The web site of Austin-based writer Eileen McGinnis.

 

“A Web of Complex Relations”: The Many Loves of Marine Biologist, Writer, and Environmentalist Rachel Carson

In 1980, my mother-in-law stood in the back of University Church in Syracuse, NY, holding her infant son and contemplating nuclear war.

She was attending a talk by the local chapter of an anti-nuclear group called Physicians for Social Responsibility. As she cradled Sol (my future husband) and examined photos of the destruction at Hiroshima, she was overcome with a longing to see her baby grow up. She recalls, “I had this feeling that the whole world was in danger and nobody was paying attention.”

Nearly forty years later, she dates the birth of her anti-nuclear activism to that moment in the church. It was at once intimate in nature and global in scale. A fusion of sorts, of her identities as a mother and activist.


I’ve written before about parenting, art, and activism. But I’m returning to the topic again in order to widen the circle a bit.

This blog began as a personal quest: to recover the parenting lives of famous (and not-so-famous) creators in the arts and sciences. To bridge the distance between our times and to humanize these seemingly larger-than-life figures. Mostly, though, to assemble an eclectic Parenting Support Group composed of role models (and cautionary tales) living and dead.

A byproduct, though, of this focus on parents-in-history has been a tendency toward the heteronormative – and the normative in general. The history of women in professions, especially in the sciences, was often one of opting for career over marriage and motherhood (unless one happened to be married to a scientist). There’s also the issue of the silences around and obfuscation of sexuality before the dawn of the LGBTQ+ movement. Of course, assigning a sexual orientation post facto, without being able to hear from the subject, is also a questionable move.

In looking at parenthood exclusively, I’ve missed an opportunity to talk about the figures who, for a multitude of reasons, bucked against (or quietly opted out of) social conventions. Who don’t fit into the neat box of ‘married with kids.’

Then, I read historian Jill Lepore’s powerful essay about Rachel Carson in The New Yorker. I knew of Carson only in a kind of an anodyne textbook shorthand, as the “author of Silent Spring” or “founder of the modern environmental movement.” Lepore, however, brought Carson’s life, and loves, into brilliant relief.

Lepore’s essay is about many things, from Carson’s abiding fascination with the ocean to the gender biases that shaped her treatment for breast cancer in the 1950s and early ‘60s.

What especially moved me, though – and moved me to write this post – was how Lepore tied Carson’s ecological awareness to her network of personal relationships.

In the press, Carson’s sexuality was coded (or just plain dismissed) as “spinster.” Although I’m hesitant to retroactively assign Carson a sexual orientation (see above), she did have intense emotional relationships with women. At least one of these friendships shaded into romantic love – her friendship with Dorothy Freeman, married for almost thirty years and nine years Carson’s senior.

 Carson with Dorothy Freeman and her husband Stan.

Carson with Dorothy Freeman and her husband Stan.

Just because Carson didn’t marry or reproduce doesn’t mean that she was absolved from the role of caregiver. On the contrary, Carson nursed her ailing mother, raised an orphaned niece and nephew, and later adopted a young grandnephew. She faced the attendant struggles to write while supporting her family members financially and emotionally.

But before all that, she fell in love.


Rachel Carson was seduced by biology, and especially by the sea, in more than one sense. In 1925, she began Pennsylvania College for Women a determined and devoted English major who had never seen the ocean; she graduated a Biology major, who would go on to complete a Master’s in Zoology at Johns Hopkins, with a focus in marine biology.*

A key factor in this ‘sea change’ was the mentor/protégé relationship she developed with Mary Scott Skinker, acting head of the biology department at the college. There’s no evidence that their relationship was romantic or sexual, but certain details suggest that Carson’s passion for the subject blurred into an infatuation with Miss Skinker, at least initially. For instance, Rachel’s letter to a friend about her college junior prom “told more about what Miss Skinker wore to the prom and how she looked than it did about her date.” Skinker remained a lifelong ally and friend to Carson despite Skinker’s own professional disappointments.

 Skinker and Carson.

Skinker and Carson.

A funny thing happened, though, on the way to a career in government science. In her work for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), Carson began writing radio scripts and pamphlets meant to engage and inform non-scientists. This led to newspaper articles and magazine features, and eventually her first book, Under the Sea-Wind.

As Carson would put it decades later, “I had given up writing forever, I thought. It never occurred to me that I was merely getting something to write about.”

