Rachel Carson: A Portrait

portrait of rachel carson“You can’t possibly win against the government,” said everyone who heard we were going to court to try to stop the so-called Gypsy Moth Eradication Program that threatened to spray three million acres of our home state. Nevertheless, we felt the attempt had to be made. Putting a puny finger in the dike is an action morally called for which, like all necessary deeds, has consequences far beyond any practical effectiveness. And even if it doesn’t stop up the hole entirely, it delays disaster perhaps long enough for more telling help to come to the rescue.

Action, in this case, brought Rachel Carson to the scene. Thus began our acquaintance with a woman whose stature grew and grew upon us until, with the publication of her Silent Spring, (Houghton Mifflin Co., 1962), it became clear that here was a truly Michaelic figure.

She was also to be counted among those rare personalities who are all of one piece. The qualities she showed in her great crusade against the spray-poisoning of man and nature were equally demonstrated in her private life. It is not too much to say that she was a moral giant as welI as a person of highly developed intelligence and poetic feeling. There was something in her nature that made her immune to the paralysis of will that afflicts so many in our time. To see what needed to be done was, for her, to find the strength to undertake it. Indeed, the last years of her life were a saga of such accomplishing and self-overcoming as to prove her to be the stuff of legend.

To see what needed to be done was,
for her, to find the strength to undertake it.

Yet Rachel Carson was anything but the Jeanne d’Arc type of heroine. Her sword was the pen, wielded very much in private. Public appearances cost her retiring nature dearly. A profound contemplative quiet surrounded her like an aura on all occasions.

This stood out particularly in our first impression of her. We had been in correspondence for some months, meeting her request to supply her with the scientific material and news items on pesticides that flowed to us in a never-ending stream because of our court action. Then summer came, and we were to start on a Maine vacation. Rachel Carson, learning this, suggested we stop by for a good talk at her Maine summer home. It turned out to be in sight across the bay from the Spock family cottage where we had planned a visit. We telephoned Rachel to arrange a meeting. Quiet and reserved she spoke in the curiously flat voice with which she answered, though she was all cordiality.

The next day we set out by boat to keep our luncheon date at a beautifully located shore inn not far from where the Carsons lived. Mrs. Spock, a vivacious eighty-years old, came along for conversational reinforcement. Rachel had refused an ocean pick-up saying she would join us by car at the last minute

Upon landing, we went to meet her at the inn’s parking lot, which was out of sight behind a bit of forest. As we approached it, a slightly built woman came around the bend walking unhurriedly. Seeing us she smiled, but did not change her pace.

When we knew Rachel better, we realized how typical it was of her to keep to her own way in everything. She knew what she was about and where she was going, and was not to be even momentarily deflected or changed or made to waste one jot or tittle of her quiet strength. Perhaps she had only slender stores of energy and had learned to hoard them for the most vital uses. In any case, neither at this nor further meetings did she strike us as an exuberant, out-going nature. But there was no heaviness in her somewhat grave demeanor, no lack of warmth in her reserve, or unease in her capacity for chit-chat. Rather did she seem so disciplined to concentration, so given to listening and looking and weighing impressions as to be unable to externalize. But then, true poets are probably rarely sociable.

After a pleasant lunch, we suggested that she join us for an afternoon cruise among the islands while we continued with our shop-talk. Rachel said she could not be so long away from home. At this, Mrs. Spock remarked wickedly, “I don’t think Miss Carson cares for the sea around us.” Our guest smiled and answered gently that she had left an invalid mother and a little great-nephew in the care of a young neighbor and really had to get back to them. She urged us to go with her, saying that we needed to talk further and her mother would enjoy seeing Mrs. Spock.

Nature was, to her, both the great mother, to be looked up to and cherished, and the host of dependent children in need of man’s understanding and protection.

To be in Rachel Carson’s home was to understand how she came to write Silent Spring. Here was a person capable of fullest devotion and fully accepting the responsibility that comes with caring.  In Rachel’s case, caring and responsibility began with an elderly and crippled mother who was wholly dependent on her ministrations. The two even shared a bedroom so that Rachel could watch over her mother through the night as well. In addition to this, Rachel had adopted and was bringing up a niece’s orphaned child, a boy, then five. Those familiar with her writings have already heard of Roger and guessed at Rachel’s bottomless affection for him. There was an equal bond of fondness between Mrs. Carson and her daughter.

In Rachel’s manner with both Roger and her mother her reserve was again evident, despite the gentle way she moved Mrs. Carson out onto the porch with Mrs. Spock and sent Roger and the neighbor off on an errand.

She could not entirely conceal her joy in her Maine site and in the cottage she had built there on a cliff overlooking a wide sweep of bay and islands. She showed us every inch of it, took us down to the tidal pools on the shore below the cliff where she had carried on professional studies, and pointed out the woods described in The Sense of Wonder, (Harper and Row, 1965) where she and Roger spent so many happy hours exploring.

One would have thought that combining the care of an active little boy and an elderly invalid, unable to stir unaided from her chair, would be more than enough to keep the most re­sourceful person busy. But Rachel extended her caring and her care to undertake the defense of nature.

Her love of nature was like her love for home and family, deep and personal. Nature was, to her, both the great mother, to be looked up to and cherished, and a host of dependent children in need of man’s understanding and protection. She gave both kinds of devotion. But beyond this, she felt for nature the awe of one who stands in the presence of cosmic mysteries.

On all three counts, broadcasting highly toxic poisons was murder and sacrilege to Rachel and those akin to her in feeling. The greed for more profit that triggered the attacks on nature, the spray-gunners’ brute lack of perspective, their callous indifference to human health aspects and to the suffering of countless billions of birds and small animals dying in torment every spring along with the target insects–these added up to crime unspeakable that simply could not be tolerated.

