A Deliberate Pace: On Rachel Carson

A Deliberate Pace: On Rachel Carson

On a Farther Shore captures the conservationist’s deep sense of geologic time and the forces of evolution.


In 1858, the Victorian poet and critic Edmund Gosse was a 9-year-old child. That spring and summer, he and his father spent their days collecting marine specimens in the tidal pools on the Cornwall seashore. Of this time and place, Gosse later wrote:

The rocks between tide and tide were submarine gardens of a beauty that seemed often to be fabulous, and was positively delusive, since, if we delicately lifted the weed-curtains of a windless pool, though we might for a moment see its sides and floor paved with living blossoms, ivory-white, rosy-red, orange and amethyst, yet all that panoply would melt away, furled into the hollow rock, if we so much as dropped a pebble in to disturb the magic dream….
   All this is long over, and done with. The ring of living beauty drawn about our shores was a very thin and fragile one. It had existed all those centuries solely in consequence of the indifference, the blissful ignorance of man. These rock-basins…filled with still water almost as pellucid as the upper air itself, thronged with beautiful sensitive forms of life,—they exist no longer…. An army of “collectors” has passed over them, and ravaged every corner of them. The fairy paradise has been violated, the exquisite product of centuries of natural selection has been crushed…. No one will see again on the shore of England what I saw in my early childhood.

These words were written in 1907. Half a century later, the American marine biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson was saying much the same thing about the even further desecration of nature, for which she too held the human race (in the twentieth century, more than in any other) responsible. Now, another half-century on, we read the fiftieth-anniversary edition of Silent Spring, Carson’s great brief for nature’s prosecution of the human species, and are sobered anew. Thinking about what has and has not been done in recognition of her plea that human beings realize that all species on earth are dependent on one another to preserve the environment in which they will either live or perish together, it still seems to me that our fate will be the latter.

What Carson saw in the late 1950s was that on a planet threatened by the reckless use of pesticides, and equally imperiled by the radioactive fallout from recurrent nuclear bomb tests, the natural world was literally under siege—and we along with it. As William Souder, her latest biographer, tells us, Carson intuited that “pesticides and radiation [were] capable of damaging the genetic material that guides the machinery of living cells and provides the blueprint for each succeeding generation.” These were “the inevitable and potentially lethal developments of the modern age, each one a consequence, as she put it bluntly in Silent Spring, of ‘the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.’”

A dramatic world debate erupted upon the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, with many in government and industry shaking a collective fist at Carson, the melodramatic alarmist, and many more among the press and general public lionizing Carson, the selfless whistleblower. From that day to this, her name arouses anger and frustration alike among those who still oppose her insistence that we pull back severely on the use of pesticides, as well as those who insist, If we don’t do as she says, the earth is doomed. Whatever one’s position, there is no denying that Silent Spring has become—and will remain—one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.

* * *

Rachel Carson was born in May of 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, a small hardscrabble town fourteen miles from Pittsburgh, into a genteel family that had fallen on permanent hard times. Although there was a Mr. Carson, Rachel’s true “parents” were her adoring mother (an impassioned nature lover) and the woods and fields around the Carson homestead, which mother taught daughter to commune with. For the young Rachel, mother and nature became inextricably bound together, and as it turned out, she never had to pull that dyad apart: throughout her life she communed with nature and lived with her mother.

By the time of her sophomore year at the nearby Pennsylvania College for Women, Carson was more than ready to fall under the spell of a dynamic science teacher who, as Souder tells us, taught that “all life was interconnected, and seen in the light of evolution this meant, as Carson came to realize, that every day in the world offered evidence of all the years of the world that had come before.” For the young Rachel, this insight was magical, as it still is for every budding scientist: it became the romantic touchstone of her life, never to be replaced by another.

Upon graduation from college, she applied for and was given a scholarship to study zoology at Johns Hopkins; but the summer before she entered grad school, she received a fellowship at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts, where she discovered something vital about herself: she was no good at hands-on science. What she was good at was research in the library—and writing imaginatively about her findings. This, she quickly saw, she could do well and happily for the rest of her life. The library and the typewriter together told her who she was: a writer with a talent for making science come alive on the page.

In 1935, she went to work for the government, writing radio scripts for the Bureau of Fisheries. Within six months of her arrival at the bureau, her boss asked her to write something “of a general sort” about the sea. The result was an essay so engaging that her boss told her it was too good for a minor government publication and suggested she submit it to The Atlantic Monthly, where it was immediately accepted and published under the title “Undersea.” As Souder explains:

The essay was an animated distillation…of seemingly everything that Carson knew firsthand or had learned from the scientific literature about the life that crowded the sea, from the water’s edge at the high-tide mark to the depths of black chasms beneath the open ocean. Carson went beyond mere description of the lives of starfish and eels and crabs and fish into the deeper meanings of oceanic natural history. Here, in the tidal wash and beneath the waves, appeared nature’s demonstration of the systemic biological forces that link all life in the present and through the ages—the myriad churning, interrelated existences that are the leading edge of evolutionary history.

It was the seed from which Carson’s first three books grew, all published between 1941 and 1955: Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us (this one made her internationally famous) and The Edge of the Sea. These were the books that demonstrated her writerly grasp of what many others had also seen, but could not make dramatic. Or put another way: she was always part of a web of people whose interests matched her own. There were marine biologists, professional and amateur, doing the same thing at the same time all over the world; that’s how she was able to consult so many experts over the years. But the element missing from their work was, as Souder writes, “the voice of someone standing above this elemental environment and feeling within it the slow pulse of geologic time and the mighty force of evolution that lies inside and beyond the surging waters—a voice that belonged more naturally to Rachel Carson.”

