Monday, December 28, 2009

The reality of living

I am greatly blessed here in the Bahamas to have at my doorstep a three mile-long beach with rocky tide pools at its end, and usually nary a soul to disquiet my solitude. As I walked this morning, I thought of something Rachel Carson wrote in The Edge of the Sea (quoted in Linda Lear). It is not enough when walking the shore to pick up the occasional pretty shell, and say "This is a murex" or "This is an angel wing." Understanding, she wrote, "comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of sea and earth that sculptured its land forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating always at its shores -- blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold."

That's why, of course, we loved her books. In her 1952 speech accepting the National Book Award for The Sea Around Us, Carson noted the surprise of some people that a work of popular science should reach the bestseller lists. She said: "But this notion that 'science' is something that belongs in a separate compartment of its own, apart from everyday life, is one that I should like to challenge. We live in a scientific age; yet we assume that knowledge of science is the prerogative of only a small number of human beings, isolated and priestlike in their laboratories. This is not true. It cannot be true. The materials of science are the materials of life itself. Science is part of the reality of living; it is the what, the how, and the why of everything in our experience. It is impossible to understand man without understanding his environment and the forces that have molded him physically and mentally."

Perhaps as much as anyone else, Rachel Carson made possible my own long writing career, especially those thousand Science Musings essays for the Boston Globe, by showing how technical knowledge can be spun into something that transforms our experience of the world -- that educates "the eye and ear of the mind." As when I stand here on this shimmering shore of carbonate sand and marvel how it was that over the long eons of ice advancing and receding on distant continents, of sea levels falling and rising, these delicate platforms of consolidated windblown sand managed to lift their substance ever so slightly above the waves, and how easily they might be erased as anthropogenic climate change outpaces the "long rhythms of sea and earth."

I imagine that Carson would be rather amazed today to observe how many Americans resolutely close their mind's eye and ear to the forces that have molded us physically and mentally, in favor of a ten-thousand-year-old creation story of prescientific middle-eastern farmers and herdsmen.