June 1, 2007

Opening Remarks by Moderator Maril Hazlett

For the past few months, the Rachel Carson Online Book Club has provided several bright spots in my own up and down spring – up and down primarily in the weather department. Weather on the Plains is never known for stability, but this spring the tornado warnings started in February, the expected late freezes hit at unexpectedly weird times…

So weather permitting (aside from tornados, we live in the sticks and have only a dish for internet), I will happily share the month of June with you, as your online moderator. We will discuss Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman’s marvelous book of letters, Always, Rachel, which was edited by Freeman’s grand-daughter, Martha Freeman.

On all our behalf, I would like to extend thanks to the Freeman family, whose hard work, love, and generous spirit made this collection possible.

What to Expect During June

Reading collections of letters is a bit different than reading regular books. In some ways it’s easier, especially for busy people with little extra time on their hands. However, reading someone’s correspondence also presents challenges. Especially when the letters span a long period of time, it’s easy to lose track of the big picture, the larger forces that influenced the letter writers. Thus, the first post this month will provide some historical background.

A Consumer Society

Carson and Freeman wrote from 1952-1964. They met during the middle of the postwar era, a time characterized by America’s headlong rush toward prosperity.

These two women connected on the levels of nature and spirit, but their surrounding culture was near-obsessed with material consumption.. After World War II, factories had quickly re-vamped their production output for domestic markets. Wartime research on pesticides and other chemicals transformed not just industrialized agriculture, but the entire consumer economy.

From paints and fabrics to the dyes in lipstick and jellybeans, new chemicals were suddenly everywhere. Colors, textures, the literal material feel and look of everyday life was also changing. New medicines, new food preservatives – there seemed to be no boundaries.

On one hand consumers couldn’t get enough, but on the other they started to worry. Were all these new chemicals really safe? (Many folks still express such concerns today.) Some critics pointed out that this explosion of new substances far outpaced the government’s regulatory structure and resources for checking such substances’ safety.

Decade of Tension

During the 1950s, there was plenty else to worry about. International and domestic politics were both in uproar. The decade had begun with the war in Korea and escalated into the Cold War, the U.S. facing off with the U.S.S.R. Fears of domestic communism ran rampant during the McCarthy era, and the South simmered in the early stages of the civil rights movement. Some worried about civil liberties in general eroding before the restrictions of a government that seemed to have too much unchecked power.

The mushroom cloud looming over the entire scene, of course, was the atomic bomb.

Love and Dissent

This larger context makes Carson and Freeman’s correspondence especially remarkable. At first they kept the outer drama completely at bay, isolating themselves in what Freeman called the “quiet bower.” Freeman provided this precious sanctuary for Carson, who was beset with domestic troubles.

What finally pierced this veil between the inner and outer worlds? For Carson, it was the rising spectre of atomic science. Her growing concerns helped her refine an ecological ethic, the lens that she then turned on pesticides.

When Carson stepped out of the bower, though, it changed her relationship with Freeman. People do of course change over time, sometimes for better or for worse but mostly just for different. In Carson’s case, she now felt called to speak out against environmental destruction. Freeman worried about how such a stance might provoke a backlash against her friend.

Sometimes, such critical turning points in friendships do not work out. In the case of Carson and Freeman, though, it did. Freeman supported Carson's choice, and Carson respected Freeman's concerns. Joined in a private emotional intimacy, together these two women still engaged with controversial public issues as well.


Always, Rachel helps us consider how the larger forces of history have an impact on our most personal relationships. In turn, our connections with loved ones also influence how we, as individuals, speak out. This is simply my own opinion, but I would extrapolate from Carson and Freeman's example to suggest that how Americans do (or do not) confront today’s challenges - from climate change, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - is inextricably tied up with our personal lives as well as with our politics.

Feel free to comment on whatever aspect of Carson and Freeman you like :) always! (hey, a pun) but I will start out by asking:

How does our recognition of larger forces - such as climate and environment - have an impact on our everyday lives and relationships?


Mary Anne D. said...

