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Encke’s Comet, Celestial Poetics, and the Dawn of Popular Astronomy: How Emma Converse Became the Carl Sagan of the 19th Century

“The moment so long looked for may be nearer than we think, when, with a powerful grasp, like that of Newton, some watcher of the stars shall seize the secret of cometic history.”

“A comet,” wrote Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, “[is] a great clock, ticking out decades or geological ages once each perihelion passage, reminding us of the beauty and harmony of the Newtonian universe, and of the daunting insignificance of our place in space and time.” But a century before Sagan, another writer became the poet laureate of popular astronomy and distilled the science of space in luminous prose — Emma Converse (1820–1893), who pioneered the art of astropoetics in the 19th century. Her columns, syndicated widely in newspapers across the country, were among the first popular articles on astronomy to appear in any daily paper. Well before the first class of women astronomers graduated from Vassar and began revolutionizing our understanding of the universe, Converse was singlehandedly enchanting the common reader with the uncommon magic of the cosmos.

Emma M. Converse
Emma M. Converse

In an especially poetic piece published in Appleton’s Journal on January 6, 1872, Converse took up the subject of comets — in particular, Encke’s Comet, discovered nearly a century earlier, on January 17 of 1786.

Encke’s Comet is unusual for a number of reasons — not only does it pass closer to the sun than Mercury, the innermost planet of the Solar System, once per its strikingly short 3.3-year orbit, but it also seems to defy Newton by deviating from the motion pattern predicted by his law of gravity and instead arriving at that point closest to the sun a couple of hours early each orbit. The anomaly puzzled generations of astronomers, but its study, alongside the broader study of its kin, has helped illuminate the mysteries of the universe and even the probable origin of life on Earth.

Drawing of a comet, similar in appearance to Encke’s Comet, from The Comet Book, 1578

Converse paints the backdrop of the comet’s significance:

Sir William Thompson [Lord Kelvin], the president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in his recent inaugural address startled his audience by the suggestive assertion that life on the earth may have had its origin from seeds borne to our earth by meteors, the remnants of former worlds. He united this theory with the partially-established one that comets and comets’ tails consist of meteoric rocks, becoming luminous by concussion, and a change of position in regard to our planet, thus divesting comets of the ancient superstition which made them the harbingers of war, pestilence, and famine, and transforming them into the beneficent creators who brought vegetation and life to the chaotic surface of the globe.

The great comet of 1881, observed on June 26, 1:30 A.M.
One of Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century astronomical drawings

She returns to the particular subject of her article:

Encke’s comet is principally interesting for the reason that it performs its entire revolution within the boundaries of the solar system; that its period is the shortest of any comet whose revolution has been calculated; and that its twenty recorded returns give us a feeling of relationship which does not belong to any other individual of the cometic brotherhood. We hope that its present return to our neighborhood will give more light on the composition of the strange class to which it belongs.

It may seem that this comet is of little importance in the boundless world of space. But its short revolution of twelve hundred days illustrates the great laws which sway the material universe as fully as the vast sweep described by more distinguished members of the family, like the comet of 1680, whose perihelion was so near the sun that the heat on its surface was 25,600 times fiercer than that of an equatorial sunshine at noonday, and whose aphelion is so distant that it will not be reached for nearly 5,000 years… Its minute tail is fashioned by the same laws as that of the comet of 1744, whose six tails spread over the heavens like an immense fan; or like that of 1843, which stretched half-way across the sky at sunset; or the well-remembered one of 1858, called Donati’s comet, whose tail, with its superb cigarettelike form, says the late Sir John Herschel, “looked like a tall plume, wafted by the breeze!”

Art from The Comet Book, 1578

With her characteristic penchant for poetics, Converse turns from space to the Earth, bridging the magic of cosmic awe with the rigorous inquiries of science:

All over the scientific world, this little nebulous patch of light is being scrutinized by earnest gazers through the silent hours of starlit nights. The most powerful telescopes thus far have discovered no trace of a nucleus, and no shadow of a tail under its present condition of development; there is nothing to be seen but a fleecy cloudlet. That modern magician, the spectroscope, has also been faithfully applied to test the constitution of the celestial visitor.

