The Season of Rachel Carson

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” -Rachel Carson

Miss Carson has been talking to me in subtle ways, lately. So I thought maybe it was important to write about her. I keep running into her words on the internet, a reference here or there. A little investigation reveals that this year would have been her 100th birthday, so maybe that’s why she’s been talking to me.

Who is Rachel Carson? I think probably Robin knows, and Ben will know, too. Rachel Carson was a trained marine biologist, who studied at Woods Hole laboratory and received her MA in zoology at John Hopkins University. She was a researcher and a naturalist, who became editor-in-chief of publications for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Perhaps most importantly, she was an author. Her fierce love of the natural world surfaced in several volumes, one of which, ‘Silent Spring’, spurred an environmental movement that lead to an eventual ban on the use of DDT.

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I was first introduced to Carson, not through her famous work, Silent Spring or her early books about the ocean, but through a book my father gave me in my teens called ‘The Sense of Wonder’. The Nature Company created a special edition of this last book of Carson’s prose paired with incredibly detailed photography of nature by William Neil.

The Sense of Wonder was published posthumously. Rachel Carson succumbed to breast cancer after a long fight at the age of 56. The book is based on an article written for ‘Women’s Home Companion’ about how to introduce your child to the wonders of nature. The article was a token of love to her grandnephew Roger, whom Carson adopted at the age of five when his mother passed away. Here is one of my favorite passages.

“One summer night, out on a flat headland all but surrounded by the waters of the bay, the horizons were remote and distant rims on the edge of space. Millions of stars blazed in darkness, and on the far shore a few lights burned in cottages; otherwise, there was no reminder of human life.

My companion and I were alone with the stars; the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon.

It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead.

And because they could see it almost any night, perhaps they never will.”

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The details that surround Carson’s seminal work, Silent Spring, are a story in themselves. Carson’s first love was marine biology, and all her books previously had centered around the sea. Silent Spring was a call of conscience for Carson. The ill effects of pesticides made from chlorinated hydrocarbons, such as DDT had come before her attention on several occasions; so after receiving a letter from one Olga Huckins in 1958, Carson began to collect and catalogue scientific evidence on the biological effects of DDT. There was some difficulty in having the findings published because editors feared corporate backlash. It was the New Yorker that presented Carson’s book in a condensed, three part series.

The reaction was immense and immediate. Rachel Carson was both supported and attacked by those on either side of the issue. The chemical industry attacked her character, and her mental stability. They called her a communist, an hysterical woman, and a nature nut. According to wikipedia, American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens and former Cyanamid chemist Thomas Jukes were among the most aggressive critics. According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.”

This line of argument sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it? I believe the same basic tenets are aired now to invalidate concerns about global warming in the current political climate.

Rachel Carson suffered through a long bout of poor health during the writing and publishing work of Silent Spring, and though it would have been easier and possibly advisable to go into refuge from public attention, Carson chose instead to speak. She appeared at congressional hearings, televised segments of CBS reports, in front of schools and special organizations.

She spoke with conviction and dignity, and she eventually conferred with President Kennedy and his Science Advisory Committee. The committee’s report on pesticide use and control confirmed the findings in Silent Spring. A two year investigation into pesticide use and control commenced, and DDT became banned from use in the United States, and eventually throughout the world.

Silent Spring is often credited with having started the momentum of the environmental movement. It was a watershed work. But let’s turn back to the author for a moment more.

Rachel Carson lived long enough to see her actions begin to weild the changes they would eventually create. Many of her contributions were not fully acknowledged until after she passed away. In 1980 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I feel that Rachel Carson did what she did out of a fierce love of nature and life. There is a theme that weaves her beginning, to her life’s work, to her end. Rachel Carson was born in the spring: May 27, 1907. She was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania. She worked and wrote about the sea but she is remembered best for writing ‘Silent Spring’. In the spring of 1964, on April 14th, Rachel Carson passed away. She passed away in the town of Silver Spring, Maryland.

