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A Heroine in Defense of Nature

Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos
Rachel Carson, Southport, Maine, 1962

Late in the summer of 1962 President John F. Kennedy held a press conference that Rachel Carson’s most recent biographer, William Souder, claims brought “something new” into the world. Amid weighty discussions of Supreme Court justices, Soviet intentions at the UN, and news of increased Soviet shipping to Cuba, the president fielded a rather unusual question about pesticide use and whether government agencies would look into it. He replied:

Yes, and I know that they already are. I think, particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book….

A few weeks later, as the Cuban missile crisis unfolded, Silent Spring began its climb to the top of the New York Times best-seller list. The long fight to control the use of pesticides had begun. There was a significant victory in 1972, when DDT, which had been found to pollute the atmosphere and soil while entering the food chain and helping to cause death by cancer, diabetes, and other diseases, was banned in the US. Other less dangerous pesticides continue to be used in great quantities in the US, often for the benefit of lawns and flower gardens. Significant health concerns, especially in children, result from such uses, prompting the province of Ontario, Canada, to ban these pesticides in 2009. In 2012 a review in British Columbia recommended tighter restrictions on their use, while a ban is under discussion in Manitoba. In developing countries the use of pesticides continues largely unregulated; around a million human victims still suffer acute poisoning annually.

September 2012 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring (in his August press conference Kennedy was referring to advance extracts of the book published in The New Yorker). It’s a fitting moment to review Carson’s achievements, and Souder’s new biography provides an excellent starting point. He argues that Silent Spring marks the birth of the “bitterly divisive” concept of environmentalism. Before it, environmental politics was characterized, he says, by the “gentle, optimistic proposition called ‘conservation,’” which concerns the wise use of resources and has broad appeal across the political spectrum. Environmentalism, in contrast, can be politically polarizing because it involves a clash with vested interests. The president’s remarks at his 1962 press conference are especially important for Souder because he believes they initiated a conflict within the US government, between those who sided with pesticide manufacturers such as Ciba and those concerned about the destructive uses of widespread aerial spraying of dangerous chemicals.

Arguably, the greatest casualty of this conflict was Rachel Carson herself. She would be falsely labeled a Communist by her enemies, and investigated by the FBI. The chemical industry and its allies spread lies about her—such as that her research was tainted, and that she wished to ban pesticides entirely—that would persist long after her untimely death in 1964. In fact, she advocated sensible uses of pesticides that would protect crops but not destroy animal life and poison the environment. Sadly, I still meet people whose assessment of Silent Spring and its author is influenced by these accounts, despite the fact that they’re half a century old and entirely discredited.

Rachel Carson was the most unlikely of revolutionaries. A fifty-five-year-old spinster who lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, with her cat and adopted grandnephew at the time of Silent Spring’s publication, she was not someone who habitually rocked the boat. Before her book became popular, she worked for years as a writer of government publications for the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Department of the Interior. In fact Silent Spring marked a sharp departure from her earlier books, which were best-selling, lyrical feats of nature writing—homages to the oceans and the seashore. Carson was, however, a meticulous researcher and careful writer, and despite the fact that she was not an expert on pesticides and their effects, Silent Spring contains few errors. Moreover, the timing of its publication was such that it reinforced fears that humanity’s leaders were recklessly gambling with the fate of the earth.

When Silent Spring was published I was just seven years old and living in Australia, so my firsthand sense of the danger of the times is limited. But I’ll never forget how my mother cried as she listened to the radio and heard of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. She saw him, I’m certain, as someone who was keeping her and her family safe in a world that seemed to be going mad. And it was not just the missile crisis. A series of nuclear tests was being conducted in Australia and other countries, and some scientists warned of the dangers. Most of the tests involved hydrogen bombs—the most devastating weapon ever invented—which were being exploded in the atmosphere with unpredictable and often terrifying results.

The very first of these devices was tested by the US on November 1, 1952, on the island of Elugelab in Micronesia. The resulting fireball was more than three miles wide, and it developed into a mushroom cloud twenty miles high and one hundred miles across. When the atmosphere cleared, observers saw a crater 160 feet deep and a mile across where a verdant tropical island had once stood. More powerful devices were soon wreaking destruction far in excess of expectations. In 1954 one such bomb, detonated in the Marshall Islands, produced an explosion two and a half times greater than predicted—the result of a lithium isotope that was thought to be inert but that amplified the reaction so much that the weapon was a thousand times more powerful than the one dropped on Hiroshima. President Eisenhower said that the scientists were “surprised and astonished” at the result, and were now rethinking the precautions needed for future tests.

