reviewed by Adelheid Fischer
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|When the science writer Rachel Carson died in 1964, at age 56, her
output as a writer had not been prodigious. She left a modest literary
legacy of four published books. But after reading Linda Lear’s 1997 biography
Carson: Witness for Nature, I marveled that she’d been able to
write at all, much less produce books that, as Lear correctly points outs,
“changed how humankind regards the living world and the future of life
on this earth.”
It took an almost suffocating discipline: working nights and weekends at her writing while holding down a full-time day job to support her mother, her sister, the sister’s two daughters, and a grand-nephew she had adopted after her niece’s death. Eventually Carson did achieve the great popular success that let her write full-time, but by then the failing health of her mother and niece, along with the caretaking needs of her niece’s young son, forced her to relinquish much of her hard-won freedom.
And then Carson herself was stricken with breast cancer. Perhaps the most heartbreaking period of her life was the early 1960s, when she completed Silent Spring, her landmark book about chemical pesticides and the environment, while she was undergoing radiation therapy. To keep the chemical industry from using the cancer to discount her book as the ravings of a hysterical woman, Carson kept her condition secret from all but her closest friends. Crisscrossing the US to defend the book from vicious attacks by the industry and its allies, she cited arthritis as the reason she had to use a cane to hobble to the lectern. Although she was near death, newspaper reporters continued to lard their coverage of her public appearances with sexist comments on her hairstyles, her petite frame, her soft-spoken demeanor, or “how pretty” her clothes were, reflecting the public’s--as well as many of her colleagues’--disbelief that a woman could have written such tough-minded books on scientific subjects.
Fans who revisited Carson’s books after reading Lear’s inspirational biography will be thrilled by Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Lear’s new book brings to light a wonderful assortment of Carson gems--essays, memos, letters to the editor, excerpts from her field notebooks, personal correspondence, public speeches, even musings about the sea that ended up as the liner notes for a recording of Debussy’s La Mer. Most of these writings were previously available only through considerable library research or a visit to the Carson archives at Yale.
Though Lear explains that she selected the pieces in the book for their “literary quality, as examples of important environmental thinking and for the creative insight they provide into Carson’s evolution as a scientist and science writer,” their interest is not limited to Carson scholars. Indeed, they can be read as documents of changes in the American culture of the time: dawning environmental consciousness; growing skepticism toward authority, especially scientific experts; and burgeoning disenchantment with technological progress.
Although nearly half a century old, Carson’s writings have a surprising currency. Her 1963 address to the Garden Club of America, for example, shows Carson in typical form, delivering tightly reasoned rebuttals to her detractors from the chemical industry while sounding other pressing ecological themes. Her prescient warnings (that toxic chemicals can cycle through the environment far from their point of origin, for instance, or that the public interest can be compromised as university researchers increasingly turn to industry for financial support) are as relevant today as they were when Carson wrote them.
Carson’s writings endure because, as Lear’s selections demonstrate, she can in everyday language raise alarms about dangers to the natural world while at the same time leaving us in awe about nature’s complex workings. Among the most intimate and moving examples of Carson’s genius for finding transcendent meaning in nature is her final tender letter to Dorothy Freeman, her longtime correspondent and closest friend. In this short meditation, which is no less carefully crafted or profoundly moving than her great writings about the sea, a dying Carson finds in the life cycle of the monarch butterfly solace for her own life’s “closing journey”.
Accompanying each piece in this collection is a short passage by Lear that places the piece in biographical context, and thus the book can serve as a satisfying shorthand for Lear’s more expansive biography. But I recommend you read both volumes concurrently, for like me, you will certainly long for the full text of writings that are merely quoted in the biography and for the full personal story behind the pieces in Lost Woods.
Adelheid Fischer is coauthor of the new book Valley of Grass: Tallgrass Prairie and Parkland of the Red River Region (North Star: 1998). Next year, the University of Minnesota Press will publish her environmental history of the north shore of Lake Superior.
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