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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


John Cheever on the Pain of Loneliness and How It Feeds the Beauty and Creative Restlessness of Youth

“A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.”

John Cheever on the Pain of Loneliness and How It Feeds the Beauty and Creative Restlessness of Youth

“If I could catch the feeling, I would; the feeling of the singing of the real world, as one is driven by loneliness and silence from the habitable world,” Virginia Woolf wrote in contemplating the relationship between loneliness and creativity. Half a century later, Hannah Arendt considered how tyrants use loneliness as the common ground of terror. “Loneliness is difficult to confess; difficult too to categorise, [and] it can run deep in the fabric of a person,” Olivia Laing observed in her exquisite inquiry into the texture of loneliness in art and life.

Few writers have captured the way in which loneliness can rip the fabric of the psyche asunder between the poles of the creative and the tyrannical more articulately than John Cheever (May 27, 1912–June 18, 1982). Loneliness — its anguish, its expression, its antidotes, its eventual acceptance — permeates The Journals of John Cheever (public library), one of those rare masterworks of introspection radiating enormous insight into the universal human experience.

John Cheever (based on photograph by Nancy Crampton)

The journals — which Cheever’s son knew his father wanted published — were as much a workbook for the Pulitzer-winning writer’s fiction as they were a workbook for his character, his struggles, and his very self. His son, Benjamin Cheever, writes in the preface:

By 1979 John Cheever had become a literary elder statesman. “I’m a brand name,” he used to say, “like corn flakes, or shredded wheat.” He seemed to enjoy this status. He must have suspected that the publication of the journals would alter it.


Few people knew of his bisexuality. Very few people knew the extent of his infidelities. And almost nobody could have anticipated the apparent desperation of his inner life, or the caustic nature of his vision. But I don’t think he cared terribly about being corn flakes. He was a writer before he was a breakfast food. He was a writer almost before he was a man.


He saw the role of the serious writer as both lofty and practical in the same instant. He used to say that literature was one of the first indications of civilization. He used to say that a fine piece of prose could not only cure a depression, it could clear up a sinus headache. Like many great healers, he meant to heal himself.

And what he sought to heal most of all, what saturated his psyche more than anything, was his loneliness. His son writes:

For much of his life he suffered from a loneliness so acute as to be practically indistinguishable from a physical illness.


He meant by his writing to escape this loneliness, to shatter the isolation of others… With the journals … he meant to show others that their thoughts were not unthinkable.

His was a bone-deep loneliness that had afflicted him since childhood, despite his seemingly idyllic upbringing in a well-to-do family nestled into a genteel New England suburb. Cheever captures this hollowing alienation in an early journal entry:

Walking back from the river I remember the galling loneliness of my adolescence, from which I do not seem to have completely escaped. It is the sense of the voyeur, the lonely, lonely boy with no role in life but to peer in at the lighted windows of other people’s contentment and vitality. It seems comical — farcical — that, having been treated so generously, I should be stuck with this image of a kid in the rain walking along the road shoulders of East Milton.

Art by Isol from Daytime Visions

Throughout his life, this loneliness remained a constant companion, swelling into an all-consuming presence at times of transformation and uncertainty:

In middle age there is mystery, there is mystification. The most I can make out of this hour is a kind of loneliness. Even the beauty of the visible world seems to crumble, yes even love.

As he peers into the far end of life, it is again loneliness — the ultimate loneliness — that he sees:

Drying the dishes I think of my dead mother, lying in her grave; and death appears to me to be a force of loneliness, only hinted at by the most ravening loneliness we know in life; the soul does not leave the body but lingers with it through every stage of decomposition and neglect, through heat and cold and the long nights.

In another entry, he makes offers an unsentimental spiritual diagnosis:

Loneliness is a kind of madness.

When Cheever can gain just enough distance from the maddening immediacy of his personal anguish and from his “mastery over some territories of loneliness that [seem] endless,” he slips effortlessly into the poetic:

A lonely man is a lonesome thing, a stone, a bone, a stick, a receptacle for Gilbey’s gin, a stooped figure sitting at the edge of a hotel bed, heaving copious sighs like the autumn wind.

