It's unseasonably warm: Tulips and daffodils have already gone, temperature records have been broken, and every single thing is blanketed in chartreuse, gritty pollen. Everywhere I go people are talking about the heat wave. We've delightfully pulled out summer clothes and readied our grills for asparagus. But there is also nervousness in our tone, a shifting of the eyes, a tightening in the throat, a pause or veer in our speech. Just under the surface we are worried that the unexpected warmth is a harbinger of something more sinister: climate change.
How do we hold our fear about planetary change, about radical shifts in the environment that might slough us off as if to shed an old skin? We hear stories of demise and apocalypse, and to some these tales serve as an indulgent pleasure in sadness. Who can really afford to be sad about ruined rivers and toxic lands, and for what purpose? And for those of us who deny environmental catastrophe, the fear is hidden deep within, but is just as consuming. Denial asserts the foreboded—a sure sign that we are in serious trouble. These two sides of fear fail us; both are luxuries we can no longer afford.
So how do we confront calamity without despair?
When I can no longer stand my own ruminating, I retreat to the ocean, my favorite escape. I love the cold boil of the water sucking at my legs, perhaps calling to my own salty substance to rejoin the bay not in some neonatal wish, but in something older, some cellular memory of before my kind. My feet and ankles and calves touch innumerable organisms: dinoflagellates, radiolarians, diatoms and other lively bits like fertilized eggs looking for a home or wayward sperm.
My cells are alert to the seawater and its changing salinity, perhaps even absorbing the elements as some of my own skin sheds into the roiling lip of surf. I am not the ocean, but in this moment I am with the ocean. Our differences are obvious and deep, but my own genetic code is a fleshy spine of marine legacies. All of us are partly coral reefs full of developing polyps, growing sponges, brooding anemones and feeding sea snails.
It is here, at the shore, half lost in the reverie of waves, that I am reminded of Rachel Carson. Forty-eight years ago, on April 14, 1964, Carson died from complications of breast cancer. She is best known for Silent Spring (1962), which exposed the hazards of synthetic pesticides, galvanizing the environmental movement in the United States. While writing about the deleterious effects of chemical exposure to humans, particularly cancer, she herself was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a mastectomy. And shortly after, died of complications associated with treatment. There is nothing pink about the irony.
Before Silent Spring, Carson had written extensively about marine ecosystems in her Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955). By guiding readers into watery realms, Carson reminded us that although we are children of the salt we are, however, clumsy gill-less and finless creatures when confronted with seawater. Despite our limitations, she encouraged us to cross the divide between land and sea, atmospheric and hydric environments on the bridge of our curiosity.
Carson used human-like critters to help us envision a decidedly non-human world. In Under the Sea Wind, "Scomber," an Atlantic mackerel, scientific name Scomber scombrus, is the main character of the second part of the book. Growing up on the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine to North Carolina, Scomber comes into being in his ecosystem. Carson describes him as a "lucky particle"—lucky that he wasn't eaten before hatching from the egg—swimming in vast schools of mackerel, which create beautiful orbs of shimmering radiance. Carson knows the science of mackerel, but also our drive for narrative, so she compromises by giving us a "heroic character" to provide the reader with an emotional stake in the environments that we impact.
She does not promise immediacy of being "like a fish"—Scomber is not a Disney ride where you can become Nemo for a day—but an attempt to show us nearness and distance—not human and yet not unlike human—relational, but not exactly identifying, what Carson would call empathy. Empathy is to share some sense of what another organism's struggles are. We might say to have empathy is to be ecological; that is, we are a part of the ecosystem that constitutes us as we constitute it—we have an investment in the world around us.
Through the story of Scomber, Carson invokes in the reader a sense of empathy through curiosity or wonderment. Wonder, surprise at the unexpected; or awe, a convergence of affect and perception. Wonder is about sensation, about the relay of sensation between the world and us. The Zeep! Peek! Tut, tut, tut! of a robin touches our ears, and we feel something of the robin's life in those shared vibrations. Wonder is a kind of curiosity that enables us to feel the elemental earth orchestra and the throbbing rhythms of the world.
Carson's own curiosity—feeling out the environments she loved—laid the foundation for discoveries made in Silent Spring. Trying to understand what seemed impossible to comprehend was exactly necessary in order to determine the impact of the spraying of pesticides on birds and other animals, including humans.
As we weed our gardens two months earlier than usual or half-smile at the viridian cotyledons of a late bloomer rising early or need to escape April's 88-degree heat by braving ocean waters, it seems useful to remember that despite the fact that we have an old relationship with the world, we are forever in the process of becoming members of the world. And while I am not sure wonderment is the solution to climate change—certainly there is no one solution to such a complex issue—I do think "to wonder," to be curious, undoes our self-certainties and requires us to live less timidly and more wholeheartedly. Perhaps it is with curiosity that we can ask: What is our debt, our obligation to the planet?