The mass testing of nuclear weapons in the early 1960s had been unexpected. A moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing had been agreed on in 1958, but in the summer of 1961 the Soviets abruptly recommenced their program. The US then resumed testing, and by 1962 a nuclear weapon was being exploded somewhere in the world every few days. By August 1963, when the moratorium was again put into effect, over fifty nuclear devices had been detonated in the atmosphere in a little over twelve months. The scale of the tests, and the extent of radioactive fallout they generated, were unprecedented. Soon, high levels of radioactivity were turning up in food, particularly the fish and milk that were being consumed by children across the US.

The earlier round of testing should have warned everyone of the grave dangers involved, for almost as soon as nuclear testing had begun, disturbing phenomena had been observed far from the test sites. In the early 1950s the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, started seeing streaks and blips on its unexposed X-ray film. It turned out that the radiation that was spoiling the film was emanating from its cardboard packaging, which had been made in Iowa and Indiana. The manufacturers drew their water supply from rivers flowing out of the Midwest, which were hundreds of miles downwind of the Trinity nuclear test site in Nevada; yet they still carried sufficient radiation to contaminate the cardboard.

Evidence of widespread radioactive contamination was becoming public at about the same time that people were becoming aware of what a nuclear war might entail. At first the US government acted as if it could protect its citizens in the event of such a conflict. But in 1957 Sputnik raised the possibility that an attack on the US might eventually come from space, and by the 1960s the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals could be deployed, en masse, on long-range missiles. As Souder puts it:

Armageddon…could now be envisioned as two great shadows rising from the earth simultaneously and passing each other in opposite directions…curving toward the end of all things in a white-hot hell of thermonuclear doom.

These changes made America’s civilian defenses appear puny indeed. As early as the late 1950s the nation’s leaders were giving up on protecting civilians in the event of nuclear war. “You can’t have this kind of war,” President Eisenhower said. “There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.” For American schoolchildren, this must have been a truly terrifying time, for they were regularly being drilled for the end of the world. Souder writes:

If a teacher suddenly yelled “Flash!” every kid over the age of five knew that meant to “duck and cover” by whirling to the floor and crouching beneath his or her desk, arms wrapped tightly around heads to wait patiently for the shock wave to arrive. There were also panic-inducing policies concerning who was to go where in the event there was a warning of an imminent attack. For many kids, this meant that if you lived close enough to school to run home in less than fifteen minutes you could do so—and presumably then at least die with Mom and Dad. Those who lived farther away were to stay put and let death visit them at school.

As the result of work done by farsighted citizens half a century ago, we’re now in a position to assess the long-term effects of radioactive fallout on human health. In 1958 a group called the Greater St. Louis Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information began collecting baby teeth from children living in the area. A study completed more than half a century later, in 2010, showed that men who had died of cancer in middle age had more than twice the amount of the radioactive isotope strontium 90 in their baby teeth as those who were still alive. As with so many environmental toxins, the effects of radiation on human health plays out over decades.

Carson recognized an “exact and inescapable” parallel between radioactive fallout and pesticide poisoning, and there can be little doubt that the public was primed to hear her message because of its concerns about nuclear weapons. Indeed, Americans were already becoming aware that pesticides had the power to poison humans and their food chain in a manner similar to radiation. In 1959, a widespread scare over the use of cranberries erupted just days before Thanksgiving, the result of spraying them with a cancer-causing pesticide. Cranberries were withdrawn from sale.

Then, in 1961 devastating news of another chemical catastrophe was beginning to emerge from the UK. Thalidomide had been prescribed to alleviate morning sickness, and women who took it during a critical sixteen-day period of their pregnancy gave birth to children with devastating deformities of the limbs. The US had been spared the scourge by the dogged persistence of a lone scientist at the FDA, who had managed to stall Thalidomide’s approval until the drug’s full effects were discovered. The horrors of Thalidomide surely added to the unease many felt at the ever-growing application of new chemicals.

Rachel Carson had been born into a poor family in Pennsylvania in 1907, and it was only as a result of winning a $100 scholarship in a statewide competition that she received an education, attending the Pennsylvania College for Women. She had always been interested in biology and writing, and it was at PCW that she was given the opportunity to develop her skills. Her greatest influence there was her biology teacher, Professor Mary Skinker. “I have always wanted to write,” Carson confided to a friend “but I don’t have much imagination. Biology has given me something to write about.”

It was while at college that Carson went on her first and seemingly only date with a young man, Bob Frye, who took her to the annual PCW prom. He didn’t rate a mention in a letter Carson wrote to a friend about the event, but she had plenty to say, Souder adds, about Mary Skinker, whom Carson described as “a perfect knockout.” An ethereal beauty, Skinker seems to have been a source of fascination for the girls at PCW, and Carson become infatuated with her. Such hero worship of a beautiful and elegant teacher by her female students is hardly unusual, and Souder, in my view, places excessive sexual emphasis on this episode of Carson’s life.

