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.


keith said...

On the day late last month that Rachel Carson would have turned 100 years old I posted a piece on Mode Shift that focused on the surprising failure of the nation’s major environmental organizations to defend the mother of modern environmentalism. The free market right has set out on a deliberate path to diminish Carson, and by extension the American environmental community, as credible in responding to the consequences of industrial technology. The attack on Carson is an important facet of the free market right’s campaign to diminish the reach of local, state, and federal safeguards. And it’s been remarkably effective and destructive. The federal government, for instance, has no strategy for responding to global climate change because of its sympathy to free market assertions that the science of climate change is deeply flawed.

In any case on Tuesday this week John Tierney, an influential free market science writer and columnist at the New York Times, leveled a broadside at Carson in the pages of Science Times. Calling Silent Spring a “hodgepodge of science and junk science,” Tierney accused Carson of using “dubious statistics and anecdotes (like the improbable story of a woman who instantly developed cancer after spraying her basement with DDT) to warn of a cancer epidemic that never came to pass. She rightly noted threats to some birds, like eagles and other raptors, but she wildly imagined a mass ‘biocide.’”

I know Tierney and worked with him at the Times in the early 1990s, when he joined the paper. He’s smart, thorough, and delights in being a contrarian on environmental issues. He wrote a famous piece questioning the value of recycling, essentially saying that recycling wastes more energy and materials than it saves. In another piece for the Times Magazine, Tierney singlehandedly changed the public’s view of Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich when he reported on a bet that Ehrlich made with Julian Simon, an economist at the University of Maryland. In 1968 Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, which predicted a runaway global population boom (he was right on that) and mass starvation globally and food riots in the United States in the 1980s (he was wrong about that). Ehrlich bet that the prices of five key metals would rise as a result of population increases and scarcity of natural resources. Simon bet that innovation would drive prices down. In 1990, Ehrlich conceded defeat and sent Simon a check for $576.07, the amount that represented the decline in the metals’ prices after accounting for inflation, he reported.

Now Tierney is after Rachel Carson, using as the basis of his critique a 1962 review of Silent Spring in the journal Science written by I. L. Baldwin, a professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin. Baldwin’s review was the subject of debate as intense at the time as Carson’s ground-breaking journalism. Her assessment of the toxic trail left by pesticides in plants and animals was defended and confirmed then by independent scientists, some of them working at the behest of President John F. Kennedy. And they’ve been reconfirmed time and again in the real world since.

See more here:

Mel Visser said...

Rachel Carson's 100th birthday remembrance certainly brought out a diversity of viewpoints. I hope that the next centennial anniversary of her birthday will put her accomplishments into proper perspective.

In a day in which any chemical that could be safely manufactured and used was approved, she pointed out environmental and human health problems of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) ... chemicals designed to kill ... occurring beyond their manufacture and use points. The process of democracy at its finest allowed the analysis, debate and banning of these chemicals over two decades. There is no other arena in history where man has reversed a technological course for
environmental reasons. Yea human race!

The use of PCB, DDT, toxaphene, chlordane, heptachlor, Lindane, Aldrin, Dieldrin, hexachlorocyclohexane and hexachlorobenzene were banned in the developed countries because they were suspected of causing cancer or were acutely toxic in the environment. Yea Rachel!

As these bans were pursued in developing countries, argument focused upon malarial vector (mosquito) control. Why? The real battle should have been the
use of DDT in general agriculture. When developing countries banned agricultural DDT, what did they use to control pests? Toxaphene!

Banning DDT on grains only, and overseeing its 'discriminate' use for mosquito control would have avoided the spread of DDT in dangerous quantities and
controlled mosquitoes. The DDT ban fight became a smokescreen for the use of all the other POPs!!

Now toxaphene, probably the most used pesticide on the planet, circulates through the air from its uses in developing countries and pollutes cold, clear waters from the northern Great Lakes to the Arctic. Lake Superior, a lake the size of the state of Maine with depths going to below sea level. Its waters, if spilled over the continental United States would cover the area to a depth of
six feet and is frightfully polluted with foreign toxaphene. Its trout harbor 5 parts per million of toxaphene, ten times the level that would classify them as hazardous waste! This is the legacy of the Green Revolution, the 1960s era export of techology to starving nations.

Arctic polar bear and killer whales are on the edge of survival or decimated by banned pesticides and PCBs. PCBs and pesticides circulate through our air in
hundreds of millions of molecules per breathful quantities, amounts that are now being connected to asthma, diabetes and cancer. Inuit ingest 15X a tolerable quantity of poisons.

Rachel Carson was on the right track. Unfortunately, her work is not complete and the planet is still at risk.

Please see coldclearanddeadly.com if you are interested in more information.


Melvin J. Visser

Author of Cold, Clear and Deadly: Unraveling a Toxic Legacy

stephen williams said...

