Turning the TidePrint
How Rachel Carson became a woman of letters
By William Howarth
June 1, 2005
In the years since her death in 1964, Rachel Carson has endured a secular canonization; she is no longer a woman of passions or foibles, but Saint Rachel of the Silent Spring. Acolytes rise up—an institute here, a council there—to sanctify her name, while the paths she trod acquire reliquary status. In coastal Maine, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge preserves a tract of marsh and seashore, two of her favorite habitats. On the Chicago lakefront, she is patron to the Rachel Carson Scuba Corps, whose members dive on errands of eco-mercy. An “earth-keeper hero” who warned about poison and died of cancer, Carson offers to many factions the icon of a tragic Madonna or a virgin martyr in a lab coat.
This veneration tends to obscure our view of a distinctly modern writer who battled for fame, lived her share of sad days, and had a long affair with a married woman. Martha Freeman’s collection of letters, Always, Rachel (1995), and Linda Lear’s biography, Witness far Nature (1997), document the relationship but never quite say if Carson’s bond with Martha’s grandmother, Dorothy Freeman, was sexual or platonic. The letters have a romantic intensity, each woman calling the other a beloved darling, each warning the other to destroy revealing exchanges. They also refer to holding hands and kissing and to a moonlit beach: “Do you remember the night we lay there in that lovely light? I told you [that] you looked like alabaster.” Yet Carson and Freeman also understood sublimation, an emotional and social consequence of embracing both late-Victorian sentiment and the New Woman ethos of the 1920s. Carson addressed Freeman as a kindred spirit, an ideal reader who understood writing and saw beneath its surface. Freeman praised her friend and gave her a cheerful extended family, one to compensate for Carson’s dismal heritage.
Carson’s father was kindly but indigent, her mother intelligent and suffocating. She took her daughter on nature walks and praised her writing, but also chaperoned Carson at college every weekend, zealously quizzing her on her studies and blocking dates or friendships. After her father’s death, Carson became the family provider. On a modest federal salary, she supported her mother, a sickly niece, and a young nephew, whom she later adopted. She was friendly with men but never sought marriage, forming her deepest attachments to maternal figures: teachers of writing and biology, a literary agent, a bird lover, and then Freeman, a Maine grandmother dazzled by Carson’s fame. Freeman adopted an emotional waif; Carson found a companion who loved her mind and soul.
Thanks to the letters and biography, we may now see Carson not as a saint but as a complex figure shaped by known and covert forces. Literary historians have no neat slot for her because she wrote popular books about science, a field that poststructural critics often call constructed, built on bias and convention. Scientific readers frequently call Carson’s style “poetic,” by which they mean graceful and sensitive but not necessarily accurate or credible. Feminists have praised her work in a male-dominated sphere, while environmentalists see her as a force for change and a policy leader. Each of these snapshots is valid, but we need a much fuller portrait gallery to see how the author evolved over five decades, turning from literary neophyte into seasoned professional. Literature and science served as her subject, but her motivating force seems to have been an enduring secret life, as repressed as it was necessary.
Secrecy is an important ingredient in imagination, allowing us to pretend and invent, and some experts say that we have no self until it learns to keep secrets. Children who have invisible twins or talkative dolls are on a sound mental path. Those living with tyrants who demand perfection or glory often have trouble maturing. They learn to inhibit their needs and conform to dictates, creating a false self that hides what it truly wants. The British child psychiatrist D. W. Winnicott called such victims “repressors.” They put others first and assume a sacrificial mien, embracing denial as their duty. If a parent plays that martyred role, the child may add guilt to secrecy.
Carson’s life was such a captivity narrative, and reading gave her solace. In childhood she loved books that mingled nature and fantasy, invention and possibility—the talking creatures of Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter, or the pages of St. Nicholas magazine, where fairy tales resembled dreams, thanks to illustrators such as Arthur Rackham, Howard Pyle, and Maxfield Parrish. Reading provides a safe, cloistered life until it nurtures writing, a way of breaking free and reaching others. Carson published her first story at age 10, proudly saved the first dollar she earned as an author, wrote throughout her teens, and from her college years on submitted articles on history and nature for publication. Throughout her career, she was fortunate in the editors, teachers, and colleagues who shaped her talent and improved the clarity and accuracy of her writing, just as the literary naturalists—Henry Thoreau, Charles Darwin, Richard Jefferies, and John Muir—gave her models of form and content.
