Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part III

Chapter 21. Two Letters to Dorothy and Stanley Freeman

[1956]

CARSON SHARED MOST of her experiences exploring the tide pools and rocky shores near her cottage on Southport Island with her summer neighbors Dorothy and Stanley Freeman. With Dorothy in particular, Carson found a kindred spirit of deep emotional significance. In 1956 Carson’s mother was an invalid, and Carson’s niece Marjorie and her four-year-old son Roger, whom Carson later adopted after Marjorie’s death, had come to Maine for a visit. Carson’s account of their midnight exploration of the spring tide was written in a letter to the Freemans, who were not in Maine at the time.

Similarly, an October sunset produced the backdrop for a great migration of waterfowl across the horizon which moved Carson once again to share her experience with the absent Freemans.

image DEAR STAN AND DOROTHY –

This morning I achieved the difficult feat of getting up without disturbing anyone but Jeffie, so maybe I can write a letter before breakfast.

Knowing you can’t be at Southport as soon as you want to be, I’m always of two minds now about talking of the place or telling you anything special that happens – should I share it with you, or is it mean to talk about things you want so badly to see or do yourselves? That, in general, is my predicament, but this time I have to tell you about something strange and wonderful.

We are now having the spring tides of the new moon, you know, and they have traced their advance well over my beach the past several nights. Roger’s raft has to be secured by a line to the old stump, so Marjie and I have an added excuse to go down at high tide. There had been lots of swell and surf and noise all day, so it was most exciting down there toward midnight – all my rocks crowned with foam, and long white crests running from my beach to Mahard’s. To get the full wildness, we turned off our flashlights – and then the real excitement began. Of course, you can guess – the surf was full of diamonds and emeralds, and was throwing them on the wet sand by the dozen. Dorothy dear – it was the night we were there all over, but with everything intensified. A wilder accompaniment of noise and movement, and a great deal more phosphorescence. The individual sparks were so large – we’d see them glowing in the sand, or sometimes, caught in the in-and-out play of water, just riding back and forth. And several times I was able to scoop one up in my hand in shells and gravel, and think surely it was big enough to see – but no such luck.

Now here is where my story becomes different. Once, glancing up, I said to Marjie jokingly, “Look – one of them has taken to the air!” A firefly was going by, his lamp blinking. We thought nothing special of it, but in a few minutes one of us said, “There’s that firefly again.” The next time he really got a reaction from us, for he was flying so low over the water that his light cast a long surface reflection, like a little headlight. Then the truth dawned on me. He “thought” the flashes in the water were other fireflies, signaling to him in the age-old manner of fireflies! Sure enough, he was soon in trouble and we saw his light flashing urgently as he was rolled around in the wet sand – no question this time which was insect and which the unidentified little sea will-o-the-wisps!

You can guess the rest: I waded in and rescued him (the will-o-the-wisps had already had me in icy water to my knees so a new wetting didn’t matter) and put him in Roger’s bucket to dry his wings. When we came up we brought him as far as the porch – out of reach of temptation, we hoped.

It was one of those experiences that gives an odd and hard-to-describe feeling, with so many overtones beyond the facts themselves. I have never seen any account scientifically, of fireflies responding to other phosphorescence. I suppose I should write it up briefly for some journal if it actually isn’t known. Imagine putting that in scientific language! And I’ve already thought of a child’s story based on it – but maybe that will never get written.

Then everyone got up, and the day began! [ … ]

Dear Dorothy and Stan,

I hope this may reach you on your anniversary, but whenever it comes I know you will accept it as a little observance of that occasion. You know this is the first year since I have really known you that I have had to write in order to wish you happiness on the day, and many years of continuing happiness together. Having shared Your Day to some extent for the past two years, it has become a sort of Anniversary for me, too, with deep meanings that I know you understand without my putting them into words.

There are certain events that I’ve come to associate with the week – if not the actual day – of your anniversary, and now I must tell you what happened Friday evening. It had been one of those bright, clear days with a piercing wind from the northwest, and at sunset there was not a cloud in the sky. There had been a thought in my mind all day, and shortly after sunset I went into the living room and began to scan the horizon. Almost instantly I saw a faint line like a wisp of smoke above the Kennebec – then more and more until I knew that one of those great migrations of waterfowl was moving toward Merrymeeting Bay. All, as far as I saw, were far away in the western sky, but with the glasses their formations and even the individual birds stood out clearly. And the flights continued until dusk made the drifting ribbons invisible. One more detail: I had also had in mind that on that evening I should see the new moon – the moon of the month in which I must leave here for another season. But when I looked into that clear, after-sunset sky I couldn’t see it. Behind the spruces on the far shore of the Bay the sky was a pale orange, fading above into yellow and then a cold, gray-blue. Then the ducks appeared, and as I was searching the sky with my glasses, suddenly I saw the moon just above the horizon, a thin sickle, but so enormous that at first I could hardly believe it actually was the moon! Its color was so close to that of the sky that without the glasses I couldn’t see it. Last night it was clear in the evening sky, and soon, I suppose, I can begin to watch for its reflection in the Bay.