“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.
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.”
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.