Like many writers, Carson accepted help gratefully but did not remember it for long. In time the work seemed to be entirely her own, and when she became a success, she claimed that few had believed in her genius. If Carson had lived to write the 10 or so books she planned, she might have become more generous, but time did not give her that leisure or perspective. Slight but steely, she had the volatile mix of ego and altruism that fuels the ambition of an artist. She also had disciplined habits and took pleasure in craft, writing slowly and carefully, revising often, and recording her submissions and sales in a business ledger.
Carson earned degrees in science, but literature shaped her ideas and principles. A case in point is how she chose to study biology. That decision came in 1926, during the winter of her sophomore year at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College), when she first encountered Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall” (1842). Tennyson said his topic was “young life, its good side, its deficiencies, and its yearnings,” and Carson the undergraduate was in a similar state of anxiety, mixing desire and dread.
In the poem, a traveler stops beside Locksley Hall, a manor on the English seacoast. He asks his companions to leave and begins a solitary meditation on his cousin, who spurned him and destroyed his happiness. A storm rises, stirring his turmoil but also bringing a “Vision of the world” united in commerce and peace by “magic sails” of “airy navies.” As the narrator describes that outer weather, an inner storm roils his anger and scatters his grief. The poem is both elegy and exhortation, purging sad memories while resolving to head seaward, into a realm of billowing possibility.
Carson later wrote that she identified with the poem because she read it on a stormy night in Berry Hall, a Victorian mansion on campus. Her recollection is sensible, but probably incomplete. In that spring, she would select a major and thus her course in life. At 20, she wrestled with two passions, a love for writing and a crush on her biology professor, Mary Scott Skinker—an impossible attraction, it seems, for Carson’s biographer Lear reports that Skinker had “an unknown, but obviously ardent, suitor.” Carson may not have felt the poet’s jealous rage, but she probably sensed that her future would not include a marriage. For Tennyson and Carson, the margin where land and water meet was a viable habitat, the sea their call to power.
The poem also represented the end of childhood, because choosing science over literature was an act of obedience and defiance. She accepted her mother’s nature studies but entered a discipline of rules and systems that bears less emotional freight. By choosing marine biology, she left her home of field and forest and entered a new domain. After graduation in 1929, Carson spent an idyllic four-day retreat with Mary Skinker and then a month of postgraduate study at Woods Hole, site of the Marine Biological Laboratories.
Carson’s summer visits to Cape Cod continued during the early 1930s, as she earned an M.A. fromJohns Hopkins in zoology, taught university courses, and began to seek a career. The choice of science placed her in a masculine world, where women rarely found mentors or promotions. She qualified for work in government labs, but the only post offered was as a writer for a radio series, Romance Under the Waters. Her scripts succeeded, she began to publish feature articles, and soon she had built a unique literary niche in America, illuminating marine science for the general public.
The sea’s appeal lay in its hidden depths, representing aspects of life that she saw and felt but would not directly express. Her earliest marine essay, “Undersea,” in The Atlantic Monthly for September 1937, announces that conviction: “To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water. For to the sea’s children nothing is so important as the fluidity of their world.” The conceit of an inhuman realm, filled with sea children, sounds an echo of Tennyson: “Seaward I go,” he wrote, and Carson followed that call. In the sea and shore she ultimately found a home, a companion, and a theme for her books.
Under the Sea Wind (1941) establishes this motif with its three-part structure, moving from shore to sea, and then linking the two with a journey from a freshwater stream into deep salt waters. Each part narrates the life cycle of an animal from its point of view, hovering between the realm of animal sensation and human consciousness: “They thrust their snouts out of the water as they swim and behold once more the gray expanse of sea cupped in the paleness of arching sky.” The final part unites the animals in the same feeding and spawning place, incarnating the principle of ecological interdependence. The animals move and live; yet they also battle deadly enemies and survive more by accident than design. Their undersea world is dark and dangerous, a somber realm governed by stark necessity.
