My plans have changed: I’m now undergoing IVF treatments this summer instead of continuing to train for the Homestead Challenge on the Rachel Carson Trail.
I’ve been wanting to find a way to share the longer story behind this decision, as well as the connections between the two processes for me–plus tie it all to Rachel and Dorothy’s letters. But after a month and a half without posting, and still no clarity about how to do all that, I suppose I’ll just leave it at this simple update.
Though I withdrew my registration for the Challenge today, I’ll keep hiking, keep reading the letters, and keep writing about them elsewhere. I’ll also train for the Homestead Challenge again another time–maybe next year, though hopefully it’ll need to be in two years!
There is a spot on the short cut I wish you might have seen these past weeks. Everywhere the lovely lavender asters have been profuse–the Head had a bountiful supply mingled with the goldenrod. I’m sure you remember the shrub with the white berries–snowberries people call them–we found them on Barter’s Island. The spot to which I refer was a mass of the lavender asters combined with the snowberry–wild, but no landscape architect could have contrived anything lovelier.
Dorothy Freeman, in a letter to Rachel Carson, October 13, 1959
Dorothy wrote to Rachel about the wild loveliness of asters, snowberries, and goldenrod in October. It’s April here, so the colorful flowers on the late-blooming asters and goldenrod I have planted are a ways off. But I too am wondering at the loveliness of flowers, those both planted in my yard and visible along the trails.
Spring flowers are giving me lots of hope these days.
Yes, I know there’s plenty to be concerned about. But I also know that at least some of the seeds I’ve finally finished planting this spring–after spending many weekend hours digging up turf lawn instead of contributing to this blog–are starting to come up. What’s coming up now are mainly the quick-growing annuals that I mixed in with the native perennials, and the native plants I bought at Tait Farm last year are all doing well too. More importantly, many more of the seeds will be up and flowering soon enough.
This knowing gives me hope for the summer. For being surrounded by flowers, birds, and butterflies in my backyard. For vases of cut flowers inside. For ending my work days a little earlier and playing in the yard with my little one before dinner.
None of the above will solve most of what concerns me. But I do believe there’s real promise for biodiversity as more people with homes and yards choose to replace parts of our turf lawns with native plants (though “native plant” advocacy has its own complications that I want to learn more about here and here and here and here and here…once summer is here, that is, and I have more time for reading).
More to my point, I have been over-committed at work for a few weeks now, tired and with too little downtime to enjoy my family or hiking. So I need the hope that arrives with spring, for the relative pressure release that is summer, and I am grateful that kind of hope comes so easily for me.
Right now, as I write this in my backyard, there is birdsong loud and all around me, even as I live in a fairly conventional, suburban-like HOA. I think of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, of how much positive impact the book had, and of how far from silent my yard is. Again, I grateful.
With less time for training over the past couple of weeks, I’ve focused on shorter hikes with my family, the kiddo back in the pack.
During yesterday’s hike, the little one even walked/ran part of the way on his own two feet, after we let him get down and play in a stream for the first time. So today I’m going to focus on spring, on hope, on the growth that is still on its way.
5 walking & hiking w/ a dear friend passing through town
I should be sad if I thought you really needed to be told again that the message of the “Hyacinth Letter” is as true as when it was written; or if I thought you really needed the tangible reminder that the flowers themselves will provide. But this year I especially wanted to send them…
So put the flowers where you can see them often, dear one, and let them tell you how much I love you, and how your love provides “food for my soul”–as it has ever since those first magical days when I came to know you.
I do trust the florists have carried out their mission acceptably. I stressed that there could be no substitution–that if no white hyacinths were available they must wait until they were.
Rachel Carson, in a letter to Dorothy Freeman, February 6, 1959
Here Rachel refers again to her 1954 “hyacinth letter,” which I wrote about in a prior post. In that letter, Rachel paraphrased someone who said “if he had two pennies he would use one to buy bread and the other to buy ‘a white hyacinth for his soul.'” Rachel told Dorothy, “You, dearest, are the ‘white hyacinth.'” Rachel and Dorothy referenced this hyacinth letter throughout their correspondence. In the 1959 letter above, Rachel had sent hyacinths to Dorothy, insisting to the florists that the flowers must be white. Rachel emphasized her love for Dorothy, and that Dorothy’s love continued to be the “food for my soul.”