* * *

It was to be a good ten years, however, between the writing of that original piece in 1936 and the conscious recognition that the sea, where all life began, would become her all-in-all. In spring 1946, Carson was asked to write a series of pamphlets describing the federal wildlife refuges and explaining the work that the bureau (now renamed the US Fish and Wildlife Service) was doing in them. The project was called Conservation in Action, and out of it came her mature awareness that all earthly species are dependent on an inextricable web of interactions that connects every living thing, one to another. Thus, Carson the conservationist evolved into Carson the ecologist.

One of the first subjects of these pamphlets was Plum Island, Massachusetts. She had fallen in love with the ocean in general, and the New England sea fronts in particular. “Standing at the water’s edge,” Souder tells us, “the loneliness of the Atlantic was palpable.” To Carson, that loneliness spoke volumes. 

In 1952, she bought a piece of land on a rocky promontory on Southport Island near Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and built a house to which she traveled every summer from her home in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland. Here, for the remainder of her comparatively short life, she watched, studied, brooded over and exulted in the ocean beneath her window, bending over its tidal pools, gathering the marine life swarming in them, walking out on the rocks early and late, and all the while keeping copious notes and records of the daily and seasonal changes of the ocean itself.

It was on Southport Island that she met Dorothy Freeman, who, along with her husband, Stanley, was Carson’s nearest neighbor. The Freemans were an amiable couple who also revered nature, and very quickly the three became good friends. In time, the two women fell in love. Dorothy remained contentedly married to Stanley (neither she nor Rachel wanted it any other way), but the women spent large amounts of time together on Southport Island in the summer and, whenever possible, met secretly throughout the year in Washington, Boston or New York—to cuddle and commune, I think (though who can ever know?), not actually to make love.

Upon the publication in 1995 of a volume of the many letters Carson and Freeman wrote to each other, the case for Carson as a gay woman began to be made. I, however, cannot imagine the virginal Carson as an active lesbian; in fact, it’s almost impossible to imagine her in a state of carnal desire at all. I would say rather that once in her life she fell in love with a person, and when she did the object of her love happened to be a woman. Carson was one of those people, oddly made, whose sublimation of the normal passions—in her case, through nature—was absolute. The letters she wrote to Freeman are intensely romantic, but they are not at all sexual. 

Nonetheless, the attachment was powerful, and immensely important to both women, enriching their lives for the eleven years it endured, and ending only with Carson’s death in 1964. A miserable irony here is that while she was writing about the dying earth, Carson was herself dying. By the time Silent Spring was published, two years had passed since she had been diagnosed with a breast cancer that kept on metastasizing. She was 52 and had four nightmarishly painful years to live—and, American stoic that she was, she refused to let a day of them be lost to self-pity. In February 1963, more dead than alive, she wrote to Freeman: “The main thing I want to say, dear, is that we are not going to get bogged down in unhappiness about all this. We are going to be happy, and go on enjoying all the lovely things that give life meaning—sunrise and sunset, moonlight on the bay, music and good books, the song of thrushes and the wild cries of geese passing over.”

And she kept on working. She continued to travel extensively on behalf of her sobering but beautiful book—speaking, lecturing, testifying in Washington, and starring in a television documentary built around the book’s argument. Everyone around her, including Eric Sevareid, the program’s distinguished interviewer, feared that she would not live to see it aired. But she did. CBS Reports: The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson—now considered a milestone in the history of television journalism—was viewed by millions of Americans on April 3, 1963. Almost exactly one year later, on April 14, 1964, Carson died.

* * *

A year after her death, a book called The Sense of Wonder—which had begun its life in 1956 as an essay called “Help Your Child to Wonder”—was released under Carson’s name. For a few years after its initial publication, she had undertaken to expand the essay into a book, and to have it illustrated by the dramatic photographs she’d always wanted taken around her house in Maine. But time ran out on her, and the essay was republished in 1965 pretty much as it had been a decade earlier. Thirty years later, a photographer named Nick Kelsh found an old copy of The Sense of Wonder and took the photographs he thought Carson would have wanted to complete the book. In 1998, the essay was published again, this time accompanied by Kelsh’s dramatic images of woods, clouds and ocean, thereby fulfilling magnificently Carson’s yearning to see the quintessential statement of her life’s work served well.

The essay begins with something like a declaration of purpose:

One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in the rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy—he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me. But I think we felt the same spine-tingling response to the vast, roaring ocean and the wild night around us.

It goes on:

It was hardly a conventional way to entertain one so young, I suppose, but now, with Roger a little past his fourth birthday, we are continuing that sharing of adventures in the world of nature that we began in his babyhood, and I think the results are good. The sharing includes nature in storm as well as calm, by night as well as day, and is based on having fun together.

We have let Roger share our enjoyment of things people ordinarily deny children because they are inconvenient, interfering with bedtime, or involving wet clothing that has to be changed or mud that has to be cleaned off the rug…. I think we have felt that the memory of such a scene, photographed year after year by his child’s mind, would mean more to him in manhood than the sleep he was losing.

The essay ends with her urging all parents to do the same for their children, because “if a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” In my mind’s eye, I see Edmund Gosse nodding his head with the intensity of pleasure that connects one sympathetic sensibility to another.

On a Farther Shore does full honor to the woman who wrote The Sense of Wonder. William Souder is clearly besotted: not with Carson necessarily, but with her life. He has swallowed it whole, and has set out to tell its story in language that mimics its feel. It is not that Souder’s sentences are in imitation of his subject’s, but rather that, in their rhythm and locution, they represent a kind of homage to the sentences that she did write. In the end, the book he has written is, like a poem, the thing itself, so perfectly does it capture a way of being in the world that Rachel Carson, both in her person and her work, radiated.

In our May 2, 2011, issue, Vivian Gornick reviewed The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg, in “History and Heartbreak.”

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