Spring is the season of new life; in that spirit of life, Rachel Carson will be remembered.

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34 thoughts on “The Season of Rachel Carson

  1. A heartfelt article and well composed. I do have to point out though that there is another, tragic side to the story. The DDT ban is another example of how public outcry can put an end to scientific debate. There is still no hard evidence that connects DDT to any kind of cancer, but millions of people have died, primarily in third world countries, from malaria and west nile, because of mosquitos that can’t be suppressed by DDT. MILLIONS. Millions of children. Millions of parents. Millions of people who didn’t need to die.

    Even if DDT did increase cancer risk, how many people would have actually contracted and died from cancer? Isn’t DDT the lesser of two evils?

    I won’t deny she had good intentions, but there is certainly blood on her hands.

  2. It sounds like you may have read a website called, “The Lies of Rachel Carson’. DDT is indeed linked to cancer, particularly breast cancer in a number of scientific studies. The cancer-causing effects are just one of the problems with this type of chemical pesticide. It’s ecologically devastating; that’s why her work on the subject began.

    I don’t know what you know about predator/prey ratios, but pesticides actually increase the number of pests in the long run, by destroying the predators and the prey simultaneously. DDT killed predators in the chain all the way up to birds. Less directly, human beings. Mosquitos reproduce much more rapidly than the predators who would feed on them. Nature is built to bounce back, and when a population survives major losses, then most creatures reproduce at an even greater rate than before.

    So pesticides would not have wiped out mosquitos. It is greatly due to pesticides that mosquitos became as numerous as they are today.

  3. Actually, I’ve never seen that website. I have been reading National Geographic.

    http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0707/feature1/text3.html

    Exceptions were made for malaria control, but DDT became nearly impossible to procure. “The ban on DDT,” says Gwadz of the National Institutes of Health, “may have killed 20 million children.”

    DDT was overused, no denying that. But rather than finding a way to moderate and control it’s use, it was taken to the other extreme. Nobody ever seems to be able to understand that we don’t have to take an all or nothing approach to things.

    Human suffering is a big issue for me. It is entirely too easy for me to imagine holding my two year old as she dies in a Malarial Coma. There is a clear cause and effect here. DDT banned – Malaria runs rampant – people die.

    There are two sides to every story. One man’s hero is often another’s villain. This is a case where an extreme approach did great harm. I loathe extremes. I’ve seen them backfire too many times. It’s one of the reasons that I hate the fact that we are locked in a two party system of government. But that’s another rant.

  4. But, unfortunately, the clear cause and effect are not so clear. It’s nice to be able to finger one person and her work and say, “She’s the reason this happened’, but why isn’t malaria a widespread crisis here in the United States, where DDT has been banned the longest? Uh huh… suddenly there’s other causes, such as the apathy that wealthier countries show poor countries, the lack of health care available to much of the human population.

    And, as I said before, DDT wasn’t ever going to wipe out mosquitos. Quite the opposite. So despite the anger and frustration many people have felt in the face of widespread epidemics, you can’t finger someone who strove to protect the environment as a scape-goat. At least not with any level of accuracy. Rachel Carson’s words may have protected habitats that are even now endangered, including birds who are the natural predators of mosquitos. The malaria outbreak was not her fault any more than civil rights champions are responsible for the murderous acts of people who happen to be minority citizens, and who may have benefited from laws implemented by humanitarian efforts.

  5. I hadn’t heard of Rachel Carson and can’t weigh in on the facts of the issue. However, as Slothboy pointed out, it does seem quite clear that her intentions were good. It doesn’t appear that she was really foolish in examining evidence and so I feel that the phrase ‘blood on her hands’ is a bit strong.

    I do completely agree with Slothboy’s statement about the lesser of two evils. The example that springs to my mind is really the lesser of three evils: preservatives in foods, starvation, or rotten food.