As I continue digging up new flower beds, I find myself wanting to plant white hyacinth in honor of Rachel and Dorothy’s relationship–and wondering which variety of white hyacinth the women had in mind as they lovingly traded letters and flowers. The Dutch Hyacinth, or Aiolos? Carnegie? Top White? White Festival?
In my yard these days, I’m trying to plant mainly native flowers and plants because of the ecological benefits, including to pollinators. Apparently there is a wild hyacinth that’s native to what is now the United States, including Pennsylvania, though I doubt that’s what Rachel was ordering and having delivered by florists. It looks like most hyacinth are “native primarily to the Mediterranean region and tropical Africa.”
Preparing flower beds continues to occupy most of my daylight, non-work hours (hence no blog post last weekend, and a post today when it’s raining).
Last week I spotted a bee in the crocus that have now opened.
My friend Joshua and I also saw several larger bees flying near the ground during our hike yesterday.
Really there were signs of spring everywhere.
Also last week, I was able to get my first vaccine! It’s all feeling like hope and spring to me.
Here’s a less-detailed-than-usual rundown of my workouts from the last two weeks, though what’s not represented are hours and hours of squatting low while digging up turf lawn. At least according to my Garmin, my heart rate while gardening is similar to while walking on flat ground.
2.2 miles, walking
4.9, hiking up Mount Nittany, around the top, and back down
A year ago I discover in my diary we had crocus, scilla, snow drops, arabis all in bloom.
Dorothy Freeman, in a letter to Rachel Carson, April 8, 1958
I got in! I am now officially registered for the Homestead Challenge on the Rachel Carson Trail, which will take place June 19 this year. Just as importantly, I am feeling hopeful that I’ll be vaccinated by then.
In the letter above, Dorothy wrote to Rachel about the flowers that had been “in bloom” a year before according to Dorothy’s diary: crocus, scilla, snow drops, arabis. Elsewhere in the correspondence, Rachel noted that she didn’t keep a dairy like Dorothy’s.
Apart from registering for the Homestead Challenge, I’ve been more focused on flowers than hiking this week. I walked most days, but I took the weekend off from the longer hike. I have found myself wanting to spend all of my non-work daylight hours in my yard, where I’m preparing several new flower beds for planting native wildflowers–and where the little one is happy to play and do his own thing while I dig. Yesterday I dug up a bed to remove an invasive species that I’d unwittingly planted a year or two ago. But I left the crocus. I saw one purple bloom starting to appear.
During a walk earlier in the week, I spotted these pretty white buds in a large strip of otherwise uninteresting grass that ran between the walking path and the road.
With spring on the horizon, I am also finding myself less motivated to spend time writing this blog and even reading Rachel and Dorothy’s letters. It’s not that I’ve lost interest. It’s just that I am so excited to be outside. When I don’t need to be at the screen to work, and especially in the very few daylight hours when I’m not working or playing with the kiddo, the last thing I want right now is more screen time.
Still, here I am, even if writing on the shorter side for now. I’ll keep writing, reading, and walking. It’s a big part of what’s gotten me through the winter, and for me both spring and the vaccine are on their way but not quite here.
3.1 miles, walking while pushing the little one in the jog stroller
2.1 miles, same as above
2.2 miles, same
2.2 miles, same
2.2 miles, walking in the am 5 miles, running in the pm with my friend Tracy and our little ones
And there was much more of that sort of thing–the discovery and sharing of beauty, a newness and freshness in the world–that prevailed in our letters all that spring. I remember without even getting them out to read. It was a quality that belongs to Easter, and to spring. And it also belongs to that sudden discovery that came to each of us, that here, at last, was a kindred spirit. I know you have often felt that magical freshness and wonder could not last…But I don’t think so, darling. It is there, all the time…it is, I know, the very essence of Us.
Rachel Carson, in a letter to Dorothy Freeman, April 3, 1958
It was early April, and Rachel wrote to Dorothy about “the first spring” they knew each other, in 1954. Rachel reflected on one “beautiful letter” in particular, which Dorothy had written to her on Easter morning. For Rachel, the letter was marked by a “quality”–“the discovery and sharing of beauty, a newness and freshness in the world”–that she associated with spring, with meeting Dorothy, and with their ongoing relationship. It was “the very essence of Us.”
It is early March here, but I am longing again for spring. During Friday’s run with the little one, I spotted yellow blooms (winter aconite?)–the first I’ve seen this year.