Carson was devastated when Skinker announced that she’d be leaving PCW to complete her doctoral studies at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Missing her mentor, Carson happened to read Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” her eyes alighting on the line “For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.” She decided then and there that she would follow Skinker to Woods Hole and devote her life to studies of the sea. After graduating from PCW she enrolled at Johns Hopkins, and with Skinker’s help obtained a scholarship to study for two months at Woods Hole.

The experience was a mixed one, for although Carson loved studying marine life, she discovered that she wasn’t suited to laboratory work. Her M.Sc. thesis was delivered a year late, in June 1932, after which she obtained her job at the US Bureau of Fisheries. This gave her the freedom to write articles and book reviews for magazines such as The Atlantic. By 1938 Carson had begun writing a book on the oceans. The project was well timed, for, as William Beebe descended into the ocean depths in his bathyscaphe, major discoveries were being made, and the public’s interest in this strange realm seemed insatiable.

A regrettable error creeps into Souder’s narrative when he discusses Carson’s work on the ocean. He refers to the “abysmal” depths, in quotation marks, though just who he is quoting is unclear. The eternally dark, freezing, and highly pressurized waters Beebe explored may indeed seem abysmal to us, but they are in fact known as the abyssal depths; nor are soundings of the deep ocean commonly referred to as “abysmal soundings.” These are not the biography’s only faults: parts of it are disordered to the point of distraction. In particular, Souder should have told us more about the extent of the pesticide problem in America in the 1960s. But overall, he has produced a serviceable and timely biography.

When published in 1941 Carson’s first book, Under the Sea-Wind, was hailed as “beautiful and unusual,” the great Beebe himself saying that he “enjoyed every word.” Yet sales did not reach 1,700 copies. The experience left Carson feeling that her publisher had not done enough to promote the book; she became a demanding author who in future would look into every aspect of a publisher’s handling of her work. With the publication of her second book, The Sea Around Us, in 1950, this approach paid off. A poetical description of the oceans and the life they contain, it was an astonishing achievement that began with the formation of the earth and continued right through to the present age. The New Yorker had agreed to publish ten chapters in advance, and other chapters were taken by other magazines. When released, the book met near-universal acclaim and would set new records for the number of consecutive weeks it was listed at the top of the New York Times best-seller list. Its success gave Under the Sea-Wind new life, and by April 1952 Carson had two of the best-selling nonfiction books in America.

Her success sometimes put Carson in an awkward position. People expected her to be an intrepid underwater explorer, while in fact she had learned most of what she knew about the sea from books and other writings. But the financial success her writing brought would change her life. Previously, she had lived with her mother, and money worries were never far away. In 1953, however, she used her royalties to purchase a property on Southport Island, Maine, a wild, windswept place with only 250 residents.

There, in June 1953, she would meet Dorothy Freeman, who, with her husband, Stan, raced their yacht Draftee off the island every summer weekend. They were huge fans of The Sea Around Us, and when they heard that Carson was building a house on the island, Dorothy wrote her a welcoming letter. The trio struck it off right away and a few weeks later Carson led them on a late afternoon walk to catch the low tide. When they used a microscope to examined samples they had collected, Dorothy said that a “wonderful, beautiful, and unbelieveable…new world” had opened to her.

Dorothy Freeman left us a poignant picture of Rachel Carson at the height of her success. As Souder tells it:

Carson seemed “tiny” and often wore a wistful expression. It was hard to believe that so much knowledge resided in such an unimposing person. Dorothy sensed something sad in Carson, who seemed overwhelmed by her sudden prominence.

Carson’s relationship with Dorothy Freeman was destined to heal some of that sadness. Each summer the Freemans and Carson would meet on Southport Island and spend their time in seaside rambles and other activities. In 1953 Carson would write to Dorothy:

And, as you must know in your heart, there is such a simple answer for all the “whys” that are sprinkled through your letters:…Why did I come to the Head that last night? Why? Because I love you! Now I could go on and tell you some of the reasons why I do, but that would take quite a while, and I think the simple fact covers everything.

While Carson’s relationship with Dorothy was expressed passionately on paper, it was otherwise kept quiet. Carson would address her envelopes to “Mrs. Stanley Freeman,” but in the letter itself referred to Dorothy as “Darling.” Both worried that the “craziness” between them might be revealed, and so began writing two kinds of letters. One contained news and views that could be read by others, while the other, which was usually folded inside the general letter, was intensely personal.

The time that Rachel and Dorothy could spend together was limited, and their relationship seems not to have been physically sexual. Souder recounts a meeting between the two after Carson had addressed a group of scientists in Boston:

As Carson was leaving the hall after she finished, she was startled to find Dorothy waiting for her. Carson impulsively kissed her and whispered, “We didn’t plan it this way, did we?” They went back to Carson’s room at the Sheraton Hotel and sat on the bed for a languorous hour smiling at each other, unsure what came next.