Noting that such spectrographic analyses of the comet were being done at Washington’s Naval Observatory and the Harvard Observatory — which would soon become home to a brilliant team of unsung women astronomers — Converse turns a lyrical eye at once to the past and to the future of our celestial exploits:

The moment so long looked for may be nearer than we think, when, with a powerful grasp, like that of Newton, some watcher of the stars shall seize the secret of cometic history. Then will they still pursue their erratic course about the solar system, regulated by laws as easy of comprehension as those which sway the planets; then, also, will their fiery constituents be as fully determined as the grosser materials that make up the globe; and then will their use in the celestial economy be as plainly understood as the action of the sun on the planets that revolve around him! Fortunate is the observer who discovers the key to this celestial secret!

Complement with Converse’s scientific serenade to the evening sky and Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning 19th-century astronomical drawings, then leap forward with modern-day astropoetics maestro Alan Lightman on dark energy, the multiverse, and why we exist.

BP

How Do You Know That You Love Somebody? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Incompleteness Theorem of the Heart’s Truth, from Plato to Proust

“The alterations between love and its denial, suffering and denial of suffering … constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart.”

How Do You Know That You Love Somebody? Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s Incompleteness Theorem of the Heart’s Truth, from Plato to Proust

“The state of enchantment is one of certainty,” W.H. Auden wrote in his commonplace book. “When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.” Nowhere is our capacity for enchantment, nor our capacity for self-deception, greater than in love — the region of human experience where the path to truth is most obstructed by the bramble of rationalization and where we are most likely to be kidnapped by our own delicious delusions. There, it is perennially difficult to know what we really want; difficult to distinguish between love and lust; difficult not to succumb to our perilous tendency to idealize; difficult to reconcile the closeness needed for intimacy with the psychological distance needed for desire.

How, then, do we really know that we love another person?

That’s what Martha Nussbaum, whom I continue to consider the most compelling philosopher of our time, examines in her 1990 book Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (public library) — the sandbox in which Nussbaum worked out the ideas that would become, a decade later, her incisive treatise on the intelligence of emotions.

Martha Nussbaum

Devising a sort of incompleteness theorem of the heart’s truth, Nussbaum writes:

We deceive ourselves about love — about who; and how; and when; and whether. We also discover and correct our self-deceptions. The forces making for both deception and unmasking here are various and powerful: the unsurpassed danger, the urgent need for protection and self-sufficiency, the opposite and equal need for joy and communication and connection. Any of these can serve either truth or falsity, as the occasion demands. The difficulty then becomes: how in the midst of this confusion (and delight and pain) do we know what view of ourselves, what parts of ourselves, to trust? Which stories about the condition of the heart are the reliable ones and which the self-deceiving fictions? We find ourselves asking where, in this plurality of discordant voices with which we address ourselves on this topic of perennial self-interest, is the criterion of truth? (And what does it mean to look for a criterion here? Could that demand itself be a tool of self-deception?)

With an eye to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time and its central theme of how our intellect blinds us to the wisdom of the heart, Nussbaum contemplates the nature of those experiences “in which the self-protective tissue of rationalization is in a moment cut through, as if by a surgeon’s knife”: Proust’s protagonist, Marcel, has rationally convinced himself that he no longer loves his beloved, Albertine, but is jolted into confronting the falsity of that rationalization upon receiving news of her death; in the shock of his intense sorrow, he instantly gains the knowledge, far deeper and more sinewy than the intellect’s, that he did, in fact, love Albertine.

In a testament to Proust’s assertion that “the end of a book’s wisdom appears to us as merely the start of our own,” Nussbaum writes:

Proust tells us that the sort of knowledge of the heart we need in this case cannot be given us by the sciences of psychology, or, indeed, by any sort of scientific use of intellect. Knowledge of the heart must come from the heart — from and in its pains and longings, its emotional responses.

