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Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. (21).

So begins Rachel Carson’s influential book, Silent Spring. But something happens to this idyll and one spring the town wakes up to silence.

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. …

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves. (22)

In 1962, with this dire warning, Rachel Carson launched into her attack on the unbridled use of chemical pesticides. We have reached the 1960s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury.

Summary of Silent Spring

It took me a long time to read this book. At times I wondered that life on earth exists at all considering the scenario being built up by Rachel Carson about the use of chemical pesticides. She marshals her evidence. She had to in order to convince people for whom much of this was new. Science was expected to solve all problems, not create them.

Her argument is that nature is interconnected, that insects are part of a complex natural relationship affecting birds, soil, trees, and ultimately humans. Her fear was that we would alter natural life, including the birds, making for a silent spring.

She also reveals how unreliable the pesticides are, how often their use means that the pests return in force, and that scientists are disingenuous for not researching the unintended consequences of the uses of pesticides that they develop. She also blamed the big chemical companies. In her sights were DDT, but other chemicals as well.

The Impact of Silent Spring

This book is often credited with initiating environmental awareness.  Certainly she wrote persuasively about the interrelation of all living things on this earth. The chapter on soil, for example is lyrical in its appreciation of the soil and its inhabitants, especially the humble earthworm.

The soil exists in a state of constant change, taking part in cycles that have no beginning and no end. New materials are constantly being contributed as rocks disintegrate, as organic matter decays, and as nitrogen and other gases are brought down from the skies. At the same time other materials are being taken away, borrowed for temporary use by living creatures. Subtle and vastly important chemical changes are constantly in progress, converting elements derived from air and water into forms suitable for use by plants. In all these changes living organisms are active agents. (62)

The idea of Gaia was not popularised until James Locklock used it in 1979. But the concept is evident in Rachel Carson’s work: a dynamic system involving organic and inorganic material that shapes the whole biosphere.

In 1957 the US Department of Agriculture launched an attack on fire ants across 20 million acres in nine southern states. Like many such programmes there were terrible consequences and the fire ant was not even a major pest.

Never has any pesticide programme been so thoroughly and deservedly damned by practically everyone except the beneficiaries of this ‘sales bonanza’. It is an outstanding example of an ill-conceived, badly executed, and thoroughly detrimental experiment in the mass control of insects, an experiment so expensive in dollars, in destruction of animal life, and in loss of public confidence in the Agriculture Department that it is incomprehensible that any funds should still be devoted to it. (148)

The description of this and many, many other pesticide attacks mount throughout the book. At the time, her evidence undermined the confidence in science and scientists as neutral and beneficial; in the Department of Agriculture who ran these chemical programmes; and the companies that manufactured and sold the pesticides.

Rachel Carson focused on chemical pesticides, noting that not only were they dangerous, but they were ineffective as they destroyed the balance in nature. She advocated more research into biological forms of pest control. Today she would no doubt include the manufacture of plastics and a broader picture of the damage we are doing including contributing to climate change.

It is not surprising that her work was attacked, especially by the chemical companies. This is a story familiar from battles against smoking and sugar consumption. And as I read her book I came across an article in the Guardian (10thJuly): Monsanto ‘bullied scientists’ and hid weedkiller risk, lawyer tells court. The weedkiller is Roundup.

She was denigrated for being a woman without children (what did she care for genetics?), not a formally qualified scientist (she gave up her doctoral studies to work to support her family) and for writing for the general reader. She was attacked for saying truth to power. She died of cancer in 1964.

And then …?

Joni Mitchell in Concert 1974 by Paul C Babin via Wikicommons

Things began to change. President Kennedy and others were impressed, and the US began enacting the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), The Natural Environment Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act (1972) and to set up the Environment Protection Agency in 1970. In 1970 Joni Mitchell composed Big Yellow Taxi, which also referenced the blight of pesticides.

Hey farmer farmer –

Put away the DDT

I don’t care about spots on my apples

Leave me the birds and the bees

Please!

Environmental campaigning continues. Chemical companies also continue to seek profits.

