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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

A Look Back at Rachel Carson

Air Date: Week of September 21, 2012

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Rachel Carson (US Fish and Wildlife Service)

Rachel Carson’s seminal book “Silent Spring” was published 50 years ago this month. That work made Rachel Carson a household name but her personal life was very private. A book of correspondence between Rachel Carson and her close friend, Dorothy Freeman, gave insight into Carson's convictions, and feelings. Host Steve Curwood spoke with the editor of "Always, Rachel", Dorothy Freeman's granddaughter Martha, about the genesis of "Silent Spring".

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood. Fifty years ago this month saw the publication of one of the most influential books of the last century - Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.

RACHEL CARSON: We spray our elms, and the following springs are silent of robin song. Not because we sprayed the robins directly, but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now-familiar elm-leaf-earthworm-robin cycle.

CURWOOD: A gifted writer from childhood, Rachel Carson trained as a marine biologist, and worked for years for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. In 1951 she wrote the best seller "The Sea Around Us" - which earned her enough royalties to buy a summer home on Southport Island in Maine.

There she met a teacher, Dorothy Freeman, and the two women became fast friends, sharing experiences and exchanging about a thousand letters over the next 12 years. Well, in 1995 Freeman's granddaughter, Martha, published some of those letters in a book called "Always, Rachel". She came into our studios to share her book and her memories of the famous author.

On this anniversary of Silent Spring, we revisit that recording. Martha Freeman told us that her grandmother and Rachel shared a passion for birds, cats, classical music and the ocean.


Rachel Carson’s ground breaking work “Silent Spring” was published in September of 1962.

FREEMAN: I remember them as my guides to that beautiful place, to tide-pooling on Rachel's beach, to walking in the woods with the both of them, to having them just want me to experience the beauty of the sun through the trees, the salt in the air, the moss under feet, the little starfish and periwinkles in tide pools.

CURWOOD: These letters go through so many aspects of Rachel Carson's life and your grandmother's life. And there's a section that they talk about the creation of Silent Spring itself. I'm wondering if you could take us back to February 1st, 1958, when Rachel first tells your grandmother Dorothy about her idea for the book.

FREEMAN: Sure. Rachel writes, "About the book. 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 would 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 hells 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. Oh, a brief one, darling, suggesting the new ideas, not treating them exhaustively. Probably no one could; certainly I couldn't."

CURWOOD: From these letters, Martha, what is it about Rachel Carson, what was it about her character, her being, that allowed her to have this insight that no one else, up until her time, had?

FREEMAN: My feeling is that part of Rachel's genius was that her understanding derived from the point at which intellect and intuition, thinking and feeling intersect in a person. That she brought a wealth of scientific knowledge to bear on the problem, but also her deep feelings for nature, her real understanding of the lives of the sea creatures on her beach, of birds and fish, and her love for nature, and her love for people as part of nature, too.

CURWOOD: Now your grandparents were at first quite worried about this project of Rachel's. It was called the poison project.

FREEMAN: The poison book.

CURWOOD: The poison book. Can you tell us about their thoughts?

FREEMAN: Well, my grandfather worked for a large agricultural feed company; he was an executive. And so he was, they were concerned for her personally, that the message she was going to deliver would not be taken kindly by some pretty powerful interests in this country. And they wanted the message out but they were concerned that their friend Rachel was going to be the one to take it on.

CURWOOD: There was this enormous backlash against the publication of Silent Spring. Indeed, as your grandfather worried and your grandmother worried, there was outcry from the chemical companies and other people as well. Did Rachel and your grandmother write much about this at all?

FREEMAN: They did write, yes, they did write some about it, and it's amazing. Rachel was just not daunted by the attacks. They did not seem to throw her off-center. She just replied to them. She kept getting her message out in speeches, in articles. She just was very certain of what she understood.

CURWOOD: All right; let's hear a bit from some of these speeches. Now here's a talk that she gave to the National Women's Press Club in 1962.

