RACHEL CARSON -- SILENT SPRING
by Stan Griffin
Carson was regarded as the most respected science writer in
America. Her books on nature and the environment became best-sellers, were
translated into more than 30 languages, and won many important awards. During
the 1950s and 1960s, Carson made people aware of pollution's perils, and many
consider her a driving force behind the ecology movement. Combining careers as a
marine biologist and writer, she dedicated her life to preserving this
"beautiful, fragile planet."
Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907 on a farm near Springdale, Pennsylvania (about 11 miles north of Pittsburg). As a child she did chores such as milking cows, feeding pigs, gathering eggs. working in the family garden, and picking apples from the orchards. Rachel spent a lot of her spare time walking in nearby forests and studying plants, birds, and insects. At an early age, she developed a lasting interest in the sea, although she was hundreds of
miles from the ocean.
Another of her childhood passions was writing. As a fourth grader one of her stories, "A Battle in the Clouds," was published in "St. Nicholas," a children's magazine. It was inspired by a letter from her older brother, a U. S. Army flyer in World War I. At the age of 18, Rachel enrolled at Pennsylvania College for Women, majoring in English (1925). She wrote for the college newspaper and magazine and joined the literary club. She also found time to participate in activities such as field hockey and playing the violin. A sophomore course in biology changed the course of Rachel's life. Laboratory work and field trips fascinated her as she came to understand how nature really worked. Her biology teacher, Mary Scott Skinker, became her friend and a guiding influence.
In spite of the knowledge that jobs for women scientists would be scarce after graduation, Rachel changed her major to biology. She graduated with high honors in 1929 and spent the following summer at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory (now known as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute) in Massachusetts where she spent her time observing sea life and dissecting fish.
Rachel qualified for a full graduate scholarship at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. After three years of hard work, she graduated with a degree in marine zoology (1932). Rachel's first job was working for the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries in Washington, D. C. as a radio script writer. She began in a part-time position and eventually became a full-time junior aquatic biologist (only the second woman hired by the bureau). Rachel spent many spare hours writing on her own; and in 1937, the "Atlantic Monthly" published an article titled "Underseas." At that time, she wrote: "It dawned on me that by being a biologist I had given myself something to write about."
Favorable reaction to the article led to the writing of her first book: "Under the Sea-Wind." It was published in 1941. Three years' work at night and during weekends produced a book that made the sea and its life a reality--a true picture of an existence that was a constant struggle for survival. Creatures were portrayed realistically rather than having human qualities (which was frequently done before Carson began writing). This book was widely praised but didn't sell particularly well, partially due to U. S. entrance into World War II. Rachel spent the war years preparing information on ocean currents and depths which helped the U. S. Army and Navy carry out their mission. She also wrote pamphlets that encouraged Americans to save meat by eating fish.
During this time Rachel applied for other positions but found that prejudice remained against women in her field. Remaining at her government job, she was promoted to editor-in-chief of all Fish and Wildlife Service publications (1949). One of her projects was production of a series of 12 booklets called "Conservation in Action" which encouraged Americans to take care of natural resources.
While Rachel was writing her second book she joined the crew of "Albatross III," a research ship in the North Atlantic, studying population changes among several species of fish. Earlier that same year, for the first time, she had gone under the ocean (in the Florida Keys) equipped with a divers' helmet where she saw " ... misty green waters of a strange, unknown world ..."
Carson's second book was published in 1950. Its title was "The Sea Around Us," and it was essentially a biography of the ocean. (She approached it as though it were a person.) The book described the history of oceans from prehistoric times to the present. Tides, currents, plants, and fish were major "characters" in the story. It also described different ways that human beings have used the oceans.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science called "The Sea Around Us" the " ... finest example of science writing ... in 1950." It stayed on the "New York Times" best-seller list for over 20 months. Carson was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters, only the second woman so honored.
In 1952 Rachel left her job with the Fish and Wildlife Service to spend all of her time writing. She bought a cottage near the coast of Maine, and she spent a lot of time walking along the seashore. This inspired her next book, "The Edge of the Sea."
This time Rachel wrote about the Atlantic coast of North America from Maine to Florida: how it was formed; what life was like for creatures living where the land mets the ocean; and how they depended on the waves, tides, and even the land for life. Published in 1955, "The Edge of the Sea" was also a best-seller.