Out of these early experiences, Carson found her lifelong calling as a science writer and progressive conservationist. Her vocation, above all, was as a synthesizer of art and science. She combined scientific accuracy with poetic lyricism to make the rhythms and relationships of the natural world immediate and compelling to readers.

Carson’s penchant for synthesis extended to the relationships she saw between her professional life and her personal loves. In a 1954 letter to Dorothy Freeman that accompanied a copy of Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us, Carson makes these links explicit:

When finally I became its biographer, the sea brought me recognition and what the world calls success.

It brought me to Southport.

It gave me You.

So now the sea means something to me that it never meant before. And even the title of the book has a new and personal significance—the sea around Us.

Carson’s relationship with Dorothy sustained her creatively, but her household ties – the elderly mother, the orphaned relatives – have often been cast as mere obstacles to her writing life, drains on her creative output. Lepore takes Carson’s biographers to task for their assumptions:

These (domestic) obligations sometimes frustrated Carson, but not half as much as they frustrate her biographers. For Lear, the author of “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature” (1997) … Carson’s familial obligations—in particular, the children—are nothing but burdens that “deprived her of privacy and drained her physical and emotional energy.” Lear means this generously, as a way of accounting for why Carson didn’t write more, and why, except for her Sun articles, she never once submitted a manuscript on time. But caring for other people brings its own knowledge. Carson came to see the world as beautiful, wild, animal, and vulnerable, each part attached to every other part, not only through prodigious scientific research but also through a lifetime of caring for the very old and the very young, wiping a dying man’s brow, tucking motherless girls into bed, heating up dinners for a lonely little boy. The domestic pervades Carson’s understanding of nature. “Wildlife, it is pointed out, is dwindling because its home is being destroyed,” she wrote in 1938, “but the home of the wildlife is also our home.” If she’d had fewer ties, she would have had less insight.

It is a stunning passage that validates domestic work, the work of nurturing and caring for others, which has historically been opposed to the life of the mind, the pursuit of the great philosophical or scientific questions. Lepore celebrates the experiential knowledge that stemmed from Carson’s multi-generational caregiving, showing how it led to and reinforced her ecological understanding. 

 Carson's grandnephew Roger. Part of a piece called  "How To Teach Your Child Wonder"  that Carson penned for  Woman's Home Companion  in 1956.

Carson's grandnephew Roger. Part of a piece called "How To Teach Your Child Wonder" that Carson penned for Woman's Home Companion in 1956.

Carson would later be remembered for her book on the impact of pesticides like DDT, a reminder that humans and human activities are an inextricable part of the natural world. Lepore’s piece, however, places Silent Spring within a broader career centered around what Darwin called “the web of complex relations.”

In her final years, Carson’s love of the ocean led her to today’s most urgent reminder of the relationship between land and sea, and of our connectedness with other organisms: climate change.

Lepore writes,

Before Carson got sick, and even after, when she still believed she might get better, she thought that she’d take up, for her next book, a subject that fascinated her. “We live in an age of rising seas,” she wrote. “In our own lifetime we are witnessing a startling alteration of climate.” She died before she could begin, wondering, till the end, about the swelling of the seas.


My husband, in his more cynical moments, thinks that parents are to blame for the world’s ills. His thesis is that humankind is too distracted and exhausted by raising kids to give a s*** about the environment. In a sense, caring for others can lead to carelessness. Takeout dinner that, by volume, is 40 percent plastic bags and non-biodegradable cartons? Plastic birthday-party favors that kids will play with for approx. one minute? Ugh, why not?

In general, he’s probably right. Studies suggest that parents tend to withdraw inward. They are less likely to volunteer, to pursue social and altruistic connections, than single people or couples without kids.

Examples like Carson’s or my mother-in-law’s, however, help to sustain the hopeful/idealistic me. The one who believes that becoming a lover or a caregiver can also bring our priorities into sharper focus.

Particularly when it comes to climate change or environmental degradation, there’s always been the challenge of abstraction. The emotional or geological distance, the non-human time scales, that have made it hard to mobilize for real change.

This is why it seems so important to begin, as Carson did, with the concreteness and specificity of our personal loves. They are nodes in a complex web of kinship, relation.

 

NOTES

*Carson intended to pursue her doctorate at Hopkins, but a combination of factors, including the financial struggles of the Depression Era, caused her to leave the program in 1934. 

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