Friday, May 25, 2007

A Sense of Wonder--Live!

Environmental plays seem to be few. Shakespeare, though he wrote “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”, employs natural forces primarily as omens (e.g., Julius Caesar), metaphors (The Tempest), or plot devices (Twelfth Night). When I saw The Cherry Orchard, my college professor expected us to attend to themes of class struggle and social injustice, though I was more struck by the tragedy of the razed trees than by the dissipation of an aristocratic family. More recently I read in Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya: “Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create, so that he can add to what he’s been given. But up to now he hasn’t been a creator, only a destroyer. Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up, wild life’s become extinct, the climate’s ruined and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.” Chekhov’s impassioned lines on forests’ roles in ameliorating climate and ennobling human beings are worth a trip to the library or a download from Project Gutenberg. But I doubt that you’ll find many scripts at either place with environmental conservation as a primal force in the drama.

So you can imagine my delight in surviving a waiting list to garner tickets to a May 24 performance of a one-woman play about Rachel Carson. Written and presented by Kaiulani Lee, “A Sense of Wonder” has toured the U.S. and Canada for 15 years, with yesterday’s performance held at the National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel, Maryland. Before stepping into character, Lee guided the audience to visualize the sparsely-furnished stage as Carson’s Maine cottage, overlooking the tidepools of Sheepscot Bay where her great-nephew, Roger, explored unseen. Lee magically became Carson in the first moments, reading from a letter well-known to Carson admirers, about her joy in observing monarch butterflies despite her approaching death. Throughout the play, Lee seamlessly integrates her narrative with Carson’s public and private writings. I noticed passages from Silent Spring, The Sense of Wonder, a National Book Award acceptance speech, and letters to Dorothy Freeman (published in Always, Rachel), plus familiar lines that I couldn’t place. To someone who has read and re-read Carson’s words for years, it was like hearing the lyrics of a beloved hymn set to music at last.

But I must add that not everyone responded so warmly. My extra ticket went to Nathan at Talk-lab. While he’s concerned about the environment and doesn’t ask “Rachel who?” when Carson comes up in a conversation, he’s a recent college grad who never read Silent Spring, much less Carson’s jacket notes for a Debussy recording as have I, and I suspect, other enraptured audience members. To him, the play felt dispiriting. By setting it during Carson’s final illness, says Nathan, and reflecting so often on human destructiveness and natural losses, Lee left him discouraged about our environment and, just as important, about the play’s ability to recruit new environmentalists. “If you didn’t love Carson already,” said Nathan, “you wouldn’t love her afterward.”

Nathan’s comments made me reflect on Kaiulani Lee’s remark during the post-play Q & A that Carson was a rare example of an artist who acted on her beliefs, that is, a “dreamer who does.” So much environmental news these days is grim, even frightening. And we certainly don’t want to ignore or suppress evidence of even the most frightening trends (unlike some administrations you might know). But books, poetry, plays, and other art forms have a different function. Lee’s “A Sense of Wonder” inspires many of us already in the Carson choir to keep singing. But we also need works of art that inspire young dreamers like Nathan to join us and not to despair. I fear Nathan’s generation, which came of age post-9/11, are particularly vulnerable. I’m going to be on the lookout for plays, poems, & novels that can help fuel the energies of young idealists. Please let us know what works you’ve come across—or are creating—and if you have ideas about how to reach out with nature books and other art forms to young adults especially. After all, the sense of wonder shouldn’t expire when you hit 21.

One other Carson-related note. John at DC Birding Blog notes that Senator Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) plan to introduce a bill commemorating Carson’s 100th birthday may be blocked. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) bases his opposition on false claims that a Silent Spring-induced banning of DDT has caused millions of deaths from malaria. John deftly counters Coburn’s assertions with facts about the international legal status of DDT and about its effectiveness and long-term health consequences. Though I doubt that Senator Coburn, a physician who should know better, will let facts get in the way of his rhetoric, it’s good to know where to find a succinct rebuttal to this common attack on Carson’s legacy.


julie Runco said...

Is this Play still on Tour ?
Will it come to Southern California ?
julie runco

pinenut said...

Hi Julie,

I just spotted your comment. Sorry for the belated reply, but the Sense of Wonder play is headed your way, April 22, to Altadena, California. Here's a link to the 2007-2008 schedule. If you get to go, let us know what you think of it. Also, there are plans in the works to put it on film in case you live too far from Altadena. Best, Julie