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Rachel Carson: Breaking the Silence What would cause a conservative fifty-year old woman to jeopardize her reputation as a best-selling and beloved nature writer in order to write a politically controversial book attacking corporate interests in this country—a book inviting the kind of hostile scrutiny of her private life that could destroy her and those she loved the most? What would cause a middle-class woman at mid-life to question all of the values with which she has been raised, all of the values of Western history as well as the values of a spiritual tradition that credits a male deity with the power to create and preserve life? In other words, whatever possessed Rachel Carson to write Silent Spring, the book about pesticides that first brought environmental issues to the public’s awareness? In recent years, many facts about Rachel Carson’s personal life have come to light, including her closeted relationship with another woman during the last decade of her life. In 1952, at the age of forty-five, Rachel met the great love of her life, Dorothy Freeman. Dorothy was fifty-five, very married, and a grandmother. They met on an island in Maine where their families had vacation cottages, and within months their friendship developed into a passionate intimacy. Although Dorothy’s husband accepted their relationship, Rachel and Dorothy kept their love a secret to the outside world. For the next ten years, until Rachel’s death, the two women shared their summers on the island, spending the rest of the year five hundred miles apart --- Rachel with her mother in Maryland,
and Dorothy with her husband in Massachusetts. Fortunately, Dorothy, in defiance of Rachel’s instructions, did not destroy the letters they wrote during these months of separation, and this considerable correspondence has been published in Always, Rachel [etc.]. At the time when the women met, Rachel’s book The Sea Around Us had just become an international best-seller, and she was hard at work another biography of the ocean, The Edge of the Sea. After this book also topped the best-selling charts, Rachel began casting about for another project. In November 1956, she became obsessed with what she and Dorothy referred to as “The Dream.” “The Dream” was a plan to purchase a section coastal property on the island that Dorothy had named “The Enchanted Wood,” in honor of the private hours they had spent there. Rachel intended to create a wildlife preserve to be managed by a three-person board of directors. She and Dorothy would be the controlling members of the board. “The Dream” was a way for Rachel to create something with the woman she loved in which they could both publicly participate. It was a way to both celebrate and commemorate a relationship that had no name, no status, and no institution in a homophobic society. It was Rachel’s plan to finance the purchase with the income from her next book, a book whose subject was to be nothing less than the origin of all life on earth. “The Dream” was never realized, because of the owners’ reluctance to sell the property, and also because of a personal situation that arose in Rachel’s family. Rachel’s relationship with Dorothy was not her only family secret. About the time of the publication of her first book, Rachel’s niece had become pregnant out of wedlock, a situation considered a disgrace and a scandal to the middleclass family of the 1950’s. In January 1957, the niece, whom Rachel had
been supporting financially, died suddenly leaving her five-year old son without a home. Rachel, feeling it was her duty, took him in and legally adopted him. At the time of the adoption, Rachel was entering her prime years as a writer, and she bitterly resented this disruption of her life. Since 1935, she had been supporting and living with her mother. With the recent death of her mother, Rachel had been looking forward to the first real freedom in her life. Now, at fifty-two, she was facing at least fifteen more years of caregiving and financial responsibility. In addition, her compulsive work habits and her extreme mood swings made it difficult to adjust to the needs of a small and traumatized child. Although she had not yet been diagnosed with cancer, Rachel had begun to experience difficulties with her health. It was during this period of intense inner conflict that Rachel wrote some of her most poignant and vulnerable letters to Dorothy: “Now I think I may try to call you tonight, instead of the Sunday call I’d had in mind. I’ve wanted to every night for days, and it’s getting hard to wait. And this is, after all, An Anniversary! How very long ago and far away it seems --- part of another era, a lost time that will never quite have its counterpart. For I grow more conscious with each passing week that my life will never again be the same, and that when it might otherwise be possible to do the things I had thought to do, the sands will have run too low. But no more in that depressing vein --- I was only recalling that while I may have thought myself “encumbered” during our lovely 1956 Spring-time, I didn’t know ‘from nothin’!” “Sometimes I think I can’t go on; at other times it seems possible. But always I know I must. Life is such a queer business—great visions, great opportunities opened up, and then a door slammed. I don’t understand it; I never will...”
