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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Sense of Wonder amid Signs of Doom

Presented by Rev. Diane Teichert and Noel Monardes, Worship Associate and a guest-presenter for the Together Time

Sense of Wonder Amid Signs of Doom:  Rachel Carson

A sermon preached by the Reverend Diane Teichert

Paint Branch Unitarian Universalist Church

March 2, 2014


As you may know, in my life before ministry, I was a labor and community organizer. Two years ago, for International Women’s Day, I preached about one of my labor organizing heroines, Mother Jones, because she lived her last years less than a mile from here. You can see a road-side marker in her honor in front of the Baptist Church at the intersection of Riggs and Powder Mill Roads. So, this year, when I learned that another of my heroines, the ground-breaking environmentalist Rachel Carson, lived and worked near here, I decided to preach about her for Women’s History Month. So here we are.

My middle name is my maternal grandmother’s maiden name, which begins with a D, and so my initials are DDT. At some point in my youth, I complained to my parents, “How could you give me initials for a POISON?” They claimed to not have known. I remember being incredulous. How could you not know about DDT?!!

It was only in reading up for this sermon on Rachel Carson that I fully understood how it could have been that, in the year I was born: 1952, my parents didn’t know that DDT was a poison. Not many people knew. It wasn’t until Carson’s best-known book Silent Spring was published in 1962 that the general public came to know what scientists had known for years: once these pesticides entered the biosphere, they not only killed insects but also made their way up the food chain to threaten bird and fish populations and could eventually sicken children. “In writing that book, Carson, the citizen-scientist, spawned a revolution,” stated a New York Times reporter in an article published two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring.

Her revolution led directly to the Clean Air and Water Acts, the creation of Earth Day and President Nixon’s founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970.

Let me tell you a little about her background, so that we can understand how she came to be who she was, a little about her work, and share stories I’ve gleaned from someone who lived next door to her, and tell about a UU connection at the end of her life.

According to the Times article, and Carson’s biography by Linda Lear,

“Rachel Carson was born in 1907 in the boom of the Industrial Age about 18 miles up the Allegheny River from Pittsburgh, in the town of Springdale. From her bedroom window, she could see smoke billow from the stacks of the American Glue Factory, which slaughtered horses. The factory was located less than a mile away, down the gently sloping riverbank from the Carsons’ four-room log cabin. Passers-by could watch old horses file up a covered wooden ramp to their death. The smell of fertilizer made from horse parts was so rank that, along with the mosquitoes that bred in the swampland near the riverbank called the Bottoms, it prevented Springdale’s 1,200 residents from sitting on their porches in the evening.”

“Her father, Robert Carson, was a ne’er-do-well whose ventures inevitably failed; Carson’s elder sister, Marian, did shift work in the town’s coal-fired power plant. Carson’s mother, Maria, the ambitious and embittered daughter of a Presbyterian minister, had great hopes that her youngest daughter, Rachel, could be educated and would escape Springdale. Rachel won a scholarship to Pennsylvania College for Women, now known as Chatham University, in Pittsburgh. After graduation, she moved to Baltimore, where she attended graduate school for zoology at Johns Hopkins University and completed a master’s degree before dropping out of the doctoral program to help support her family. The Carsons fared even worse during the Depression, and they fled Springdale, leaving heavy debts behind,” and followed Rachel to Maryland.

The early-mid thirties wasn’t the best time to find a job in science, especially for a woman. Carson was teaching part-time at the University of Maryland Dental and Pharmacy School when, in 1935, the same year her father died, she landed a part-time job as a science editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency founded under the New Deal, based in Washington DC. Soon working full-time, she authored scientific brochures and pamphlets for a public audience. Eager to be a writer [and needing more money], she pursued freelancing opportunities with The Atlantic and Reader’s Digest, among other publications.

“Driven by her love of the sea, she wrote [magazine articles] on everything from where to go for summer vacation to what to do with the catch of the day to the life cycles of sea creatures. Carson believed that people would protect only what they loved, so she worked to establish a “sense of wonder” about nature. [These articles drew on the research available to her at Fisheries and began to attract the interest of book publishers]. In her best-selling sea books — Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea [published in 1941, 1951 and 1958 respectively] — she used simple and sometimes sentimental narratives about the oceans to articulate sophisticated ideas about the inner workings of largely unseen things.”

In 1937 she moved from Baltimore and rented the first of a series of houses in Silver Spring, for herself, her mother, and her two young nieces, Virginia and Marjorie  - whose single mother, Rachel’s older sister Marion, had died earlier that year. Carson’s mother took care of the housekeeping and childcare while Rachel was the breadwinner.

They lived first inside the Beltway - near the corner of Highland Drive and Colesville Road, then on Flower Avenue, and then on Sutherland Road. The next and longest rental was on Williamsburg Drive near Four Corners, where it happens that a friend of our own Marie Gore lived next door as a child. Upon learning this, I called Marie’s friend, Cathy Delaney Wolf, and asked if she would share any Rachel Carson memories with us.

She remembers a time in the early fifties when her mother was about to spray from a can of DDT on some ants in the kitchen and Rachel interceded to tell her not to use it. She remembers that Carson told her mother to keep the kids indoors when the mosquito spray truck went by. But she remembers most fondly her visits next door when Rachel would show Cathy her treasures from nature and give her sea shells she had brought back from Maine where she had a summer cottage. She concluded, “Rachel, as I called her, was down to earth, definitely someone I have never forgotten, who gave me an appreciation for the environment, and along with my father, a love for the sea.”