Illustration from An ABZ of Love, Kurt Vonnegut’s favorite vintage Danish guide to sexuality

Such a conception of love’s knowledge, to be sure, stands radically against the long intellectual tradition of rationalism stretching from Plato to Locke like an enormous string of reason that plays only one note, deaf to the symphonic complexity of the emotional universe. The Proustian view calls for a restoration of lost nuance. Pointing to “the pseudotruths of the intellect,” Nussbaum revisits Marcel’s predicament, wherein the intellect has imposed an illusory sense of order and structure upon the entropy of the emotions:

The shock of loss and the attendant welling up of pain show him that his theories were forms of self-deceptive rationalization — not only false about his condition but also manifestations and accomplices of a reflex to deny and close off one’s vulnerabilities that Proust finds to be very deep in all of human life. The primary and most ubiquitous form of this reflex is seen in the operations of habit, which makes the pain of our vulnerability tolerable to us by concealing need, concealing particularity (hence vulnerability to loss), concealing all the pain-inflicting features of the world — simply making us used to them, dead to their assaults. When we are used to them we do not feel them or long for them in the same way; we are no longer so painfully afflicted by our failure to control and possess them. Marcel has been able to conclude that he is not in love with Albertine, in part because he is used to her. His calm, methodical intellectual scrutiny is powerless to dislodge this “dream deity, so riveted to one’s being, its insignificant face so incrusted in one’s heart.” Indeed, it fails altogether to discern the all-important distinction between the face of habit and the true face of the heart.

Nussbaum considers how our over-reliance on the intellect for clarity about love produces instead a kind of myopia:

Intellect’s account of psychology lacks all sense of proportion and depth and importance… [Such a] cost-benefit analysis of the heart — the only comparative assessment of which intellect, by itself, is capable — is bound, Proust suggests, to miss differences of depth. Not only to miss them, but to impede their recognition. Cost-benefit analysis is a way of comforting oneself, of putting oneself in control by pretending that all losses can be made up by sufficient quantities of something else. This stratagem opposes the recognition of love — and, indeed, love itself.

[…]

To remove such powerful obstacles to truth, we require the instrument that is “the subtlest, most powerful, most appropriate for grasping the truth.” This instrument is given to us in suffering.

Half a century after Simone Weil made her compelling case for why suffering is a greater clarifying force than intellectual discipline, Nussbaum examines this antidote to the intellect’s self-delusion by quoting directly from Proust:

Our intelligence, however lucid, cannot perceive the elements that compose it and remain unsuspected so long as, from the volatile state in which they generally exist, a phenomenon capable of isolating them has not subjected them to the first stages of solidification. I had been mistaken in thinking that I could see clearly into my own heart. But this knowledge, which the shrewdest perceptions of the mind would not have given me, had now been brought to me, hard, glittering, strange, like a crystallised salt, by the abrupt reaction of pain.

Central to this method of truth-seeking is what Nussbaum calls catalepsis — “a condition of certainty and confidence form which nothing can dislodge us.” To be cataleptic — from the Greek katalēptikē, derived from the verb katalambanein, meaning “to apprehend,” “to firmly grasp” — is to have a firm grasp of reality. But, of course, the implied antinomy is that because reality is inherently slippery, either the firmness of such catalepsis or its conception of reality is false.

Noting the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Zeno’s view that we gain knowledge of the heart’s truth through powerful impressions that come directly from reality, Nussbaum returns to Proust’s Marcel:

The impression [that he loves Albertine] comes upon Marcel unbidden, unannounced, uncontrolled… Surprise, vivid particularity, and extreme qualitative intensity are all characteristics that are systematically concealed by the workings of habit, the primary form of self-deception and self-concealment. What has these features must have escaped the workings of self-deception, must have come from reality itself.

We notice, finally, that the very painfulness of these impressions is essential to their cataleptic character. Our primary aim is to comfort ourselves, to assuage pain, to cover our wounds. Then what has the character of pain must have escaped these mechanisms of comfort and concealment; must, then, have come from the true unconcealed nature of our condition.

