Rachel Carson in West Virginia?
Where would you look for Rachel Carson’s typewriter, the oversized magnifying glass with which she poured over the tiny print of Federal publications to be edited, or her earliest memos warning about DDT in 1945? Her homes in Maine, Maryland, or near Pittsburgh? The Yale Beinecke Rare Book Library? Likely suspects, but such Rachel Carson archival treasures are found at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.
Dr. Bob Musil, President of the Rachel Carson Council, spoke there in July about Rachel Carson and other women conservationists and signed copies of his book Rachel Carson and Her Sisters: Extraordinary Woman Who Have Shaped America’s Environment (Rutgers, 2014). Rachel Carson is revered at the 533-acre facility along the Potomac River that features woods, meadows, hiking trails, butterfly gardens, and a gorgeous campus of native stone buildings of traditional, yet sustainable designs with passive solar, solar arrays, geothermal heating and cooling, and green work vehicles and shuttles. There is a Rachel Carson Lodge to house guests and participants in National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) programs.
Proudly displayed on the main floor are historic photos of Carson, early editions of her books, and various artifacts. The same is true of the Main building that houses the USFWS archives and the Robert C. Byrd Auditorium where Musil spoke to a large crowd of career Federal trainees in wildlife management and other fields, as well as members of the public who attend free lecture series, film festivals, and other events at the NCTC. Mark Madison, the historian of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a genial environmental historian and former Harvard professor who is the moving force behind homages to Rachel Carson, the public programs, and the remarkable and growing archives at the NCTC.
In his talk, RCC’s Musil focused on the importance of Federal research and public education, especially from the USFWS, for the history and growth of the environment movement. He explained, too, how Rachel Carson learned much of the scientific information that infuses her best-selling environmental books from her research and editing as an aquatic biologist for some fifteen years at the USFWS. The same is true, interestingly enough, for one of Carson’s main predecessors, Florence Merriam Bailey, who wrote immensely popular books on birds and the environment in the early twentieth century, led campaigns against the trade in bird feathers, and worked closely with the White House of Theodore Roosevelt. Bailey, too, got much of her scientific information for her books from the USFWS through her brother, Dr. C. Hart Merriam, the head of the US Biological Survey, and a close friend of Roosevelt’s. She also made extensive observations and did research on field trips with her husband, Vernon Bailey, a field biologist with the USFWS. Merriam, like Rachel Carson, was also a Board member of the DC Audubon Club (later the Audubon Naturalist Society) and reached millions of Americans through her writing.
Rachel Carson herself began her career with the USFWS when she could no longer afford to continue her Ph.D in biology at Johns Hopkins while holding three part-time jobs as an adjunct professor and research assistant and supporting her widowed mother and two nieces. Carson’s early radio scripts, brochures, and pamphlets were so good that they set a new precedent for public education at the USFWS. Her first boss, Elmer Higgins, was so impressed that he recommended that Carson send off an early piece based on U.S. fisheries research to the Atlantic Monthly. It was published as “Undersea” and got immediate critical praise that led to a book contract. Bolstered with more USFWS research and by field trips to the US Fishery at Beaufort, North Carolina, Rachel Carson wrote her first, highly-acclaimed book, Under the Sea-Wind, which came out in December, 1941. When republished after World War II, it became, like all her books, a huge best-seller.
As the typed memos and a press release by her in the USFWS archives show, Rachel Carson was aware of the dangers of DDT as early as 1945. But it took until 1962, again, with important research from the USFWS facility at Patuxent, Maryland, and elsewhere, for publishers and the public to be ready for the revelations of Silent Spring that rocked the nation and helped reboot a flagging environment movement. By then, Carson was dying of breast cancer. She turned to her close friend and USFWS colleague, Shirley Briggs, to carry on her work through a legacy organization that became the Rachel Carson Council. There are photos, artwork and other archival material from Shirley Briggs at the NCTC, along with important materials from another friend and USFWS colleague, Bob Hines, who did the illustrations for Carson’s 1955 best-seller, The Edge of the Sea.
While RCC President Bob Musil spoke and autographed books and signed up new members for the Rachel Carson Council, he pointed out again and again that without the careers of Rachel Carson and Shirley Briggs at the USFWS and the collaboration between the USFWS and environmental groups, writers, and the public over the years, there might not be a Silent Spring, or a Rachel Carson Council, or the strong environmental movement we have today.