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The Marginalian

Something About the Sky: Rachel Carson’s Lost Serenade to the Science of the Clouds, Found and Illustrated by Artist Nikki McClure

Something About the Sky: Rachel Carson’s Lost Serenade to the Science of the Clouds, Found and Illustrated by Artist Nikki McClure

A version of this essay appeared in The New York Times Book Review.

A cloud is a spell against indifference, an emblem of the water cycle that makes this planet a living world capable of trees and tenderness, a great cosmic gasp at the improbability that such a world exists, that across the cold expanse of spacetime strewn with billions upon billions of other star systems, there is nothing like it as far as we yet know.

Clouds are almost as old as this world, born when primordial volcanos first exhaled the chemistry of the molten planet into the sky, but their science is younger than the steam engine. At the dawn of the nineteenth century, the chemist and amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, still in his twenties, noticed that clouds form in particular shapes under particular conditions. He set out to devise a classification system modeled on the newly popular Linnaean taxonomy of the living world, naming the three main classes cumulus, stratus, and cirrus, then braiding them into various sub-taxonomies.

When a German translation reached Goethe, the polymathic poet with a passion for morphology was so inspired that he sent fan mail to the young man who “distinguished cloud from cloud,” then composed a suite of verses for each of the main classes. It was Goethe’s poetry, translating the lexicon of an obscure science into the language of wonder, that popularized the cloud names we use today.

Rachel Carson, 1951

A century and a half later, six years before Rachel Carson awakened the modern ecological conscience with her book Silent Spring and four years after The Sea Around Us earned her the National Book Award as “a work of scientific accuracy presented with poetic imagination,” the television program Omnibus approached her to write “something about the sky,” in response to a request from a young viewer.

This became the title of the segment that aired on March 11, 1956 — a soulful serenade to the science of the clouds, emanating Carson’s ethos 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.”

Although celebrated for her books about the sea, Carson’s literary career had begun in the sky. She was only eleven when her story “A Battle in the Clouds” — a tale inspired by her brother’s time in the Army Air Service during World War I — was published in the popular young people’s magazine St. Nicholas, where the early writings of Edna St. Vincent Millay, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and E. E. Cummings also appeared. Despite her family’s meager means — a neighbor would recall stopping by at dinnertime and finding the Carsons gathered around a single bowl of apples — she enrolled in a women’s college aided by a $100 scholarship from a state competition, intent on studying literature at a time when fewer than four percent of women graduated from a four-year university.

And then, the way all great transformations slip in through the backdoor of the mansion of our plans, her life took a turn that shaped her future and the history of literature.

To meet the college science requirement she had put off for a year, Carson took an introductory biology course. She found herself enchanted by both the subject and its teacher: Miss Mary Scott Skinker, who wore miniskirts, taught cutting-edge disciplines like genetics and microbiology, and gave enthralling lectures on evolution and natural history that awakened in her students an awareness of the interdependence of life that would never leave Carson. By nineteen, she had changed her major to biology. But she never lost her love of literature. “I have always wanted to write,” Carson told her lab partner late one night. “Biology has given me something to write about.” She was also writing poetry, submitting it to various magazines, receiving rejection slip after rejection slip.

Somewhere along the way, as she followed in Skinker’s footsteps to the Woods Hole Marine Biological Observatory, then worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, writing reports her boss deemed far too lyrical for a government publication and encouraged her to submit to The Atlantic Monthly, Carson realized that poetry lives in innumerable guises beyond verse, that the task of science is to discover the “wonder and beauty and majesty” inherent in nature. A lifetime later, she would rise from the table she shared with the poet Marianne Moore to receive her National Book Award with these words:

The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history or fiction; it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.

If there was poetry in her writing, Carson believed, it was not because she “deliberately put it there” but because no one could write truthfully about nature “and leave out the poetry.”

It was a radical idea — that truth and beauty are not in rivalry but in reciprocity, that to write about science with feeling is not to diminish its authority but to deepen it. Rachel Carson was modeling a new possibility for generations of writers to come, blurring the line between where science ends and poetry begins in the work of wonder.

That was the ethos she took to “the writing of the wind on the sky,” detailing the science of each of the main cloud classes and celebrating them as “the cosmic symbols of a process without which life itself could not exist on earth.”

After coming upon fragments of Carson’s long-lost television script via Orion magazine, the artist Nikki McClure — who, like Carson, grew up in nature, worked for a while at the Department of Ecology, and finds daily delight in watching birds under the cedar canopy by her home — was moved to track down the complete original and bring it to life in lyrical illustrations: Something About the Sky (public library) was born.

Known for her singular cut-paper art, with its stark contrasts and sharp contours, she embraced the creative challenge of finding a whole new technique for channeling the softness of the sky. Using paper from a long-ago trip to Japan and sumi ink she freely applied with brushes, she let the gentle work of gravity and fluid dynamics pool and fade the mostly blue and black hues into textured layers — a process of “possibility and chance.” Then, as she recounts in an illustrator’s note at the back of the book, she “cut images with the paper, not just from it”: “The paper and I had a conversation about what might happen.”

What emerges is a tender visual poem, as boldly defiant of category as Carson’s writing.

Although Carson never wrote explicitly for children, she wrote in the language of children: wonder. Among the boxes of fan mail at the Beinecke is a letter from a geology professor who, after comparing her to Goethe, told her how enthralled his eight-year-old son was with her words.

Less than a year after Something about the Sky aired, Carson adopted her twice-orphaned grand-nephew Roger — the small boy romping across McClure’s illustrations. In what began as an article for Woman’s Home Companion and was later expanded into the posthumously published book The Sense of Wonder, she wrote:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

Couple Something About the Sky with the animated story of how the clouds got their names, then revisit Carson on writing and the loneliness of creative work and the ocean and the meaning of life.

Published March 13, 2024




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