On a Farther Shore is an excellent biography of science writer Rachel Carson, whose work many people consider to be the foundation of modern environmentalism. I picked this book up out of general interest; and although I considered myself loosely familiar with Carson—I confess I’ve never read Silent Spring, although a copy sits on my bookshelf—in short order I came to understand that I knew nothing about her at all, except, of course, her instantly-recognizable byline.
Author William Souder pieced together major portions of Carson’s personal and professional life from collections of her extensive correspondence, journals and other papers, and interviews with family members of her friends. The result is an almost cinematic narrative of her life meshed with major cultural, political and environmental events—such as radiation fallout from nuclear bomb tests, insecticide vaporizers used within homes, and campaigns to eradicate gypsy moths—which defined her time. Souder’s approach yields a rich context for the issues and influences that surely helped to shape Carson’s thinking.
I wrote to Souder and asked him to participate in a Question and Answer about his newest book and the research for it. He graciously agreed, and I hope you enjoy reading his responses:
Q: What inspired you to write about the life of Rachel Carson?
A: My interests include science, the environment, and history. Carson was the embodiment of all three, so I felt a kinship with her, a sense that I saw the world at least somewhat as she did. I was also wanted to explore the question of why we have this bitter, partisan divide over environmental issues. Why should republicans and democrats have different views on the environment when it is of equal importance to both? And it turns out the answer can be found in Silent Spring and maybe more importantly, in the reaction to Silent Spring. There was one more thing: Rachel Carson, despite being one of the most consequential figures of the 20th Century, is unknown to many people nowadays. Baby boomers—people in their fifties and older—tend to remember her. And Millennials know Carson because they study her now in high school and college. But in between those ages a lot of people don’t know who she was. So I thought there was an opportunity to correct that on the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring.
Q: Your reporting ranges widely from events that occurred in her life to events that were occurring in the time period in which she was living. The result is a rich sense of context for the current events and circumstances that must have influenced her thinking. When you started the project, did you have this approach in mind, or was it something that developed along the way?
A: Context was always an important part of the plan. The great thing about biography is that you start with a story. You have a main character. You have a beginning, a middle, and an end. And when the material is strong—when there is a rich paper trail—you can reconstruct the events of someone’s life in astonishing detail. But I always want more. I want to know not just what a person did and thought, but why that person did what he or she did, and how those thoughts were formed. This is especially important when you’re dealing with someone who had the kind of profound influence on history that Rachel Carson had. Everyone is a product of the times in which they live, but for some people who do lasting work the person and the times become inseparable. You cannot, for example, understand Silent Spring and the impact it had without understanding the Cold War and the nuclear arms race of the 1950s and early 1960s. There is also a practical consideration when you write about someone who has been written about before: You can only make the story fresh by bringing in new material.
Q: A significant portion of your reporting appears to have been based on her personal correspondence. She had a life-long habit of writing letters to friends, colleagues and sources via mail. What was it like to piece a person together based on their letters, instead of interviewing them firsthand? And to what extent did interviews with surviving friends and family members augment your research?
A: I don’t think you can overstate how valuable correspondence is to a biographer. Letters are a timeline and a locator for someone’s life. Letters help you reconstruct the narrative of a life. They allow you to go where your subject went and see and hear what happened. Letters help you to understand a person’s working life, their business arrangements and entanglements, and often their aspirations and defeats. And letters often reveal much more—what that person was thinking and feeling. Letters are the gateway to the subject’s inner life. For Rachel Carson, the paper trail was unbelievably rich. Carson was one of those people who never threw away anything written by or to her. Her correspondence with Dorothy Freeman is archived at Bates College in Maine—a charming place to spend a week. But the majority of her papers are at the Beinecke library at Yale. I spent many weeks there, reading, making notes, and having things copied. I ended up with 100-plus single-spaced pages of notes and more than 3,000 documents, most of them letters. Because all of the people who knew Carson well are dead, most of my research was this sort of archival digging. I did have continuing conversations with Dorothy Freeman’s son and her granddaughter that were enormously helpful about Carson’s intense friendship with Dorothy, which was the most important relationship in Carson’s life other than the one with her mother.
Q: Your portrayal of her personna is very convincing. Was it difficult to get your own mind so deeply into the mindset of a woman?