Here’s a link to Brain Picking’s Maria Popova’s appreciation of her life and work, especially her moving letters to her long-term friend Dorothy Freeman: The writing of ‘Silent Spring’.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carsonwas published in 1962. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition. 323pp

The Decades project on Bookword

In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:

Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain (1933)

The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank (1947)

Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen (1950s)

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To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

I read To the Lighthouse very slowly over the New Year, taking nearly a week to get through its 237 pages. It is not the story that carries the reader on but the impressions, responses, and insights of her characters. In a slow read I could think about not what happened but how Virginia Woolf created this masterpiece. I wanted to think about the writing, how she achieved her effects. I wanted to think about the process of reading. I also wanted to engage with #Woolfalong on the Heavenali blog.

209 To_the_Lighthouse

The Story of To the Lighthouse

The Window: Before the First World War the Ramsay family is holidaying on Skye. The youngest boy James (5) wants to go to the lighthouse the next day, but weather makes the expedition doubtful. The family and house guests, including the painter Lily Briscoe, go about their activities, walking on the beach, listening to the great Mr Ramsay and reading to James. Mrs Ramsay presides over a dinner party.

Time Passes: ten years go by, and the house is neglected. Mrs Ramsay and two of her children die, a marriage turns sour, everyone gets older and the Great War engulfs Europe.

The Lighthouse: Many of the original house party return to Skye. Lily Briscoe sets about completing her painting and Mr Ramsay sails with his two youngest children to the lighthouse.

Themes include family relationships, grief and loss, creativity, internal impressions, the effects of time.

Writing To the Lighthouse

To the Lighthouse was begun in 1925 and published in 1927. In the extracts from her diaries, edited by her husband Leonard after her death and published in 1953, Virginia Woolf recorded the three-part structure of the novel very early on (July 1925) with a sense of doing something new and challenging.

…and then this impersonal thing, which I am dared to do by my friends, the flight of time and the consequent break of unity in my design. That passage (I conceive the book in 3 parts. 1. at the drawing room window; 2. seven years passed; 3. the voyage) interests me very much. A new problem like that breaks fresh ground in one’s mind; prevents the regular ruts. (20 July 1923. 80-1)

Her diaries record writing ‘with speed and certainty’ and this pace became a reference point for her later writing. She records some of her challenges.

Yesterday I finished the first part of To the Lighthouse, and today began the second. I cannot make it out – here is the most difficult abstract piece of writing – I have to give an empty house, no people’s characters, the passage of time, all eyeless and featureless with nothing to cling to; well I rush at it, and at once scatter out two pages. Is it nonsense, is it brilliance? Why am I so flown with words and apparently free to do exactly what I like? When I read a bit it seems spirited too; needs compression, but not much else. Compare this dashing fluency with Mrs Dalloway (save the end). This is not made up; it is the literal fact. (30 April 1926. p88-9)

By September she was trying to find a satisfactory completion of the narratives of Lily Pascoe and Mr Ramsay at the novel’s conclusion. As she finished her redrafting she reflected on her feelings.

I feel – what? A little stale this last week or two from steady writing. But also a little triumphant. If my feeling is correct, this is the greatest stretch I’ve put my method to, and I think it holds. By this I mean that I have been dredging up more feelings and characters, I imagine. But Lord knows, until I look at my haul. This is only my own feeling in process. (101)

She goes on to worry about criticisms, of technique without substance, and the persistent fear of being perceived as sentimental. (I go in dread of “sentimentality”. p101) She can’t relax until Leonard says it is her best work yet, and describes it as ‘a psychological poem’.

And a few weeks later on 21st March 1927 she notes

Dear me, how lovely some parts of Lighthouse are! Soft and pliable, and I think deep, and never a word wrong for a page at a time. This I feel about the dinner party and the children in the boat; but not of Lily on the lawn. That I do not much like. But I like the end. (106)

The book was published in May 1927 and it was so well received that the Woolfs were able to buy a car.

