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Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, did more than any other single publication to alert the world to the hazards of environmental poisoning and to inspire a powerful social movement that would alter the course of American history. This definitive, long-overdue biography shows how Carson, already a famous nature writer, became a reluctant reformer. It is a compelling portrait of the determined woman behind the publicly shy but brilliant scientist and writer....
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Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, published in 1962, did more than any other single publication to alert the world to the hazards of environmental poisoning and to inspire a powerful social movement that would alter the course of American history. This definitive, long-overdue biography shows how Carson, already a famous nature writer, became a reluctant reformer. It is a compelling portrait of the determined woman behind the publicly shy but brilliant scientist and writer.
Carson may have had a forceful mother, may have grown up in iron-and-steel Pittsburgh (thus getting an early introduction to foul air), had one storied intellectual mentor after another, toiled in the trenches of the Fish and Wildlife Service for many years; but important as all this may have been in shaping her vision of the natural world—and these moments are given their due, as this book is formidably detailed—Lear concentrates her efforts on Carson the writer, both of books (Under the Sea-Wind, The Sea Around Us, The Edge of the Sea, and, of course, Silent Spring) and of a wealth of magazine articles, where Carson was convinced she would make enough money to devote herself to full-time writing. Carson understood that she had the enviable ability to combine a scientific background with a liquid prose style to communicate the workings of our mysterious, intricate living world with passion, speaking not just to the converted but to the sprawling, educated, postwar middle class. Though intensely private, she was also shrewdly aware of how best to mix magazine serial rights with book publication dates, how to get in the running for various awards and prizes. Lear fleshes out the portrait with Carson's friends, agent, and publishers; her tumultuous family life; her myriad illnesses (including the cancer that killed her); and how, in characteristic nonconformist fashion, Carson held tight to her femininity in the masculine world of nature writing.
Though not infrequently starstruck by her subject, Lear provides enough anecdotes, and intelligently overviews the genesis and guiding currents of Carson's work, to make her reverence appear a natural response. Call this biography definitive.
|Sources for Illustrations||xvii|
|1. "Wild Creatures Are My Friends"||7|
|2. "The Vision Splendid"||27|
|3. "The Decision for Science"||54|
|4. "Something to Write About"||81|
|5. "Just to Live by Writing"||110|
|6. "Return to the Sea"||131|
|7. "Such a Comfort to Me"||152|
|8. "A Subject Very Close to My Heart"||178|
|9. "Kin This Be Me?"||198|
|10. "An Alice in Wonderland Character"||223|
|11. "Nothing Lives to Itself"||244|
|12. "Between the Tide Lines"||267|
|13. "One Must Dream Greatly"||289|
|14. "I Shall Rant a Little, Too"||312|
|15. "The Red Queen"||339|
|16. "If I Live to Be 90"||363|
|17. "A Solemn Obligation"||396|
|18. "Rumblings of an Avalanche"||428|
|19. "I Shall Remember the Monarchs"||457|
|Abbreviations Used in the Notes||486|
"Wild Creatures Are My Friends"
Most of all, it was her determination that set her apart. As a child, Rachel Louise Carson decided that she would be a writer. Literary talent, perhaps genius, and a hard-driving intelligence brought her that. But at the base of it, there was a ferocious will.
Her literary career began innocently enough in the spring of 1918, when she was weeks shy of her eleventh birthday. Spring was always a season laden with meaning for her, and this one was no exception. Ever since she was quite little, she had been reading the stories written by other young people published in the children's section of St. Nicholas Magazine. Now Rachel was ready to enter her own story of 253 carefully counted words in the St. Nicholas League Contest #223 as described in the May issue.
Her mother endorsed the unlined coarse-grained tablet page in the upper right corner, certifying that "this story was written without assistance, by my little ten-year-old daughter, Rachel." The next day her father dropped it at the Springdale, Pennsylvania, post office on his way to the Butler Street train station. The little girl was confident this would be the beginning of her writing career, and she was right.
