Rachel’s Legacy

Nothing in our Universe exists in and of itself. Everything exists within a network of interrelationships where everything is dependent on everything else. It is in these connections that Nature is defined.

Moments ago, this  young female elephant seal gave birth to her pup. As you can see, the pup is searching for its mother’s nipple. But, mom is not yet ready to make that connection with her offspring. First, she must expel her placenta.  Anticipating that event, a group of gull-like predators called Skuas noisily wait. Like swarms of flies, they are bothersome. The elephant seal mother is distracted by these birds and fights them off if they get too close. Behind the mother is a large bull Elephant Seal. He is both sexually aggressive and willing to defend his harem from other bulls.  At three tons, he can move surprisingly fast. As he  moves around to copulate or to defend, he has no regard for the newborn pup and can easily crush it. Both mother and child are totally defenseless against the bull.

The connections in this scene are dramatic and dynamic — changing each second. First, the birth and a need to bond. Then there is a threat of harm from the bull. There is also the antagonistic relationship with the Skuas.  Once the placenta is expelled, the birds will jump on the mass and consume it. Then they will be gone. It is upon the Skua’s exit that the mother will no longer be distracted and make that vital connection with her pup. I find it most interesting that as I laid on the ground – a human being observing all of this – I was barely noticed.

Most interrelationships  in Nature are not this dramatic or intense. But, I’m hoping it grabs your attention. It is my hope that this blog site, and the fine work of many others, will help you build and maintain a consciousness of our vital connections to Nature and the dangers we humans face when we break these links.

In the coming weeks, I will be writing several blog posts that feature great minds and influential ideas about connections in Nature. Today I choose to celebrate the life of Rachel Carson because she was an early pioneer in advancing the idea that everything is connected. With the 1962 publication of her landmark book, “Silent Spring”,  she sounded a warning siren that was heard around the world. She told the story of a chemical death caused by man’s ignorance as he attempted to control his environment, free himself from pests, artificially enhance the growth of his food supply, and arrogantly “manage” the ecology of other living creatures on this planet. By describing interconnections between various living species and their environment, she started a campaign to abolish the use of harmful chemicals in agriculture and by the consumer. Her book became a harbinger of change to come which included the modern environmental movement. Recently, Discover Magazine named Silent Spring as one of the 25 greatest scientific books of all time.

But, Rachel Carson’s most powerful message was not about the dangers of harmful chemicals. Her strongest message came through many examples of how everything is connected. In the course of making her case for the harmful effects of DDT and other insecticides and weed killers, Carson skillfully defined the connections between various living creatures and their environment. Then she recorded man’s ignorance of these crucial connections. Carson became an early chronicler of the importance of connections in Nature. Her message concerning connections in Nature is reflected in a quote by her biographer, Linda Lear.

“I don’t think Rachel should be or would want to be credited with starting the environmental movement or banning pesticides. I think what she was hoping to do is raise the American consciousness about the natural world and our interconnection to it, instead of thinking we can control nature.”

Carson’s powerful, message was a precursor to a major paradigm shift in Western science.   In her “Essay on the Biological Sciences” written in 1958 she said:

“Only within the 20th Century has biological thought been focused on ecology, or the relation of the living creature to its environment. Awareness of ecological relationships  is — or should be — the basis of modern conservation programs, for it is useless to attempt to preserve a living species unless the kind of land or water it requires is also preserved. So delicately interwoven are the relationships that when we disturb one thread of the community fabric we alter it all — perhaps almost imperceptibly, perhaps so drastically that destruction follows.”

In “Silent Spring“, Rachel Carson offered many examples of man’s ignorance in tampering with Nature’s connections. My favorite is her description of how the U.S.Forest Service used chemical weed killers to kill sagebrush and substitute grasslands for cattle ranchers that leased government land. In her own words, she described this folly by our government:

“The earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and the earth, between plants and other plants, between plants and mammals…. It was no accident that the great plains of the West became the land of the sage. The bitter upland plains, the purple wastes of sage, the wild, swift antelope, and the grouse are then a natural system in perfect balance. ..One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage (using weed killer) and substitute grasslands. 

…it is clear that the whole closely knit fabric has been ripped apart. The antelope and the grouse will disappear along with the sage. The deer will suffer too… The spraying also eliminates a great many plants that were not its intended target. The sage was killed as intended. But, so was the green life-giving ribbon of willows… Moose had lived in these willow thickets, for willow is to the moose what sage is to the antelope. Beaver had lived there too, feeding on the willows, felling them and making a strong dam across the tiny stream. Through the labor of the beavers, a lake backed up. Trout in the lake thrived so prodigiously that many grew to five pounds. Waterfowl were attracted to the lake, also. But with the ‘improvement’ instituted by the Forest Service, the willows went the way of the sagebrush, killed by the same impartial spray. The moose were gone and so was the beaver. Their principal dam had gone out for want of attention by its skilled architects, and the lake drained away. None of the large trout were left. The living world was shattered.”

Due to human insensitivity and an ignorance regarding the interconnectivity in Nature,  government funds were used to “manage” our environment and create ecological disasters. Rachel Carson started it all with “Silent Spring”  by exposing the ignorance and the disastrous assumptions that biologists made about ecological interrelationships. She laid the foundation for a consciousness of interrelationships in Nature. Her legacy is the new and more productive ways in which we now holistically view Nature.

But, Rachel Carson left another very important, legacy.  A legacy that offers a solution to our lack of ecological consciousness. While single all her life, she raised an adopted nephew. As a youngster, her nephew taught Rachel a great deal about how youngsters respond to Nature with awe and wonder. From her notes about how children respond to Nature,

A Sense of Wonder was published posthumously in 1965. In this little book one realizes that the route to building a human consciousness of Nature is in responding to the awe and wonder expressed by our children. This idea is now called “sustainability education”.

In a recent moving tribute to Rachel Carson entitled “Dear Rachel, Scott Sampson says:

“.. there is growing awareness that a sustainable path into the future demands that we talk about love, about nurturing the emotional bond between kids and nature so that it becomes an invincible force capable of upending cultural norms. Why will people care for the places they live? Not because they have to, but because they want to. As you have long reminded us, our job is not so much to inform, but to inspire a love affair between people and nature. Now there’s a joyous task!”

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My name is Bill Graham. As a Marine Biologist who has worked in the US and Mexico for 30 years, I am a student of Nature, a teacher, a researcher, and a nature photographer. Through my work, I have acquired an ever growing passion for how everything in Nature is connected. Today, I travel extensively contemplating about, writing about, and photographing Nature’s connections. I also work with conservation projects in the USA and Mexico and mentor talented youth.

5 Responses to “Rachel’s Legacy”

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