June 25, 2007

Comments from Moderator Maril Hazlett

My last week as moderator! Wah. Thanks to everyone who has commented on this wonderful book, Always, Rachel. Thanks also to the folks who have been reading along and participating offline.

For those keeping an eye on the ongoing Carson controversy, I've really enjoyed the recent coverage in the Bug Girl blog - especially this entry on DDT and Africa, as well as her follow-up on insect resistance. I'm all for understanding how evolution still works in the here and now, not just in acknowledging its mechanics during the remote past. I also like being reminded of ecological complexity, that vast world that human knowledge (let alone extremist rhetoric) can't really capture.

... Hey! That sounds a whole lot like some of the lessons of Rachel Carson.

Ending Always, Rachel

I'm not too sure of where folks might be in the letters at this point. Regardless, probably everyone knows how they end. On April 14, 1964, not two years after the publication of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson died from complications of breast cancer.

As far as her work, she left four bestsellers and a marvelous children's book behind. And as you all well know, Carson is credited with helping to inspire an ecological shift in popular consciousness and policy that eventually coalesced into the environmental movement of the 1970s and beyond. No small set of accomplishments.

However, one can't help but wonder. Carson left so much undone. No matter how powerful I find her finished works, I have to admit to being fascinated, maybe even a little obsessed, with what I think of as her ghost books - the ones she never had a chance to complete.

Throughout her papers, these unfinished projects merge and divide and then blend once more: a project on evolution, a remembrance of life through nature essays, larger thoughts about the relation of Man to Life, and a few other fragments. These wraiths represent some of the environmental questions that Carson never had the opportunity to process fully. Arguably, she discussed these nebulous ideas most thoroughly in her writings to Dorothy Freeman.

The questions that these two friends faced together are still critical for us to consider today. Thanks to everyone for discussing these threads so thoroughly.

July Discussion Topic: Under the Sea-Wind Moderators: Patricia DeMarco and Mark Lytle

June 15, 2007

Comments from Moderator Maril Hazlett

Carson and Controversy

Inspired by some of last week's comments, I finally got around to something I should have done long ago: I set up a Google news alert for "Rachel Carson." (You don't have to use Google for this service; many different online news and/or search engines offer similar features. All you do is type in your term, their search engine scans the web for relevant content, then delivers the compiled results to your email address on a daily or weekly basis.)

Reading through more of the Rachel Carson coverage was quite educational. It was also good for keeping in mind the larger cultural context of this RC Centennial Blog. As someone noted earlier, a lot of the anti-Carson material does focus on the myth that Silent Spring argued for the banning of all pesticides in all situations, in particular DDT.

This assertion is clearly contrary to the text of the book itself, where Carson constantly distinguished between pesticide use and misuse. Never did she deny that pesticides might have to be used where there was no other resort. This perspective has been somewhat lost, though - recognition of Carson as a moderate, reasonable voice, urging informed debate. She's not alone, I fear; on many levels moderation has steadily lost ground in recent years. Last, from my understanding of EPA's webpage on the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), DDT is still allowed for combating disease vectors such as malaria.

Regardless. In the likely event that global climate change continues and disease vectors thus increase, I doubt this debate will go away anytime soon. And no matter the topic, I recognize it is always difficult to discuss complicated issues that will probably never be resolved to anyone's entire satisfaction - let alone carry out those discussions in moderate tones, within a civil discourse where opposing points of view hopefully stand a chance of finding middle ground. Hot button issues make avoiding extreme rhetoric even harder.

Always, Rachel

So, that said, let's talk about Rachel Carson, Dorothy Freeman, and religion, which is not a hot button issue at all, right? Right. My original, blithely idealistic plan for this week's discussion was to explore some of the recurring threads in the Carson/ Freeman correspondence, such as the nature of Life (I had evolution in mind, actually - another peaceful topic) as well their intense questions about religion and spirituality.

Pondering the connections between God, Life, and Nature was an underlying theme in Carson's writing (she often capitalized all three, as I have just done). In fact, this correspondence provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the many different nuances of religion, spirit, faith, mystery, etc. - all of the many trailing threads wound up in the one big ball that we tend to know as belief.

Carson and Freeman's exchanges testify to how a reverence for nature can suffuse every aspect of a life. Both women had a strong original grounding in Christian thinking. As they developed their own connection, they continued to respect spirit in the diverse places that they found it, and welcomed its presence in their lives. Their annual Easter letters are marvelous examples.

I liked how a few folks contributed their favorite quotes to the discussion last week - along those lines, one of my favorite quotes on this topic is actually Carson quoting Albert Einstein to Freeman, while trying to put words to their own relationship. The passage from Einstein reads:

"'The most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical... To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms - this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.'"
As Carson added in her own words: "God has blessed me far beyond anything I deserved or dreamed of, by giving me you." (pages 67-68).

