By Barbara Ruben
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 26, 2007
From high in the trees, the chickadees sing their chick-a-dee-dee-dee, while the red-bellied woodpeckers trill a raspy kwirr. In Rachel Carson's old neighborhood, Quaint Acres in Silver Spring, spring is anything but silent.
Carson lived in a custom-built brick rambler in the neighborhood from 1957 to 1964, when she died of breast cancer at age 56. That's where she wrote "Silent Spring," a carefully researched call to ban pesticides such as DDT that were killing birds and wildlife along with insects. She was born 100 years ago tomorrow.
Carson had several picture windows built into the house to help bring the outdoors in. In addition, she placed a mirror over the kitchen sink, which faces a wall, so she could watch the birds outside even while washing the dishes.
With its 156 ramblers and large Cape Cods built in the early to mid-1950s, Quaint Acres, just north of the intersection of New Hampshire Avenue and Route 29, looks much the same as it did in Carson's day. Each house sits on at least an acre of land shaded by tulip poplars, walnuts and white oaks.
In addition to the 50-year-old houses, two original houses remain. One, a white farmhouse, dates to 1853. Originally owned by a family named Quaintance, it's the source of Quaint Acres' name.
Carson wasn't the only well-known resident of Quaint Acres. Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman elected to both houses of Congress, moved there in 1952, renting the lower level of one of the houses for the next 19 years. Local public radio and television host Robert Aubry Davis grew up in the neighborhood.
"Quaint Acres is a little, obscure place no one knows about. It's like the 1950s, going back in time," said Diana Post, who with her husband owns Carson's old house. Post is president of the Rachel Carson Council, which has offices in two rooms of the house, including the study where Carson wrote. She rents the rest of the house.
"I consider this my vacation house," said Post, who lives in the more densely developed Silver Spring neighborhood of North Woodside but spends much of her days at the Quaint Acres house, working with the council and gardening, pesticide-free of course. The council works to raise awareness of pesticide dangers and alternatives to their use.
Others have also been drawn to the neighborhood for its large, verdant lots. "I just wanted a little bit of space and quiet," said Samuel Seiler, who bought the house next to Carson's 40 years ago. He remembers his children catching tadpoles in ponds nearby and watches a wide variety of birds from his windows, along with foxes and raccoons.
"We had a badminton net, and an oriole swooped into it, trying to pull all the strings out for its nest," he said. Margarette Jennings, who enjoys just about all the wildlife, except deer that munch her azaleas and rhododendron, moved to Quaint Acres 13 years ago from farther south in Silver Spring.
There, "you'd go out on your back porch and you'd be staring right at your neighbor in their back porch," she said. "My gosh, you might as well be in a townhouse."
In Quaint Acres, her back yard has a stream and a pond populated by wood ducks and mallards. "It's like living in a park," she said. "It's just filled with wonderful wildlife."
To preserve the country feel, Jennings's neighbors voted against having streetlights installed on Apple Grove Road, one of Quaint Acres' main streets, a few years ago. Just last year, they agreed to have the county come in to provide trash service, a move that has meant fewer trucks rumbling through Quaint Acres because just one company comes to pick up garbage.
Every summer, the community throws a picnic for all the residents, complete with moon bounces, balloons and volleyball.
But just outside Quaint Acres' bucolic confines, four lanes of traffic whiz down New Hampshire Avenue in a nearly never-ending stream. Three years ago, after requests from residents, a traffic light was placed at the intersection of New Hampshire and Milestone Drive, the entrance to the community. The light operates by motion detection, but only during the morning rush hour.
"If you go out after 9, you're on your own," Seiler said, shaking his head.
In addition, the light is different from traditional traffic signals. For those coming out of Quaint Acres, it has two modes: one red light or two red lights. When the double red light appears, it means that traffic will be stopping on New Hampshire and drivers can turn right. But the double red lights come on about 10 seconds before the traffic actually stops on the highway, making it still a confusing and dangerous intersection, according to residents, one of whom recently wrote to The Post's Dr. Gridlock column to complain.
"People have to drive to the library directly across the street because they're afraid to walk across New Hampshire," Jennings said of the White Oak Library, just outside Quaint Acres.
But a few hundred yards from New Hampshire, the traffic is drowned out by cardinals and sparrows and the fairly rare Northern Parula warbler's buzzy, trilling zeeeeee-up.
"It's a good year for birds," Seiler said.