    Reading the article and subsequent discussion made me think about one of my own personal scientific heroes is Marie Curie. Those who are familiar with me know that sometimes the connections that I make are a little tenuous. This one is a little tenuous. Anyway, she died of radiation related problems. In the early days when radiation was first discovered, a fair number of people thought that it was good for people. My guess is the people who thought that at that time were a bit crazy. Nowadays, there are people who think crystals have healing power. Some of the more expensive healing crystals have enough uranium in them to make them genuinely dangerous. Even if Rachel Carson was incorrect, she wasn’t incorrect in that way.

  6. I had to add to this because I looked up the history of Malaria in the United States and, though we supposedly ‘eradicated’ malaria here, with pesticides in the 50’s, what’s actually weird about that is that Malaria receded from the continent before pesticides were created, and only survived in a few areas of the south by the time human beings could chemically spray.

    ….Natural causes contained malaria, causes that we don’t know the root of now, because human beings sprayed synthetic pesticides and took the credit for work nature had already all but accomplished.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we now knew the reason that Malaria receded from the central United States?

  7. okay amuirin, so you can also compose “real” english in a super way too, bravo.

    silver spring and more so JHU were some old stomping grounds of mine. i watched JHU crush lacrosse teams year after year after year, good music fetivals on campus too.

    thanks for sharing and putting all of that together, nature is simply the best. actually i do my part in keeping it going with the Maryland DNR, and volunteer work, through my passion in fishing around here.

    thanks for the reminders, you are obviously doing your part too.

  8. It is a many fold issue. I’m sure malaria receded in the US due to better health care. Also, central US is much drier and less swamp-laden than the south. Also there is clearly no malaria epidemic in the united states today, despite the lack of DDT so it is probably because we have better health techniques and education in general. All first world nations are much less prone to widespread illness.

    Third world nations are at risk due to the costs associated with making health care widely available. They need cheap, mass solutions. Even if there was a vaccine for malaria, getting it distributed is a big problem, costs aside. You could air drop enough for the entire population and they probably still wouldn’t get it in most cases due to lack of infrastructure.

    A good example is Rotary International and their campaign to eliminate Polio worldwide. The vaccine is widely available, inexpensive and can be administered orally. Rotary International has the funding, contacts, and volunteer support it needs to vaccinate every child in the world. They will succeed in eradicating the illness in 2009 or 2010. They have been working on it since 1979. It will have taken 30 years by the time they are done because of the limitations of distribution to third world nations. Not just getting it there, but getting it in the kids’ mouths.
    http://www.rotary.org/foundation/polioplus/information/history.html

    This is a success story but the disease itself had a simple solution. Malaria is a horrifying creature that has no silver bullet. DDT was a piece of the solution that may not have worked forever, but it was working. You could fly over the ugliest crapholes in the world and knock back the bulk of the issue. I don’t think mosquitoes needed to be made extinct, but the number of cases of malaria exposure could have been dramatically reduced. Again, we went overboard. Bongo’s radiation thing is an excellent example. We considered using atomic bombs to build highways at one point because there was a distinct lack of understanding of the nature of radiation. DDT should have been handled more carefully from the get go and maybe there wouldn’t have been such a backlash.

    I had actually never heard of Rachel before today so this isn’t some agenda I have against her. You presented her as the voice that got DDT banned so that is where I went with my presentation of the opposing side. I have been following the Malaria issue for some time but considered it a general push of environmentalism and the Kennedys.

    Like I said, it isn’t the regulation of the use of DDT that is frustrating. It was the elimination of it from the table completely that is insane to me. If we could even just put it in topical bug repellent it could save lives.

    I have the benefit of hindsight though. From my perspective the correlations are too significant to be coincidental. Unfortunately, there is no parallel universe to prove what would have happened had we continued to use DDT. Maybe one of those 20 million kids would have come up with a better solution.

  9. Slothboy- Oh, I know. I don’t think you’re the voice of anti-Rachelness or anything, I’m glad we’re having a debate. I just think some of the views that have been presented of the evils of the malaria epidemic in connection with the eradication of DDT have been massively oversimplified, by angry, upset people coping with the heart of darkness, so to speak.