Illustration by Julie Paschkis from Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People by Monica Brown

And yet there exists another, more dimensional possibility. Nussbaum writes:

For the Stoic the cataleptic impression is not simply a route to knowing; it is knowing. It doesn’t point beyond itself to knowledge; it goes to constitute knowledge. (Science is a system made up of katalēpseis.) If we follow the analogy strictly, then, we find that knowledge of our love is not the fruit of the impression of suffering, a fruit that might in principle have been had apart form the suffering. The suffering itself is a piece of self-knowing. In responding to a loss with anguish, we are grasping our love. The love is not some separate fact about us that is signaled by the impression; the impression reveals the love by constituting it. Love is not a structure in the heart waiting to be discovered; it is embodied in, made up out of, experiences of suffering.

[…]

Marcel is brought, then, by and in the cataleptic impression, to an acknowledgment of his love. There are elements of both discovery and creation here, at both the particular and general levels. Love of Albertine is both discovered and created. It is discovered, in that habit and intellect were masking from Marcel a psychological condition that was ready for suffering, and that … needed only to be affected slightly by the catalyst in order to turn itself into love. It is created, because love denied and successfully repressed is not exactly love. While he was busily denying that he loved her, he simply was not loving her. At the general level, again, Marcel both discovers and enacts a permanent underlying feature of his condition, namely, his neediness, his hunger for possession and completeness. That too was there in a sense before the loss, because that’s what human life is made of. But in denying and repressing it, Marcel became temporarily self-sufficient, closed, and estranged from his humanity. The pain he feels for Albertine gives him access to his permanent underlying condition by being a case of that condition, and no such case was present a moment before. Before the suffering he was indeed self-deceived — both because he was denying a general structural feature of his humanity and because he was denying the particular readiness of his soul to feel hopeless love for Albertine. He was on a verge of a precipice and thought he was safely immured in his own rationality. But his case shows us as well how the successful denial of love is the (temporary) extinction and death of love, how self-deception can aim at and nearly achieve self-change.

We now see exactly how and why Marcel’s account of self-knowledge is no simple rival to the intellectual account. It tells us that the intellectual account was wrong: wrong about the content of the truth about Marcel, wrong about the methods appropriate for gaining this knowledge, wrong as well about what sort of experience in and of the person knowing is. And it tells us that to try to grasp love intellectually is a way of not suffering, not loving — a practical rival, a stratagem of flight.

Art by Salvador Dalí for a rare edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy

And yet this notion of measuring love by degree of suffering seems to be a particular pathology of the human heart — could, Nussbaum asks, Marcel’s sorrow at the loss of Albertine be evidence not of love, or at least not only of love, but of grief or fear or some other constellation of contexts? She writes:

Marcel’s relation to the science of self-knowledge now begins to look more complex than we had suspected. We said that the attempt to grasp love intellectually was a way of avoiding loving. We said that in the cataleptic impression there is acknowledgement of one’s own vulnerability and incompleteness, an end to our flight from ourselves. But isn’t the whole idea of basing love and its knowledge on cataleptic impressions itself a form of flight — from openness to the other, from all those things in love for which there is in fact no certain criterion? Isn’t his whole enterprise just a new and more subtle expression of the rage for control, and need for possession and certainty, the denial of incompleteness and neediness that characterized the intellectual project? Isn’t he still hungry for a science of life?

Noting the contrast between the mutuality of love and the asymmetry of infatuation — after all, Marcel’s confrontation of his feelings for Albertine doesn’t require her participation at all and can be conducted as a wholly solitary activity — Nussbaum adds:

What Marcel feels is a gap or lack in himself, an open wound, a blow to the heart, a hell inside himself. Is all of this really love of Albertine?

[…]

The heart and mind of another are unknowable, even unapproachable, expect in fantasies and projections that are really elements of the knower’s own life, not the other’s.

Proust’s protagonist arrives at this conclusion himself:

I understood that my love was less a love for her than a love in me… It is the misfortune of beings to be for us nothing else but useful showcases for the contents of our own minds.

And yet this conclusion, Nussbaum argues, is but a form of self-protection — in denying one’s porousness to the other and instead painting love as a curious relationship with oneself, it bolsters the illusion of self-sufficiency as a hedge against the suffering which love entails. Such a conception is ultimately a form of self-delusion masking the true nature of love and what Nussbaum calls its “dangerous openness.” Reflecting on Proust’s ultimate revelation, she writes:

Love … is a permanent structural feature of our soul.