A: I really don’t think so. Carson, even though she trained as a scientist, was first and foremost a writer—and that’s something I get. Every phase of her life as a writer—getting started, finding her voice, struggling with ideas and editors and deadlines, publishing that first piece, that first book, reading those first reviews—these all felt familiar to me because I’ve been there. I had to imagine what it would be like to enjoy a huge commercial success, as Carson did with The Sea Around Us in 1951. It was on top of the bestseller lists for months and won the National Book Award. So that was something that was outside of my direct experience. But all writers dream about these things, so in a way Carson’s success didn’t feel completely foreign to me. The one place where I felt at some disadvantage in terms of gender was on the matter of Carson’s relationship with Dorothy Freeman. And I got a lot of insight on this from Dorothy’s granddaughter, Martha. Martha helped me to see that women can form affectionate, even intimate friendships that don’t necessarily involve sex, or at least do not depend on sex. Whether Rachel and Dorothy had sex is an open question, but I lean against it. And I didn’t start out thinking that way. So I had to learn to think differently—not “as” a woman might, because I doubt that is possible, but rather by being open to the idea that I could never completely understand every nuance or consideration in Carson’s life that was a result of her gender. I had to accept a little bit of mystery that I would never solve. And I think that’s good. I think that’s inevitable.
Q: I did not know much about Carson before reading your book. I knew of her book Silent Spring and its massive influence on environmentalism, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. I was very surprised to learn about her prior writing accomplishments and the fact that she was more of a writer with expert working knowledge rather than a scientist who happened to write well (which is who I thought she was!) Misperceptions about her so long after her death seem inevitable, in a way; but there were misperceptions about her and what she stood for even during her own time. (The idea that she was categorically against pesticides for example; that she dove frequently.) Why do you think that was?
A: It’s interesting, because in her lifetime Carson was among the most famous and beloved writers in American—it’s really who she was. Her first three books were all about the oceans. People found them beautiful and inspiring. And they were. This meant that not only was she bound to have a big readership for Silent Spring, but also that those readers were going to be shocked and alarmed by what was in it. Silent Spring was a dismal, frightening polemic about the hazards of the widespread and heedless use of chemical pesticides. It wasn’t like anything Carson had written before. And it was seen by the chemicals industry, and by its allies in government, as a threat. Her detractors attacked the book, claiming it was inaccurate and one-sided—a deeply flawed work by a woman who seemed hysterical on the subject. And part of that attack involved the false claim that Carson wanted to ban all pesticides. This wasn’t true, but it proved to be such a durable lie that it persists even today. As for that business about her diving exploits, what happened is this: While she was researching The Sea Around Us Carson was persuaded to try “helmet diving” in the Florida Keys. She made several attempts that were thwarted by bad weather until she finally managed few minutes on the bottom of Biscayne Bay in about eight feet of water. She never let go of the boat’s ladder. But with the enormous success of the book a myth grew up that she was an intrepid diver who had often walked across reefs and communed with fishes. This didn’t hurt her reputation and, not surprisingly, she did nothing to discourage these rumors. And to be fair, even her one short dive took considerable courage. Carson was a weak swimmer and was never fond of boats or being in water much deeper than her knees.
Q: I was unaware of her relationship with Dorothy Freeman. You deal with it very delicately. You downplay a sexual relationship and instead interpret their interactions as the highest form of platonic love. How did you reach this interpretation? (Discussions with their surviving family members, their letters alone?)
A: We touched on this already but to broaden it out a little, I think the key for me was realizing that Dorothy and Rachel each got something different from their relationship. For Dorothy, it awakened in her a deep and abiding appreciation for the natural world, for books and music, and for what it means to be a friend to someone who needs you as no one else—even when that person happens to be one of the most famous people in the country. For Rachel, Dorothy was the one great love of her life. This is what I came to believe after closely reading and re-reading the hundreds of letters they exchanged over the course of a decade. I’m not sure I was intentionally going for “delicate” in describing their relationship, but I certainly did my best to be direct. I think anything less would have been seen as ducking the issue. A few reviewers have complained politely that I failed to report what was obviously a sexual relationship. They’re wrong. We’re bound by the evidence we have, and the truth is that we can never know for sure.
Q: You were fortunate enough to be able to stay and work, for a short time, in Carson’s seaside cottage in Southport Island, Maine. Did this interlude influence your understanding of her in any way? Or perhaps give you insights into what she loved about this particular place?