Saturday during the kiddo’s nap, I inventoried my native plant seeds, ordered some more, and mapped out my new flower beds.
Sunday morning I did some digging and seed scattering in the backyard, and then hiked with friends in the afternoon. It was chilly, but the sun was out, and I felt very happy.
All you wrote yesterday was not only sweet, but found answering echoes in my heart. And if you thought I looked “lovely and precious” and all the rest, it is only what I thought of you. I regretted later that I hadn’t told you how sweet your hat was–so soft of line and color, and so right (with the suit and the lovely pin) for your blue, blue eyes. But most of all, of course, how sweet you were!
Rachel Carson, in a letter to Dorothy Freeman, September 11, 1958
The opening to this 1958 letter stood out to me because, at least from what I’ve read so far, Rachel’s compliments to Dorothy didn’t typically focus so much on the details of her physical appearance. Here Rachel admired Dorothy’s selection of hat and its color coordination with her suit, her pin, and especially her eyes. Rachel characterized her hat, along with her writing and Dorothy herself, as “sweet.”
This week my Sunday hike–which became simply a walk–was anything but “sweet.” I had planned to hike with four friends at Shingletown Gap. They all backed out, quite sensibly, because it was raining with temperatures in the 30s. I decided to head out anyways, but stay out of the woods because of the weather and given that I would be alone.
I left home on foot with Jess and our little one, stopping at a park just over a mile from our house.
We had fun playing. But the adults chilled quickly once we had stopped walking, and then the little one was unhappy to leave. As he and Jess headed home, I set out in the cold rain. Jess took a quick picture before we parted.
Needless to say, the views were not what I usually enjoy during my hikes. I did start walking toward Rothrock, which I could see in the distance in spite of the hazy grey day. But I didn’t get my phone out for another picture, because of the rain. I soon had to accept that my rain jacket–which I wore even though it’s not designed for exercise and fits a bit tight post-baby–is no longer water resistant. After another mile or so, I was just too uncomfortably cold. I looped back home, reaching 3.2 miles.
There I hopped onto the “dreadmill” for another 5.3 miles. I don’t enjoy exercising on a treadmill. One of the reasons I mostly run and hike for exercise is because I like to be outside. But today I was grateful to have a COVID-19 treadmill at home.
What can I say? I’m quite speechless and breathless and overcome with the loveliest perfume. You just can’t believe in what excellent condition your tribute arrived.
Dorothy Freeman, in a letter to Rachel Carson, June 12, 1958
The “tribute” that Rachel Carson sent to Dorothy Freeman consisted of freesias from Rachel’s garden. Rachel sent the fragrant flowers to Dorothy in June, and I read Dorothy’s letter in late February during a winter of record snowfalls where I live. I love winter, and I love snow, but on this Sunday morning, I was ready for spring.
As with most early mornings, I sat in bed with the one-year-old, reading him countless books while he drank his cup of milk, practiced new words and sounds, and smiled at our favorite stories. One of the current favorites is Lois Ehlert’s Planting a Rainbow. As we read, I longed for spring planting, summer blooms, and vases of wildflowers on all of the out-of-his-reach surfaces.
The “wait all winter long” had started to feel long indeed. Though Freesias aren’t part of my garden plans this year, I found myself daydreaming of the new beds I do have planned: thick black plastic to pull up, turf grass that will hopefully be easy to remove, and seeds of native flowers to spread for two new pollinator gardens.
But then these wishing-away-winter daydreams were stopped in their tracks by the day’s hike.
I climbed Musser Gap with my friend Josh, and then we walked along the Mid State Trail before heading back down via Deer Path, Lone Pine Trail, and Mountain Mist Trail. The snow was deep at the top and, even with cleats on, we had to slide down the ice on our butts on part of Deer Path.
More importantly, the sun was shining, the tree branches were encased in ice, and this ice was glinting in the sunlight while starting to melt. At the top of the ridge, in places where already-low branches were weighted down, we had to part them to pass through. The icy branches jangled together and made music. There were no flowers, there was no “perfume.” But I was “quite speechless and breathless.”
Late February also means that registration opens soon for the Rachel Carson Trail events. I am eager to see if this will be the year for me!
