Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson was the most influential environmentalists of her generation. Born in 1907, she grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania where her love and understanding of nature was able to flower. She was a gifted student with a love of books and a passion for writing. No wonder then that she initially chose to study English at Pennsylvania College for Women before changing to biology, specifically zoology and genetics.

After the death of her father in 1935 and her older sister in 1937, Rachel Carson became the sole breadwinner and carer for her aging mother and two young nieces. Life was hard. Her university career was put on hold and later continued on a part-time basis as she struggle to support her family. Despite this, her career, and especially her writing career, flourished. By the early 1950s she was writing full-time on the life of the ocean.

In 1957 there was another death in the family, this time of one of the nieces she had cared for, leaving a five year old son, Roger. Rachel adopted him, moving to Maryland to care for him. Here she continued to write, her focus now almost entirely on conservation. Her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, which exposed the destruction of wildlife through the widespread use of pesticides, was published in 1962. Its publication was timely. Awareness of the increasing number of deaths of birds across the world was growing and Carson’ book explained why. The book’s conclusions were widely accepted and acclaimed by the public. It galvanised those who cared about the future of our planet and was the catalyst for the many environmental organisations that followed over the next decades.

In 1953, Rachel Carson met Dorothy Freeman. It was the beginning of an intensely emotional relationship. In a letter, Rachel wrote, ‘I love you beyond expression…My love is boundless as the Sea’. They met every summer on Southport Island in Maine where Dorothy lived with her husband and wrote around nine hundred letters to each other. Those letters were filled with intimate expressions of love. ‘For your birthday, this is to tell you — as if you didn’t know — how dearly and tenderly I love you. You have come to occupy a place in my life that no one else could fill, and it is strange now to contemplate all the empty years when you weren’t there.‘

Was it a lesbian relationship? The letters suggest that Dorothy was happily married and shared Rachel’s letters, at least in the early days. ‘How dear of him to say what he did. Perhaps this is the final little touch of the perfection in the whole episode… It means so very much to me to know that you have such an understanding, loving and wonderful husband… I want him to know what you mean to me.’

We will never know if their relationship had a sexual element. And does it matter? Love is love, however it manifests, and Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman clearly loved each other deeply. As Rachel’s final letter said, ‘Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.’ What we do know is that there were two great loves in Rachel Carson’s life, the environment… and a woman.

In 1964 Rachel Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died in the April of that year of heart failure at her home in Maryland. Half her ashes were buried beside her mother, the other half scattered in the sea by Newhaven Inn in Southport where she and Dorothy spent many tranquil hours together.

We remember her as the environmentalist who changed our attitude to the natural world, who inspired through her book, Silent Spring, an ecological movement that exists to this day.

But we also remember her as a women who loved another woman deeply, whose life was enriched by that love.

‘What I want to write of is the joy and fun and gladness we have shared — for these are the things I want you to remember — I want to live on in your memories of happiness.’

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