Environment and Religion Today

Discuss this or run screaming, your choice :) I am kind of kidding. As per usual, it really makes no never mind to me exactly what you all discuss, I like reading all of it, and it always makes me think.

Today, the intersections of environment and religion seem to be everywhere. Tom Dunlap, who hosted the blog in April along with Mark Madison, has a wonderful book called Faith in Nature, that talks about the historical role of faith in American environmental thinking and advocacy. On NPR a while back, I heard a fascinating story about the rise of the creation care movement, and Grist has been covering that topic as well. I have just discovered an anti-global warming, pro-energy-efficiency California interfaith group with perhaps my favorite name ever - Interfaith Power and Light. Last but definitely not least, renowned biologist E.O. Wilson has a recent book out, written in the format of an extended letter to a Southern Baptist pastor (Wilson himself was raised in the church), and titled The Creation.

Religion, environment.... hmmm. What, in general, is going on here? Any thoughts?

June 8, 2007

Comments from Maril Hazlett

Lost in the Carson/ Freeman letters [Always, Rachel] yet? Are you perhaps… unable to lay your hands on the letters yet? :) Offline it has been brought to my attention that this book usually has to be ordered; local book stores do not seem to stock it like they do, say Silent Spring or The Sea Around Us.

No problem. I figured that might happen so the questions are open-ended, and anyone should be able to contribute. I will also try to throw in a little helpful background information.

Also, just to mention – the backlash against Carson and Silent Spring continues. I believe that last month someone posted about the Oklahoma senator who blocked a resolution honoring Rachel Carson. Likewise, the New York Times recently ran a review of Silent Spring by John Tierney. There’s a nice counterpoint to their general ideas from Linda Lear in a guest post at Earth and Sky. Also, someone drew my attention to Carson-related piece by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. Kolbert of course is the author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe, quite a powerful book on climate change.

Now back to Rachel and Dorothy.

Family and Place

Dorothy Freeman and Rachel Carson began corresponding in 1952. Freeman was fifty-five, Carson was forty-six. Freeman had learned that Carson, author of The Sea Around Us, had just purchased land close to the Freemans’ longtime family retreat in Southport, Maine. Freeman wrote and welcomed Carson to the neighborhood. In 1953, the two women met in person for the first time. Afterwards, their correspondence flourished. Soon they became emotionally inseparable.

One of the strongest bonds in Carson and Freeman’s relationship was their physical and spiritual sense of place. They also both saw nature as the ultimate source of all that was good about the human – emotions, reverence, and appreciation of beauty through all the senses, as well as careful and considered thought. The summers the two women spent together in Maine, exploring its wild and rocky coastlines, forever anchored their connection.

However, the rest of the year they lived many miles apart. They wrote to each other while sitting under the drier at the beauty shop, setting the curl on their perms, and they wrote while sitting at kitchen tables, watching birds at the feeders outside. Their letters discussed everything from housekeeping concerns to the perennial question of what to wear to special events. They even shared a (cute! to me) crush on conductor Leonard Bernstein.

Carson and Freeman connected through what we often think of as wild nature. However, their bond also included the domestic worlds of garden, home, and especially family. As well as their deepest feelings and a love for the natural world, they shared the everyday.

Questions for Discussion

Hmmm. As someone mentioned in the comments last week, there’s so much to this collection that it’s difficult to know where to start a discussion. I’m going to use that as my excuse for not being able to come up with a very focused question this week.

Instead, as I wrote the above, I found myself wondering more generally about how Carson’s friendship with Freeman supported Carson in going beyond the normal voice and perspective that was standard for scientific experts.

To some extent, we tend to think of scientific expertise as existing separate from everyday people and concerns. On the good side, this helps keep research to be objective. However, if this isolation goes too far (and this is one of the criticisms that Carson made in Silent Spring) then the scientific enterprise can lose its anchors in the larger community - its values, priorities, and concerns, and in a dangerous way. Silent Spring is notable for how Carson included the concerns of housewives, outdoorsmen, birdwatchers, nature lovers - basic everyday citizens - and said that these perspectives were just as valid as scientific expertise in weighing the benefits and burdens of technology.

Is this true? (I hope so, but I have to ask.) If it is true, then how do you balance these perspectives, the scientific and the everyday, in a democratic manner? Does acknowledging people's often personal concerns make science less objective? And what does objective mean – does it mean entirely value-free? If it does not, then how do you make sure that values are not biased and don’t corrupt the process of reasoning from the facts? Is there a world beyond facts, and if so, how do you incorporate that world into the reasoning process?

Can emotion (if that is the right word – I would also use the word reverence) coexist with reason? If so, how?

I should have stuck to one focused question, huh. Sorry! Just jump in wherever. I highly doubt there are absolutely right or wrong answers to any of those questions, so, have no fear.

Any problems when you leave a comment? Contact Nancy Pollot or Anne Roy.

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?

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