When Rachel recalled that childhood time much later, she always linked this first St. Nicholas story with her love of nature and her mother's influence. "I can remember no time," she told a group of women in 1954, "even in earliest childhood, when I didn't assume I was going to be a writer. Also, I can remember no time when I wasn't interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature. Those interests, I know, I inherited from my mother and have always shared with her." At other times when she spoke of her childhood, she would add that among her earliest conscious memories was a "feeling of absolute fascination for everything relating to the ocean."
Springdale residents who remember Rachel as a young girl tell the story, perhaps true, perhaps apocryphal, that her romance with the ocean began one day when she found a large fossilized shell in the rocky outcroppings on the family's hillside property. It provoked questions that Rachel wanted answers to. She wondered where it had come from, what animal had made it and lived within it, where it had gone, and what happened to the sea that had nurtured it so long ago. Whether such a single event provoked her curiosity and drew her to the sea or not, the account is intriguing. Town children found and collected many fossilized shells on the Carson property as well as along the riverbanks. True or not, the story underscores the wisdom that "to understand the fashion of any life, one must know the land it is lived in."
Rachel Carson was first of all a child of the Allegheny River, its woods and wetlands. Although she could not see the wide bend of the Allegheny from the front porch of the Carson homestead near the top of the hill just off Colfax Lane, she could look over the white pines that grew along the north bank and see the traffic on the road running parallel along the opposite shoreline. She could hear the horns of the riverboats and paddle-wheelers coming and going on the river. In the spring the fog would rise over the river, hiding the road and muffling all sound, allowing an imaginative little girl to wonder where the river had been long ago and what sorts of things it had carried in its swift current as it curved sharply at Springdale and headed down its last sixteen miles on its way to converge with the Monongahela at Pittsburgh.
Springdale was a promising Pennsylvania river community of 1,200 people when Rachel's parents, Robert and Maria Carson, settled on the western edge of town in 1900. In 1901 the Pittsburgh Leader focused on the more bucolic qualities of Springdale, noting "considerable acreage of woods and farm land, picturesque streets ... and pretty little frame dwellings set amidst overhanging apple trees and maples."
Such rural charm was even then being replaced by the relentless engines of industry, leaving scars on the land, pollution in the air, and debris in the river. Locks on the Allegheny enabled stern-wheelers to move iron and ore to Pittsburgh from the many furnaces that dotted the hills to the northwest. Oil moved down the river at accelerating rates after the Civil War, and the heavy logging of the Appalachians that began in the 1880s was soon reflected in both river traffic and shorelines awash in timber waste.
Until the panic of 1907, Springdale's economic prospects remained bright as new industries located upriver and workers and their families moved in. Rachel's father was counting on that growth continuing when he invested in real estate, but his gamble failed.
In the end, Rachel Carson remembered only how embarrassed she was by the foul smell of the glue factory that greeted disembarking passengers at the train station; how dreary and dirty the working-class town became when the West Penn Power Company and Duquesne Light Company squeezed it between their huge power stations at both ends, and how endlessly ugly Springdale was.
Robert Carson's parents, James and Ellen, had come directly to Allegheny County from Ireland. They settled in Allegheny City, a bustling Scots-Irish working-class town on the north plain just across the river from downtown Pittsburgh. James Carson, a successful carpenter, provided adequately for his family. Robert, the eldest of their six children, was born in 1864 and may have finished high school, or come close to doing so. The family was active in the Fourth United Presbyterian Church of Allegheny City, where Robert sang in the choir and toured with the men's quartet.
In the winter of 1893 Robert Carson's quartet participated in a choral social in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, a prosperous sheep-farming community in Washington County, about eighteen miles southwest of Pittsburgh. Among the other groups performing in Canonsburg that evening was a local female group, the Washington Quintette Club, from nearby Washington, Pennsylvania, which featured alto soloist Maria Frazier McLean.