    You stumbled upon a key issue which is climate. You’ll notice everytime you go camping that the mosquito population is alive and well, but the disease has receded. The parasite requires specific climatic conditions to survive and spread. This is a big part of the reason why you wouldn’t see the results in Africa and sub-tropical nations that you would in the U.S. For one, they drained wetland areas here to get rid of mosquitos. That was pretty awful to the environment, but more relevant to the malaria issue, you can’t drain Africa.

    2nd, what they found in regions of Africa and India was that as soon as massive quantities of DDT were not being used, the disease didn’t just come back, it came back much more powerfully than before. And actually, DDT was allowed for use as a guard against malaria even after it was banned for agricultural purposes in many 2nd and 3rd world countries. What this shows is that the pesticide did not eradicate the carriers, even with the implementation of massive overuse. The carriers continued to exist in dense, impenetrable areas, and simply waited to reassert the disease ten-fold, which was pretty much expected based on how insect populations react to chemical pesticides.

    Nature’s adaptive. Fortunately, there wasn’t a strain of mosquito that became absolutely resistant to DDT, that would have been a super-carrier, and it’s very likely that stopping the widespread use of DDT prevented a much tougher, more dangerous adaptation of the parasite to develop.

  10. That’s one of my favorite passages as well.

    I’ll finish reading now. Just wanted to note while I could remember what I was going to say. Being in the midst of moving has made me a scatter brain.

  11. This deserves a call-out:

    DDT killed bald eagles because of its persistence in the environment. ”Silent Spring” is now killing African children because of its persistence in the public mind. Public opinion is so firm on DDT that even officials who know it can be employed safely dare not recommend its use. ”The significant issue is whether or not it can be used even in ways that are probably not causing environmental, animal or human damage when there is a general feeling by the public and environmental community that this is a nasty product,” said David Brandling-Bennett, the former deputy director of P.A.H.O. Anne Peterson, the Usaid official, explained that part of the reason her agency doesn’t finance DDT is that doing so would require a battle for public opinion. ”You’d have to explain to everybody why this is really O.K. and safe every time you do it,” she said — so you go with the alternative that everyone is comfortable with.

    ”Why it can’t be dealt with rationally, as you’d deal with any other insecticide, I don’t know,” said Janet Hemingway, director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. ”People get upset about DDT and merrily go and recommend an insecticide that is much more toxic.”

  12. This was lovely to read. A very well written tribute. I particularly enjoyed the spring connections. I like following threads of connection.

    I followed the debate in the comments, and find it interesting that someone who follows the Malaria issue didn’t know about Rachel Carson. I’m not judging in any way. It’s just an interesting observation to me.

  13. Slothboy- Good article. I was surprised by just how much influence the West has on world-wide health policies. I had to take issue, once again, with Rosenberg saying DDT eradicated malaria in the U.S. The disease receded long before any chemical spraying took place. And I was surprised that some mosquitos had already begun to work up a tolerance to DDT. It’s kind of frightening how adaptable parasitical creatures are.

    The article seemed to support my assertion that this pesticide can not eradicate mosquitos carrying Malaria, and it supported what you said about the stupidity of employing extremes without a careful consideration of scientific facts. DDT likely isn’t as harmful as our cultural consciousness makes it out to be, nor should Rachel Carson be demonized for publishing evidence of the harmful effects this pesticide was having on natural ecosystems in the United States.

    Robin- Thank you for the kind words. I remember mentioning the ‘Sense of Wonder’ when you published one of her quotes on your beautiful blog before. It’s one of my favorite books.

  14. Robin,

    I wouldn’t say I’m a student of the issue. I have followed it as much as any of the myriad topics that I fiddle with in my spare time. I have paid more attention to the impact and statistical issues than the “who’s fault is it” side. I’m sure I have run across the name but never registered it.