In this first book, Carson’s prose is cool and impersonal. She assembled it from notes made during solitary walks on a wild beach in North Carolina. The narrative voice is spare and omniscient: a point of view that surrounds and enters all life forms, like seawater itself. At times that tactic produces sentence fragments, lacking a predicate to bind agent and action: “There was no escape before or behind, nor to right or left. There was none below, where the tuna were.” Human beings appear rarely and only as predators with no faces or voices. The principal characters are animals or “creatures,” some with names (Pandion, Rynchops) that play on taxonomy, while others (White Tip, Ookpik) suggest a world of fable and magic. Carson avoided personifying the animals, a technique used by the early 20th-century English naturalist Henry Williamson in two books she admired, Tarka the Otter and Salar the Salmon, where animals weep over death, thrill to the hunt, and cringe at developers.
She had few models for her water voice, except perhaps Ariel, the ageless, sexless sprite in The Tempest,who sings that “sea-change” is constant, rich, and strange. Ariel is a writer of secrets and illusions, invisible one moment and making apparitions in another, born of air and water, singing to bewitch and enchant. Carson’s early prose often has that quality, yet it retains a logical and discursive beat, propelled by her detailed knowledge of marine science. Lear notes that the manuscripts of Under the Sea Wind bear signs of heavy revision, and that Carson often read passages aloud to her mother, who then typed clean versions while her daughter roamed the shore, gathering fresh material. This process of editing by two close yet alienated women may account for the book’s semi-autistic prose, as it attempts to give voice and sense to the inhuman wild:
As long as the tide ebbed, eels were leaving the marshes and running out to sea. Thousands passed the lighthouse that night, on the first lap of a far sea journey—all the silver eels, in fact, that the marsh contained. And as they passed through the surf and out to sea, so also they passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge.
The flaws that a copy editor might challenge here—passive gerund (“were leaving … and running”), pointless aside (“in fact”), and closing fragment (“And …”)—are less glaring than the dark tone, as embarkation becomes not hopeful but an emptying of the marsh womb, with the sea viewed as an alien future. (Imagine a duty-bound spinster reading that passage to her controlling mother.) In such moments, Carson nudges nature writing toward personal expression, though with less overt artistry than Mary Austin or Willa Cather, for whom desert and canyon were sexual inscapes, like the flowers of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Under the Sea Wind won praise but few sales, in part because it appeared a month before Pearl Harbor. During the 1940s, Carson labored at her position in government science and wrote essays about undersea research. At home she fed and nursed her sullen clan, then worked late at night on magazine articles. Her early style reflected this isolation, for she knew few friends or fellow writers. Gradually she found editors and outlets, raising her confidence and exposing her to a broad variety of readers. An idea for another work about the sea grew slowly, but she had difficulty finding a form. Then a shrewd literary agent, Marie Rodell, took scissors and paste and showed Carson how to assemble a book proposal.
Carson’s aim was to consolidate wartime research into a popular survey of the ocean world, largely hidden until sonar traced underwater seascapes. Armed with a chapter and book outline, Rodell tried and failed to sell the project to several publishers. Carson then reworked the chapter and other writings into magazine articles, some reaching publication and others not. Over four years a collaboration emerged, with Carson supplying copy and Rodell arranging it, asking for more “warmth and human interest,” Lear notes, and also supplying titles. This process, and their growing friendship led Carson to sense that she had written chapters about the ocean but not one on its origins, the “mother sea” that gave birth to the earth’s land, wind, weather, and all forms of life.
She thus begins The Sea Around Us (1951) by describing the beginnings of earth, “torn from its parent sun,” and how the planet formed: it cooled, flung off the moon, and opened great scars that became ocean bottoms. Then centuries of rain fell, wearing away land and creating the first cells of life. The chapter is a tour de force of exposition, and it has a direct, incantatory style that emulates Genesis. For a human presence, she adds the voices of science (“Geologists tell us …”), her own authority (“The events of which I write …”) and switches to second-person invitation (“The next time you stand on a beach at night …”). Through imagination and rhetoric, she delivers a place and time long before readers existed.