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Virginia Woolf in 1927

Reflections from the slow read

The novel was considered a pioneer in the technique called ‘stream of consciousness’. She captures the interior experiences of her characters, multi-layered, profound and everyday thoughts, repetition, responses to worries and surrounding people. But the phrase is inadequate, stream suggesting a linear form, imposed by the limits of words in sentences. But Virginia Woolf conveys the layers, textures, and loops of consciousness, making the image of the stream misleading. I remember my first reading, and my fear that I would find a stream of consciousness novel hard. I remember reflecting that actually it was easy to read, not always to understand or follow, but to read because it represented the way in which everyone experiences the world – at many levels, simultaneously, repetitively and interruptedly.

Another feature of the writing is its lyrical qualities. I considered her use of poetry, especially in the dinner party scene, in a recent post about poetry in fiction.

Mrs Ramsay dominates the novel and her perceptions carry much of the first section. She knits, sits and reads to her youngest son, argues with the gardener, goes on errands to the village, checks on her children and presides at the dinner table. She is beautiful, in her deportment and in her perceptivenes and interactions with people. Here is an example, as she concludes the book she reads to James.

‘And that’s the end,’ she said. And she saw in his eyes, as the interest of the story dies away in them something else take its place; something wondering, pale, like a reflection of a light, which at once made him gaze and marvel. Turning, she looked across the bay, and there, sure enough, coming regularly across the waves first two quick strokes and then one long steady stroke, was the light of the Lighthouse. It had been lit. (71-2)

A few pages later, James having gone off, Mr Ramsay passes, and wants her to assuage his discomfort – as he so often did from women. The next few lines reveal much about their marriage.

And again he would have passed her without a word had she not, at that very moment, given him of her own free will what she knew he would never ask, and called to him and taken the green shawl off the picture frame, and gone to him. For he wished, she knew, to protect her. (76)

The flow of the sentences in those two passages makes reading a pleasure. In contrast Mrs Ramsay, having permeated the first section, is dispatched in parenthesis in a section that jars.

[Mr Ramsay stumbling along a passage stretched his arms out one dark morning, but, Mrs Ramsay having died rather suddenly the night before, he stretched his arms out. They remained empty.] (146-7)

227 To Light cover

To the Lighthouse is a delight. Its techniques, challenges, solutions make one wonder, how did she do that? In an essay on how to read, in The Second Common Reader Virginia Woolf wrote

Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a writer is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties with words. (Brain Pickings blog)

It’s also worth noting that Virginia Woolf was writing from her experiences: of annual holidays (at St Ives not Skye), of a dominating father and beautiful mother, and of the challenges of creativity. Virginia Woolf was close to her sister Vanessa Bell, a painter as was Lily Briscoe. The parental stuff was therapeutic as she wrote later

I used to think of him [father] and mother daily; but writing the Lighthouse laid them in my mind. And now he comes back, but differently. (I believe this to be true – that I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act) (November 1928. P138)

Other stuff

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

From the original jacket design for the Diaries, by Vanessa Bell. From Persephone Books.

Not everyone finds her as inspiring. I was rather shocked to read Hilary Mantel saying,

I’ve never read my way through a Virginia Woolf book. (Paris Review: Art of Fiction #226)

My copy is falling to bits.

I had included Mrs Ramsay in my list of older women in fiction. But since her youngest son was only 5, albeit she had eight children, I think she must have been in her early 50s. She does, however, have the poise and wisdom of many older women.

Did Virginia Woolf really use so many semi-colons in her diary, or is this Leonard’s editing?

For the next phase of the #Woolfalong in March/April I will be probably reread The Voyage Out, Virginia Woolf’s first novel.

To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927) by the Hogarth Press. Pages numbers refer to the Penguin Modern Classics edition of 1964 237pp

A Writer’s Diary: being extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf, edited by Leonard Woolf, first published in 1953. The edition used in this post was published by Persephone Books in 2012. 372pp.

Related posts

Heavenali’s post on To The Lighthouse, part of the #Woolfalong project on her blog, for which many thanks.