[…]

The alterations between love and its denial, suffering and denial of suffering … constitute the most essential and ubiquitous structural feature of the human heart. In suffering we know only suffering. We call our rationalizations false and delusive, and we do not see to what extent they express a mechanism that is regular and deep in our lives. But this means that in love itself we do not yet have full knowledge of love — for we do not grasp its limits and boundaries. Sea creatures cannot be said to know the sea in the way that a creature does who can survey and dwell in both sea and land, noticing how they bound and limit one another.

Love’s Knowledge is a revelatory read in its totality. Complement it with Adam Phillips on the interplay between frustration and satisfaction in love, Erich Fromm on mastering the art of loving, Alain de Botton on why our partners drive us mad, and Esther Perel on the central paradox of love, then revisit Nussbaum on anger and forgiveness, agency and victimhood, the intelligence of the emotions, and how to live with our human fragility.

BP

Rachel Carson’s Touching Farewell to Her Dearest Friend and Beloved

From butterflies to Beethoven, an ode to the heart’s uncontainable dimensions.

Rachel Carson’s Touching Farewell to Her Dearest Friend and Beloved

As if classifying platonic relationships weren’t complex enough a task — one that requires a taxonomy of friendship types — what happens when the platonic and the romantic begin to blur? In his exquisite love letter to Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre spoke of “turning abruptly from friendship to love.” And yet what if friendship and love weren’t opposite points between which to pivot but loci that overlap in varying degrees? Under the Romantic ideal of love, we’ve come to expect that every great romance should also contain within itself, in addition to erotic passion, a robust friendship. But we hold with deep suspicion the opposite — a platonic friendship colored with the emotional hues of romantic love, never given physical form but always aglow with an intensity artificially dimmed by the label of plain friendship. Perhaps we need not label these kaleidoscopic emotional universes after all; perhaps resisting the urge to classify and contain is the only way to do justice to their iridescent richness of sentiment and feeling.

A heartening testament to that possibility comes from the life of the pathbreaking marine biologist, conservationist, naturalist, and wonder-wielder Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964), who has contributed more than any other person to awakening the modern environmental consciousness — her 1962 book Silent Spring, published eighteen months before her life was cut tragically short by cancer, led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and sparked the sustainability movement as we know it today.

But beneath Carson’s blazing intellect and her protective affection for the natural world lay an interior world as rich and passionate, animated by the same intensity of intelligent love.

In late 1952, just before Carson moved to Maine’s Southport Island with her mother, a local housewife named Dorothy Freeman wrote her a warm letter welcoming her to the close-knit island community. (Carson was already a famous author — her 1951 book The Sea Around Us had broken records by remaining on best-seller lists for eighteen months.) Their correspondence blossomed into a fast friendship aglow with anticipation of their first in-person meeting.

On December 30, 1953, Carson visited the Freemans’ home and stayed for a night. “Reality can so easily fall short of hopes and expectations, especially where they have been high,” she wrote to Freeman as soon as she returned home. “My dear one, there is not a single thing about you that I would change if I could!” She enclosed a Keats verse — “A thing of beauty is a joy forever: / its loveliness increases; it will never / pass into nothingness; but still will keep / a bower quiet for us, and a sleep / full of sweet dreams.” — and added: “I am certain, my dearest, that it will be forever a joy, of increasing loveliness with the years, and that in the intervals when being separated, we cannot have all the happiness of Wednesday, there will be, in each of our hearts, a little oasis of peace and ‘sweet dreams’ where the other is.”

Rachel Carson at her microscope, 1951

Freeman was married and devoted to her family, but she soon took on a centrality in Carson’s life that was unparalleled. Although their relationship was mostly epistolary, it grew replete with such intense tenderness and was articulated in such romantic language that the label “friendship” fails to contain it — Carson addressed Freeman as “darling,” often “my very own darling.” The closing sentiment of a letter penned in February of 1954 — “Darling — always and always — I love you so dearly” — was typical of their mutual tenderness. In another letter planning their first visit since that initial meeting, Carson exhales: “But, oh darling, I want to be with you so terribly that it hurts!”

