In 2019, the New York Philharmonic commissioned composer and force of nature Paola Prestini— co-founder of National Sawdust, that visionary locus of possibility for world-building through music– to make up an original piece for their multi-season Job 19 effort, celebrating the centennial of the 19 th Amendment. Inspired by the stories of the impressive unsung females in Figuring, she reached out to me to compose the words. I picked a moment that occurs some 485 pages into the book– a moment little and personal, however massive in its symbolic significance and cultural reverberations.
In January 1962, after a years of incubation and 4 years of systematic research study, Rachel Carson(May 27, 1907– April 14, 1964) turned in the manuscript for what would become Silent Spring— the epoch-making driver of the contemporary ecological motion, making ecology a household word and invitinig the human imagination to think about how elaborately, vulnerably interleaved nature’s environments are. Carson, already savaged by cancer, understood that speaking such troublesome truth to power would come at severe individual expense. It did: She was quickly assaulted by government and industry, her clinical credibility assaulted on the basis of her biology, with the crude weapon of gender. However she moored herself to what she had actually articulated to the love of her life, Dorothy Freeman, at the outset of her bold endeavor:
Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept quiet.
When Carson turned in the manuscript that cold January night, she tucked her newly embraced boy Roger into bed, kissed him excellent night, took her cherished black feline Jeffie into the research study, shut the door behind her, and place on her favorite Beethoven violin concerto. “Suddenly,” she stated the night to Dorothy the next day, “the stress of four years was broken and I let the tears come.” She informed Dorothy:
Last summer season … I stated I could never again listen gladly to a thrush tune if I had not done all I could. And last night the ideas of all the birds and other animals and all the loveliness that is in nature pertained to me with such a rise of deep happiness, that now I had done what I could– I had been able to complete it– now it had its own life.
Carson never ever lived to see its life in the world, but her work inspired the creation of Earth Day and the led to the starting of the Epa.
Paola transfigured this moment into a gorgeous piece for soprano and orchestra, entitled “Thrush Song.” After it premiered with the New york city Philharmonic, I invited her to adjust it for a chorus of young people as part of the 2020 Universe in Verse, commemorating 50 years of Earth Day. (Days after David Byrne read a poem at the 2019 edition of Deep Space in Verse, I had actually been awed by the National Sawdust performance of his countercultural hymn of resistance and resilience, accompanied by a coruscating chorus of young people; I was also haunted by Carson’s moving message to the next generations— to the Greta Thunbergs she never lived to fulfill.)
Paola reimagined “Thrush Song” as a marvelous harmonic serenade to Carson’s courage, working with a constellation of young women from the Young People’s Chorus of New york city City, practicing and carrying out from another location in a world stilled and stunned by a global pandemic– a poignant meta-testament to Carson’s tradition: the discovery of how thoroughly linked we are to one another and to the rest of nature through the detailed, complicated, delicate web of biological and ecological relationships weaving the tapestry of being.
The outcome, which many in the live Universe in Verse audience invited as the crowning magnificence of the nearly four-hour show, is now readily available for all the world to cherish, with a deep bow of affection and appreciation to Paola and the exceptional females of the Young People’s Chorus, and unique thanks to Debbie Millman for the lovingly hand-lettered lyrics.
Complement with a Carson’s birdsong notation set to music by singer-songwriter Dawn Landes and Neil Gaiman’s poetic homage to Carson’s guts, written for the 2018 Universe in Verse, then revisit other highlights from the show’s four-year archive: a stunning animated adaptation of Marie Howe’s poem about our cosmic inter-belonging, James Baldwin’s ecological-humanistic wisdom set to song, astronaut Leland Melvin reading Pablo Neruda’s love letter to the forest, and Neil Gaiman’s subversive feminist event of science and the human look for fact, in a tactile animated brief film