Maria was attracted to the quiet, debonair Carson, who at thirty must have appeared more mature than many of the young men she knew. Robert was a slender, pleasant-looking man of average height, with prematurely thinning dark hair and kindly blue eyes. He sported a thick, sweeping mustache in the grenadier's fashion that he waxed into perfect sharp tips. Robert courted Maria McLean, who agreed to marry him less than a year later in June 1894, even though his background was educationally and socially inferior to hers. Although Robert came from a proper United Presbyterian family, Maria's widowed mother, Rachel Andrews McLean, was probably not enthusiastic about the match.
The roots of the McLean family went even deeper into the western Pennsylvania soil than those of the Carsons. The McLeans were part of the first large Scots-Irish migration that settled in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. Maria's father, Daniel M. B. McLean, was born on a farm in Wellsville, Ohio, in 1840. Coming from a family of some means, he graduated from Jefferson College in Canonsburg, Washington County, in 1859. He entered Allegheny United Presbyterian Theological Seminary immediately upon graduation, and was ordained and installed pastor of the Fourth United Presbyterian Church of Allegheny City, the same church that the Carsons attended, in 1863.
The following year McLean married Rachel Andrews of Washington, Pennsylvania. The couple served in Allegheny City and for a time in Cleveland, Ohio. They had two daughters, Ida, born in Allegheny City in 1867, and Maria, born two years later in Cleveland. The climate of the lake region did not agree with the Reverend McLean, however. In November 1870 he answered the call from the Chartiers United Presbyterian Church in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, and moved back to his college town with his wife and two small daughters. Three years later he nearly died of consumption. Thereafter he frequently was unable to fill his pulpit and was completely bedridden the year before he died of tuberculosis at age forty in 1880.
After his burial, Rachel McLean moved back to Washington to raise and educate her daughters, then fourteen and eleven. Intent on giving them the best education available, she enrolled Ida and Maria in the elite Washington Female Seminary there.
The Washington Female Seminary, a strongly United Presbyterian institution situated on the edge of the Washington College campus, had a reputation for providing not just a finishing education for young women of good Christian standing but a rigorous, classical curriculum. Founded in 1836 with forty students, it grew to a school of over two hundred young women, many of whom boarded. It augmented its sizable female faculty with professors from Washington College who taught advanced classes.
Both McLean daughters displayed intellectual curiosity and promise in their studies and graduated well prepared for civic responsibility and Christian motherhood. Ida graduated in 1885 and followed in her mother's footsteps, marrying the Reverend J. L. Vance, a leader in the western branch of the United Presbyterian Church, in 1891. They settled in Oak Grove, Illinois, a suburb of Rock Island, ten years later.
Maria, the more studious of the Reverend McLean's two daughters, graduated with honors in Latin in 1887, taking advanced courses at Washington College. Maria was a becoming but not beautiful young woman with fine bones, a high forehead, deep-set eyes, curly light-brown hair, and a distinctive angular chin.
Maria's classmates remembered her for her uncommon musical ability, playing the piano, singing, and composing, and winning distinction in each. After her graduation in 1887, Maria McLean taught school in Washington County, was an enthusiastic member of the Washington Quintette, and offered piano lessons in her mother's home. Married women were not permitted to teach school in those days, so when the twenty-five-year-old Maria agreed to marry Robert Carson, she had no choice but to give up her career.
The couple stayed in Canonsburg during the first few years of their marriage, probably living with Mrs. McLean, since Robert Carson, who was employed as a clerk of some kind, could not have afforded an independent home. In 1897 a daughter, Marian Frazier, was born, followed by a son, Robert McLean, barely two years later. In 1900 Robert and Maria Carson left Canonsburg to strike out on their own.
With their young family, the Carsons needed more room. On April 2 Carson signed a mortgage of $11,000 for a sixty-four-acre parcel in Springdale belonging to the estate of Samuel Pearce. Part of the tract included an orchard of forty apple and pear trees along the top of the hill behind the modest house. There was ample room for a few necessary farm animals--some sheep, a pig, chickens, and a horse.