Throughout the journal, he often conveys this bellowing loneliness not directly but with a sidewise gleam of great subtlety and simplicity:

I sit at the kitchen table, drinking black coffee and thinking of Verdi.

With a wistful awareness of how his inner inclination toward loneliness in turn inclined him toward a life that amplifies it, he watches his loneliness grow “exacerbated by travel, motel rooms, bad food, public readings, and the superficiality of standing in reception lines.” With an eye to Hemingway, who made loneliness a centerpiece of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Cheever writes in one of the final entries:

Loneliness I taste. The chair I sit in, the room, the house, none of this has substance. I think of Hemingway, what we remember of his work is not so much the color of the sky as it is the absolute taste of loneliness. Loneliness is not, I think, an absolute, but its taste is more powerful than any other. I think that endeavoring to be a serious writer is quite a dangerous career.

And yet a loneliness so central to one’s being can’t but be part of the vital force responsible for one’s creative contribution to the world — something Cheever captures beautifully in one of his last journal entries:

I think of the susceptibility and loneliness of youth, of how this contributes to youth’s drive and youth’s beauty.

The Journals of John Cheever is a richly rewarding read in its totality. Complement this particular portion with some beautiful thoughts on the positive counterpart to loneliness — Louise Bourgeois on how solitude enriches creative work, Sara Maitland on how to be alone, and Elizabeth Bishop on why everyone should experience at least one prolonged period of solitude in life.


Wonder-Sighting in the Medieval World: Stunning Sixteenth-Century Drawings of Comets

“A comet 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.”

Wonder-Sighting in the Medieval World: Stunning Sixteenth-Century Drawings of Comets

In 1985, Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan wrote in the introduction to their book Comet (public library):

Before the Earth was formed, there were comets here. Afterwards, and for all subsequent eons, comets have graced our skies. But until very recently, the comets performed without an audience; there was, as yet, no consciousness to wonder at their beauty. This all changed a few million years ago, but it was not until the last ten millennia or so that we began to make permanent records of our thoughts and feelings. Ever since, comets have left a good deal more than dust and gas in their wakes; they have trailed images, poetry, questions, and insights.

Four centuries before Sagan, two before comet-huntress Caroline Herschel spearheaded the systematic scientific study of comets, and one before Johannes Hevelius created his intricate comet drawings, an author and illustrator whose name or names remain lost to history produced one of the most breathtaking such works of “images, poetry, questions, and insights” inspired by comets: Kometenbuch, or The Comet Book, created in 1587 in what was then Flanders and is now France.

More akin to the Medieval Book of Miracles than to modern popular science — this, after all, was a pre-Newtonian world in which Galileo was still a student — the book concerns itself with the various superstitions about comets, the periodicity of which triggered the human mind’s pattern-seeking propensity: they came to be seen as omens of drought, famine, or bloodshed to come. As such, this stunningly illustrated book stands as a testament, both beautiful and tragic, to the perennial human tendency toward filling the void of fact with fictions that alleviate the anxiety of the unknown.

It is also an invaluable piece of media history — sightings of “wonders,” comets chief among them, were major news in that era, but until the invention of the printing press just a couple of decades earlier, they were transmitted only by word of mouth and one-on-one letter correspondence. Superstitions and mythical beliefs like those surrounding comet sightings are among the oldest and most virulent of memes; pamphlets like The Comet Book became a key early medium of memetic transmission.

For a counterpart from across the precipice between the pre-scientific and scientific worlds, see French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot’s stunning astronomical drawings created three centuries later at the Harvard Observatory, then let Sagan and Druyan take us out:

Comets may act as the creators, the preservers, and the destroyers of life on Earth. A surviving dinosaur might have reason to mistrust them, but humans might more appropriately consider the comets in a favorable light—as bringers of the stuff of life to Earth, as ocean-builders, as the agency that removed the competition and made possible the success of our mammalian ancestors, as possible future outposts of our species, and as providers of a timely reminder about large explosions and the climate of the Earth.

A comet is also a visitor from the frigid interstellar night that constitutes by far the greatest part of the known universe. And a comet is, further, 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. If, by chance, the period of a bright comet happens to be the same as a human lifetime, we invest it with a more personal significance. It reminds us of our mortality.

Public domain images courtesy of Open Repository Kassel


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