The book opens with pure natural history, using time to explain space: “Mother Sea,” on the birth of the earth’s vitality; “The Restless Sea,” on the cycles of wind, current, and tide; and “Man and the Sea About Him,” on the human use of those elements for movement and survival. A closing chapter, “The Encircling Sea,” meditates on the growth of ocean knowledge, beginning with the Greek idea of a boundless stream around “the border of the world,” then following exploration across centuries, as navigation leads to astronomy, geography, and oceanography. This learning will not cease, for the sea is “like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.”
To research The Sea Around Us, Carson rode in a swamp buggy, took an underwater dive, and sailed on a research vessel, soaking up impressions of the sea by day and night. Her notes transformed events into skeins of imagery and adjectives, a habit that Rodell encouraged but which created trouble for the book. While it sold well to a large audience, a split emerged among reviewers—those irritated with Carson’s popularization of science, and those who praised her “poetic” language. Her style vexed Cold War scientists who clung to empirical study, limited to direct observation and verifiable results. Like many similar efforts of the 1950s—book clubs, cultural magazines, and Sunday TV shows—The Sea Around Us fed a public hunger for self-improvement. Carson tried to straddle the line between what C. P. Snow called the “two cultures” of science and art; but her commercial success undermined her credentials.
In her acceptance speech at the 1952 National Book Awards, Carson tried to correct the notion that her prose was poetic. She was instead a contributor to “the literature of science,” a mode of writing that sought, like science, “to discover and illuminate truth …. If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.” Lear calls this statement disingenuous, but it makes a valid claim. Carson read and appreciated poetry, yet her goal as a writer was to create literary nonfiction. In The Sea Around Us she writes to describe and explain, to invoke character and story, and to reduce a maze of information to its essential elements. Her intellectual premise is defensive, her voice on the page seductive: this book may be about marine biology, but its text is not dull. Often she enhances her prose with sensuous images or emotive verbs, but poetic effects are not poetry, and she knew that quite well.
Popular success and professional attack were jarring to Carson, but she was tougher now and loosening the strictures of her early life. Fame made her more outwardly feminine, caring for the first time about hair and clothes, but also releasing a warrior’s anger at the corporate destruction of nature. She resigned her government job for full-time writing. Her mother turned elderly and became less dominant, though still demanding. Marie Rodell led Carson to top editors, William Shawn of The New Yorlrer and Paul Brooks at Houghton Mifflin. They both welcomed her mode of literary science and praised her social conscience. Shawn’s specialty was nonfiction with a moral edge; in The New Yorker he published first-strike attacks on segregation, nuclear radiation, and the industrial-military complex. Paul Brooks, a birder and shore enthusiast, proposed to Carson that she write a nature guide to the Eastern seaboard. That project took her to coastal Maine in 1952, where she first met Dorothy Freeman.
Those who read their letters and declare that Carson and Freeman were either gay or straight ignore one salient fact: the relationship was largely written. They saw each other during brief summers in Maine, residing in separate family cottages. In other seasons they lived 500 miles apart and wrote almost daily, pouring out a stream of letters that became a mutual diary. For every burst of passion, the letters contained more news about everyday meals, errands, and pastimes. Given her domestic situation, Carson was the lonely, needy correspondent. Freeman wrote to several women friends in warm, affectionate tones. She tried to equal Carson’s eloquence and intellect, but often lapsed into gush: “If I were shut in with you, darling, you know there would be a world of love.”
Distance fed the relationship, as Carson tapped in words the energy she might have spent through contact. She wrote the liaison into being and nurtured its fictions: a letter with a private meaning was an “apple,” and one too explicit went to “the strong box,” actually a furnace. At an early date, she defined her stake in their union: “The lovely companionship of your letters has become a necessity to me … you are helping me more than you could imagine.” At the age of 45, she had awakened to a sense of love and authority. Each letter was an aubade, a morning song bound for one who adored the words. This friend must be “someone who cherishes me and what I am trying to create,” like a man who has two pennies, spending one to buy bread and the other “a white hyacinth for his soul.” Without a loving muse, she could not write with confidence.
The correspondence eased Carson’s solitude, which she saw as inseparable from creative writing. She needed from her friend a sense of reciprocity, like an echo or a reflection, mirroring the self but in a new guise. Read me, her letters say; read me well, and I shall write. Freeman was not an equal, but she kept the dialogue going. A situation half-known, half-secret satisfied Carson: “It means so very much to me to know that you have such an understanding, loving and wonderful husband,” she wrote, refusing to compromise a marriage even while raiding its intimacy.