“I think I shall try for nursery school --- or day camp or whatever they call it --- during the month of June, then look forward to some all-day arrangements in the fall. Public kindergarten is only 3 hours a day, 4 days a week --- and I can’t earn a living, and live myself, in 12 hours a week!...” “I’m living for May 26th. Please come.” Battling to maintain her work schedule and her autonomy, her power struggles with Roger escalated: “... the poor child’s demands on me have increased to the point where -- even though understanding or trying to --- I think I’ll explode... For no matter how I explained the situation --- yes, and no matter how hardboiled I got about it --- nothing helped very much --- he was at my door every little while to see ‘how much work’ I had done. And I actually believe he convinced himself he was ‘helping’ by staying away even for a few minutes at a time... ... And he seems to be getting so neurotic --- several times a day he comes to me about some new ache or pain --- or he has chills and can’t breathe --- or he’s had a nightmare, etc., etc. Darling, I do feel so sorry for him, and so inadequate to cope with the situation. I suppose if I gave myself to him every minute of the day it would help --- but I can’t help fighting to preserve something of myself. And even while hating myself for it, I can’t keep thinking, ‘Why did this have to happen to me?’“ As Rachel struggled to find a balance between her own needs and the needs of a dependent child, she began to notice and resent the privilege of men, who so seldom have to grapple with this dilemma. Rather than envying them their exemption, she began to critique it as a form of arrogance that was, in fact, cutting them off from the world around them:
“One of the things I’ve had in the back of my mind to comment on was a TV interview with Frank Lloyd Wright, of which I happened to hear a little weeks ago. Something he said (while it didn’t really surprise me) stuck in my mind with a sense of shock. It was to the effect that long ago he had had to choose between “honest arrogance” and “hypocritical humility” --- and had chosen honest arrogance. It somehow crystallized in my belief that a large share of what’s wrong with the world is man’s towering arrogance --- in a universe that surely ought to impose humility, and reverence.” The perspective so traumatically thrust upon her by single motherhood radicalized Rachel’s view of her male colleagues and their dissociative ideologies. The circumstance that appeared to have derailed her life work actually provided her with the premise upon which she would write her next and greatest book: humanity’s interconnectedness with all forms of life, and our responsibilities toward that life --- even at the expense of our immediate comfort or convenience. This revelation about the arrogance of men occurred in ????, and in January 1958, Olga Huckins, a friend of Rachel’s, experienced a similar awakening. Her property had just been sprayed with DDT as part of a government program to control mosquitos. She wrote the following in a letter to the editor of the Boston Herald, protesting the aerial spraying: “The ‘harmless’ shower bath killed seven of our lovely songbirds outright. We picked up three dead bodies the next morning right by the door. They were birds that had lived close to us, trusted us, and built their nests in our trees year after year. The next day, three were scattered around the bird bath... On the following day one robin dropped suddenly from a branch in our woods. We were too heartsick to hunt for other corpses. All of these birds died horribly, and in the same way. Their bills were gaping open, and their splayed claws were drawn up to their breasts in agony...
Air spraying where it is not needed or wanted is inhuman, undemocratic, and probably unconstitutional. For those of us who stand helplessly on the tortured earth, it is intolerable.” A copy of this letter was sent to Rachel, and it proved to be the final catalyst. Out of the fiery crucible of Rachel’s frustrated “Dream” of creating some visible testament of her love for Dorothy, and out of her rage over the day-to-day sacrifices required of a single mother, there emerged a vision of a book. It would be unlike anything Rachel Carson had ever written, and, in fact, unlike any book that had ever been written: “... About the book: I’ll see if I can make any sense about it briefly. The theme remains what I have felt for several years it would be: Life and the relations of Life to the physical environment... But I have been mentally blocked for a long time, first because I didn’t know just what it was I wanted to say about Life, and also for a reason more difficult to explain. Of course everyone knows by this time that the whole world of science has been revolutionized by events of the past decade or so. I suppose my thinking began to be affected soon after atomic science was firmly established. Some of the thoughts that came were so unattractive to me that I rejected them completely, for the old ideas die hard, especially when they are emotionally as well as intellectually dear to one. It was pleasant to believe, for example, that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man --- he might level the forests and dam the streams, but the clouds and the rain and the wind were God’s... It was comforting to suppose that the stream of life would flow on through time in whatever course that God had appointed for it --- without interference by one of the drops of the stream --- man. And to suppose that, however the physical environment might mold Life, that Life could
never assume the power to change drastically --- or even destroy --- the physical world. These beliefs have almost been part of me for as long as I have thought about such things. To have them even vaguely threatened was so shocking that, as I have said, I shut my mind --- refused to acknowledge what I couldn’t help seeing. But that does no good, and I have now opened my eyes and my mind. I may not like what I see, but it does no good to ignore it, and it’s worse than useless to go on repeating the old “eternal verities” that are no more eternal than the hill of the poets. So it seems time someone wrote of Life in the light of the truth as it now appears to us. And I think that may be the book I am to write.” Although Rachel’s format for the book would undergo revisions as the cancer compelled her to condense her material in a race against time, her initial vision did not waver. Silent Spring, a reference to a world without songbirds, remained the book that would bring a world out of denial about the fragility of the ecosystem and the potential destructiveness of man-made technologies. If our planet is to be saved from the arrogance of men, it is refreshing to realize that we just may owe that salvation to the passionate love of postmenopausal women for each other, and for their children and their birds.
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