Thanks for making Always, Rachel this month's bookclub selection.

Martha Freeman gives a really nice acknowledgment to one of last month's moderators. "Deanne Urmy's delight in these letters, her diligence, good judgment, and gentle initiation of me into the publishing world, were a boon to me. I cannot imagine a better editorial partner."

Here is a favorite quote so far, from a letter RC wrote to DF on December 21, 1953:

"And so tonight I want to say thank you for those precious gifts of friendship and love and understanding, that cannot be bought and could never be replaced."

Ron said...

Thanks to Keith for addressing the onslaught of attacks on Rachel Carson these past few weeks undoubtedly precipitated by the publicity around the centennial. Aside from finding it disturbing, I have to say I also found some of the accusations and headlines somewhat humorous. "Rachel Carson Killed More People than Josef Stalin"? Who could write, or read, that with a straight face? The sad truth is there are many people who will believe it as gospel and never look any further into it.

Linda Lear said...

Hello All Moderators and commentors. I haven't been on line since I began moderating this blog and its so wonderful to see the depth of the comments and the breadth as well.

I want to comment on Maril's assessment of the Carson/Freeman relationship to say that in "Witness for Nature" I tried to
suggest that the two friends had so much in common that it was inevitable they became friends once Carson moved in down the path from Freeman. Among the other commonalities that Maril mentions, I would include the fact that both Dorothy and Rachel were caretakers of their mothers. If any of you out there are doing that intergenerational care with the love and patience that it requires, their letters are a wonderful resource for "keeping on." But the fact that Rachel was encumbered with an aging and increasingly infirm mother, and with little Roger's extended visits, corresponded with Dorothy's care of her mother in law and her joyful times with her own grandchildren. Their generational lives were intertwined as well as their ecological love of the woods (lost woods) and the tide pools, and of birding.
I have also to suggest that their friendship depended on the summertime closeness and the wintertime distance. Jeanne Davis, Carson's assistant and friend, once told me that if Dorothy had been a neighbor in Maryland, they never would have continued their close ties. And that is evident in the several visits Dorothy made to Silver Spring when Rachel was still trying to work on various projects, speeches and writings to defend the book. The visits were frustrating to both women.

I hope that you will all read "Always Rachel" for its many dimensions, but among the others is the way in which friends sustain the creative capacity of those who are traveling a lonely road. Dorothy didn't want Rachel to write Silent Spring because she knew she'd be villified. But she also supported her friend in the creative process.

I appreciate Keith's post on the Tierney essay in the NYT. I will write later about the "hate mail" that I've been getting as Carson's biographer during the past month of
"centennail celebrations." It probably won't surprise you.

Willow said...

I'm not sure that Carson's friendship with Freeman widened her perspective on the importance of including values other than scientific fact into her evaluation and writing, although Martha most certainly supported and reaffirmed views that Carson probably already held herself. The friendship may have made inclusion of human desires and values more prominent in her mind as she was expressing and exploring her own feelings with Dorothy.
It is common in the view of land managers such as the Forest Service that endeavors such as restoration projects depend on the weighing of the thoughts and desires of all stakeholders, from people who live near the project, to resource extraction interests, environmental interests, as well as data from scientific evaluation of the situation. This is similar to Rachel Carson bringing in the concerns and views of nonscientists into Silent Spring.

It has been said that we can't possibly restore, say a forest to what existed prior to European contact. Basically it's because we don't know for sure what was there, and human evaluation decides what is reasonable, desirable and possible. Such as having to take into account human fears of property damage and health risks in designing a prescribed fire program or in the policy of natural wildland fires. We may strive for 'sustainable', 'diverse', or some other outcome, but even the words used imply that human values and judgement are part of the process. So Rachel was right in the mainstream in mixing human desires and science, although I can see some purists resisting the incusion of 'ordinary people' on their enterprises.

BTW I was lucky in that my public library had a copy of Always, Rachel, so I've been able to begin exploring the remarkable treasure trove that they are.

And as Stephen did I'd like to share one of my favorite passages thus far from RC to DF on Christmas Eve, 1954 --
"We both know no new words are necessary. . . But for tonight, my dear one, I would like you to think of those words as written on the Christmas sky in letters formed of stars, shining with the reflected gleam of that invisible light of which we know. I love you, Rachel"

David Klinger said...

To follow up on Linda Lear's informative, yet disturbing comment, I just finished one more valued and reasoned addition to the electronic literature this season by yet-another erudite Internet blogger, entitled "The Murderous Church of Rachel Carson."

I think we have the makings of an interesting investigative magazine piece in the coming months for any enterprising reporter who follows the workings of the news media and the communications process in contemporary America: the continuing attempt to hijack the Carson centennial through an orchestrated "drive-by shooting" of disinformation, smear, and innuendo.