As her emotional life bloomed, Carson worked on the book that Paul Brooks wanted, The Edge of the Sea (1955). She traveled the Eastern seaboard, collecting notes and impressions, and reframed the project as shore ecology, focused on the tidal zone between land and sea. Conventional guides presented species or locations, whereas her scheme featured ecosystems, the contexts of place, soil, water, and food that sustain populations of many distinctive species. Arranging the chapters was a challenge; she wanted to preserve a line of narrative while describing the dance of competition and collaboration that governs ecosystems. This emphasis on community was doubtless an intellectual conclusion, but her personal happiness may also have moved her in that direction.
Carson saw the book as a “companion volume” to its predecessor, using examples of symbiosis to express the order of life. Her tone is quiet and intimate, and she often uses metaphor to link disparate objects and perceptions. An opening chapter describes the marginal world as one of constant transition and exchange: “Today a little more land may belong to the sea, tomorow a little less. Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary.” As she wrote earlier, her creatures do not merely swim in water currents; they “follow the road over the hills and valleys of the sea’s floor.”
The Edge of the Sea has a clear, tight structure that delivers Carson’s survey of the Eastern coast in six chapters: two on the shore as a marginal, patterned habitat, three on dominant types of beach (rock, sand, coral) moving north to south, and one on the sea as an enduring presence in nature. The first and last chapters are brief forays beyond science, asking why are these forms before us and what is their ultimate meaning? The voice that closes is metaphysical: “Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp …. The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.” Behind that speculative tone is a bolder, more confident sensibility that enabled Carson to become a public advocate, as she turned to challenge industrial forces that threatened natural health and integrity.
Carson wrote her fourth book explicitly to shape public policy. Lear’s detailed account of the growth of Silent Spring (1962) reveals Carson shifting her research methods to learn a vast new topic, the cumulative effects of chemical pesticides. The book had “not a drip of salt water in it,” she said, as she hired assistants to comb libraries, interview officials, and transcribe sources. She also drew on a circle of influential friends to gain access to records or powerful figures, especially those wanting to hide the truth.
After the death of her mother in late 1958, Carson had more time and began to earn more money from her writing. Over a two-year period, she assembled chapters for Marie Rodell and Paul Brooks to read and edit. They groomed her prose, urging her to avoid technical words and use clear or heightened language, without creating factual errors. Carson acknowledged to Brooks that her slow pace was humbling: “Maybe it always has to be written ‘wrong’ first and improved only through repeated revisions, but I keep hoping to find a more direct way for the chapters still to be written.” She worried about a title, first choosing “Man Against the Earth” and resisting “Silent Spring” until Rodell showed her Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” with its dark opening stanza: “O what can ail thee, knight-at-arms, / Alone and palely loitering? / The sedge has withered from the lake, / And no birds sing.” Once again, a poem showed the way and Carson followed.
In 1960 Carson developed malignant breast tumors, which spread to her lymph nodes and pelvic bone, even as radiation treatments damaged her heart. In an eerie convergence, her research found links between pesticide and cancer, the consequence of genetic damage. Weak from repeated surgeries, she wrote in bed, had an assistant type the pages, and dictated revisions into a tape recorder. She could no longer devote half a day to writing Freeman. Instead they spoke on the telephone, and the topic was Carson’s health. Throughout 1961, she fought the cancer with radiation. Joint pain and poor vision ensued, slowing her labors on the book. The illness was “a story behind Silent Spring,” she told Freeman, and it remained there, a secret known only to her inner circle. When she could not see to revise, an assistant read to her, and Lear suggests that this loss of autonomy “lent a sharper edge to her prose.” By early 1962, William Shawn had accepted the manuscript, praising it as literature, and Carson wrote to Freeman that she felt deep happiness: “I had done what I could—I had been able to complete it—now it had its own life.”
