MAY 3, 2020
AS PUBLIC SPACES and businesses are shuttered, many of us are spending an increasing amount of time going outside and observing nonhuman nature. Sitting on our stoops or looking out our windows, going for runs, walks, and bike rides, we may find ourselves on deserted sidewalks, paths, and roads, and paying attention to birds, plants, and trees. We may find ourselves spending more time with dogs, cats, and other creatures with whom we co-habit, or who become part of our daily routine. Even as we listen to news of devastating illness, health care catastrophes, and inequitable distribution of risk, the world of nonhuman nature is becoming an increasingly important site for finding meaning, pleasure, and connection. I find myself paying greater attention to witch hazel in bloom, coyotes and hawks increasingly occupying deserted human spaces, and to the forsythia bushes on fire with flowers. But is all of this time in and with nonhuman nature taking us away from politics and the public realm? Or is it showing us a way back?
We can find an answer in the work of Rachel Carson, best known now as the author of Silent Spring — a best-selling 1962 book detailing the devastating effects of unregulated pesticide and insecticide use. Carson’s book helped spark the modern environmental movement, and led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Yet what few people know today is that, before the publication of Silent Spring, Carson was already famous for her nature writing about the sea.
Carson’s public breakthrough as a writer came when she published The Sea Around Us in 1951. Following closely upon the end of World War II, Carson’s engrossing, lyrical, and scientifically cutting-edge (at the time) descriptions of ocean life became a best seller. Carson’s own explanation for the popularity of the book was that its contemplation of “the long history of earth and sea and the deeper meanings of the world of nature” offered “reassur[ance]” in a “world in turmoil” (“Words to Live By,” in This Week, 1952). Carson believed that her writing about the sea allowed her readers to decenter themselves from the story of the earth, and thus to see their own anxieties and problems as less important:
There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides, responding to sun and moon as they have done for untold millions of years; in the repose of the folded bud in winter, ready within its sheath for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the assurance that after night, dawn comes, and spring after the winter. In these troubled times it is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. (“Words to Live By”)
Many of us seem to be seeing our current experience of nonhuman nature, in this time of coronavirus, in this way: as offering solace for, and reprieve from, anxieties about a human world that appears to be in the process of destruction, not from a nuclear bomb (as in Carson’s time), but from a virus.
Yet Carson’s later work suggests that the natural world should not be a reprieve from human ills. Instead, attention to nonhuman nature can and should call us into politics. It should push us to demand a world where the beauty, love, and wonder found in nature are available to all of us. In Silent Spring, and the writings and speeches she did to defend and promote it (all while dying of breast cancer), Carson calls the public to see the emotional meaning that they find in nonhuman nature to be under threat from industrial greed, and by a government that serves the interests of industry rather than the public good.
Carson’s book begins with a “Fable of Tomorrow,” a chapter that describes what the world could be like if industry continued to dictate the terms of pesticide and insecticide use. The “Fable” describes a spring where bird and other animal voices can no longer be heard: “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.” Carson indicts this possible future as a nightmare certainly in part because she cares about birds and other animals for their own sake. Yet such a future is also dystopian because it would destroy the human meaning and pleasure that comes from our shared experiences in and with nonhuman nature.
Carson was speaking from personal experience. Her most meaningful relationships emerged out of shared experiences with nature. In particular, the primary love relationship of the last 10 years of her life, with Dorothy Freeman, was forged through their shared wonder at, and love for, the natural world, especially birds. In their frequent, long, and intense letters, Carson and Freeman talked about how the mysterious pleasure they gained from listening to birds was analogous to the mysterious pleasure they experienced from their love. For example, in a letter written early in their relationship (in 1954), Carson says to Freeman, “[M]y dear, when you say, ‘Don’t you ever wonder at it?’ — of course the answer is yes — I feel such a joyous surge of wonder every time I stop to think how in such a dark time and when I least expected it, something so lovely and richly satisfying came into my life.” Freeman also highlights the importance of a vibrant multispecies world to their experience of love when she says in a January 1955 letter, “I believe the setting for our type of happiness is at its best in the natural world.”
Carson’s discussions of wonder with Freeman became part of a longstanding interest in the mysterious pleasures we enjoy in nonhuman nature: in the mid-1950s, she wrote an essay for parents on the importance of cultivating wonder in children. There, she defined wonder as the experience of finding pleasure in that which escapes our understanding and argued that children could carry it into adulthood as an “antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.” Wonder, for Carson, allows us to gain a pleasurable critical distance from pleasure itself. If our society tells us that we should be most pleased by material gain, bourgeois comforts, and heterosexual marriage (among other things), the experience of wonder pushes back against that, alerting us to other types of joy more crucial to our well-being.
