Eco-pilgrims from near and far made their way on Saturday to a rare Open House at Rachel Carson’s home in Silver Spring, Maryland. Carson lived in several houses in the DC area while working as an editor for the Fish and Wildlife Service, but this house is special. In that suburban rancher, she wrote Silent Spring. When she felt well enough she typed drafts in a paneled study, illuminated with natural light from broad windows. But when cancer confined her to bed, her assistant read the manuscript aloud so that Carson could edit though too ill to write.
The Open House was part of many centenary celebrations for Carson, born in Springdale, Pennsylvania in 1907. Visitors must have come for many reasons, perhaps to hear speakers such as Mark Hamilton Lytle, author of a new volume on Carson’s life and impact, The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, or Mitch Baker, a horticulturist who gave advice on gardening without artificial chemicals. Judging by the throngs around the snack trays, some people came for the free bruchetta. But others mostly wandered around the yard, stood on her front porch, and looked out her windows. My daughter and I stepped into her study, now crammed with papers, computers, and other detris of the Rachel Carson Council, a non-profit which promotes alternatives to chemical pesticides. I don’t know how she got anything done besides watching birds in her tangled backyard, but we tried to imagine where she sat, which books she stacked around her, how often she escaped to the kitchen or played with the cats instead of writing. While such musings cannot unlock the mystery of her achievement, it helped me feel closer to it and to the struggle that made it possible.
Except in letters, Carson recorded little about her personal life. To get a feeling for her experiences at house, I turned to Linda Lear’s definitive biography, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. Lear says that Carson house-hunted for months in 1957 before choosing a wooded corner lot to build a contemporary brick ranch “with large picture windows and lots of light.” Though focusing on Carson’s research and writing, Lear offers glimpses into her daily life: relations with friends and colleagues, searches for domestic help, forays into community activism, Christmas shopping for her grandnephew, and too many illnesses. Despite poor health and heavy workload, Carson welcomed houseguests, telling one, “We can promise you the song of mockingbirds and cardinals, and by mid-March we might even manage the beginning of our frog chorus.” I felt especially close to Carson, having just looked up through the branches of her trees, when I re-read a passage from a letter Lear quotes about the night Rachel’s mother died, “. . . occasionally I slipped away into the dark living room, to look out of the picture window at the trees and sky. Orion stood in all his glory just above the horizon of our woods, and several other stars blazed more highly than I can remember ever seeing them.” Even in the darkest moments of her life, Carson found comfort in nature.
My daughter and I also joined Saturday’s Carson celebrations at the National Wildlife Visitor Center. There, festivities included an electric tram ride through the refuge past painted turtles, tree swallows, a great blue heron, beaver lodges, wood ducks and acres of spring blooming woods. Indoors, kids dissected owl pellets and listened to storytellers, but Sarah was riveted by a captive bald eagle, symbolic of Carson’s role in the ban on DDT use that allowed populations of raptors to recover from mid-20th century lows. We missed most of the speeches, by such notables as Senator Sarbanes and Governor O’Malley. But we heard the last minutes of a talk by Jim Fowler, long-time television naturalist of Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fame. Fowler charmed the audience with low key recountings of decades of outdoor adventures and, especially, with an admission that while lions and anacondas cause him no distress, he fears a little spider that scuttles around caves in the Philippines.
Fowler spoke in the Visitor Center’s Aldo Leopold Auditorium, and his firm message but folksy delivery reminded me more of Leopold than the poetic Carson. In “The Ecological Conscience,” Leopold laments the slow pace of conservation progress in the face of a century of effort. He says, “The usual answer to this dilemma is ‘more conservation education.’ No one will debate this, but is it certain that only the volumeof education needs stepping up? Is something lacking in content as well?” As Fowler puts it, “We need to distinguish between education and information. It’s one of the reasons we’re in the fix we’re in. ” When you sit on a hot stove, he says, you get information up your backside that tells you to get off. But when you get an education, you don’t get on the stove in the first place. To give children that education, we need to get children outside, experiencing and appreciating wildlife and wild places that will vanish without all of our active concern.
Carson, of course, would have agreed with Fowler and Leopold, perhaps adding, “If facts are the seeds that produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” I think that celebrations like Carson’s centenary are part of how we help children make that emotional connection. I’m so glad that Sarah came with me on Saturday, and I’m planning to take her and her siblings outdoors again on May 27, Carson’s actual birthday. We’ll celebrate Carson’s birthday again, not at her house, but in the natural world where she felt most at home.