Rachel Carson with Dorothy and Stanley Freeman, Southport Island

And yet their relationship was never a secret. Freeman shared their letters with her husband, to which Carson responded with sincere gladness:

How dear of him to say what he did. Perhaps this is the final little touch of the perfection in the whole episode… It means so very much to me to know that you have such an understanding, loving and wonderful husband… I want him to know what you mean to me.

For the remaining twelve years of Carson’s life, it was Freeman’s love and daily devotion that warded off the scientist’s aching loneliness and her struggles with depression, fomented her creative and intellectual imagination, and nourished her visionary spirit as she gave form to some of the most influential ideas of the twentieth century in her writing. In early February of 1954, she articulated Freeman’s centrality in her world in an immeasurably beautiful letter, found in Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952–1964 (public library):

I don’t suppose anyone really knows how a creative writer works (he or she least of all, perhaps!) or what sort of nourishment his spirit must have. All I am certain of is this; that it is quite necessary for me to know that there is someone who is deeply devoted to me as a person, and who also has the capacity and the depth of understanding to share, vicariously, the sometimes crushing burden of creative effort, recognizing the heartache, the great weariness of mind and body, the occasional black despair it may involve — someone who cherishes me and what I am trying to create… The few who understood the creative problem were not people to whom I felt emotionally close; those who loved the non-writer part of me did not, by some strange paradox, understand the writer at all! And then, my dear one, you came into my life! … I knew when I first saw you that I wanted to see much more of you — I loved you before you left Southport — and very early in our correspondence last fall I began to sense that capacity to enter so fully into the intellectual and creative parts of my life as well as to be a dearly loved friend. And day by day all that I sensed in you has been fulfilled, but even more wonderfully than I could have dreamed…

I feel such a joyous surge of wonder every time I stop to think how in such a dark time and when I least expected it, something so lovely and richly satisfying came into my life.

This letter was intended as an answer to one penned a few days earlier, in which Freeman had contemplated their relationship and asked Carson in transcendent astonishment: “Don’t you ever marvel at yourself, finding yourself in such an overpowering emotional experience?” A week later, Carson revisited the question and offered an even more direct answer:

I have wondered since … whether I may have forgotten to make it clear that — besides all the intellectual satisfaction I perhaps dwelt on at great length — it truly is for me, as for you, “an overpowering emotional experience.” If I didn’t, I think I can now trust that your heart knows it. I was thinking today, with what depth of gratitude I hope you know, how wonderfully sustaining is the assurance of your constant, day-and-night devotion and concern. Without it, I truly don’t know what I would be doing now, when there are a good many otherwise dark days.

Perhaps the most beautiful aspect of their relationship was its deep mutuality and the enormous generosity of spirit with which each beheld the other. With a grateful eye to the immensity of what Freeman is contributing to her life, Carson wonders what she is contributing to Freeman’s in turn:

Since one of the things about you that impressed me from the beginning was the lovely quality of your family life, I knew … that it was not lack of love. No one could be with you and Stan even a short time without realizing how devoted and congenial you are. And I wonder whether the very fact that you have experienced, and have yourself poured out, so much love, has not made you all the more receptive to the devotion offered by this newcomer in your life. You wrote so beautifully, weeks ago, of how one’s capacity to give love grows with the exercise of it, so perhaps the more love we have received, the more we are able to absorb and in that sense no one ever has enough. And I do know that the facts that we are, to an incredible degree “kindred spirits,” and that for many reasons we need all that we mean to each other, probably lie at the heart of our love. But the more I think about all we both have said, the more I feel that there is something that perhaps will always remain elusive and intangible — that the whole is something more than the sum of the various “reasons.” Henry Beston [one of Carson’s favorite authors and heroes, who had recently reviewed her book Under the Sea-Wind] says in the review I’m sending you today: “the sun — is always more than a gigantic mass of ions, it is a splendor and a mystery, a force and a divinity, it is life and the symbol of life.” Our analysis has been beautiful and comforting and satisfying, but probably it will never be quite complete — never encompass the whole “splendor and mystery.”