3.2 miles, running & pushing the little one in the jog stroller
.7 miles, walking with the fam
4 miles, running & pushing
4.2 miles, running & pushing
2.3 miles, walking & pushing
6.6 miles, hiking with Josh, with an elevation gain of 1,707 feet
Can you understand what it meant to me to have you take me into your heart as you did in that letter? I think perhaps you can if you will think about it and that should erase any possible lingering regret that you did write and did send the letter. To be chosen as the one to whom another feels she can communicate something so intimate, so sacred, so intangible that it is most difficult to express, is a very wonderful experience, dearest, and makes me both deeply glad and humble. It was the first thing that came to my mind when I opened my eyes this morning.
Please don’t insist that the letter go into the Strong Box, darling–at least not immediately.
Rachel Carson, in a letter to Dorothy Freeman, April 19, 1956
Rachel and Dorothy’s “Strong Box” came up this week, though I couldn’t recall their exact phrasing in the moment. The occasion was an event focused on my book, a queer history of nineteenth-century romantic letter writing. At the event, two scholars from rhetorical studies and queer studies, Chuck Morris and Ames Hawkins, responded to and talked with me about the book. Then, during our question-and-answer period with the audience, Tom Nakayama asked an excellent question about the interception and destruction of queer letters by third parties.
Hearing the question, I thought about how certain pages had been cut from the diary of Albert Dodd (1818-1844), in which he recounted romantic letters exchanged with both men and women, although it is not clear whether he or someone else did the cutting. I thought of “the burning of letters” within the longer history of sexuality. I thought, too, of how Rachel and Dorothy left evidence of how they had destroyed some of their own letters to each other.
Rachel and Dorothy developed the term “Strong Box” to indicate to each other when they wanted a specific letter to be destroyed. According to Martha Freeman, Dorothy told her “that she and Rachel had discussed destroying the letters, and that they had each destroyed some.” “The correspondence also contains a few references to the possibility of destroying or burning letters wholesale,” Freeman wrote, and there was one time when the women “together burned packets of Dorthy’s letters in Rachel’s fireplace.” Fortunately, around 750 of the letters were saved. Still, Rachel and Dorothy reserved “Strong Box” as “a term…used to single out a letter for immediate destruction.”
When Rachel pleads with Dorothy in the above letter, “Please don’t insist that the letter go into the Strong Box, darling,” she is responding to Dorothy’s April 15 postscript, “This is for the Strong Box.” Rachel tried to convince Dorothy not to “regret” writing and sending the letter. To help Dorothy understand how special it was to Rachel, to have been taken “into [Dorothy’s] heart…in that letter.” How “chosen” Rachel felt, because Dorothy had “communicate[d] something so intimate, so sacred, so intangible.”
In addition to thinking about the “Strong Box” this week, I also took a rare mid-week hike. Tuesday was a “wellness day” at Penn State, a day without instruction for students and faculty who won’t get a spring break this year. So instead of teaching my late-afternoon class, I walked about 8 miles. All of these pictures are from that walk. Mostly I hiked on the Musser Gap Greenway and Musser Gap, though I met up with my spouse and child to walk the last mile or so home on sidewalks.
This weekend, I hiked almost 9 miles with my friend Josh at Spring Creek Canyon. I also updated my Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy account and made a donation to earn some “karma” and hopefully increase my chances of getting in. Registration opens on March 1, and I am eager to find out if I’ll be able to get a spot for this year’s event.
Here’s the rundown for the week as a whole:
3.3 miles, running with the kiddo in the jog stroller
8.1 miles, mostly hiking in the snow on the Musser Gap Greenway & Musser Gap
1.8 miles, walking and pushing the stroller
2.1 miles, walking
8.9 miles, hiking on Spring Creek Canyon trail with Josh
I’m hoping that we might congenially discuss what I trust will be our shared mission to make this world better for all beings–for every living thing. Our singing birds. Our fight for civil rights. I know that you may have had your fill of things political. I’m asking not that you commit to marches or more congressional hearings but, rather, to brainstorm with me on how to expand this movement and enlarge the one that I believe you’ve set fire to.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in an imagined letter to Rachel Carson, January 6, 1964
In a blog post a couple weeks ago, on MLK Day, I asked about “potential connections between King and Carson as contemporaries.” Turns out, Lanham has already imagined these connections. And–this is almost too good to be true–he’s done so partly through epistolary form. Lanham’s essay, “A Convergent Imagining,” begins with King’s letter to Carson above, followed by her reply. Explaining this imagined epistolary exchange, Lanham writes, “In this age of siloing, dismantling by discrimination, and imagined conspiracies disrupting truth, I’m imagining a fiction that could have been true. I’m imagining a meeting of Black and White that never happened. I’m imagining an exchange of mutual respect and a potential for traversing common ground that didn’t occur.”