In our own moment, some elite voices are arguing that saving the “economy” demands that we allow more people to die of this virus. They argue that what Carson calls in Silent Spring “the smooth superhighway” of bourgeois comfort is so essential that we should sacrifice the lives of the most vulnerable. This argument is part of a broader neoliberal common sense, wherein we assume that our own survival depends on the survival of a “market” that actually renders our existence more and more precarious.
Carson was already challenging this attitude in Silent Spring when she argues that her fellow citizens’ absorption in post–World War II mass consumption led them to accept an “authoritarian” world. By “authoritarian,” Carson meant that citizens, driven by their desires for private comfort (never quite achieved), left industry, politicians, and technocrats to decide how to use their common world, their common earth. In so doing, Carson argues, her fellow citizens were unwittingly sacrificing the vibrant multispecies world which actually enables meaningful human lives. And they were doing so on behalf of an illusion of bourgeois comfort that most people didn’t have, and that didn’t provide meaningful pleasure in any case.
In Silent Spring and in her speeches and writings surrounding it, Carson suggests that spending time in nonhuman nature, and fostering attention to its strangeness and beauty, should and must be part of a democratic education. The cultivation of wonder supplies crucial democratic capacities: the practice of seeing reality, an experience of human pleasure as linked to our ecological interconnectedness, and a critical democratic imagination that holds open alternative possibilities for joy and meaning in this world and earth. Yet Carson recognized that cultivating this capacity was easier for some people than others — namely, those who were able to access green spaces, nature preserves, or uncultivated natural places. Similarly, in our own moment, it is much easier for some of us (with the time, privilege, and access) to spend time outside than it is for others. This isn’t to say that wonder cannot be cultivated in a wide variety of ways (through noticing weeds cracking up through the sidewalk, or watching trees, leaves blowing, or water flowing through the gutter outside one’s window), but rather to point out that creating accessible outdoor spaces is democratically important. This is why Carson, for example, criticized the plan to build a highway through Rock Creek Park in Maryland, and why she hatched plans (never fulfilled) to purchase a wide swath of land on Southport Island, Maine, and permanently preserve it.
Carson also asked her readers to engage in a variety of actions aimed at reshaping their world into one of ecologically sustainable pleasures. For example, in a piece for the Chicago Sun-Times, entitled “Man’s Great Peril — Pesticide Poisons,” and published May 26, 1963, Carson endorsed recommendations issued by the president’s Science Advisory Committee that called for greater research about pesticides, as well as full public transparency about the effects of pesticides. Yet she also cautions against the public deferring to technocrats and elected officials to follow through on these recommendations. She says that
[t]he now awakened public must see that its views are also made known. These are social problems of the greatest public importance. The decisions affect every individual. As the panel points out: “In the end society must decide, and to do so it must obtain adequate information on which to base its judgments.”
To democratically govern themselves, citizens must figure out what kind of society they want to live in, and have adequate information to determine what actions would bring that about. The experience of wonder is part of how isolated individuals can start to understand themselves as part of a demos, who can see the shortcomings of a status quo that has been marketed to us by industry and elites, and start to imagine a pleasurable world otherwise.
In this time of mass risk and threat, of social isolation and distance, it is crucial that we cultivate our attention to nonhuman nature and our resources for democracy. Even if we are physically distant from each other, we share experiences (in large cities, suburbs, and rural communities) with the birds, plants, and trees of this earth. These experiences may — as Carson said in her earlier writings on the sea — offer a form of solace and reprieve from our anxieties. Yet our pleasures in a vibrant multispecies world may also help us cultivate a critical sensibility toward the deadening path being taken by the president, and by many leaders of both parties.
Following Carson, we should ask how these experiences with nonhuman nature could lead us — even in the midst of a pandemic — to “look about and see what other course is open to us.” We need not, in some engrained neoliberal deference to private industry and rich elites, take this piecemeal, slow approach to the virus for granted that is causing so much panic, harm, and death. We need not accept that the claim that “the market” is more important than the lives of those with whom we share this world. We may be democratized, even while socially isolated, and ask for big changes — even from our living rooms, our yards, our state parks. We may ask for the mass mobilization of federal resources to produce masks and ventilators, for free health care for everyone, for Medicare for All, for the institution of large social safety networks for everyone, for a basic income. In this moment of crisis, we continue to have shared experiences with the earth; let us use that pleasure and meaning not only as a way to find reprieve from politics (which we sometimes must), but also as a way to find our way into it, democratically, to find what “other course is open to us.”
Lida Maxwell is associate professor of Political Science and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Boston University. She is the author of Insurgent Truth: Chelsea Manning and the Politics of Outsider Truth-Telling (Oxford, 2019) and the co-author of The Right to Have Rights (Verso, 2018).