This “splendor and mystery” continued to unfold and expand between them, growing only richer with time. Two years later, Carson writes to Freeman:

My own darling,

For your birthday, this is to tell you — as if you didn’t know — how dearly and tenderly I love you. You have come to occupy a place in my life that no one else could fill, and it is strange now to contemplate all the empty years when you weren’t there. But perhaps we shouldn’t regret those years — perhaps instead we should just give ourselves over to wonder and gratitude that a friendship so satisfying and so full of joy and beauty could come to each of us in the middle years — when, perhaps, we needed it most!

[…]

Darling, do you know how wonderful it is to have you? I hope you do.

I love you.

Rachel

In the spring of 1960, just as she was finishing the draft of the two chapters in Silent Spring dealing with the carcinogenic effects of chemicals, Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer. By December, despite surgery, it had metastasized. She continued to work tirelessly on the book and other projects through increasingly debilitating illness.

In September of 1963, shortly after her testimony before President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee became instrumental in the first regulatory policies on pesticides, Carson wrote a stunning letter to Freeman. It contained a contemplation of her own mortality so profound, so poignant, so tenderhearted and transcendent that it could only be articulated to the person who knew her heart most intimately. She writes:

Dear One,

This is a postscript to our morning at Newagen, 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 the wind in the spruces and surf on the rocks, the gulls busy with their foraging, alighting with deliberate grace, the distant views of Griffiths Head and Todd Point, today so clearly etched, though once half seen in swirling fog. But most of all I shall remember the monarchs, that unhurried westward drift of one small winged form 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, remembering, 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 not unhappy thing that a life comes to an 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

In another letter written three months before her death but delivered posthumously, Carson revisits the subject of her mortality from the perspective of her relationship with Freeman, the great gift of her life:

Darling [Dorothy],

[…]

When I think back to the many farewells that have marked the decade (almost) of our friendship, I realize they have almost been inarticulate. I remember chiefly the great welling up of thoughts that somehow didn’t get put into words — the silences heavy with things unsaid. But then, we knew or hoped, there was always another chance — and always the letters to fill the gaps.

With a lucid and almost shockingly serene awareness of her imminent mortality, Carson adds:

I have had a rich life, full of rewards and satisfactions that come to few and if it must end now, I can feel that I have achieved most of what I wished to do. That wouldn’t have been true two years ago, when I first realized my time was short, and I am so grateful to have had this extra time.

My regrets, darling, are for your sadness, for leaving Roger [the eleven-year-old orphan son of Carson’s niece, for whom she was caring], when I so wanted to see him through manhood, for dear Jeffie [Carson’s cat] whose life is linked to mine.

[…]

But enough of that. What I want to write of is the joy and fun and gladness we have shared — for these are the things I want you to remember — I want to live on in your memories of happiness. I shall write more of those things. But tonight I’m weary and must put out the light. Meanwhile, there is this word — and my love will always live.

Rachel

In her final letter, written as Freeman was en route to a deathbed visit but only delivered two weeks after Carson’s death, she writes:

My darling,

You are starting on your way to me in the morning, but I have such a strange feeling that I may not be here when you come — so this is just an extra little note of farewell, should that happen. There have been many pains (heart) in the past few days, and I’m weary in every bone. And tonight there is something strange about my vision, which may mean nothing. But of course I thought, what if I can’t write — can’t see to write — tomorrow? So, a word before I turn out the light.

[…]

Darling — if the heart does take me off suddenly, just know how much easier it would be for me that way. But I do grieve to leave my dear ones. As for me, however, it is quite all right. Not long ago I sat late in my study and played Beethoven, and achieved a feeling of real peace and even happiness.

Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.

Rachel

Always, Rachel is an achingly transcendent read in its entirety. Complement this particularly poignant portion with Oliver Sacks on the measure of living and the dignity of dying, then revisit Carson on why it is more important to feel than to know.

BP

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