Forlorn Memo, Last Vestige of Rachel Carson's Legacy, Completes a 30-year Odyssey




By David Klinger

Summer 2003



     Thank goodness it was Claire Banakos who was told to dump the trash that afternoon back in 1970.

That can of rubbish, more than 30 years later, has proven crucial to a federal agency’s efforts to restore its history and marks one more highlight in the storied career of a Michigan woman now entering her sixth decade of work on behalf of wildlife.    

In 1970, Banakos was a program analyst in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s refuge division and a brand-new employee in Washington’s cavernous Main Interior Department Building—and one of the few professional women at agency headquarters—when she was given the task of disposing of old correspondence and materials her superiors had culled from division files. Banakos, 76 and now retired from the agency and living in Bowie, Maryland, remembers her bosses instructing her, “Get rid of all that old junk.  We don’t want it.”

Yet, even as a greenhorn employee, Banakos recognized the value in what she was being asked to toss.  Intermingled in the tissue-thin copies of office memoranda, correspondence, and interoffice notes by obscure and long-forgotten employees were letters composed and signed by Rachel Carson, and reams of the famed fishery biologist’s popular publications written for the agency.

Carson, deceased by that time for more than six years, had resigned from the agency in 1952 to pursue a career as a full-time independent writer.  Already an established author while a Fish and Wildlife Service employee, Carson went on to compose numerous magazine articles and several books, culminating in 1962 with the publication of Silent Spring, the bestseller that chronicled the pervasive effects of DDT on birds and other wildlife.  She died about two years after Silent Spring’s debut.  Some of Carson’s office files remained behind, however, and nearly 20 years after her resignation from the agency, those papers were regarded as simply more outdated agency detritus to be relegated to the waste bin.

Agency housecleaners hadn’t reckoned on Claire Banakos, however. Banakos instinctively recognized the importance of that day’s trash and saved a few choice morsels for posterity. 

One, a March 8, 1951, memorandum from Carson to the Chief of Habitat Management in the Fish and Wildlife Service, recounts the progress on a manuscript outline about trumpeter swans that the editor was working on with a cryptically-referenced “Miss Beard.”

“This sounds good,” wrote Carson of the draft, in which “Miss Beard” was attempting to bridge the gap between scientific language and understandable terminology for the lay reader.  

“Even in the outline, there are encouraging signs that Miss Beard will be able to translate the language of the reports into readable English,” Carson noted.  “I feel that an important aim in writing it is to hold the interest of people who are not management specialists—the people whose support of our program is very important.”  The memorandum is typed on blue government stationery and is signed in ink in Carson’s careful, finely-crafted penmanship.  In one spot, she even inks in one typographical correction in the memo by hand.

This prized Carson memo remained on Banakos’ wall at her Maryland home for more than 30 years.  Recently, she gave it to me, agency staff writer David Klinger, whom she supervised as a summer intern in 1977 at the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency that employed her after her stint with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

This past February, I returned the memo to the Fish and Wildlife Service archives at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, where the original will be preserved and copies used in displays in the center’s “Rachel Carson Lodge.”  A duplicate will also be given to the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Maine.

The memo—the sort of bureaucratic missive agencies generate by the thousands each day and requiring perhaps no more than ten minutes to compose in 1951—has now become the only known piece of original correspondence in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s possession signed by Rachel Carson, its venerated patron saint.

And the “Miss Beard” of the memo?  She’s Elizabeth Browne Beard Losey of Germfask, Michigan.  Losey was first hired as a waterfowl research biologist in 1947 by Fish and Wildlife Service luminary J. Clark Salyer to work at Seney National Wildlife Refuge as the agency’s first female field research biologist.  

Though her agency employment only lasted three years, Losey went on to work an additional three years at Seney Refuge under a University of Michigan grant and then to a successful career as a highly-regarded ornithologist, author, and researcher of the fur trade.  Her works include a 750-page history of the fur trade, Let Them Be Remembered, and a recently published history of Seney Refuge.  Now, at age 90, Losey still volunteers three days a week at Seney assisting in waterfowl surveys, writing a paper on the history of sharp-tailed grouse in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and organizing her fur trade pictures for a possible photo essay to complement her earlier text.

“Mrs. Losey is a rare creature in her own right,” writes former Fish and Wildlife Service Director Lynn Greenwalt.  “She was hired by the revered visionary responsible for creating the early National Wildlife Refuge System—J. Clark Salyer—in the early days of his long tenure.  Elizabeth Losey has produced a small volume of information about Seney that is a treasure.”

In 1951, Losey undertook an assignment in Ann Arbor, Michigan to rework some classic ornithological texts by Red Rock Lakes refuge manager and famed swan researcher Winston Banko into laymen’s language to help explain the agency’s work in early flyway management.  It was one of Losey’s early manuscripts on trumpeter swans that rose to Rachel Carson’s attention and prompted her to conclude about the then-Miss Beard’s writing, “I think she has done an excellent job of organizing the material for an effective story.”  The now-treasured memo was Carson’s candid review of Losey’s efforts.

In March, 2003, Losey attended the annual gathering of Fish and Wildlife Service retirees in Sebastian, Florida, as part of the 100th anniversary celebration of the creation of Pelican Island as the Nation’s first national wildlife refuge.  President Theodore Roosevelt founded America’s refuge system in 1903, beginning with tiny Pelican Island, and 100 years later refuges are marking that centennial with events across the country, including public celebrations.

At this spring’s Florida kick-off to the celebration, Losey was presented with a high-quality reproduction of the elusive memo, where, for the first time, she got to read Rachel Carson’s private, inter-office commentary on her work—almost 52 years to the day from when the famed author originally offered her assessment of the budding author’s words.  “I nearly dropped to the floor,” says Losey.

Ironically, Losey had once met Rachel Carson in Washington, D.C., at a stage in her life when she was deciding whether to pursue conservation writing, or to stick with a career in field biology and research.  Though Carson encouraged the young science writer, the ducks were what captivated Elizabeth Losey’s heart.

“I fell in love with waterfowl,” says Losey.  “I went back to the natural resources school at the University of Michigan, and Clark Salyer stuck his neck out when he offered me that job at Seney.  I was a woman with a bunch of guys, but they treated me like an equal, and I think I handled it very well.”

Evidently editor Rachel Carson agreed with Elizabeth Losey’s self-assessment, seeing something in the young woman’s writing and in her potential.  This was borne out by a string of career accomplishments by Losey, and it all came full-circle through the foresight of Claire Banakos and an obscure memo that, for three decades, she guarded for posterity.


David Klinger is senior writer-editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  Previously, he was public affairs director for the Service’s six-state Pacific region, headquartered in Portland, Oregon.  When not writing, he serves as the interim president for the “Friends of Hog Island,” a support group for the Maine Audubon Society’s “Audubon Camp in Maine”—the country’s oldest continually operating environmental summer camp, located in Muscongus Bay, Maine.