    I also couldn’t tell you, without looking it up, who pioneered the development of the Xbox console at microsoft, yet if I have a hobby outside of my family, the xbox is it. I also can’t tell you who the head of NATO is, any of the supreme court justices, or the names of the lead singers of my favorite bands, Cake and The Decemberists. I also probably wouldn’t recognize them if they walked in the door right now.

    Does that help? =+]

  15. Slothboy,

    Understood. :)

    I honestly didn’t mean it as any kind of judgment. It was your comment, “I have been following the Malaria issue for some time but considered it a general push of environmentalism and the Kennedys” that prompted the observation.

    Colin Meloy is the lead singer of The Decemberists. Just saw them in concert about 2 weeks ago. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to name him either.

  16. A beautifully written article. I’d like to suggest a wonderful book to you. Last Child in the Woods about nature deficiency in children. I think you might like it.

  17. Paul- I don’t actually know. I think questioning progress and science was a fairly earth-shattering thing to do at the time. People were pretty trusting of technology, so Rachel’s book did shake things up a good bit.

    bibliomom- Thank you. ;) I’ll check it out. Thanks for the recommend.

  18. I remember reading one of Carson’s books long long ago (I think it wasr Sea Around Us) and it did leave me with a greater appreciation of the interconnectedness of life. Many other books have done so since, and some of those have been chronicles of devastations such as Farley Mowat’s depressing Sea of Slaughter. However, years later, and still having that warm memory of Carson, I then became aware of the criticism of her work and I have to side with slothboy’s take on this all.

    Her heart was in the right place but she contributed to the current mythology of the toxic environment. Toxicology throws out numbers every now and then saying that this or that chemical is dangerous at a certain explosure. What most people are unaware of is, is that those numbers are arbitrary. Toxicological tests can determine whether something causes damage at high levels however their estimations of safety levels are only guesses.

    We are strong organisms and we are stronger if we have exposure to toxins at low levels. Its no secret that if you are raised in a overly clean environment, your system is weaker, your immune system is weak because it hasn’t had to build up under minor assaults.

    What people also don’t realize is that many toxins are present in natural foods. Many carcinogens occur naturally in the environment and in the foods we eat. Thats not bad. Thats life. If these things were so bad, we wouldn’t be living longer and the cancer rates would not be decreasing the way they recently have. We have much more to fear from our own behaviors (how much we eat, how active we are).

    Not exactly all on point but just started going…

  19. Alright, we’re not talking about traces, we’re talking about massive quantities of DDT actually altering the ecosystem and causing death to part of the food chain.

    Maybe I should require commenters on this thread to read Silent Spring. It was written over forty years ago, and there are some critics of her science, but her science was as good as any other researcher at the time, and she presented the evidence as she found it.

    Harm to the environment isn’t a ‘mythology’, that seems like something a corporate entity would say to justify pollution.

  20. The mythology I refer to is the dangerous chemicals lurking in everything I eat mythology (and yes the trace element one). I do believe that in general very bad things have and are happening to this planet., possibly the worst being the accumulated damage from automobiles (the exhaust but even more the paving and the restructuring of the world around it, and of course the fact that we have populated the whole planet -not really our fault, any organism expands as much as it can but it hurts to be the species that has been so successful and is also aware of it). My general rule of thumb for these thingsis does it actually hurt the planet. (A recent study about the effects of Chernobl found that wildlife and vegetation was coming back in record numbers and made the comment that in terms of the planet 1000 Chernobyls could actually be a good thing). Maybe radiation is the lesser evil when compared to human habitation.

    You are right in that the removal of part of an ecosystem is a bad thing. No argument there. My argument is simply that otherwise food is in general safer than it used to be (unless you grew it yourself…but a lot of people died from canning)…it might not taste like anything. And I’m not defending the safety either….I prefer the taste trade-off that Europe does….

    What is molo?

