“Always, Rachel” II

“Always, Rachel” II
A Sermon by Rev. John Gibbons
Delivered on April 27, 2014
At First Parish in Bedford

 Thoughts to Ponder at the Beginning:
Under the philosophy that now seems to guide our destinies,
nothing must get in the way of the man with the spray gun.

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.

The battle of living things against cancer began so long ago
that its origin is lost in time. But…man, alone of all forms of life,
can create cancer producing substances…

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance,
born of the Neanderthal age of biology and the convenience of man.

—selections from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring


Opening Words

First days of Spring – the sky
is bright blue, the sun huge and warm.
Everything’s turning green.
Carrying my monk’s bowl, I walk to the village
to beg for my daily meal.
The children spot me at the temple gate
and happily crowd around,
dragging to my arms till I stop.
I put my bowl on a white rock,
hang my bag on a branch.
First we braid grasses and play tug-of-war,
then we take turns singing and keeping a kick-ball in the air:
I kick the ball and they sing, they kick and I sing.
Time is forgotten, the hours fly.
People passing by point at me and laugh:
‘Why are you acting like such a fool?’
I nod my head and don’t answer.
I could say something, but why?
Do you want to know what’s in my heart?
From the beginning of time: just this! just this!

Taigu Ryokan


A “Fable for Tomorrow,” from Silent Spring:

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.

Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours.

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example – where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices./ On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs – the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit.

The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died.

In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.


With that “Fable for Tomorrow,” Rachel Carson began Silent Spring, her prophetic expose of the long-term effects of pesticides upon our environment. Ironically, she died of cancer at the age of 56, just 19 months after its publication in 1962. Though I preached a version of this sermon 19 years ago, I decided to revise and improve it…and to talk about her life and work today because today is Rachel Carson’s birthday, and because I discovered to my surprise that she was a Unitarian Universalist, and also because our Unitarian Universalist publishing house, Beacon Press, has published a remarkable collection of intimate letters between Rachel (all her biographers seem to call her by her first name) and her friend Dorothy Freeman. Always, Rachel is the collection’s title, and it tenderly reveals the private life of a woman whose public impact was enormous.

In fact, reading Always, Rachel moved me to read all that I could find by and about Rachel Carson; and I am prepared to say that her quiet, thoughtful, measured and sensitive private life makes her one of the most significant public lives of our times, less well known than she should be or may yet be to future generations.

So I want to do three things this morning: first, to recollect her life and contribution to history; second, to reflect upon her friendship with Dorothy Freeman and, indeed, the importance of friendship to all our lives; and last, to remind us of the religious value that was at the center of Rachel’s life and is, I think, at the center of our conviction as well – and that is the sense of wonder.

It is hard to remember what life was like before Rachel Carson, for me at least because I was only 10 in 1962.

But when I was eight or nine, I remember the mosquito control trucks that each spring rumbled slowly through the streets of my suburban neighborhood outside Chicago. From a tank in back, the trucks emitted an immense cloud of pure DDT. My friends and I thought this spectacle was pretty cool, so we liked to ride our bikes directly behind the trucks, trying not to run into one another, blinded by the fog and enshrouded by DDT. Our parents, of course, made no objection. (My life, I suspect, was saved because I liked to ride my bike in the DDT and wear the weird-looking Nazi gas mask my father brought back from the war – I wore the mask because it looked weird – not for any safety reason.)

On the other hand, if you think me odd today, this may explain some things.

Before Rachel Carson, the very word ‘environment’ carried none of the associations it has today; the word ‘ecology’ was not in use. Instead, one spoke of “conservation” – which was more an attempt to accommodate the needs of nature to the dominion of man. Conservation, moreover, was primarily an economic consideration: “we need more and better pesticides to grow bigger and better crops to make agriculture more profitable and more convenient for the farmer.”

Rachel Carson approached these issues from a different direction: we had entered the age of chemicals willy-nilly, she argued, without considering the totality of nature. Processes within nature were working to undo the very things we hoped to achieve using pesticides, thereby causing large-scale imbalances. She urged us to better understand nature and to use its processes to our advantage without the use of pesticides.

Rachel Carson was a marine biologist and an elegant author. She had already won sufficient acclaim for her book The Sea Around Us that she was able to quit her government job as head of publications for the Department of Fish and Wildlife. What made Silent Spring so stunning, however, was its humanity. This is one of its passages:

“In one of the most tragic cases of endrin poisoning there was no apparent carelessness; efforts had been made to take precautions considered adequate. A year-old child had been taken by his American parents to live in Venezuela. There were cockroaches in the house to which they moved, and after a few days a spray containing endrin was used. The baby and the small family dog were taken out of the house before the spraying was done about nine o’clock in the morning. After the spraying the floors were washed. The baby and dog were returned to the house in midafternoon. An hour or so later, the dog vomited, went into convulsions, and died. At 10 P.M. on the evening of the same day the baby also vomited, went into convulsions…and (ultimately) became little more than a vegetable.”