The Carson property was bounded by Colfax Lane, rising steeply on the west, and Ridge Road, on the north behind the orchards. Later Marion Avenue was laid out down the hill on the south, probably named for Carson's eldest daughter. A gable-roofed barn with matching garage, a springhouse, chicken coop, and two outhouses completed the original out buildings.
The two-story, clapboard house with four small rooms had been built as a log cabin between 1867 and 1892. It faced south to the town and the river beyond. The house never had central heating or indoor plumbing during the twenty-nine years the Carsons lived there. There were fireplaces at both ends of the house and other rooms were heated by coal stoves, and the only electric light came from ceiling fixtures. The first-floor parlor and dining room were divided by the staircase that led up to two small bedrooms above. The kitchen was a one-story lean-to on the north end of the house with a wooden floor, one tall double-hung window, and a door opening onto a small stoop. At some point the Carsons added a gas stove.
A cellar, accessible only from outside steps, was used to store seasonal fruits and vegetables. Maria maintained a large kitchen garden behind the garage. A lilac bush softened the front of the house, while a small weeping mulberry and several maples traced down the front hillside. A vigorous honeysuckle curled itself up along the west end of the porch, lending color and scent in season. Sometime later Robert Carson laid out a rose garden, which he tended meticulously.
The hillside property remained rural while the town of Springdale spread industrially to the southwest. Another large farm, belonging to the Moyer family, bordered the Carsons' property on the east, and by crossing it, the Carson children could walk to the School Street School, about three-fifths of a mile away. Since the business district of Springdale was another mile east along both sides of Pittsburgh Street, the Carsons used horse and buggy for church and shopping. Otherwise it was a long walk to the post office and the Butler Street train station.
Many of the Polish and Hungarian immigrants coming to Springdale after 1915 moved to the bottom of Colfax, with their homes spreading along the other side of Pittsburgh Street. There was a flag stop for the Conemaugh Railroad at Colfax. At one time or another nearly everyone in Springdale visited Carson's Grove, on the top of Colfax hill. The orchard was the site of many clandestine lovers' picnics and of festive town gatherings. On the latter such occasions Robert Carson often sold apples and showed off his real estate.
Robert Warden Carson remains an elusive figure. By most accounts he was a quiet, kindly man with a reserved but dignified manner. Thirty-six years old when he bought the Springdale farm, he listed himself as a self employed traveling salesman for the Mercantile Company, a subsidiary of the Great American Insurance Company. He took little interest in developing the farm other than maintaining the house and outbuildings and keeping a few farm animals. A "city boy," he dreamed of being a developer. He subdivided the downhill sections of his property into large level lots and in 1910 began advertising them for sale for $300.00 each.
Local bankers recall him as a reserved man who never defaulted on his loans but was often in arrears on payments. Carson was land poor and frequently had to borrow to make ends meet. But some other townspeople have less kindly memories of him, bitterly recalling the debts he left unpaid when the family moved somewhat abruptly to Baltimore in 1930.
In 1920 Carson was employed as an electrician at the Harwick Mine and was probably still selling commercial insurance for Great American on the side. Sometime later in the decade he worked part time for the West Penn Power Company. There is some suggestion that during these years he was frequently in poor health.
Although his many photographs of his children reflect his interest in them, Robert Carson was an affectionate but almost irrelevant parent. The Carsons were more often poor than of modest means, and this privation shaped Rachel's opportunities and her personality from the outset. Embarrassed by her circumstances but fiercely loyal, her personal reserve was, among other things, a necessary strategy of self-protection.
Maria Carson had been raised in an exclusively female household. Her mother was a woman of strong opinion and independence, traits she passed on to both daughters. When Maria married Robert Carson, she exchanged narrower social and economic circumstances for the opportunity of marriage and family. The dominant personality within the family from the outset, she reproduced her own mothering in her unequal partnership and parenting.
