, the rasping chatter of a house wren and the pendent nest of an oriole. Nature, to my mother, unfolded not as an undifferentiated blur of trees, flowers, birds and bugs but as a cascade of details. These details intrigued her for their effusion of shapes and colors. They intrigued her, too, for what they imparted of the complexity of life itself.

Rachel Carson's writings convey this duality -- this love of nature both as art and function. She writes at once as poet and scientist. Through this blend made familiar to me by my own mother's teachings, Carson's writings enchanted me growing up.

In "The Edge of the Sea," the coast and seas materialized like an artist's depiction on a canvas. "A moon edging all the waves with silver" -- these are the words of a poet. Yet Carson was an observer of form, function and physical process, too. Her powers of observation imparted knowledge and insight.

I first read Rachel Carson's work before "Silent Spring" catapulted her to fame -- acclaim from some and criticism by others. The controversy surrounding "Silent Spring" was, in many ways, unfair. Ever poignant, Carson penned in that book an impassioned plea that the nation consider the effects of chemicals on the world around us. But Carson herself did not embrace the mantle of policymaker.

The policy debate that ensued over DDT anticipated many environmental policy debates over these past 40 years. How clean is clean enough? How do we evaluate competing risks -- risks associated with medical cures, or pesticides, or other technologies that bring benefits to human communities yet, at the same time, threaten waters, lands and wildlife? These questions deserve serious deliberation, as they did when Carson wrote "Silent Spring."

Today, Carson's role in triggering these debates dominates her reputation. Yet my own recollections of Carson's works stand apart from those debates. Her poetry enticed me with its rhythms and imagery. But there was truth in her poetry, too. "On all these shores," she wrote, "there are echoes of past and future; of the flow of time, obliterating yet containing all that has gone before -- of the stream of life, flowing as inexorably as any ocean current, from past to unknown future." Ours is a dynamic world -- from season to season, from year to year, from epoch to epoch.

It is fitting to remember as we celebrate her 100th birthday today that Rachel Carson, through her writings, helps us to know this dynamic world -- and to care for it. She helps us see what we might otherwise overlook. What, she asks, "is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is a sea lace . . .?"

Perhaps we cannot plumb its meaning, but we can come to marvel at its place in the universe and lend a caring hand to our lands and waters that it -- and a thousand other creatures -- might flourish.

Lynn Scarlett is deputy secretary of the Interior Department and a former president of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian nonprofit based in Los Angeles.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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