Mrs Dalloway is ageing

In Step with Virginia Woolf about the ballet WoolfWorks

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The Public Library by Robert Dawson

I find myself recently buying a few large books for leafing through. First it was one about women’s sheds: A Woman’s Shed by Gill Herz, photographs by Nicolette Hallett. The second featured the covers of Jane Austen’s novels in the last 200 years: Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret C Sullivan. And then it was the subject of this post: The Public Library: a photographic essay by Robert Dawson.184 Pub Lib cover

I couldn’t resist this one having read a post by Maria Popova on the blog On Brain Pickings. You can read the post here and consider whether you would have resisted.

The book

The Public Library has a foreword by Bill Moyers, an afterword by Ann Patchett and other contributions from Isaac Asimov, Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Lamott, Dr Seuss, Charles Simic, Amy Tan and others. So many notable American writers, all reflecting on the wonder that is the public library.

In the United States – as in the UK – it appears that the public library is under threat. That means that the idea of the public library as free, accessible and local may not survive the next two decades. Robert Dawson is a believer in the free public library, clear about its significance in the States. What he says also applies to libraries in the UK:

Stoke Newington Library, London

Stoke Newington Library, London

A locally governed and tax-supported system that dispenses knowledge and information for everyone throughout the country at no cost to its patrons is an astonishing thing – a thread that weaves together our diverse and often fractious country. It is a shared commons of our dreams, our memories, our culture, and ourselves.

The project for his book is described at the start of chapter one:

The photographs in this book are intended to be a broad study of public libraries in America over an eighteen-year period. There are approximately seventeen thousand public libraries in the United States, and I tried to include the broadest range of them possible. My photographs capture some of the poorest and wealthiest, oldest and newest, most crowded and most isolated, even abandoned libraries. (13)

And so, what we get is 185 pages, most of them with B&W and colour photographs, showing the reader (the leafer-through) a very large variety of libraries – from the classical monumental building of The Handley Regional Library, Winchester, Virginia to the ‘Little Free Library’ in a replica of a school house on a post (think bird table) in Hudson, Wisconsin via the seed and tool libraries of California. Little Free Library is a community movement and you can find out more about it at www.littlefreelibrary.org I counted 15 in the UK on the website, but none near me in the South West.

A selection of libraries from the book

In the Main Library, Salt Lake City, Utah hangs a sculpture called Psyche, made of nearly 1500 small sculptures of books forming the shape of a head (p132).184 Psyche in Utal lib

Caliente branch library is situated in a former Pacific railroad station, in Nevada (p150). You can find libraries in a former gas station, bank, court house and church. A Library shares space with a liquor store in Minnesota.

In Enoch Pratt Free Library, Baltimore, Maryland there is a chess room (p47)

The Chicago Public Library was created from the ashes of the 1971 Great Chicago fire. From England the library received 8000 books donated by Queen Victoria, Benjamin Disraeli, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, John Stuart Mill, John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold among others (p98).

In praise of the public library

And perhaps the story that resonated most with me was Anne Lamott’s account of the direct action by writers and readers in Salinas California when they heard that all three of their libraries were to close due to budget cuts. They held an emergency 24 hours read-in by a group of actors and writers. The press coverage brought in enough money to keep the libraries open for a further year.

This is what she says about librarians.

I see them as healers and magicians. Librarians can tease out of inarticulate individuals enough information about what they are after to lead them on the path of connection. They are trail guides through the forest of shelves and aisles – you turn a person loose who has limited skills, and he’ll be walloped by the branches. But librarians match up readers with the right books: “hey, is this one too complicated? Then why don’t you give this one a try?”

And about the threat to deprive the city of Salinas of all its libraries she says

Something has gone so wrong in this country that needs to be fixed, and we care about that. Books and reading are medicine. Stories are written and told by and for people who have been broken, but who have risen up, or will rise, if attention is paid to them. Those people are you and us. Stories and truths are splints for the soul, and that makes today a sacred gathering. Now we are all saying: Pass it on. (166)

Yes – that’s what we must do: pass it on!

Related post: Anne Lamott’s advice to writers: A Visit from my Inner Critic

The Public Library: a photographic essay by Robert Dawson published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2014 192pp

 

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