She energetically directed her children's social activities as well as their education, apparently with her husband's approval but certainly without his interference. Whether Maria was happy about leaving Washington County in 1900 or not, fervent letters indicate that she missed her mother and sister a great deal. Although she went to church regularly, her lack of means prevented much socializing. She made few friends in Springdale and kept herself and her family aloof. But she enjoyed the opportunities the large Carson property provided for out-of-door activities.
Maria was an avid reader and believed in using her leisure time to improve the quality of her children's lives as well as her own. One of her keenest interests was natural history. She was not alone in this passion, for botanizing, bird-watching, and nature study were interests avidly pursued by amateur naturalists all over the country at the turn of the century, particularly among middle class, educated women.
Bird lore was popularized in women's books, literary magazines, and children's literature. It was touted as a special interest for young readers who would, through learning the habits of birds, come to love nature and make an emotional commitment to its protection. Beginning in 1875 and continuing until after World War I, talented female writers such as Olive Thorne Miller, Mabel Osgood Wright, and Florence Merriam Bailey turned out exceptional books and articles promoting an interest in all living creatures, particularly birds.
The nature-study movement had its intellectual origins in natural history and theology, but it was popularized by the great botanist Liberty Hyde Bailey and his Cornell University colleague Anna Botsford Comstock about the time the Carsons' eldest child, Marian, entered public school.
Nature-study advocates were not interested in botanizing, collecting, or bird-watching for the sake of taxonomy or mere scientific observation. Nor were they interested exclusively in pedagogical reform. Disturbed by the numbers of agricultural families leaving the land and by an increasing alienation of urban children from their agrarian roots, nature-study advocates like Bailey and Comstock wanted to put children in sympathy with nature.
Important as Bailey was to the acceptance of the nature-study movement among the scientific community and agricultural leaders, it was Anna Comstock whose enormously popular published lessons and summer program for teachers at Cornell brought the movement into home and school.
Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study (1911) taught the methods by which every elementary-age child in the country could learn to love nature. Nature-study, according to Comstock, would cultivate the child's imagination, his perception of the truth, and his ability to express it. Most important, it would instill a "love of the beautiful," a "sense of companionship with life out-of-doors, and an abiding love of nature." Embracing the ideas of natural theology that by studying nature, the intricate design of the Creator would become visible, the nature-study movement taught that nature was holy. The implications for the individual were clear; conservation was, as Bailey said, "a divine obligation," and the conservation movement, a religious crusade.
Maria Carson was the perfect nature-study teacher. She welcomed the Comstock readers that Marian and Robert brought home from school. Each one suggested outdoor lessons that parents could do with their children, and Maria Carson had a sixty-four acre laboratory to work in. She and the children were outdoors every day when weather permitted, and she shared with them her knowledge of natural history, botany, and birds. In the evenings, Maria played the piano, and she and the two children sang songs and read stories from the several children's magazines she subscribed to.
Maria impressed her respect and love for wild creatures on all her children. When they returned from their woodland adventures with treasures to show her, Maria instructed the children to return them to where they had been found. This kind of care for the natural world had a spiritual dimension that at least her youngest daughter embraced and would practice all her life.
When Rachel Louise Carson came into the world in the early-morning hours of May 27, 1907, Springdale was still full of pristine possibility; the woods and hills behind the tiny house were wild and untouched. A proud thirty-eight-year-old Maria Carson named her infant daughter for her own mother. She described Rachel as a "dear, plump, little blue-eyed baby" of nine pounds who was "unusually pretty" and "very good."
When Rachel was born, her father was forty-three years old and spent long periods away from home selling insurance. Marian was in the fifth grade at the School Street School, and young Robert had started first grade the fall before. Instead of being a lonely housewife with school-age children, searching for new interests and outlets, Maria Carson had a new baby daughter to care for and enjoy almost exclusively.