CARSON: Now, I don't want to belabor the obvious, because anyone who has really read the book knows that I do favor insect control in appropriate situations. That I do not advocate the complete abandonment of chemical control. That I criticize modern chemical control not because it controls harmful insects but because it controls them badly and inefficiently. And because it creates many dangerous side effects in doing so.
I criticize the present methods because they are based on a rather low level of scientific thinking. We really are capable of much greater sophistication in our solution to this problem.

CURWOOD: The years in which she was writing Silent Spring, 1958 to 1962, were trying for both Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman. Ms. Freeman's mother was dying and her husband's health was beginning to fail. Martha Freeman says illness and death were also ever-present for Carson.

FREEMAN: For Rachel, Rachel's elderly mother also lived with her and her health began declining in that period. Rachel's niece died, a woman that Rachel had supported throughout her life, and Rachel adopted the niece's 5-year-old son. So Rachel was taking care of a youngster and an elderly mother in ill health at the time when she was trying to write Silent Spring, and also discovering that she herself had cancer.

CURWOOD: The book is finally done, she sends off what will be printed in The New Yorker. And she gets a letter back from The New Yorker magazine editor, William Shawn. And the letter that she writes to your grandmother about the acceptance from Shawn and what it all meant to go through this is very powerful. I'm wondering if you could read that for us now.

FREEMAN: Yeah, I'd be happy to. There are 2 names mentioned in here that I should clarify for people. One is Roger, her grand-nephew who is now her adopted son; and Jeffy, her cat. So Rachel writes to my grandmother, "I longed so for you last night to share my thoughts and feelings. It was odd. I really had not been waiting breathlessly for Mr. Shawn's reaction. Yet once I had it, I knew how very much it meant to me.

You know I have the highest regard for his judgment, and suddenly I knew from his reaction that my message would get across. After Roger was asleep, I took Jeffy into the study and played the Beethoven Violin Concerto, one of my favorites, you know. And suddenly, the tensions of 4 years were broken and I got down and put my arms around Jeffy and let the tears come.

With his little warm, rough tongue, he told me that he understood. I think I let you see last summer what my deeper feelings are about this. When I said I could never again listen happily to a thrush song, if I had not done all I could. And last night, the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures, and all the loveliness that is in nature, came to me with such a surge of deep happiness that now I had done what I could. I had been able to complete it. Now it had its own life. And those are the thoughts I would have shared had you been here. I wish you were."

CURWOOD: Ultimately, Congress, President Kennedy acknowledged Carson's ideas and they had great staying power over these last 30 years. And by the spring of '63 it was pretty clear, at least to your grandmother, and she wrote to Rachel to tell her so. I'm wondering if you could read from this letter of May 15th. And bearing in mind now that Rachel's pretty ill by this time, that her health is going down pretty fast.

FREEMAN: My grandmother wrote to Rachel, "A thought struck me last night, that suddenly the dear old Sea Around Us had been displaced. I never dreamed that could ever happen. That now I think your fame will rest on Silent Spring.

When people talk about you, they'll say: Oh yes, the author of Silent Spring. For I suppose there are people who never heard of The Sea Around Us, strange as that may seem to us. But surely I doubt if there is a household in this country where your name is unknown. How could it be from Peanuts to CBS Reports not to mention all the lawns which have become a major concern now, what to do for crabgrass because Rachel Carson says.

[BIRD-SONG - WOOD THRUSHES AND ORIOLES]

Oh darling, the wood thrushes and orioles have been sounding your praises while I've been writing. This spring is far from silent, and because of you there is a chance now that future springs need not be. Bless your heart. I don't suppose you can put into words how you feel about all this. So I shall just try to feel with you."

CURWOOD: Martha Freeman reading from a letter her grandmother Dorothy wrote to her friend Rachel Carson, collected in the book, "Always, Rachel", from a broadcast on Living on Earth in 1995.

 

 

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