Hers were stories to which the American people could relate. The danger was real, one’s own children and pets were in peril; not far away, but in one’s own home. She also demonstrated that we were endangered not just by the obvious – don’t ride your bike in a cloud of DDT – but by the accumulation of small doses over a long period of time. Again, she made it personal:

“The contamination of our world is not alone a matter of mass spraying. Indeed, for most of us this is of less importance than the innumerable small-scale exposures to which we are subjected day by day, year after year. Like the constant dripping of water that in turn wears away the hardest stone, this birth-to death contact with dangerous chemicals may in the end prove disastrous…. No person is immune to contact with this spreading contamination.”

Again, there is perhaps no book in the last hundred years that has had more impact than Silent Spring.

At the time, the pesticide industry, of course, was apoplectic. They treated the public uproar as a serious public relations problem. They commissioned a book to refute Silent Spring.  Called A Desolate Year, that book imagined the horrors of life without chemicals (something Rachel had not recommended). They challenged her science and called her hysterical, an extremist and probably a communist. Time Magazine ridiculed her: “‘It is not possible,’ says Miss Carson, ‘to add pesticides to water anywhere without threatening the purity of water everywhere.’ It takes only a moment of reflection (said Time) to show that this is nonsense.” Reader’s Digest withdrew the offer to print a selection from Silent Spring and chose instead to reprint the disparaging article from Time. And, most interestingly, when the American Medical Association was questioned about the truth of Rachel’s allegations, the AMA referred inquirers to pamphlets issued by Monsanto and the other pesticide companies. Ultimately, Silent Spring and the reaction it inflamed exposed a medical-industrial complex in conspiracy against the health of the world’s people.

Still, and to its great credit, the American government responded to Rachel Carson’s revelations. John F. Kennedy in the White House, Stuart Udall at Interior, Hubert Humphrey in the Senate, and William O. Douglas in the Supreme Court – proposed, implemented, and defended legislation that regulated industry, set standards, saved lives and changed the course of history.

Today, however much Tea Partiers and racist rogue ranchers in Nevada ridicule the federal government, it was Rachel Carson who proved not only that small disruptions to the ecosystem can have large and unintended effects but also that human beings and government have the power to reverse the damage and live in greater harmony with nature.

One hears echoes of Rachel Carson reading today’s newspaper. The ebola virus; Legionnaire’s disease, hanta virus, toxic shock syndrome, the spread of Lyme disease here in New England – all these “emerging diseases” are consequences of human intervention in the ecosystem, deforestation, increasing travel, and social change. Rachel Carson’s gospel remains right on.

I’ve recently been introduced to the writings of Betsy Kolbert, the writer for The New Yorker who will join me and Rev. Billy this Thursday at Harvard.  She’s written numerous books about our environmental crisis, most recently The 6th Extinction: An Unnatural History.  She says in our planetary history five historical extinctions have occurred – caused by meteoroids and other external forces – and now we face a 6th mass extinction unlike the others, which we – human beings – have created.

Recalling the extinction of the dodo bird and the great auk, Betsy Kolbert says….”By the latest estimation, one third of reef corals, one third of freshwater mollusks, one third of sharks and rays, a fifth of all reptiles, a quarter of all mammals and a sixth of all birds will go the way of the auk this century.”

Her most urgent warning is about the condition of our oceans.

“Since the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the carbon dioxide absorbed by the sea has increased by 30 per cent. The specific result of this is to prevent calcifiers – animals from corals to bivalves, and even some plants – from forming their structures, with disastrous effects for the marine food chain. The acidifying oceans mean that all coral reefs – which support up to nine million other species – will have dissolved within 50 years. Does that matter? (she asks)”  And she answers,  “It depends on what value you place on our world.”

Kolbert concludes with a quote from the ecologist Paul Ehrlich: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

It was Rachel Carson who led the way:

A 1962 Peanuts comic strip shows Lucy saying, “Look, Charlie Brown…I got a new baseball bat for my birthday!” “Who’s name is on it Mickey Mantle? Willie Mays?” “It must be a girl’s bat,” says Lucy, reading the label. “It says, Rachel Carson.”

A cartoon in Punch shows two businessmen looking at a dead dog. “This is the dog that bit the cat that killed the rat that ate the malt that came from the grain that Jack sprayed.”

And another cartoon showed a praying mantis with whatever-they’re-called folded, saying, “God bless momma and poppa…and Rachel Carson!”

Throughout her life, Rachel was intensely private, quiet, shy even, no grandstander. Though Silent Spring thrust her into the public glare of publicity and congressional hearings, she retreated to her home in Silver Spring, Maryland and – in the summer – to her cottage on Southport Island, Maine. It is this private life that the new book Always, Rachel tenderly reveals.