A: All of the places I visited that were important to Carson—from her childhood home in Springfield, Pennsylvania to the cottage in Maine—influenced my understanding of her. The great thing for me about the cottage, where I stayed for a week while I was working in the archives at Bates, is that while it has been well-maintained, it hasn’t really been altered since Carson was last there a half century ago. As I sat at her desk and wrote parts of my book I felt Carson’s presence—not like a ghost but rather a memory. It was as if I wasn’t so much researching Carson as recalling her. It’s hard to describe. I had the same feeling in Edinburgh when I was writing about John James Audubon for my previous book. Parts of that city haven’t really changed since Audubon’s time, and I felt certain that I was walking on the same cobblestones he had. I guess what happens is that something from the past suddenly seems like part of your own experience. And as wonderful and touching as it was to be able to work in Carson’s cottage, I have to say that I felt an even stronger sense of connection with her not there, but at Shackleford Banks, the narrow barrier island at the foot of the Outer Banks near Beaufort, North Carolina. The island is deserted, except for a herd of wild horses, and accessible only by boat. The boat lands you on the inner side, facing the sound and the mainland. But when you walk around to the ocean side you come to a long, blindingly white beach. The surf is loud and chaotic. The sea breeze is stiff. You feel the world open up and show itself to you as mostly water and air. Rachel Carson called the sea “the great mother of life” and on that windswept shore you can imagine all the ages of the earth and the vastness of time. The blueness of the sky and the ocean, the whiteness and warmth of the sand—it all looks and feels exactly as it must have when Carson first saw it in the summer of 1938 when she went there to gather material for her first book, Under the Sea-Wind. In that book she described ripples in the sand as the tide retreated as looking like they’d been left by the shadows of the ripples in the receding water. And when I looked for them, sure enough, they were still there.
Q: Your book was published on the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring’s publication. A lot has changed since then in terms of environmental challenges and our society’s response to them. If Carson were alive today, what environmental issues do you think would most concern her?
A: Climate change. No question. Carson already knew that the oceans were warming in her time, and near the end of her life she became aware that scientists were starting to worry about the “greenhouse effect” of adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. So I think she would be alarmed that we’ve made virtually no meaningful progress on slowing down the warming of the planet. And I think she’d be appalled by a closely related problem—the deepening public resistance to science. I think Carson, if she were somehow with us today, would find it almost unbelievable that a significant percentage of Americans deny realities like evolution and climate change.
Q: Time and again I was impressed with the narrative you created seemingly based solely on Carson’s letter writing. The level of detail you were able to achieve resulted in an almost cinematic quality that let me envision events in her life. This sort of research may not be possible in the future given people’s adoption of email, which has less of a physical shelf life than old-fashioned hardcopy letter writing. Does this concern you, for the insights that future writers might glean from their research into historical figures?
A: What a great question. And an important one. Rachel Carson lived in the golden age of print. Every city had several daily newspapers, and great national magazines like Life, The Saturday Evening Post, Coronet, and many others commanded large readerships. Letter writing was how most people communicated across any distance—the telephone was for special occasions—and for a writer like Carson, who did much of her research through correspondence with scientists, the residue of her working life has permanence. Letters, thousands of them on paper, are put away in the archives at Yale and at Bates. I presume they’ll stay there forever, even after they’ve been digitized so that anybody can read them from any computer anywhere in the world—a thought that makes me wonder what the future holds for biographers. It could be that our every digital utterance now—everything we say via email and on Twitter and Facebook—and in media yet to be invented—will someday after we’re long gone be retrievable from the cloud. I’m sure we’ll find new ways to tell the stories of people’s lives. I’m sixty-three and I expect to write three or four more books. I’m fairly confident they’ll be actual books, printed and bound. But they’ll be published digitally, too. We live in a fluid time. I can’t see far enough into the future to say anything more intelligent about it than that.
Q: Is there anything I have not asked you that you think would be important for potential readers to know, or that you would like to share about her life, or what you learned through the process of writing this book?
A: Everyone who watched Carson stand up to her critics in the firestorm that surrounded Silent Spring was impressed by her calmness and her courage. She faced her death from breast cancer—she was diagnosed while she was writing Silent Spring and died at the age of fifty-six—with the same equanimity. There’s less uplift in facing death than in facing an enemy on the wrong side of an argument, but it is a moving thing just the same. It’s a biographer’s lot to kill off his main character in the end. Rachel Carson died far too young. But she died well. And that’s not nothing.