A Bioluminescent Wonder: Rachel Carson on the Art of Illuminating Nature Beyond Scientific Fact
A transcendent account of “one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves.”
By Maria Popova
Years before Vladimir Nabokov proclaimed that “there is no science without fancy, and no art without facts,” marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) arrived at the immensely fertile intersection of science and wonder, through which she would later catalyze the modern environmental movement with her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring.
Although Carson had already mastered this then-novel aesthetic of scientific fact conveyed through poetic prose in her pioneering 1937 essay “Undersea,” it was a transcendent personal experience that sealed her conviction in the power of this approach in enchanting the popular imagination — an experience she relayed to her dearest friend and beloved in one of the resplendent letters collected in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library).
Writing in early August of 1956, Carson recounts a remarkable encounter with nature marked by an almost numinous quality — a bioluminescent wonderland that reveals the magnificent interconnectedness of nature:
We are now having the spring tides of the new moon, you know, and they have traced their advance well over my beach the past several nights… There had been lots of swell and surf and noise all day, so it was most exciting down there toward midnight — all my rocks crowned with foam, and long white crests running from my beach to [the neighbor’s]. To get the full wildness, we turned off our flashlights — and then the real excitement began.. The surf was full of diamonds and emeralds, and was throwing them on the wet sand by the dozens. Dorothy, dear — it was the night we were there all over, but with everything intensified; a wilder accompaniment of noise and movement, and a great deal more phosphorescence. The individual sparks were so large — we’d see them glowing in the sand, or sometimes, caught in the in-and-out play of water, just riding back and forth. And several times I was able to scoop one up in my hand in shells and gravel, and think surely it was big enough to see — but no such luck.
Now here is where my story becomes different. Once, glancing up, I said to Marjie [Carson’s niece] jokingly, “Look — one of them has taken to the air!” A firefly was going by, his lamp blinking. We thought nothing special of it, but in a few minutes one of us said, “There’s that firefly again.” The next time he really got a reaction from us, for he was flying so low over the water that his light cast a long surface reflection, like a little headlight. Then the truth dawned on me. He “thought” the flashes in the water were other fireflies, signaling to him in the age-old manner of fireflies! Sure enough, he was soon in trouble and we saw his light flashing urgently as he was rolled around in the wet sand — no question this time which was insect and which the unidentified little sea will-o-the-wisps!
You can guess the rest: I waded in and rescued him (the will-o-the-wisps had already had me in icy water to my knees so a new wetting didn’t matter) and put him in Roger’s [Carson’s son] bucket to dry his wings. When we came up we brought him as far as the porch — out of reach of temptation, we hoped.
A century after astronomer Maria Mitchell asserted that “every formula which expresses a law of nature is a hymn of praise to God,” Carson — a scientist who studies marine ecosystems with unremitting rigor — contemplates the almost sacred nature of the spectacle before her:
It was one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves… Imagine putting that in scientific language!
A year later, as she is beginning to work on what would become her stunning manifesto for the sense of wonder, Carson writes in another letter to Dorothy:
I consider my contributions to scientific fact far less important than my attempts to awaken an emotional response to the world of nature. So the “wonder” book, and “Remembrances of Earth” I should consider more important than any mere reporting of scientific fact.
It is this marriage of science and wonder that Carson would bring to the writing of Silent Spring a few years later, and it is the power of that dual perspective that would awaken the modern conscience into commencing the environmental movement.
Complement this particular portion of the immeasurably beautiful Always, Rachel — which contains Carson’s touching deathbed farewell to her beloved — with nineteen-year-old Sylvia Plath on the transcendence of nature and physicist Alan Lightman on its spiritual awe, then revisit Carson’s prescient protest against the government’s assault on science and nature.
UPDATE: For more on Carson, her epoch-making cultural contribution, and her unusual private life, she is the crowning figure in my book Figuring.
Published July 11, 2017