“Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment”

No one knows, of course, what Rachel Carson, if she were still alive, would think of what’s been happening at the Environmental Protection Agency for the past year and a half. We can make an educated guess, though.

And we could base that guess on what we find in “Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment,” a selection of Carson’s public and private writings, including the complete text of “Silent Spring,” the 1962 book credited with triggering widespread awareness of the threat of chemical pesticides to the environment. The inclusion of Carson in the Library of America series implies that literary professionals view “Silent Spring” as a classic, however we define that word. In this case, the judgment includes decidedly moral criteria.

I say this because the most powerful recurrent theme in these writings is moral responsibility. Specifically, our responsibility to the natural world, where we live. A representative example comes from her commencement address to Scripps College:

“Man has long talked somewhat arrogantly about the conquest of nature; now he has the power to achieve his boast. It is our misfortune — it may well be our final tragedy — that this power has not been tempered with wisdom, but has been marked by irresponsibility; that there is all too little awareness that man is part of nature, and that the price of conquest may well be the destruction of man himself.”

This could have seemed timely if pronounced yesterday. But Carson gave this address in 1962 and, indeed, wrote “Silent Spring” while suffering from breast cancer, and by this point you have to think of her efforts as heroic. The outcry she incited for protecting the environment led eventually to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the EPA, all directly responsible for blunting and averting untold environmental disasters in the U.S. — and which the Trump administration is now actively trying to cripple.

Considering the scientific evidence piling up that global warming alone has kicked into a gear that is already generating catastrophes, we need to be listening hard to her again, and more than ever.

Carson died in 1963, had a national wildlife refuge established in her name in Wells in 1966, and her ashes scattered off Southport, where she kept a summer home she called “Silverledges.” An educated guess is that, if she were alive today, she’d call out the present administration for what it is — dangerously, maybe fatally, irresponsible.

This book provides the fundamental reasons why.

“A Naturalist at Large: The Best Essays of Bernd Heinrich”

Bernd Heinrich is also one of Maine’s heroes on the environment, less for inciting alarm about its degradation and more for explaining its ecologies, intricacies and beauties — which are the reasons, after all, they need protection. “A Naturalist at Large” collects 35 magazine articles and essays written during the last 30 years or so, many of them quite recent, detailing Heinrich’s experiments and excursions in his western Maine woods. His penchant for noticing odd behaviors of birds, bees, bugs, plants and whatever else happens is acute, and his energy for teasing out the biological facts beneath the curiosities seems boundless.

Some iteration of natural beauty is almost always the initial attraction for Heinrich, but the scientific facts are always the gist. In a characteristic essay written for Natural History Magazine, “Birds, Bees, and Beauty: Adaptive Aesthetics,” Heinrich gets curious about the aesthetics of natural selection. Why do peacocks have these gaudy feathers that look like they’d be a survival liability rather than an evolutionary advantage? He explains that mating processes among birds, flowering plants, whales and humans are made according to aesthetic tastes — the gene flow is strengthened when individuals are able to distinguish themselves from competitors in their own species. Beauty, it turns out, is a biological mechanism.

As always in Heinrich, the scientific facts rule, which is fascinating. But unexplained is what the word “aesthetic” actually refers to when a bee is attracted to a certain flower, or a man to a certain woman. You have to admire him for always sensing that there’s more here than meets the eye, but you sometimes wish he would probe a little further, inside the mind of the tissue and chemistry, as his literary progenitor Lewis Thomas used to do.

Still, the followers of Heinrich hereabouts — and there are many, as evidenced at a nearly packed Waterville Opera House talk he gave last October — will find this new book as delightful as his others.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first Thursday of each month. Contact Dana Wilde at [email protected].

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