by Brian Payton • November 13, 2002
Few books have altered the course of historySilent Spring was one of them. The tidal wave of protest that followed its publication in 1962 forced the banning of the pesticide DDT and resulted in revolutionary changes in public perception about our air, land, and water. It helped launch the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson's passionate plea for restraint, common sense, and stewardship resulted in fundamental changes not only in North America, but also throughout the world. So profound was the impact of her book that it has been compared with Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and On the Origin of Species, by Charles Darwin. Time magazine recently chose Rachel Carson as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century.
Rachel Carson was born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvaniaa long way from the coast. "Amongst my earliest memories," she wrote in an autobiographical sketch, "are two things. A feeling of absolute fascination for every thing related to the ocean, and a determination that I would someday be a writer."
Carson chose English as her major at Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatam College), and she submitted poetry to magazines, although none was published. In her junior year, she switched her major to zoology. Time would reveal that Carson's literary and scientific aspirations would serve a common sense.
After graduating cum laude from John's Hopkins with a masters's degree in 1932, Carson taught zoology at the University of Maryland while she continued her studies in the summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. It was there she first sawand fell in love withthe sea. Three years later, she began writing science radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. This soon led to a full-time job as an aquatic biologist. Carson was only the second woman hired by the bureau for a nonsecretarial position.
To supplement her income, Carson wrote newspaper articles on marine zoology. She developed a strong lyrical prose, and an editor urged her to submit her work to The Atlantic Monthly, which published her article, "Undersea" in 1937. Her first piece in a national magazine, "Undersea" was to set the theme and tone for her later work and was the genesis of her first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941). Carson went on to publish two more books about the sea, The Sea Around Us, which won the 1952 National Book Award for nonfiction, and The Edge of the Sea (1955). Her work was widely praised for its accessibility, beauty of language and scientific accuracy.
In 1952, Rachel Carson was finally able to leave her job to concentrate full-time on her writing. The success of her books brought a new financial independence and allowed her to fulfill her long-held dream of building a cottage on the coast of Maine. She purchased one-and-a half acres on Southport Island at the tip of Boothbay peninsula and built a cottage with windows facing the sea. It was a perspective she found inspiring, because, as she recorded in her personal notes: "Even in the vast and mysterious reaches of the sea we are brought back to the fundamental truth that nothing lives to itself."
by Brian Payton
Rachel Carson's work celebrated the wonder and beauty of the natural world. Informing all of her work was the idea that, although human beings are part nature, we are distinguished by our power to alter itin some cases irreversibly. This was becoming abundantly clear to her in the alarming increase in the use of pesticides following the end of World War II. There were reports of livestock found dead in their fields. There was well-documented and widespread damage to wildlife; poisoned birds were literally falling from the sky. "By acquiescing in an act that can cause such suffering to a living creature," Carson wrote in Silent Spring, "who among us is not diminished as a human being?"
She explained her plans in a letter to a friend. "The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became. I realized that there was material for a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more important."
Carson shifted her work focus from opening readers' eyes to the wonders of the natural world to warning them about the long-term effects of poisoning it. Silent Spring challenged the practices and views of the agricultural industry and government. She asserted that the indiscriminant use of DDT was poisoning not just "target" species but the environment itself, and called for an end to the misuse of this and other powerful toxins.
In Silent Spring, Carson succeeded in building a strong scientific case for her thesis while underscoring her belief in the "interconnectedness of life" found in her three previous books about the sea. Her skill as a writer, coupled with her scientific knowledge, allowed her to take a potentially daunting subject like chlorinated hydrocarbons and turn it into a work of literature: "The new environmental health problems are multiplecreated by radiation in all its forms, born of the never-ending stream of chemicals of which pesticides are a part, chemicals now pervading the work in which we live, acting upon use directly and indirectly, separately and collectively. Their presence casts a shadow that is no less ominous because it is formless and obscure, no less frightening because it is simply impossible to predict the effects of lifetime exposure to chemical and physical agents that are not part of the biological experience of man."
She wrote with passion and employed military metaphors to illustrate that "we are engaged in a war against nature that will inevitably destroy us as well as our supposed enemies."
In a chapter titled "Nature Fights Back," Carson explained that killing off one "targeted" insect leaves a hole in the environment. The hole is quickly filledoften with more troublesome speciesor the target species simply adapts, becomes resistant to the chemicals, and returns stronger than before. This initiates a cycle of requiring more and more potent toxins to kill the target species in a kind of unnatural selection, courtesy of the Chemical Age.
Carson claimed that at the heart of our motivation to introduce poisons into the environment lies a deeply held and outdated philosophyone that could ultimately lead to our undoing: "The 'control of nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man."
Perhaps even more than her opposition to the reckless use of pesticides, it was this assertionwhich called into question fundamental beliefsthat ultimately got her into so much trouble.
by Brian Payton
Carson underwent tremendous personal and creative turmoil as she wrote Silent Spring. She was an intensely private person who felt despair at the storm of criticism she knew would come her way. During this time, when her work was most demanding, so, too, were the needs of her family. She lived with and cared for her aging mother, who needed almost constant attention. And Carson financially and emotionally supported her niece, Majorie Williams, who was stricken with diabetes and arthritisas well as Majorie's young son, Roger, whom she adopted after Majorie's death. As the weight of familial burdens increased, Carson's own physical health began to deteriorate. She was literally dying of breast cancer as she wrote her groundbreaking book.
Although she never married, Carson enjoyed strong friendships and the peace she found in her cabin on the coast of Maine. She drew upon a reserve of calm assurance that she was indeed doing what had to be done, and that she was fulfilling her destiny as a writer.
When the first installment of Silent Spring appeared in The New Yorker in June 1962, it caused an immediate sensation. It was also met with a savage and relentless attack by the pesticides industry.
Rachel Carson was discounted as a "hysterical woman," and there were various attempts to discredit both her and her findings. Carson's meticulous research, however, left her detractors little room to maneuver. Pesticide producers tried to intimidate Carson's publisher into suppressing the book before publication. Agricultural and trade journals attacked Silent Spring before it hit the shelves. Chemical companies attempted to discredit Carson and her findings, and threatened to pull ads from magazines and newspapers that gave Silent Spring favorable reviews.
This multifront assault on Rachel Carson and her work, ironically, had the opposite of its intended effect. The biased, distorted attacks helped bring more attention to Silent Spring, attracting a large global audience. Soon after it was published, grassroots environmental organizations were formed to watch government and industry. Across the country, people began to educate themselves about environmental issues and pressure government and industry to stop poisoning the environment.
President John F. Kennedy discussed the book at a press conference and appointed a special panel to examine its conclusions. The panel's report was an indictment of corporate and bureaucratic indifference and a validation of Carson's findings. It criticized government pest-control programs, ordered government agencies to re-evaluate how they use pesticides, and required them to inform the public about their actions. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, in large part due to environmental consciousness raised by Silent Spring.
Rachel Carson's goal, to alert the public and "to build a fire under the Government," was an astounding success.