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Book review: Rachel Carson's legacy in 'On a Farther Shore' by William Souder

Quick: How many nuclear warheads were detonated above-ground by 1963?

If your answer was something just north of two, I wouldn't blame you. I wasn't yet born then myself, and the idea of nuclear bombs exploding above Nevada is hard to fathom. The answer, I learned in the opening chapter of William Souder's new biography of Rachel Carson, is more than 500. The United States was responsible for about 200 of those.

The story of Rachel Carson's life is the story of an era that is quite recent, but also strangely distant from our own, in which the twin threats of nuclear fallout and chemical use were the subject of national debate. Souder makes this plain in the opening scene, with a reporter asking President John Kennedy about growing concern over the use of the pesticide DDT. He responded that his administration was looking into it, "particularly, of course, since Miss Carson's book."

The scene highlights an equally remarkable aspect of the times in which Carson lived. A woman could write a book about the dangers posed by a new generation of pesticides, and that book would be so widely read and debated that the president didn't even have to mention its title, Silent Spring. Everyone was talking about Miss Carson's book. It is hard to envision, in today's crowded media landscape, any book capturing the nation's attention in the same way.

This is the great strength of On a Farther Shore. Without overstating the point, Souder draws a portrait of cultural and political life in the middle of the 20th century and places Carson squarely at the center of it. Imagine: In 1951, a little-known field biologist publishes a poetic and immaculately researched account of oceans and the life they contain, employing a narrative that begins over 2 billion years ago, encompasses the birth of the moon and proceeds straight through to modern times, and The Sea Around Us rises to the top of the bestseller list and sits there for 39 weeks.

It was a different time for science, and a different time for science writers. Today's writers might cheer as they read about Carson coolly declining her publisher's requests that she give interviews and attend book signings: Such distractions would be shortsighted, "as her work could go forward only if she could maintain her life as it had been before The Sea Around Us." If blogging for the Huffington Post and maintaining a Twitter account had also been among her publisher's expectations, would Silent Spring have been written at all?

Souder makes it clear that Carson had enough distractions as it was. She'd worked as a government biologist and writer from 1936 until 1952, when sales of her book allowed her to quit her job and write full time. She bought a plot of land near Boothbay Harbor, Maine, and had a summer cottage built on it. It was there that she met her neighbors, Stan and Dorothy Freeman, and began a romantic relationship with Mrs. Freeman that lasted the rest of Carson's life.

The women's letters were unambiguously passionate: In 1954, Carson wrote to Freeman, "But oh darling, I want to be with you so terribly that it hurts!" While her husband napped, Freeman wrote a letter from another bedroom in her house, telling Carson that she was writing from "the corner that belongs in my heart only to you — you know where and why." In spite of the heated language, Souder suggests that sex "seems not to have been part of their relationship, or at least not an essential feature of it." (If someone has done a study of the number of "romantic friendships" between women that biographers assume to be platonic, as compared to similar friendships between men, I'd like to know about it. I hope such women were far less prim than their biographers assume.)

Mrs. Freeman was not her only distraction. As Carson began work on her book on pesticides in 1958, her mother, with whom she'd been living, died. This left Carson as the sole caregiver for her young great-nephew, Roger, whose own mother, Carson's niece, had also died recently.

Carson's work was further slowed by her determination to demonstrate a link between pesticides and cancer, something that was not easy to prove at the time. In 1960, as she was pursuing this question, she discovered two masses in her left breast and began a battle against cancer that lasted until her death, four years later, at the age of 56. The irony of writing about cancer while she was ill from it herself, and of undergoing radiation treatment as she was drawing parallels between the dangers of radioactive fallout and massive DDT spraying, was not lost on her. She kept her illness a secret from all but her closest friends, fearing that disclosure would give her critics ammunition to question her motivation in writing the book.

Even the cancer's progression and her efforts to continue working in spite of it conjure up the times in which she lived. She learned, too late, that doctors hadn't told her the truth about her initial diagnosis, perhaps believing that she wasn't capable of making informed decisions about her own treatment. And even as the cancer recurred, she managed an extraordinary volume of daily correspondence with scientists whose research might support the idea that pesticides were carcinogenic.

Carson didn't finish navigating these challenges until 1962, when at last she published Silent Spring, setting off an extraordinary national debate. On a Farther Shore ends as it begins — with President Kennedy working toward an end to nuclear testing and contemplating the dangers of pesticides.

Carson didn't live long enough to see the ban on DDT that resulted from her work (and she actually never advocated a total ban), but in Souder's telling she was a quintessential woman of her time, juggling the demands of a family, a complicated love affair, an illness, and a high-profile career, and somehow managing to sit down in the center of it and get her work done.

On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy

of Rachel Carson

By William Souder

Crown, 496 pages, $30

Book review: Rachel Carson's legacy in 'On a Farther Shore' by William Souder 10/20/12 [Last modified: Saturday, October 20, 2012 4:31am]

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