Lanham’s imagined coming together is not simply about King and Carson as individuals, of course. Rather, he envisions “a fiction that could have been true”: a convergence of social movements, both civil rights and environmental, in service of social justice as “common ground.” What if this convergence had happened in the 1960s, he asks.
Dr. King and Ms. Carson never met. But what if they had? Let your hearts and minds flow to convergence; to mixed flocks of shorebirds, sandpipers, and plovers, urgently purposeful, moving in one grand vector toward some better place. Then imagine the same for humanity—difference-makers of variable plumage coming together under a sky of common cause with urgent tailwinds of change moving us forward. What if?
J. Drew Lanham
Lanham’s essay is beautiful, and I encourage reading (or listening to) it in its entirety. Obviously I love that, informed by his expertise and experience, he’s imagined some of the connections I wondered about. I also appreciate learning about Lanham’s imagined letters right now because, in my own work, I’ve been revisiting some of my prior and new writing about imagination and letters. Just the other day, in a reading group about “archival imaginaries,” I enjoyed a rich conversation with colleagues about the possibilities and limitations of such imagination–of what Jacqueline Jones Royster and Saidiya Hartman have variously theorized as “critical imagination” and “critical fabulation.”
So many other “what ifs” could be offered here, especially about Carson and Freeman’s letters. But a big one on my mind throughout this week, when I thought about the Rachel Carson Trail, was, what if the Homestead Challenge gets cancelled this year? Or, thinking more positively, what if I have the opportunity to get a COVID-19 vaccine before then? These are the “what ifs” of worry and excitement, rather than imagination. But they were with me this week. Then, just this morning, my friend Lib let me know that information about this year’s registration has now been posted. So now I wait for my turn to get vaccinated while continuing to train.
Today I walked almost 6 miles in the snow with Josh, the friend who shared Lanham’s essay with me. The trails are still icy in Central PA, so we again stuck to the flat ground in the Patton Woods Nature Recreation Area.
rest day, with lots of snow shoveling
rest day, with more shoveling
3 miles, running with the little one in the jog stroller
2 miles, walking with the family
3.5 miles, 3 running & .5 waking, on the treadmill 1 mile, walking with the family
Darling, isn’t that one of the wonderful things we have found in each other? Somehow the sharing of beautiful and lovely things is so much more satisfying with you than it has ever been for me with anyone else. My life has been so much richer for having you, dearest.
Rachel Carson, in a letter to Dorothy Freeman, June 12, 1955
Rachel exclaimed about the satisfaction of “sharing…beautiful and lovely things” with Dorothy in a letter that anticipated seeing her “in only a little interval.” The women looked forward to time together during their annual summers on Southport Island in Maine. Rachel anticipated, “there will be many beautiful and happy hours, dearest, sharing the loveliness of that spot, enjoying its beauty with you as I could with no one else.”
I was thinking of these lines while walking outside today, enjoying the falling snow. I didn’t go on my usual Sunday hike because of the weather. On the untreated trails, there’s been a lot of ice this week. Friday I did attempt a hike up Mount Nittany with my friend Josh. But it was so icy that, even with our cleats on, I thought it best to turn back. Instead we walked 4.6 miles in the Patton Woods Nature Recreation Area, chatting in part about our current writing projects. Unfortunately I forgot to take a picture.
As for today, the snow started falling early. Up to a foot is forecasted by tomorrow. More importantly, in terms of hiking, there’s now a layer of snow over the existing ice on the trails. So this morning I walked close to home, on snowy sidewalks that I know were cleared of ice earlier in the week. I walked with my spouse, Jess, and our little one. In this picture Rothrock is behind us in the distance, though visibility was especially low.
Their company is why I thought about the above passage in Rachel’s letter to Dorothy. As much as I like to be outside in the snow, I especially enjoy it with Jess and our child. It is beautiful, it is lovely, and it’s more beautiful and lovely with them “than it has ever been for me with anyone else.” Snowy or not, my life is “so much richer” with them every day.
As usual, here’s my training log for this week. The daily yoga practice has fallen off now that Jess and I are busy with our new semesters, but we will continue Yoga with Adrienne’s Breath journey at our own pace.
2.4 miles, walked close to home, pushing the little one in the jog stroller