Saturday, April 9, 2011

Rachel Carson’s Headset

Most mornings before mass I walk five miles. My predawn path takes me out through the woods between our town and the highway, with its all-night distant moan. This morning I decided to walk without a headset: no iTunes, no audio book. I thought of Rachel Carson and how the world would be different if she had worn a headset. Would the author of Silent Spring have noticed the missing birds?

Most mornings I don’t notice. Before my own thoughts have had a chance to begin the steady trickle that is a mountain torrent by midday, I fill my head with someone else’s thoughts, courtesy of This week I’ve been listening to A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson. Other days I boot up and force Celtic or bluegrass rhythms onto my heart. This morning I decided to walk without either Audible or Pandora.

Where the road climbs into the woods, I heard my first bird. He was a solitary fellow, waking up before the wife, or maybe shaking off a hangover from a night out with the boys. He was all I heard for a while, and I felt a bit sorry for him. If it was a love song he was singing, there wasn’t even an echo coming back at him.

I rounded a bend and headed into a marshy area. It was as though I had entered a Sicilian neighborhood, where the women are hanging out the early morning wash and throwing slops into the street, while all the time haranguing each other with the latest gossip. None of the women seemed to notice me. At least they didn’t stop their singing.

Over the railroad tracks now, I started hearing other sounds: my own breath coming and going like the surf on the shore and the sound of my boots kicking up gravel. Why was the sound of my right foot more muted? My left toes seemed to spray gravel freely, while my right made only a dull thud. I thought that my walk might be as unbalanced as my life sometimes is. And I kept listening.

I forged out onto the main road back to town thinking that the song of the birds would be inaudible to me over the roar of passing traffic. But by now the sky had turned from cobalt to sapphire and a whole Audubon chorus was in full swing. I realized that all I had to do was listen, pay attention, and the birds would stay with me.

Back to my house on an in-town street, I couldn’t believe how loud the birds sang on my own trees. How could people sleep through this music? Probably at one time, before iTunes and automobiles and steam engines, they didn’t. We think of the rooster as waking up farmers, but that’s probably the last vestige of a sensitivity our distant ancestors had. They probably woke with the very first bird, that solitary starling singing a love song no one would answer.

If Rachel Carson wore a headset, she would be just like us. And we would be just like us too. Because why preserve the birds if no one hears them?


  1. The last letter written by Rachel Carson before her passing was while sitting at the Newagen Inn, south of Boothbay Harbor. It is an epistle to the Monarch Butterfly, which she dearly loved

  2. This is beautiful, Webster. I want to write like you. I need to stop and listen more. I never play music when i work or write, almost never, because I like quiet. This is so beautiful. You are a writer for certain. I was with you every step of the way. My husband, Tom, who left us for a more wonderful place 5 years ago this May 14, would have written like this and he would have loved every word you wrote. Keep on writing.

  3. Wow Terry, thank you. That means a lot.

  4. I do not know precisely what you think about Rachel Carson. A new book evaluating her work appeared recently: Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson ( This is from the amazon site:

    Widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement when published 50 years ago, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring had a profound impact on our society. As an iconic work, the book has often been shielded from critical inquiry, but this landmark anniversary provides an excellent opportunity to reassess its legacy and influence. In Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson a team of national experts explores the book’s historical context, the science it was built on, and the policy consequences of its core ideas. The conclusion makes it abundantly clear that the legacy of Silent Spring is highly problematic. While the book provided some clear benefits, a number of Carson’s major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance. Despite her reputation as a careful writer widely praised for building her arguments on science and facts, Carson’s best-seller contained significant errors and sins of omission. Much of what was presented as certainty then was slanted, and today we know much of it is simply wrong.

    John Ashley


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