Rachel’s pen was by all odds the strongest means of stopping it. She knew this, modest though she was. It was like her not to hesitate to add the huge burden of such a crusade to the responsibilities she already carried.

Time passed. Rachel went into high gear at once. Every few days came a new letter discussing an article or clipping, inquiring into the background of some fact we had called to her attention, or asking to be put in touch with this or that wit­ness from our lawsuit. She began to correspond with every independent scientist who knew some facet of pesticides. When she got dizzy writing, she telephoned. Every item of interest led to a new train of inquiry as she checked and double-checked, to new contacts, to an enormously swelling stack of notes and papers. She reported having to take “millions” of them on her summer trips to Maine.

Yet so orderly and punctilious was she, no material we ever sent her failed to be returned eventually, more often than not with some interesting comment.

Progress in preparing and writing Silent Spring was to be interrupted all too often by Rachel’s or her family’s illnesses. Letter after letter tells of increasingly serious afflictions that slowed or completely halted her for the time being: flu, a long bout of eye trouble that reduced reading to a few minutes daily, infections, poisoning from a leaky air-conditioner, a leg problem that confined her to a hospital bed, than a wheelchair, crutches and a walker, more flu, and finally a dread operation. The frustration these interruptions caused broke repeatedly through Rachel’s reserve. But she went doggedly on after every slow recovery. We were later to learn something not reflected in her letters: that she found she was mortally ill a year or so after she began work on Silent Spring.

Though our correspondence with Rachel Carson was largely about pesticides, she often took the time to express her joy in things of nature, especially birds. We had sent Roger a record of bird songs for his birthday. Rachel described how they all sat listening to it, and then added: “There was a special and unheralded thrill for me in the record. During the song of the pewee, I heard in the background the unmistakable voice of the veery — not once, but several times. Of all bird song, that has the quality of purest magic for me!” In April she wrote: “My garden is a delight just now …all the bulbs I planted last fall coming into exquisite bloom. Also, I’m having more fun with a new tape recorder. Have already got songs of several species of frogs, and of cardinals, white-throats, and mockingbirds.” In June: “About two weeks ago the wrens built in the little house you gave Roger, after a long preliminary inspection of the whole area. I am becoming afraid, however, that they were only exercising their house-building abilities and did not actually use the nest because recently I have seen very little activity around it…” “P.S. — Yes, they are using it!” And two weeks later: “The wren babies are chattering in their little house…”

Writing of her work on Silent Spring Rachel commented: “It is a great problem to know how to penetrate the barrier of public indifference and unwillingness to look at unpleasant facts that might have to be dealt with if one recognized their existence. I have no idea whether I shall be able to do so or not, but knowing what I do, I have no choice but to set it down to be read by those who will. I guess my own principal reliance is in marshaling all the facts and letting them largely speak for themselves.”

In December 1958, Mrs. Carson suffered a slight stroke, contracted pneumonia; and died. Rachel wrote: “Her love of life and of all living things was her outstanding quality. ….More than anyone else I know, she embodied Albert Schweitzer’s reverence’ for life. And while gentle and compassionate, she could fight fiercely against anything she .believed wrong, as in our present Crusade.” One might add: like mother, like child.

The long job of writing was finally finished, though the crusade it was part of had no end. Silent Spring came out in three 1962 installments of The New Yorker, the full book a little later in the summer. Rachel immediately became the target of ferocious and scurrilous attacks by the pesticide interests and their hangers-on. Many of these must have been hard indeed to take. However, she made not the slightest at­tempt to defend herself. Instead, ill and exhausted though she was, she continued her defense of nature and humanity to the extent of making a number of taxing public appearances. These included a forum in San Francisco to which she traveled confined to a wheelchair, as well as the famous TV debate and two Congressional hearings.

About a year’ before Rachel’s death, we had a last call from her in which she spoke of working on a “children’s book.” In December 1963 came a note asking us to help a woman who had written her to inquire where she could buy uncontaminated seeds and plants. We heard no more from or about Rachel until early in April 1964 when a friend coming through from Washington told us that she was reported very gravely ill.

Knowing how many well-nigh miraculous recoveries her prodigious will had to its credit, we were full of hope. Nevertheless, when we traveled to Maine the following week and passed the turn-off that led down to Rachel’s beloved coastal eyrie, memories of her delight in it stood in painful contrast to the foreboding that she might never have that joy again. The next afternoon came the radio announcement of her death.

or days a pall seemed to overhang the earth, as it does at the passing of heroic figures. Then, slowly, it was as though the minor chord of suffering and death changed into a glorious major paean as Rachel Carson’s life and deeds appeared in perspective and her moral greatness shone out from the world of the spirit into the earth her caring had so richly served. To read Rachel Carson’s posthumously issued, unfinished book, The Sense of Wonder, is to know her at the center of her being. Here is a portrait of her life with Roger, here her credo, coupled with intimate descriptions of a poet’s feeling about things most beloved. So immediate is her presence in its greatness, so full the revelation of· her spirit as to be startling. And at the end, she gives away the secret of her enduring and creating will when she says that to contemplate the beauty of the earth is to find sources of strength that will last as long as life itself.

Written By Marjorie Spock with Mary Richards

Rachel Carson’s friend, Marjorie Spock, an organic farmer, was one of the first citizens to take action against the widespread, heedless use of pesticides which characterized America in the 1950s. With others, she attempted to obtain a permanent injunction against the federal and state governments for applying DDT on Long Island, where today there are breast cancer clusters. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court but was turned down on a technicality. It attracted the attention of Rachel Carson. Research for that case later formed part of the documentation used in Silent Spring. Correspondence between Rachel Carson and Marjorie Spock is in the Yale University library.