Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)
Chapter 13. Design for Nature Writing
THE JOHN BURROUGHS MEDAL awarded for excellence in nature writing was the one award Rachel Carson coveted. When she claimed the prize for The Sea Around Us in a gala ceremony in New York in April 1952, she used the occasion to make some trenchant criticisms of the parochial attitudes of nature writers, chiding them for not trying hard enough to educate the public about the importance of natural science as a way of understanding the modern world. Carson was once again ahead of her time in suggesting that the public wanted more information about nature and natural history. She believed nature writers had a moral obligation to bring the wonders of the living world to the general public and urged them to accept that responsibility.
IN PRESENTING ME with the John Burroughs Medal you have welcomed me into an illustrious company, and you have given The Sea Around Us one of its most cherished honors. Any writer in the field of the natural sciences should feel a certain awe and even a sense of unreality in being linked during his or her own lifetime with the immortals in the field of nature writing. The tradition of John Burroughs, which you seek to keep alive through these awards, is a long and honorable one. It is a tradition that had its beginnings in even earlier writings. On the other side of the Atlantic it flowered most fully in the works of Richard Jefferies and W. H. Hudson; and in this country the pen of Thoreau – as that of John Burroughs himself – most truly represented the contemplative observer of the world about us. These four, I think, were the great masters. To those of us who have come later, there can scarcely be any greater honor than to be compared to one of them.
Yet if we are true to the spirit of John Burroughs, or of Jefferies or Hudson or Thoreau, we are not imitators of them but – as they themselves were – we are pioneers in new areas of thought and knowledge. If we are true to them, we are the creators of a new type of literature as representative of our own day as was their own.
I myself am convinced that there has never been a greater need than there is today for the reporter and interpreter of the natural world. Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, in his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world.
There is certainly no single remedy for this condition and I am offering no panacea. But it seems reasonable to believe – and I do believe – that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with a lust for destruction.
All of us here tonight are united by the strong bond of a common interest. In one way or another all of us have been touched by an awareness of the world of nature. No one present needs to be “sold” on this subject. But I should like to talk briefly about the non-naturalists and our attitude toward them – that large segment of the public that does not belong to the John Burroughs Association or to Audubon Societies and that really has very little knowledge of natural science. I am convinced that we have been far too ready to assume that these people are indifferent to the world we know to be full of wonder. If they are indifferent it is only because they have not been properly introduced to it – and perhaps that is in some measure our fault.
Since I am speaking of the John Burroughs Medal and what it means, perhaps I should confine my illustration to nature writing. I feel that we have too often written only for each other. We have assumed that what we had to say would interest only other naturalists. We have too often seemed to consider ourselves the last representatives of a dying tradition, writing for steadily dwindling audiences.
It is difficult to say these things without seeming to refer too directly to The Sea Around Us. Yet I feel they ought to be said, for in justice not only to ourselves but to the public we ought to develop a more confident and assured attitude toward the role and the value of nature literature. I am certain that what happened to The Sea Around Us could happen to many another book in the field of the natural sciences – and that it should happen.
Perhaps writers and publishers and magazine editors have all been at fault in taking, too often, a deprecating attitude which assumes in advance that a nature book will not have a wide audience, that it cannot possibly be a “commercial success.”
This attitude is not only psychologically unsound; it is a mistaken and ill-founded one. The public is trying to show us how mistaken it is, if we will only listen. It proves our mistake when it fills Audubon Screen Tour showings with overflow audiences. It proves it when it buys Roger Peterson’s bird guides by the many scores of thousands and goes afield with guide and binoculars. And if I may use a personal illustration, the letters that have come to me in the past nine months have taught me never again to underestimate the capacity of the general public to absorb the facts of science.
If these letters mean anything it is this: that there is an immense and unsatisfied thirst for understanding of the world about us, and every drop of information, every bit of fact that serves to free the reader’s mind to roam the great spaces of the universe, is seized upon with almost pathetic eagerness.
I have learned from these letters, too, if I did not fully realize it before, that those who hunger for knowledge of their world are as varied as the passengers in a subway. The mail the other day brought letters from a Catholic sister in a Tennessee school, a farmer in Saskatchewan, a British scientist, and a housewife. There have been hairdressers and fishermen and musicians and classical scholars and scientists. So many say, in one phrasing or another: “We have been troubled about the world, and had almost lost faith in man; it helps to think about the long history of the earth, and of how life came to be. When we think in terms of millions of years, we are not so impatient that our own problems be solved tomorrow.”
These are the people who want to know about the world that is our chosen one. If we have ever regarded our interest in natural history as an escape from the realities of our modern world, let us now reverse this attitude. For the mysteries of living things, and the birth and death of continents and seas, are among the great realities.
The John Burroughs Medal is the only literary award that recognizes achievement in nature writing. In so doing, it may well be a force working toward a better civilization, by focusing attention on the wonders of a world known to so few, although it lies about us every day.