How can any contemporary discussion, at various levels, of some of the most thoughtful and compelling prose in American literature be allowed to degenerate so quickly at the hands of those who would distort history for their own partisan ends? The manufactured nature of this entire campaign of hate is so thinly-veiled as to appear ludicrous.

Rather than contributing to a democracy of ideas, I believe that the Internet has fostered and abetted this climate of anti-intellectualism and intolerance.

We are now leaving the era of the informative "sound bite" and have entered the age of the tribal "sound bark" -- the animalistic, guttural emanations and grunts of a few who employ the Internet as an outlet not for reasoned discourse, but for the primal motivation of intraspecies aggression.

Anonymous said...

I am struck, in thinking about these letters, by resonance with two other well-known sets: correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams (who often passionately disagreed but remained faithful to the correspondence) and between John Adams and his wife, Abigail (for whom my own young daughter is named).

Both sets, alongside the Carson/Freeman letters, allow us insight into the development of and connections between emotion and reason in all parties. That reason should be tempered by bonds of affection--for human beings, philosophy, the natural world--is both charming and necessary, as, I suspect, is the reverse.

I am struck, too, by the carefully crafted letter--echoed here in blog posts. The very practice of considering ideas and opinions to present them to a respected reader is a wonderful exercise in connecting reason and emotion. The trusted audience that responds honestly and thoughtfully is a gift that challenges, heightens, refines our thought and presentation.

In short, these letters are a wonderful reminder that great thought does not happen in a vacuum, that correspondence between like- and quite diverse-minded individuals is a cornerstone of both democracy and science.

Maril Hazlett said...

Hello all. My head is spinning. So much to think about with the comments.

I’m fascinated with Linda’s reference to Jeanne Davis, and Davis's comment that the two women may not have become so close if they had lived close together year-round Just from watching Davis in the Peace River/ American Experience documentary on Carson, she struck me as a very acute observer. I expect that different forums (hey, like the internet) do allow/ support the development of human connections that might not thrive similarly, if at all, in a day to day context.

Also went right online and found a copy of the letters of John and Abigail Adams (there were many, many editions to choose from, though... uncertain if I picked the right one). In gratitude for that post, I'd like to mention another favorite collection of mine - the letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy. Another example of two friends who are constantly negotiating those bonds of human affection and reason - with great tolerance for each other's different opinions. Tolerance helps a lot, in easing the natural friction that goes along with human relationships.

Hate mail (sheesh, Linda. Hang in there. What a nasty vibe). Carson backlash. Sigh. I was quite struck by the idea of an investigative report on this topic. If someone carries through on that suggestion, I would throw out the idea of perhaps also thinking of it in terms of the larger context, such as other extremist (distinguished from contrarian, which have some basis in fact rather than hate - even if that basis is not necessarily a preponderance of the evidence) backlashes against evolutionary science and the science of global climate change (which I think was mentioned).

The Carson backlash never really quit, although the centennial has raised its profile considerably. I used to entertain myself by doing Lexis-Nexis searches with the search term Rachel Carson, and keeping track of the major players in the backlash stream of thought. Haven't seen that pile of research since we moved, but I think it would be very easy for someone to reconstruct.

I liked the quotes that folks shared from the collection. Thinking about the issues of toxics, etc., that are still with us today, I came up with this one (RC to DF, Dec 8, 1956, on RC's plans to buy and preserve a piece of land they called the Lost Woods):

"This, of course, is a project involving Herculean and heart-breaking labors, but considering the goal, who cares?"

Maril Hazlett said...

Oops. I meant to mention - along the lines of additional resources on toxins in the environment, a really wonderful website is that of the Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org. Great for general reference. I might have mentioned that already, but I forget if so.

Anonymous said...

has anyone brought up the fact that 1) the man who invented DDT ate a spoonful until the day he died of natural causes and 2) Rachel Carson's uproar caused about DDT indirectly caused the deaths of millions of poor black people? The rise in known cases of malaryia continues to rise yearly in certain countries which do not use DDT. At the time of "silent spring" poorer countries did not have the option to switch to so called "safer" pesticides, and their people died, year after year. Also, feeding birds a calcium deficent diet was what caused thin eggshells, not the use of DDT.

Ron C. said...

Yes, anonymous, those questions have been raised and a good discussion of them can be found at: http://membracid.wordpress.com/.

Please be sure to read it all because it addresses the science very thoroughly. Also just to clarify, birds in the wild are not “fed” a diet. Their “diet” consists of a “food chain” method of eating, where bigger creatures eat smaller creatures.

ssc52 said...

I worked as a typist on the book
Always, Rachel and had the great fun of reading MANY MANY of the letters, I am mentioned in the intro.

It was a privilage to be a part of the proccess, even if it was a small part.

I recommend it highly

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