Rachel Carson’s Sky Writing Is Now a Picture Book

SOMETHING ABOUT THE SKY, by Rachel Carson. Illustrated by Nikki McClure.

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 space-time, 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 volcanoes 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 19th century, the chemist and amateur meteorologist Luke Howard, still in his 20s, noticed that clouds form in particular shapes under particular conditions. Applying the principles of the newly popular Linnaean taxonomy of the living world to clouds, he named the three main classes cumulus, stratus and cirrus, then braided them into 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 about 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.

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 (whose judges described it 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 clouds, emanating from Carson’s credo 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 had begun her literary career with an eye to the sky.

She was only 11 when her story “A Battle in the Clouds” — 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. She eventually enrolled at Pennsylvania Women’s College, intent on majoring in English.

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

To meet the school’s science requirement, Carson took an introductory biology course. She found herself enchanted by the subject and changed her major.

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 and receiving rejection slip after rejection slip. Somewhere along the way — training at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, working 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.

In 1952, 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. Carson was modeling a new possibility for generations of writers to come, blurring the line between where science ends and poetry begins.

That was the ethos she took to her “Omnibus” assignment about “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 grew up immersed 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.

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 in order to channel 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 kind of 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.

Less than a year after “Something About the Sky” aired on “Omnibus,” Carson took over the care of her orphaned grandnephew, Roger, whom she would soon legally adopt. (He’s the small boy romping across McClure’s illustrations.) In what began as an article for Woman’s Home Companion and was later expanded into her posthumously published book “The Sense of Wonder,” she wrote:

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.

SOMETHING ABOUT THE SKY | By Rachel Carson | Illustrated by Nikki McClure | Candlewick Studio | 56 pp. | $19.99 | Ages 5 to 8

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