Silent Spring is both an anthem and a dirge, managing to convey Carson’s vision of natural integrity, while outlining the ravages of toxic chemistry. Her struggle with cancer authenticated this story, yet she never alluded to her condition, using only “we” to provide a point of view. While many of her critics raged about “emotionalism,” the book is her least effusive or lyrical, since it relates much technical and scientific data and uses a structure that emulates a treatise. The 17 chapters have a five-part development, beginning with a prelude on the problem of toxicology; then a middle with three segments—poisoned water and soil, damaged plants and animals, and cancer in humans; ending with a postlude on natural alternatives to pesticide. Carson begins in despair and ends with hope, starting with a spring that has no songbirds and closing with a fork in the road.
The most violent enemies of Silent Spring—chemical manufacturers and their corporate associates—faced huge losses of income if Carson’s ideas prevailed. Few read beyond the dramatic opening, “A Fable for Tomorrow,” which describes how a small town, living “in harmony with its surroundings,” devolves into a place blighted by a “white granular powder” not from enemy bombs, but by self-inflicted means: “The people had done it themselves.” Carson explains that the village is representative: it gathers in one place similar troubles experienced elsewhere.
The noisy reception of Silent Spring in the 1960s shows how little science and literature may at times know each other or speak the same language. For every instance when Carson tried to explain and simplify data, critics charged her with ignorance or falsification. If she used colorful, incisive phrasing, she was emotional or hysterical. As Lear notes, much of the attack was sexist: no woman writer could stand up to the government, science, and an industry that guaranteed Americans better living through chemistry. Despite severe ill health, Carson stoutly held her ground, making speeches and testifying at hearings, until the book’s huge sales, combined with President Kennedy’s well-publicized interest in her work, began to turn public opinion in Carson’s favor.
The argument in Silent Spring is that nature is a web and that altering it endangers all species, including our own. Darwin used the web analogy in On the Origin of Species (1859) , and Aldo Leopold warned in A Sand County Almanac (1949) about destroying the biodiversity of prairie or wetland ecosystems. Carson gave these ideas fresh expression through her familiar metaphor, the union of water and land. In her ocean books, the shoreline is a margin where fluid and solid touch. Now she writes that water gives life but also spreads death. After toxic pesticides rain upon the earth for generations, surface and underground waters spread those “elixirs of death,” passing down through the soil to “a dark subsurface sea, rising under hills, sinking under valleys,” and then traveling “by unseen waterways” to reach the surface.
The ethical implications are as clear as she could make them: we live in a system of margins, not one of which we can afford to lose. Water is elusive, a medium for cleansing or killing because life is so integral, and any evil we do returns to us, through hidden sources that pay back our misdeeds. For Carson, who used water as an emblem for her freedom to live on the margin, hidden groundwater carried haunting implications: Had she made a wise choice in imposing such a strict barrier between her public and private life? Although Carson had a gift for expression, she never wrote frankly about what faith, love, or passion meant to her; they were boundaries not to explore with readers, only with her secret love.
If Carson had written novels and made passion her theme, she might live today in the literary canon with Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, and Anaïs Nin. Instead she stuck with nonfiction and kept her great secret. Her final book is not Silent Spring, but the posthumous The Sense of Wonder (1965), devoted to her adoptive son, whom she takes to “the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see” to teach him of the shore world. There she plays surrogate mother, praising a child’s world as “fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.” Like Wordsworth, she decries the loss of this early wonder, in which we still both know and feel. Those final words are not half so honest as her letters, which were open and emotional in a way that never surfaces in her published works.
Although the correspondence is incomplete, with contents destroyed by the authors and Carson’s brother, the letters that remain create a secret world of romance and magic, where language is coded with allusions to private meanings and places of hiding. The seasons exiled them, leaving Freeman amid rock and sea, while Carson wrote from suburban Maryland, land of tulips and robins. The story was tragic, for duty and mortality cut short their days.
The arc of their love, however, was full: girlish amazement at having found a second self, then a period of being students together in the tide pools and forest margins, then shared anxiety and support over career hurdles and family troubles, then a relationship maturing both physically and emotionally, then faltering health and a chain of losses. Over the years, they moved from kinship to something beyond words: they read each other’s thoughts, knew each other’s hearts, lifted the phone to call each other at the same instant to say goodnight. They were true to one another, never quarreling or competing, but taking a shore path that admitted no limits on the capacity to love, whether each other or the planet.
William Howarth is a former president of the Thoreau Society and former editor-in-chief of The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau. He has taught at Princeton since 1966.
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