During the years on Williamsburg Drive, Rachel’s niece Marjorie became pregnant by a married man, and brought her new baby, Roger Allen Christie, into the Carson household in February 1952. Sadly, in January 1957, when he was almost five, Marjorie died of pneumonia, like her own mother before her. Rachel adopted Roger. Later that year, Rachel bought a plot (11707 Berwick Road) off of Quaint Acres Road in White Oak and a house was built. She, her mother who by then was ailing, and little Roger moved there in mid-July of that year. Her mother died in 1958.

It hadn’t been until 1952, after the popular success of The Sea Around Us, that Carson finally was able to leave government employment and focus on her writing. Her financial prospects had improved and the political climate at the Department of the Interior had changed such that her work at U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be hindered.  But during the years at U.S. Wildlife and Fish, she traveled to many wildlife refuges around the country, to participate in and write up field studies and research reports, gaining insider’s knowledge to current environmental issues.

The closest refuge and the one where she spent the most time was the Patuxent Research Wildlife Refuge not far from here in Laurel. It’s one of my favorite biking destinations. There is an informative visitors center there, and lake-side paved paths with great bird-sighting potential, plus they offer many nature education programs for young children through adults. It is on Powder Mill Road, only ten miles east from here.

At Patuxent, early tests were underway showing dangers of the new synthetic pesticide dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT. So, as early as 1945, Carson was trying to get the word out, unsuccessfully pitching articles to major magazines such as Readers Digest. It would be seventeen more years before she finally published Silent Spring, a human habitat protection manifesto. That is what I call persistence!

A year after its publication, in June 1963, Carson appeared before a Senate subcommittee on pesticides. In her testimony, Carson didn’t just highlight the problems that she identified in Silent Spring; she presented the policy recommendations she’d been working on for the past five years.

Another scientist, Roland Clement, who also testified before the Senate subcommittee, told Carson’s biographer that Senator Abraham Ribicoff, chairman of the committee, pulled him aside after he spoke. “He told me that the chemical companies were willing to stop domestic use of DDT,” Clement says, but only if they could strike a bargain: as long as Carson and Clement would accept the companies’ continued export of DDT to foreign countries, the companies would consider the end of domestic use.

It wasn’t until ten years later that the United States banned the domestic sale of DDT, except where public health concerns warranted its use. American companies continued to export the pesticide until the mid-1980s.

At the time of that hearing, hidden from the public, Rachel Carson was dying of breast cancer  – a condition that first appeared in 1946, again in 1950, and then in 1960 when it had metastasized. Her health deteriorated. Nevertheless, she pushed herself to finish writing Silent Spring and also the Sense of Wonder, published after her death, a precious book with beautiful photos, for parents on how to introduce children to the joys of exploring the natural world.

In March 1964, one last treatment was pursued, at the Cleveland Clinic. While recovering, Carson placed a call to the Reverend Duncan Howlett, Minister of All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington DC. She asked him if he would hold a memorial service for her at All Souls when the time came. He gave her his word.

Carson wasn’t a member of All Souls. But, they had met through a long-time friend of hers who was active there. Howlett preached about Silent Spring after it was published.

So, he would not have been surprised by the phone call in which she asked him to do her memorial service. However, it didn’t happen as she wished. On the day of her death, April 14, 1964, her brother Robert, always a difficult person, took control, and planned an elaborate state funeral at the Washington National Cathedral, with dignitaries as pallbearers and no memorial remarks. Unbeknownst to Robert, though, Rachel’s friend and literary agent contacted Rev. Howlett. According to the biographer, he “willingly cast aside the Sunday sermon he had planned for the memorial he had promised.”

So, on the Sunday morning after her death, her closest friends gathered at All Souls to honor Rachel. I will end my sermon today with Rev. Howlett’s brief remarks, which concluded with a letter about death she had written to her dear friend Dorothy Freeman.

“Last week one of the true prophets of our time, Rachel Carson, died here in Washington. She had asked me to read at her funeral service certain passages that expressed her philosophy. Her wish was denied. I therefore take this opportunity to do as I promised, and in her memory shall read a passage from her own hand which expresses in a remarkable way the strength, the simplicity and the serenity that marked her character.

We are already familiar with the extraordinary depth of insight and high poetic quality that marked her published writings. The flowing passage was not written for publication. It is a letter to a close friend, written but a few months ago when Rachel Carson already knew her time on earth might be short.”

The letter is a postscript on a time she and Dorothy Freeman shared the previous September on the tip of Southport Island in Maine, where they both had cottages. Dorothy had driven Rachel to a favorite spot on the shore. It was a warm clear day and they spent hours watching drifts of monarch butterflies feeding on milkweed. Carson wrote, as Howlett read,

“But most of all I shall remember the Monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged after another, each drawn by some invisible force. We talked a little about their migration, their life history. Did they return? We thought not; for most, at least, this was the closing journey of their lives.

But it occurred to me this afternoon, remember, that it had 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 life cycle we accept that end as natural.

For the Monarch, 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 no unhappy thing 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.”

Rachel Carson came to the end of her life cycle at age 56, having alerted the world to the dual threats of climate change and pollution from chemicals, on human health and on the species with which we share the Earth.


She would be horrified to know that the World Wildlife Fund announced this past January that Monarch butterflies were found in only 1.7 acres of their over-wintering areas, down from 45 acres in 1996. Its natural life-cycle has been cut short by the effects of the Monsanto company’s Roundup weed killer on milkweed, sprayed on massive acreage of soybeans and corn in the Midwest.

So, the work of Rachel Carson is not over. She left it to us to continue.


“How Silent Spring Ignited the Environmental Movement,” By Eliza Grizwold, New York Times 9/21/2012.

Rachel Carson: The Life of the Author of Silent Spring, by Linda Lear.

Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964: The Story of a Remarkable Friendship. Edited by Martha Freeman.

Monarch Population Hits Lowest Point in More Than 20 Years” in World Wildlife Fund Stories, January 29, 2014. On-line on Slate.com and here:



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