Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Rachel Carson Connection

I tweeted earlier today about the article in boston.com's The Green Blog about Rachel Carson's Massachusetts ties. I was surprised to read that Carson's connection to Massachusetts and in particular to Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island is not widely known in the Boston Globe's archives and among the people the author talked to. I thought that after USFWS made a big to-do of Carson's 100th birthday in 2007 more people outside of the refuge staff and volunteers were aware of it. I guess not, so I figured I'd blog a little about it.

Rachel Carson visited the Parker River refuge in September 1946. It was still fairly new as part of the National Wildlife Refuge system, having been established in 1942. She surveyed the bird life there and wrote about the refuge. In her Parker River entry in the Conservation in Action series, Carson described the refuge as "New England's most important contribution to the national effort to save the waterfowl of North America."

On reading it, the most interesting thing to me is the extent to which refuge management practices have changed and the changes in the situations of American black duck and Canada goose. Her description of the road as tortuous and often impassable is still pretty accurate. I've had other volunteers tell me I was abusing my car by driving it south of Hellcat after a rain storm. She also mentions the road sometimes being flooded at high tide. I've only seen that once in my life, but it was pretty impressive. The dunes have built up a lot since then.

The other thing I got a kick out of in the pamphlet is the detail that at that time (1946) Essex County had records of 357 different species. To make it clear how impressive that is, she cites Cape May: "To give some meaning to this figure, consider one of the best known birding grounds in eastern United States, Cape May County in New Jersey, where the record is 318." I know I should know what the current total species count is, but I don't. All the refuge materials just say "more than 300 species". Must remember to ask Tom Wetmore, the knower of all Plum Island bird data.

Note: The Parker River National Wildlife Refuge pamphlet in the Conservation in Action series seems to have vanished from the USFWS Rachel Carson page but it is available at DigitalCommons@University of Nebraska.

The Green Blog talks about an upcoming new biography by called Days of the World, Years of the World: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson(working title) in the works for the 50th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring. There have been so many Rachel Carson biographies over the years and at least some of them have mentioned PRNWR. No, I have not read all of them. However, I remember reading The Gentle Subversive by Mark Lytle back in 2007 when it came out and very much enjoying the narrative style of biography. It made me see Rachel Carson as a person not just an icon. Way back in time I remember going to an environmental writers conference at the New England Aquarium and hearing Linda Lear who was either working on or had just finished (I forget, it was in the late 1990s) Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature.

I think both the Linda Lear biography and the Mark Lytle biography quote a letter in which she mentions "Audubonites" along with mud and sand as features of a strenuous day at Parker River NWR. I'm sure even back then birders stopped dead in the middle of the S-curves. :-) According to the letter quoted, she felt "sunburned, black and blue, mosquito-bitten, and weary" at the end of each day there. You can tell she visited in September and not July by one thing missing from her list: greenheads. I wonder what she would have said about them.

1 comment:

Linda Lear said...

Very glad to know that you remember the New England Aquarium lecture which was lots of fun. My biography of Carson, "Witness for Nature" was just republished by Houghton Mifflin in Feb.2009. Sadly Kay Howe, Carson's colleague and favourite illustrator in the "Conservation in Action" Series died this past August. We had kept in touch since I first interviewed her, and her letters and Carson's to her are preserved in the Lear/Carson papers at The Lear Center at Connecticut College. Kay had a great sense of humor and their travels together were some of the best times Carson had. (and some of the only times she traveled without her mother!).
It is often forgotten that Howe was also the illustrator for "The Sea Around Us." Carson's blockbuster of 1952 which put her on the literary and scientific map.