Symbolic of the delight she found in this child, Maria began keeping a "mother's diary" chronicling Rachel's babyhood. Three tiny, closely written pages of this diary remain, testifying to Maria's enchantment with her baby daughter's milestones of growth and documenting Maria's love of the outdoors and Rachel's early introduction to it.
The Carsons had joined the Springdale United Presbyterian Church soon after they moved to Springdale. Robert was christened there, as was Rachel, who was presented just as she was recovering from influenza. Maria was thrilled with the baptism ceremony for her daughter, recounting in her diary that the Reverend Watson S. Boyce officiated but that the christening prayer was offered by the famous Reverend W. W. Orr of Charlotte, North Carolina, who was holding evangelistic meetings in Springdale at the time.
The Reverend Boyce left sometime in 1911 and the Carsons withdrew from the congregation the next year, apparently out of some dissatisfaction with the new minister. The family subsequently joined the Cheswick Presbyterian Church on the other end of Springdale Township, where they remained members until they left the area. Rachel attended Mrs. Berz's Sunday School class and was confirmed on April 11, 1917.
From the time Rachel was one year old, she and her mother spent increasing amounts of time outdoors, walking the woods and orchards, exploring the springs, and naming flowers, birds, and insects. With Marian and Robert gone all day, the two were left at home together doing chores, talking, reading, drawing, playing the piano, and singing "Mother Goose" rhymes, which Maria enjoyed setting to music. Some afternoons they would take one of their many dogs, cross the Moyer place on the eastern boundary of their property, and wait to walk the two older children home from school. They talked about what they saw in the woods and particularly watched for birds. The distinctive quality of their experience in the outdoors was shared delight. From the first Rachel responded emotionally to her mother's love of nature. Her acuity of observation and her eye for detail were shaped on these childhood outings.
Rachel remembered herself as a "solitary child" even if she was not an only child, for there were no other small children up on Colfax hill to play with. Resourceful and imaginative, she was always "happiest with wild birds and creatures as companions," and it would be so all her life.
Like many little children, Rachel liked to draw. Two early efforts stand out. The first is a "night scene," so labeled in Maria's hand, of five clearly identifiable pine trees standing atop a hill with the moon coming out in the dark sky and large rocks in the foreground, a scene familiar to that part of western Pennsylvania, but an unusually observant rendering for a preschooler. The second is a childhood book of ten pages, carefully bound together with flour-and-water paste. It is the only known gift from young Rachel to her father.
"The little book for Mr. R. W. Carson" begins, "This little book I've made for you my dear, I'll hope you'll like the pictures well; the animals that you'll find in here--About them all--I'll tell." The title page is illustrated with a fine drawing of an elephant. Although some of the laborious printing is Rachel's work, Maria obviously helped with the outlines of the nine animals and the picture of Mr. Lee, perhaps the owner of the Springdale laundry, who is the solitary human in the book. Rachel selected the animals, colored them in with crayon and colored pencil, not always neatly, and helped make up a verse to go with each drawing.
The book is remarkable not for drawing or verse but for the obvious relationship that existed between the child author and the wild creatures pictured in her book. Mouse, frog, bunny, and owl are identified as woodland "friends" whom Rachel encountered in her walks. Dog, hen, canary, and fish are her farm animals and household pets. This charming present for "Papa" reveals her knowledge of the creatures she encountered in her woods and fields and reflected the influence of the nature-study movement in the Carson household.
Another of Rachel's earliest childhood memories was her love of books and reading. "I read a great deal almost from infancy," she recalled, "and I suppose I must have realized someone wrote the books, and thought it would be fun to make up stories too." At about age eight, she began a story in a controlled cursive entitled "The Little Brown House." The opening page is decorated with birdhouses in all four corners, similar in style to the illustrations accompanying the stories in St. Nicholas Magazine. Her story describes two wrens searching for an appropriate house and happily finding a "dear little brown house with a green roof." "Now that is just what we need," Mr. Wren exclaims happily to Jenny, his mate. In a longer version of the same story written a bit later, Rachel described the wren's nesting habits in her little green house, adding wonderful details.