  21. Molo is the other writer besides Slothboy at their blog ‘Unrealistic Expectations’. A week ago they were having debate about whether comments should be allowed on blogs. I was enthusiastically for comments, but we decided it kind of depends on what your intention is. If you see your blog as part of a dialogue, or as a mouthpiece for one.

    Im totally for comments, but on this day, in this instance I said, ‘Maybe I should require commenters on this thread to read Silent Spring before they comment.’ So I guess in a moment of irritation I turned out to be more of the Molo school of thought than I realized. lol.

    Naw, I like debate but sometimes a tribute is just a tribute, and I think people in the world today should take some responsibility for crisis like the Malaria epidemic, instead of blaming a long dead naturalist who was addressing the problem at hand in her world at her time. To hold Rachel Carson responsible for the problems of today seems to my mind a fairly extreme case of fingering a scape goat. She told the truth, to the best of her ability. That’s what I want. I could shake the media between two hands sometimes, and demand that, over and over again, ‘Tell the truth. Tell the truth. Tell the truth.’

  22. No arguments there. Maybe we could categorize postings as either “lets talk” or “read only”. You think this string is long enough yet….

  23. Paul,

    It is no exaggeration to say Rachel Carson started the environmental movement, if you mean gave it widespread publicity and “got the ball rolling” as it were.

    Certainly there were many, many environmentalists before her, and many people working concurrently in their own distint areas. But none of them wrote best-sellers that really grabbed the nation’s attention.

    Silent Spring did that — the notion of a forest void of life was arresting enough to the nation’s imagination. Once that happened, many different causes and effects spun off.

    America became much more aware of pollution, stuff like Earth Day in 1970, etc. That detergents did not break down and were killing fish. The Endangered Species Act. Whether any of that would have happened anyway, Silent Spring helped prepare people because the basic concepts became commonly understood.

  24. This is a well-written, vibrant piece on Rachel Carson. I believe she was a woman way ahead of her time who was born to do the work she started with Silent Spring. It is a classic. You have spurred my interest in reading The Sense of Wonder. Thanks for pointing me that way. Good conversation in the comments on DDT and the environment. The sign of a good piece of writing.

  25. amuirin, R.L. Carson – I’m watching a Bill Moyers special on Rachel Carson as I’m writing this. And I remembered your piece.

    He’s interviewing a woman, the playwright Kaiulani Lee, who wrote a one-woman play about Rachel’s time with her adopted son, during which she wrote Sense of Wonder. The play is called the same. Rachel signed her name R.L. Carson hoping that people would take her more seriously in science if they did not know her gender. It was a time when women were not taken seriously in that field. Or any field.

    She says in the play, “There is no way someone can write about the sea, and leave out the poetry.” and the “The subject chooses the writer.”

    Carson was planning to write a book on nature for children…but the burning inside her told her she had to write Silent Spring. I’m glad she did. A writer with a strong voice. She didn’t shrink away, even after being called a communist and a spinster with no children. I’m inspired all over again.

  26. Oh, I wish I’d gotten to see it. Somehow I missed your first comment here. I’m glad you enjoyed the piece, and I couldn’t agree more, that ‘the subject chooses the writer’. It seems like what wants to be written pokes and prods and basically makes a nuisance of itself in the back of the mind until it can be released on paper.

    I didn’t know that about her pen name. It makes me smile that this made enough of an impression that you thought of it when you saw the special. Maybe they’ll air it again.

  27. Through a class assignment I come across the mention and a brief history of Rachel Carson. Further curiosity and a Google search leads me here. I really enjoyed your article; deep and clear. I’m fairly certain her writings will be frequent with me in the near future. Glad I happened to drop in and read your interesting discussion, although albeit over a year late.

    Thank you.

  28. Thanks for this lovely discussion thread. I have recently published a tribute to Rachel Carson, in a book called Silent Spring Revisited, published by Bloomsbury in the UK and USA. It reflects on how we have or haven’t heeded her message in the half century since. I hope you might find time to look it up. Conor

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