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Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 15 - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com

15. Back in Silver Spring, Rachel’s doctor confirmed what she had suspected – the pain in her back and legs was due to the cancer’s spreading. The treatment was a new one that included testosterone, which was designed to have her walking more fluidly without pain by the time she left for San Francisco.

It didn’t work, but that wasn’t going to stop Rachel. Marie offered to go with her and help with her presentation as well as her mobility.

Even so, the flight across the country was not very comfortable. It had its high points, however. In clear skies, they flew directly over the Grand Canyon, and Rachel was able to get a good look at one of nature’s greatest marvels. The layers of colored rock, created over millions of years by the flow of the Colorado River in conjunction with strong wind and violent rainfall, were on full display. The one-mile deep and, at times, eighteen-mile-wide canyon stretched for 277 miles, and Rachel, an ardent fan of nature’s grandeur, had never seen anything so magnificent.

“Okay, we can go home now,” she quipped to Marie. “We’re not likely to see anything else on this trip that compares.”

“How about thousand-year-old trees?”

“Where would we find those?”

“You’ll see,” Marie replied coyly.

They arrived in San Francisco, and Rachel loved it immediately. It was picturesque, with a western flair that gave it charm and made it thoroughly enjoyable. Rachel got around with her walker and a wheelchair. With Marie’s help, she even managed to climb onto a cable car, which she rode for miles in a makeshift tour of the city.

They were the ultimate tourists. They ate at Fisherman’s Wharf, rode in an outdoor glass elevator that had amazing views of San Francisco, and squeezed into Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore to see the “I AM THE DOOR” sign. They were standing on the Golden Gate Bridge when the fog came in “on little cat feet,” like in a Carl Sandburg poem.

Everyone accommodated Rachel, whether they knew who she was or not, though she suspected Marie secretly told many of them. Rachel’s speech at the Kaiser Medical Center also went well. The questions by doctors and other medical personnel were insightful and thought-provoking.

All things considered, Rachel had a very nice time in San Francisco and wished she could stay longer.

Marie had one more surprise, however – the answer to the riddle about thousand-year-old trees. They were incredibly tall and stately coastal redwoods at Muir Woods, and Marie drove Rachel up there to see them. They captured her imagination, suggesting the power and beauty of nature in a new way for the most famous nature writer in the country.

Rachel returned to Silver Spring, but her energy flagged and her life was a shadow of what it was before. She still took care of Roger, of course, but as he was approaching his teenage years, he was beginning to have a life of his own. And even when he was at home, he took care of her as much as the other way around.

She now had severe episodes of pain in her upper back and neck, and sometimes she could not get her hands and legs to work right. There were days when she didn’t get out of bed, and though she read and answered some letters – especially those from Dorothy – she had little energy to explain or defend Silent Spring. With regret, she realized others would need to shoulder that burden.

They could do it. She was not irreplaceable in that role because the facts were the facts, and the reality of the situation was now clear: chemical pesticides were a threat to nature and humans, and they needed to be monitored and managed.

It was that simple, and, unfortunately, due to a variety of factors, it was that complicated.

Rachel did take on the task of sifting through her personal papers, which she had decided to donate to Yale University. She found that she enjoyed the memories evoked by old letters and notes associated with Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea. The process reminded her of when she and Dorothy had sorted through boxes of research material in preparation for the writing of Silent Spring. This time, Dorothy was far away, but she promised to visit before the end of the year.

Rachel experienced two losses before her dear friend arrived. The first was the death of her cat, Jeffie, who was her precious long-time companion. The second was more remote, but still powerful: the assassination of John F. Kenndy on November 22, 1963. Both these losses made Rachel feel more alone – and lonely – as her health continued to deteriorate. The metastatic cancer ravaged her body, and the drugs sometimes had little effect on the pain.

Still unwilling to accept her life as an invalid, Rachel somehow summoned the strength to travel to New York City to receive the Cullum Medal from the American Geological Society, which recognized a spirit of adventure and a special relationship to the natural world.

Rachel accepted the medal with humility and gratitude, just as she accepted nature.


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