In fourth grade, Rachel wrote a story called "A Sleeping Rabbit." Her cover illustration shows a plump white rabbit sitting with eyes closed in a chair beside a small round table on which are placed a candle and a book entitled Peter Rabbit. These stories and drawings reflect not only Rachel's keen observation of bird and animal life but the kind of children's literature she was reading and being read. The stories she loved anthropomorphized animals so that they shared the same needs as humans for comfortable houses, domestic companionship, and good books.
Rachel's favorites were the animal stories by Beatrix Potter with their wonderfully detailed drawings, which she painstakingly imitated. Like countless other children, she was captivated with the adventures of Toad and Mole and their friends in Wind in the Willows. Rachel imitated it in one of her most delightful college themes and returned to the animal adventure again and again as an adult.
As an early independent reader, Rachel discovered the novels of Gene Stratton Porter, an apostle of the nature-study movement who believed that through nature a child was led to God. For Porter, studying wildlife was a source of moral virtue.
Of equal if not greater influence on Rachel's romantic view of nature were the several children's magazines to which her mother subscribed, read stories from, and that Rachel studied intently long before she could read all the words for herself. By far Rachel's favorite magazine was St. Nicholas, which her mother loved and had subscribed to before Rachel was born. The magazine, founded in 1873, was edited by the creative Mary Mapes Dodge and was regarded by many as the best magazine ever published for children. Dodge intended it to be a "child's playground; where children could be delighted as well as be in charge." Beautifully illustrated and printed, it contained articles, stories, jingles, poems, and a "Letter Box" for readers. It featured some of the leading writers and illustrators of the day. Dodge wanted St. Nicholas to be full of "freshness, heartiness, life and joy." Generations of children, including Rachel Carson, found it so.
The section children enjoyed most was the St. Nicholas League, established in 1899, which published work by children themselves and thereby gave them the privilege of membership. The League stood for intellectual achievement and high ideals. Each month it held contests for the best poems, stories, essays, drawings, puzzles, and puzzle solutions its readers could devise. It awarded gold badges for the winners, silver for the runners-up, and cash awards for "honor members"--those children who had won both gold and silver badges. In addition, the League printed as many other submissions as space allowed and listed the names of those whose good work could not be squeezed in. St. Nicholas League contests were open to any child under the age of eighteen, as long as a parent or guardian certified that the entry was the child's original work.
No other juvenile magazine of the period adopted the values of the nature-study movement more completely than St. Nicholas. None glorified the virtues of a life lived happily at one with nature more enthusiastically. The League stood for "intelligent patriotism" and for "protection of the oppressed, whether human or dumb creatures." The editorial attitude toward animal welfare was further clarified in rules for photographic entries. All photographs of wild animals and birds were to be taken in their native homes, not even in large game preserves, and certainly not in zoos.
When Rachel Carson sent off her first story, "A Battle in the Clouds," to the St. Nicholas League contest in May 1918, she joined a distinguished group of poets, novelists, essayists, artists, journalists, and scholars who first saw their work in print in the pages of the League. Between 1907 and 1917 League badge winners included such future luminaries as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edward Estlin Cummings, S. Eliot Morison, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and S. V. Benet. In 1911 an eleven-year-old E. B. White won a silver badge for his essay "A Winter Walk," which recounted a boy's pleasure at being out with his dog where "every living creature seemed happy" and where nothing would harm "God's innocent little folk." It was a story Maria may well have read aloud to her four-year-old daughter.
"A Battle in the Clouds" was a story about World War I and reflected the influence of Rachel's brother, Robert, who had enlisted in the Army Air Service in the fall of 1917. In one of his letters home, Robert told of the tragic death of a Canadian flying instructor who had been in combat in France. Rachel was so taken by his account of the bravery of the aviator that she retold the story in her own words for the St. Nicholas League.