In Maryland, it is impossible to travel too far in any direction without seeing something that celebrates the legacy of author and environmentalist Rachel Carson. There is a greenway trail and a conservation park named for her here, an alma mater university and a Rachel Carson grade school there — and, of course, the Silver Spring home where she would write “Silent Spring,” the hot-button ’60s work that is often cited as the spark that ignited the modern environmental movement.
Likewise, it is near-impossible to travel too far in most any corner of the world without seeing something in nature that attracted Carson’s ecological concern — marine devastation here, chemical sprays and air pollution there. She studied humanity’s carbon footprint upon the earth, and wrote so she could leave an intellectual footprint upon humanity’s stewardship of the planet.
Carson’s professional interest in science was stoked while taking a college biology class, and she graduated from Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University with a master’s in zoology in 1932. Exactly 30 years later, after gaining profound depths of expertise as a journalist and biologist, she would publish the first of three “Silent Spring” book excerpts in the New Yorker magazine that set off a firestorm over pesticide use that involved the chemical and agricultural industries, and that served as a flashpoint for conservation reform.
“In her new book, [Rachel Carson] tries to scare the living daylights out of us and, in large measure, succeeds. Her work tingles with anger, outrage and protest. It is a 20th-century ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ ” Walter Sullivan would write in the New York Times in September of 1962, about “Silent Spring.”
Just two months earlier, the Times ran an article headlined, ” ‘Silent Spring’ Is Now Noisy Summer,” in which journalist John M. Lee wrote that the $300-million pesticides industry “has been highly irritated by a quiet woman author whose previous works on science have been praised for the beauty and precision of the writing.”
“In her latest work, however,” the article went on to say, “Miss Carson is not so gentle.”
Trained as a marine biologist, Carson had written the 1950s bestsellers “The Sea Around Us” and “The Edge of the Sea,” and amid her rising popularity, her debut book, 1941′s “Under the Sea-Wind,” had joined the others on the sales charts. Her urgency as a writer grew leading up to 1962, however — while in her personal life, she adopted her late niece’s son in 1957, and had a radical mastectomy to treat breast cancer in the spring of 1960. She was in the thick of her research for “Silent Spring” when she received the cancer diagnosis, and she would proceed undeterred even as her physical movement became more difficult.
“Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.” — Rachel Carson
After the release of “Silent Spring” — which, in imagining a chemical-scarred world without birdsong, challenged agricultural practices and urged focusing on the natural world — Life magazine would call her “a gentle storm center.” CBS aired its report “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” in the spring of 1963 — the same year she would testify before Congress about pesticide use. In the CBS report, Carson said: “It is the public that is being asked to assume the risks that the insect controllers calculate. The public must decide whether it wishes to continue on the present road, and it can do so only when in full possession of the facts.”
Detractors attempted to discredit Carson and her work, and labeled her an “alarmist”; supporters took up her ecological messages. This “gentle storm center” was in the eye of a revolution — around which controversy swirls to this day.
Some critics have said that “Silent Spring” led to the mosquito-borne spread of malaria, particularly in poorer nations. On the other hand, “Carson was never against the use of DDT,” Linda Lear, a Carson biographer, told The Post in 2007. “She was against the misuse of DDT.”
“Silent Spring” would sell hundreds of thousands of copies as it stayed on the bestseller list for nearly three years. Carson — who would receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom — had climbed high from her rural Pennsylvania beginnings, where her mother fostered in young Rachel a deep appreciation of nature.
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it.” — Carson
Rachel Louise Carson was born in the river town of Springdale, Pa., in 1907, and at age 11 published her first story in St. Nicholas magazine. She graduated from Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) in 1929, and also studied at the Woods Hole (Mass.) Marine Biological Laboratory before and after her time at Johns Hopkins.
Carson was soon earning money during the Depression by writing radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, and also wrote science features for the Baltimore Sun. She worked in federal service for 15 years — till 1952 — as both editor and scientist. As she did government research, and edited Fish and Wildlife Service publications, Carson grew both her expertise in natural science and her ecological conscience — and an article she wrote for Atlantic Monthly led to her first book, as she became a biographer of sorts, for our seas.
That first book, “Under the Sea-Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life,” was illustrated by Howard Frech. Today, Google celebrates the 107th anniversary of Carson’s birth with a monochromatic home-page Doodle that appears very much inspired by Frech’s appealing art of marine and avian life.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” — Carson
Rachel L. Carson died on April 14, 1964, after her battle with cancer, in the same home where she wrote “Silent Spring” — in the low-slung home in Silver Spring not far from where I’m writing this. She was 56.
Justice William O. Douglas, who served on the Supreme Court till 1975, called “Silent Spring” “the most important chronicle of this century for the human race.”
Rachel Carson, as mild but determined scientist, was more than a controversial advocate for the natural world. She was, in multiple senses of the term, a force of nature.