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Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, chapter 12 - all posts at

12. Rachel returned to Silver Spring, and then suddenly, without warning, she experienced excruciating back pain, which her doctors initially attributed to arthritis. However, the pain did not go away. She was soon back in the doctor’s office, where she was told she needed more radiation treatment. She complied, but the treatment provided little relief while causing terrible nausea.

Then, closer to Christmas, Rachel experienced a fainting spell while shopping, and she was off to the doctors again. This time, because she’d also experienced chest pain, they recommended she see a cardiologist. She did, and the diagnosis was a rare form of angina, which led to a hospital bed being sent to her house in Silver Spring. She was told not to climb stairs or go outside.

It was a crushing blow. Rachel’s condition made working and taking care of Roger more difficult and more stressful. She would see him off to school, then return to bed in the living room, where sometimes she could sleep and other times, she stared at the ceiling with her eyes wide open.

So much had gone wrong with her body lately that she thought it might be time to come to terms with the likelihood that she would never get better. That realization often came with a cancer diagnosis, but she had recovered and seemed to be on a better, more positive path.

But the path had turned downward again, and she felt helpless to control it. She was only in her mid-fifties, but maybe it was her time. She sighed deeply. She had come a long way from rural Pennsylvania, making the most of her college years thanks to Mary Scott Skinker. The thought of Skinker made her stomach turn over. She had not told Mary Scott about her recent problems. She had continued to shepherd Rachel’s career, and they had remained close.

But Rachel had not wanted to spread the word of how ill she was because it might look like she was a bitter, spiteful person blaming the chemical industry for her cancer, when the truth was that nobody could ever know where it had come from and why she was susceptible. It had just happened, and her cancer had nothing to do with her battle against putting gross amounts of toxic chemicals into nature.

Her thoughts returned to Mary Scott, whom she would very much like to see again, and then her thoughts turned to Dorothy, whose letters had become more openly affectionate lately, as had Rachel’s. Dorothy did not hesitate to tell Rachel how much their time together had meant to her and how meaningful their time together was. It was wonderful to hear, but it was also sad, as if Dorothy also suspected the end was not far off.

The sinking feeling returned to Rachel’s stomach. She was not ready to be done, not with Dorothy and not with life. The line from a Robert Frost poem occurred to her, “And miles to go before I sleep.”

“Yes,” Rachel said aloud, “I have miles to go, not to mention a book to defend against a horde of enemies.”

She shook her head and thought about how she had gotten into this situation in the first place – not the cancer, but the writing of a book that turned the country’s perception of a modern practice from “yippee” to “what were we thinking?” All she’d ever wanted to do was write about nature, and of course nature was at the heart of Silent Spring, or at least the preserving of it was. Yet here she was, the national spokesperson against the chemical pesticide and insecticide business. As if to emphasize that fact, she had been invited to appear on CBS Reports along with, among others, Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman and a representative of the chemical industry, Robert White-Stevens.

She had accepted, of course, because to refuse would be to allow them to levy their charges against Silent Spring without rebuttal from the author, as if she was scared or embarrassed. She could not let that happen. Still, Rachel was not looking forward to an argument with a group of incensed, articulate people in front of television cameras and millions of people. Brooks and others at Houghton-Mifflin had tried to ensure that the presentation, moderated by Eric Severeid, would be fair, but Rachel was still concerned that her lack of experience on TV and her quiet demeanor would work against her.

When she mentioned this to Dorothy, she poo-pooed the idea that anyone could ever get the better of the renowned Rachel Carson on any issue dealing with nature.

While Rachel was still worried about the show, the impending TV appearance gave her something to think about and prepare for, a project to occupy her mind. It was dreadful, lying in her bed, wondering if she had three months to live, or six months, or a year or two. It was probably not more than that, and she should be ready for whatever happened, but really, how did one prepare to die? She had lived her life the way she wanted to, been lucky in many ways, unlucky in others perhaps, but she had no regrets. She was sorry to think how sad Roger would be, and Dorothy and Stan, her agent Marie and Paul Brooks, and the other members of her extended family. She wished she could soften the blow for them.

She suddenly shook herself and gritted her teeth.

She couldn’t think that way. She couldn’t dwell on dying when she had so much living yet to do. She had to focus on getting better. The treatments had helped before, and they could help again. Maybe it was a little worse this time, but that did not mean the end was around the corner. It might be around the tenth corner for all she knew, or the twentieth corner or the hundredth.

In the meantime, as Rachel prepared for her appearance on CBS Reports, she tried to keep up-to-date on the news, and her publisher and agent had no shortage of information on current events. In fact, her limited mobility did not prevent Rachel from becoming involved in a controversy over how to stop a highly destructive plant-eating beetle in Virginia.

The government’s plan was to eradicate the beetle with an application of dieldrin over a landscape of three thousand acres, which included residential areas. Not coincidentally, around that time, sales of Silent Spring increased sharply in Norfolk.

From her home two hundred miles away, Rachel gave her informed opinion in a newspaper interview. She said that the intended amount of dieldrin was a heavy dose and that the government reassurances that the plan was safe should be taken with a grain of salt. In fact, she suggested that the government really had no idea how much dieldrin was safe.

It did no good. Opposition to the plan was not powerful or widespread enough, and the plan went forward.

Rachel felt the futility of her efforts. She had written a book that highlighted an important problem, and the book was selling, largely due to her name. But it was clear that there was a long way to go before the country awoke to the severity and the immediacy of the dangers associated with the chemicals sprayed over us, spread over our farmland and gardens, and poured into our water sources.

Around the same time as Norfolk was dealing harshly with its pests, another issue that had been percolating for some time without much fanfare garnered attention. At least it garnered Rachel Carson’s attention. It was not an issue that grabbed many headlines, or even the serious interest of any but the most aware and concerned scientists, but a conference sponsored by the Conservation Foundation had issued a report concerning the earth’s atmosphere. It held that an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide was accompanied by an increase in the surface temperature of the earth.

Rachel had heard rumors of this phenomenon for years, but the results reached at the Conservation Foundation conference supported a third manner in which humans were threatening the human habitat. The first was nuclear weapons testing and the resultant fall-out. The second was, of course, the harmful chemicals being applied to air, land and water. And the third was now the warming of the planet.

Like the other two issues, this one required taking a long view to see where we were headed in the future, but it was one which, if she was given more time, Rachel would have liked to explore. Perhaps it even would be her next book, should she have the time and energy to write another.

Of course, getting people to take this problem seriously would probably be even harder than getting them to reconsider the mass application of pesticides and insecticides – for the simple reason there were no dead birds, contaminated water, or useless farmland as a result.

Nonetheless, the earth’s rising temperature was another warning bell, tolling loud and clear for anyone who listened.


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