At this time, Rachel was at the peak of her career; but she began to notice a change in the attitude of many people toward nature:
(1) She saw politicians seemingly trying to stop conservation programs, to return forests and parklands to lumber and mining companies.
(2) She saw "Cold War" politics affecting conservation of nature's resources.
(3) She worried about the increased number of nuclear weapons in the world and about the increased danger of radiation.
(4) She saw how new industries were changing the face of the land.
(5) She could see increased use of pesticides to kill insects carrying disease or those that were dangerous to crops. She worried about possible effects on plants, animals, and even on insects that were helpful to man. It was this concern which led Carson to her last and most powerful book.
Use of the chemical pesticide dichloro-dipheny-trichloroethane (commonly known as DDT) became a symbol for the " ... destruction of the environment and all the powerful but indifferent people who were allowing this destruction to take place ..."
The period 1957-1960 was a stressful time for Carson. She was working hard on her new book but was interrupted by personal tragedy. In 1957 her niece died. The following year her mother died; they had a very close relationship. And in 1960 Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had to make time for radiation treatments and then deal with the physical weakness that resulted. In spite of all those difficulties, she persevered.
Carson's research was meticulous: she read hundreds of scientific papers and she contacted scientists from all over the globe. She learned that people who knew the chemicals were dangerous were ordered by superiors not to make such information public. Carson saw that she would have to " ... confront a government and an industry who were heedlessly putting the world's future at risk ..."
The opening chapter of Carson's new book related a story about an imaginary town who people awoke one morning to find all birds and small animals had died. It was a "silent spring" for them, the name she chose when the book was published in 1962. Taking a new angle in her writing, "Silent Spring" became a warning about what might happen if pesticides were not brought under control.
Here are a few of Carson's major statements in "Silent Spring":
(1) Living creatures were unable to adapt to change brought about by human beings. Chemicals were not natural, so nature had no defense against them.
(2) Pesticides destroy more than unwanted insects. They are poisons that threaten other forms of life, even humans.
(3) When one type of pesticide was unsuccessful in destroying a target, it was then necessary to develop even stronger compounds which increased potential dangers.
(4) " ... the history of life on earth has been an interaction between living things and their environment ..."
(5) Carson did not call for a ban on ALL pesticides, only greater control and regulation.
Reaction to "Silent Spring" was mixed. She was praised by many, including President John Kennedy and Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas. However, others attacked her personally and viciously.
Chemical companies alleged that she didn't have the facts, that she was being emotional and unfair. They claimed that without pesticides farmers wouldn't be able to grow enough food, causing the whole U. S. economy to collapse. Millions of dollars were spent to discredit her. They even said that she was part of a plot to destroy America!
Others who criticized her work were the American Medical Association and "Time" magazine. Carson fought back by going on television. On April 3, 1963 the CBS-Television network broadcast a documentary: "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson." Part of the program was devoted to an interview with one of her critics. But probably the most effective segment was an interview with Carson herself, conducted by Eric Sevareid in her Maine home.
During this conversation she carefully presented the evidence that pesticides were harmful, stating that it wasn't possible to lay down a barrage of poisons on earth without making it unfit for life. It was Carson's view that man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. "You can't just step in with brute force and change one thing without changing a good many others."
Millions of viewers became acquainted with the quiet, soft-spoken Carson that night, and she instantly became a national figure. A month after the program aired, her views were vindicated by the Presidential Special Advisory Committee. Their report confirmed many of Carson's arguments against the use of pesticides and toxic chemicals. It said in part: "The government should present this information to the public in a way that will make it aware of the dangers while recognizing the value of pesticides."
A year later the U. S. Congress passed a law that required chemical companies to verify their products were safe before they could sell them.
The very brilliant life of Rachel Carson was cut short as her cancer spread. A heart attack forced her into a wheelchair for the final months of her life. On April 14, 1964, at the age of 56, Rachel Carson died. Her funeral was attended by many prominent people.
A number of honors were posthumously given to her. A wildlife refuge bearing her name was established near her home in Maine. Her picture appeared on a postage stamp. In 1980 President Carter awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Because of Rachel Carson's efforts, the government today checks the amount of pesticides in food to insure safe limits. Farmers use smaller quantities of pesticides, and more natural methods of insect control have been developed. There are restrictions on the use of pesticides around the world.
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