The correspondence with Dorothy Freeman began in 1952. Rachel responded to a note which Dorothy had written, on behalf of herself and her husband, welcoming their new summer neighbor at Southport. She addressed the note “Dear Mrs. Freeman,” and signed it “Sincerely, Rachel L. Carson.”

The rest of the year, the Freeman’s lived in West Bridgewater, and except for the short Maine summers, Rachel and Dorothy nurtured their relationship by mail. By the time of Rachel’s death in 1964, more than 750 letters were exchanged, each often writing to the other daily (can you imagine?).

The respect and affection each held for the other soon grew to a deep and abiding love. They were not, apparently, lovers, (my impression is that their circumstances and times didn’t allow what would have been natural) – thus each ached from their almost-constant separation. They addressed one another as “darling” and “dear heart,” gave constant assurance of their love and desire to be in one another’s arms, and signed “with love,” and “I need you,” and “always.” Their longing for one another is so intimate that even they decided to burn some letters lest their friendship be misunderstood.

The hardship and discipline of writing added to the intensity of their sharing. Rachel wrote: “If we could have arranged our lives as we would have chosen – to be in daily association – we might have defeated ourselves by so doing, for it may well be that the enforced separation, and the necessity of writing instead of speaking, have contributed to the depth of love and understanding that have developed.”
They shared everything: music, books, their discoveries in tide pools and at backyard bird-feeders, Rachel’s difficulties caring for her aged mother with whom she lived and, later, with her niece’s son whom she adopted after her niece’s death. When her mother died at age 93, Rachel lamented, “Do you know when I think I shall miss her most? – When we shall sit down together and she will not be there to say Grace.” Rachel emerges as eloquent, self-effacing, generous and humane.

Reading their correspondence caused me to reflect on my friendships and friendships in general. Intimate friendships among men, or between women and men, are surely more rare than those among women; though even those are hardly common, and even less so now with our lives still more fragmented by work and time and expectation.

And yet I believe there is something, found in the deep friendship between Rachel and Dorothy, that each of us needs to give balance to our public and private lives, to ground us in human realities, and to enable us, perhaps, to make a difference in the world. Rachel’s friendship with Dorothy truly enabled Rachel to persist in her writing, her research, her advocacy. Friendship encouraged her, literally “gave her heart.” That is something all of us need.

During their last summer together in Maine, Rachel and Dorothy spent a morning on a rocky point where they witnessed the migration of Monarch butterflies. Later that day, Rachel wrote her a note:

“This is a postscript to our morning…, something I think I can write better than say. For me it was one of the loveliest of the summer’s hours, and all the details will remain in my memory: that blue September sky, the sounds of wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging, alighting with deliberate grace…. But most of all I shall remember the Monarchs, that unhurried drift of one small winged form after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But if occurred to me this afternoon, remembering, that it has been a happy spectacle, that we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return. And rightly – for when any living thing has come to the end of its cycle we accept that end as natural. For the Monarch butterfly, that cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves, the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy things that a life comes to its end.

That is what those brightly fluttering bits of life taught me this morning. I found a deep happiness in it – so, I hope, may you. Thank you for this morning.”

Rachel wrote a small book for children titled The Sense of Wonder, and it is in homage to that sense of wonder I wish to close. I think that’s what we – right here – are all about. When every Sunday service ends, when every meeting concludes and every folding chair is folded into place, when every plant fair is tallied, when the last note is sounded on the organ or piano, and when every sermon finds its wordy way to a final period, all that we’re about here – the reason people participate in an outfit like this – is to help one another and ourselves find and re-find some sense of wonder – not in theological stuff (well, maybe in theological stuff) but certainly in the world around us, in kids and old people and even ourselves, just as we are, here and now.

It was Chesterton, you remember, who said that the world shall never want for lack of wonders, only for lack of wonder.

That’s what I love about Mark Bailey’s balanced rocks.  I am amazed, astonished, and if stones are capable of kindling, they rekindle my sense of wonder!

The seventh principle of our Unitarian Universalist Purposes and Principles is “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” I don’t think we would have said that had it not been for Rachel Carson; and anyway it’s all about holding on to that sense of wonder, not losing it – well, you’ll probably lose it but you can find it again, and again, and again. And maybe it will be in bees or fossils or in friends, or in friends who happen to be fossils, or in stars or monarchs, or in the sea around us, or I have no idea where you may find it; but almost certainly it’s right under your noses or just above your head right now.

But, in the spirit of Rachel Carson, I wish for you love, and friendship and a sense of wonder. And I thank you for this morning. Thank you for this morning. And before we move on, I ask you to turn to the person next to you, or reach across the pew, and say thank you. Say more if you like, but say thank you at least. Thank you for this morning. Amen; now do it.