There are so many aspects of this book that can be considered, it’s hard to know where to start. I like letters because they are connectors. Primarily they connect time and place over distance. Reading the letters between Rachel and Dorothy reminded me of some letters I and a close friend wrote when she moved across the country to the west coast, a place I had never seen. My friend was anxious for news from home and I was anxious to hear about her new place, so we came up with the idea of a “letter journal.” For three months, one of us would write letters in a notebook and then send it to the other for three months. Over four years, we sent the letter journal back and forth between us and it literally became our west coast/east coast connection. We agreed to focus on the outdoors and the natural world, and ended up describing the seasons, the animal life in our backyards, trips to the ocean and mountains, etc. It’s interesting to look back at that now and realize that we were consciously choosing the “quiet bower.” Only occasionally did the influences of the “larger forces” enter into our letter writing. As I think about it now, I’m remembering writing those letters as a relief and a break from the larger forces and an opportunity (excuse?) to spend time in the peaceful part of the world.

Anonymous said...

this may sound minor but I can already tell that my not wanting to drive so much is going to create trouble with my family - who want to be driven places or who want us to drive and come see them. I just don't see how we can do some family things the same, what with trying to not use so much gas.

Anonymous said...

How does our recognition of larger forces - such as climate and environment - have an impact on our everyday lives and relationships?

As a father of my soon to be third child, I am a little conflicted as how to address and confront larger issues/forces in our world. I listen to NPR and have a decent knowledge of what is going on today. Yet I am also hit with my reality of having almost five mouths to feed, rising gas prices, and not until recently, rising interest rates ( which do have a direct effect on my real estate business.)

My point is, yes, I do want a cleaner, friendlier planet for my kids to grow up in, but I need to burn the oil to make the money that feeds them. New cars with flex fuel capacity are too expensive for me to buy, I don't have great choices for president, and I have about 2 hours a day to plan my own life and talk to my wife.
I recognize that there are foces out there that I need to address, but the rat race has consumed me right now.

One point that I should bring up, there are more and more people looking for land and resources to build "Green" housing. I have taken classes and met with manufacturing reps to help provide my clients with these resources. It may be a small contribution, but I guess it's what I can do for now.

Mike Hazlett, GRI ABR

jas said...

I was struck by the initial tension between Carson and Freeman that developed when Carson "stepped out of the bower," and the fact that they were able to overcome it. I wonder if their friendship would have survived if they'd had differing views on the "larger forces"? Is is possible to create and maintain relationships with people who have a different worldview from our own? Do we use our opinions on the "larger forces" to segregate ourselves into social groups made up primarily of those who agree with us? I think that's a fairly common and understandable thing to do; it does, however, make it difficult to have conversations about things like climate and environment that are useful. Don't explorations of the "larger forces" require that we constantly reexamine our own views? Can we do that if we are not challenged by those who disagree with us? At what point do the differences of opinion on these 'larger forces' make it impossible for conversations to take place at all?

Willow said...

I've just started reading the book, so will comment mainly on Maril's ? on larger forces and a person's relationships. I think as a person develops it can be hard to maintain relationships where the two parties differ on significant issues, such as the environment, human rights etc. For me, I feel close to family members such as siblings even though we may differ on these issues, we have history and a family bond to carry though. But with friends, I find that if we differ substantially on things I find central to my view of the world, it limits the relationship. Not that I won't be friends with someone, but probably we won't be as close. And I think we need a supportive environment to go out and voice our opinions, especially if they are controversial or unpopular. The support helps one be strong and feel connected --it also helps to know that others share your views.
I've only read the first year or so of their correspondence, but it seems each met a need in the other that was keenly felt and unmet by others. Rachel is 'the famous author' getting invitations to fancy dinners and given awards, but she was essentially alone. I haven't figured out exactly what Dorothy was missing, but it must have been quite central for her to become so attached to Rachel so quickly.
I guess to close I would say that larger forces can bring people together --ie two people devoted to a common cause, or separate them, as in when one has a radically different view. Or even if it is moderately different, it may lessen the sense of community between the two persons.

Anonymous said...

The format of a "letter journal" is a great one, it places everyday events and observations in a historical and social context that is interesting to read beyond the actual content being presented. Oftentimes it seems that this ongoing, sometimes "steam of conciousness" prose style has more authenticity and honesty, although it may be offering no more "truth" than a different narrative style.

Jasper said...

Mike's "small contribution" is an excellent example of how people can look for something in their own life that they can do to contribute to the larger effort. Steering consumers in a direction that leads to a more sustainable life style will eventually have a big effect and make a difference. The change might happen gradually but the effort spreads once it's started.

Maril Hazlett said...

on the comments so far...

I too love the letter format. I know some argue that email is not too dissimilar, but, I don't know. My email gives me very little sense of refuge or a quiet bower.

Mike - I think jasper is totally on to something - you just take the steps you can. In my day job I sometimes find the big picture of climate change almost overpowering. The sheer practical challenges of getting enough renewable energy on the ground, quickly, at times kind of makes me want to go jump in the lake and just let the snapping turtles have me now.

But pragmatically, you just bite off whatever bite you can swallow (just like the turtles would), and trust that others are doing the same. Offering consumers new greener options is a critical piece of the larger puzzle :) and I too want your kids to have food in their mouths (Mike's my brother. Father to many of my nieces and nephews. They are hungry kids).

Willow and Jas - agh. Good points. Uncomfortable points, a little! I too sometimes find it really hard to talk with people who share fundamentally different views than I do. Self-segregating to some extent does seem to be a common human tendency. (High school cliques were evidently only the beginning.)

Funny - Carson made an ethical argument about ecology, about connections, interdependence, and mutuality, about the environment being a common tie that links the web of life together. Ironically, since she wrote down these ideas and shared them with the world, it feels like the human part of that equation has only grown more polarized.

In general, I would like to believe that no matter how religion, politics, economics, etc. do (and probably unfortunately will always) split us, that a consciously cultivated sense of environmental connection can yet provide some common ground.

Here's to hoping. In a world where there appears to be a great deal of extremism, I think Carson has a lot to teach us as a moderate voice.

Herbert L. said...

Jas raises a lot of really interesting questions about the limitation of friendships. It seems like relationships are more complex than they used to be because the influence of the larger forces is harder to avoid in the world of instant information and globalization. The very nature of friendship is that there are things you have in common, that's what draws people together. While I agree it's important to reexamine our own views and it's good to be challenged by other viewpoints, in most cases, that probably isn't going to happen with our friends. Being challenged is more likely going to be a debate rather than a conversation, and it's usually going to be with someone other than a friend. I think in our close friendships we seek out people who are in sync with our views and beliefs because rather than challenging our views, part of the role of a friend is to validate them.

Maril Hazlett said...

oops, Mike - I should have changed that to your "kids have healthy appetites" :) didn't mean to imply that you starved them. And they eat well-washed and or organic veggies, of course, knowing you guys -

- and I mention this in a public forum because I think Steph asked me for this article for this special report on organic vegetables. If you go clear to the end of the article, it shows the priority list for what produce you might want to buy organically, and what is probably fairly okay to buy from a mainstream grocery store.

Which helps a bit on the budget, having some options. Great article for anyone to check out.

mother earth said...

Formerly the Rachel Carson Trust for the Living Environment, the Rachel Carson Council promotes alternative, environmentally benign pest management strategies to encourage healthier,sustainable living. They are based in Silver Spring, Maryland. Everyone wants the best for their children and to protect them from danger.
Why would anyone knowingly allow their children to be exposed to toxic pesticides when effective alternatives already exist?

Anonymous said...

"The Incredible Shirking Woman,"...Does anyone else remember this Lily Tomlin movie? I think it was in the 80s, not a very good film, but certainly reflects much of the cultural anxiety Maril addresses. A poor house wife begins to inexplicable shrink as a result of all of the chemicals products she is exposed to. Even Hollywood was aware of the connection between us and our environment. Go figure.

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