Without doubt their relationship was deep and fulfilling, and it seems a little unfair of Souder to say that they didn’t know “what came next.” Perhaps there was no “next” for them: perhaps they were perfectly contented with things as they were. After all, the term “lovers” is one of infinite possibility.

Carson had longed her entire adult life to devote herself to writing. But now that she could afford to do so, she discovered that she was in a kind of prison. She had decided that her next book would be a sort of beachcomber’s guide. Writing and rewriting, she became ever more dissatisfied with the project. Finally, in March 1955—a full three years behind schedule—she delivered the manuscript of The Edge of the Sea to her publishers. Carson noted that any book she wrote would look like a failure compared with The Sea Around Us. But in fact The Edge of the Sea achieved considerable success, rising to fourth place on the New York Times best-seller list.

Even as she wrote about the sea, the issue of pesticides seems never to have been far from Carson’s mind. Nonetheless, she had difficulty in framing the work she wished to write, and was perhaps a little intimidated by the scale of the research involved. She told her publisher, Paul Brooks, that those who criticized the use of pesticides without fully understanding the science did more harm than good, and assured him that whatever she wrote would have the weight of evidence behind it. As the draft chapters began to arrive, Brooks realized just what this meant. A vast amount of hidden research supported the words the public would see.

As the writing went on, Carson’s health began to deteriorate. Early in 1960 she suffered from a duodenal ulcer and pneumonia, followed by acute sinusitis. The discovery of two lumps in her left breast later that year seems not to have overly disturbed her; but when she awoke from surgery she was told that one of the tumors had been malignant, and a radical mastectomy had been performed. Perhaps anticipating a brief hospital stay, she had left her seven-year-old grandnephew, whom she cared for, at home. Proclaiming herself cured, she talked her way out of the hospital a week later, and got on with her life. Around a year later Carson discovered secondary tumors on her sternum and embarked on a course of radiation therapy. She would never be entirely well again.

Carson had settled on Man Against the Earth as the provisional title for her new book. It was Brooks who came up with Silent Spring—though initially as a title for the chapter on impacts of pesticides on birds, rather than for the whole work. Was there ever a more resonating book title? The possibility of a “silent spring” strikes so acutely at our sense of life, beauty, and nature’s renewal that it chills us as deeply as a perpetual winter. And it frames beautifully the parable that opens the book—of small-town America, so secure and rich in wildlife, which is unaccountably devastated by a “rain of death.”

The success of Silent Spring provoked an almost instant backlash from the chemical industry, and in the cold war environment of the time some of the worst smears that could be thrown, as Souder writes, were accusations of communism or socialism:

Subversive, antibusiness, Communist sympathizer, health nut, pacifist, and, of course, the coded insult “spinster.” The attack…came from the chemical companies, agricultural interests, and the allies of both in government—the self-protective enclaves within what President Eisenhower had called the “military-industrial complex.” Their fierce opposition to Silent Spring put Rachel Carson and everything she believed about the environment firmly on the left end of the political spectrum. And so two things—environmentalism and its adherents—were defined once and forever.

In fact Carson’s position was more subtle and realistic than her critics allowed. Chemical control of insects was warranted in some cases, she wrote, especially for prevention of diseases, and all the more so “in time of natural disaster or of war or in situations of extreme poverty and deprivation. Then control of some sort becomes necessary.”

Toward the end of 1962 Rachel Carson wrote to Dorothy Freeman that she felt that she never had any choice but to write Silent Spring, quoting Lincoln that “to sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” She also told of indescribably heavy exhaustion, as if she’d come to the end of a long and difficult road. On April 14, 1964 Carson died, aged fifty-six.

Souder claims that today Rachel Carson is unknown to people under fifty, and certainly she is no longer the household name she was half a century ago. But she continues to be well known—indeed revered—by those interested in environmental protection, and Silent Spring remains in print. But in a world where humanity continues to struggle with industrial toxins, her legacy is far larger than that. It goes, I believe, to the heart of our relationship with nature.

After recently rereading Silent Spring, I discussed Carson with an Indian friend, who put a question to me: “What is more orderly, a jungle or a garden?” After a moment’s thought the answer became obvious. Of course it is the jungle, where the invisible laws of ecology dictate the relative abundance of plants and animals, and where they occur. The very shape and position of every leaf abides by those eternal rules. Yet gardens, or cornfields, with their beguilingly simple symmetries, seem to most of us more ordered, and in the pursuit of that order we have spread environmental devastation far and wide, until they enter our own food chain. It was Carson who informed us of the cost of that false sense of order, just as she pointed to a future in which humans might fulfil their needs more wisely, by using their chemical ingenuity to support nature, not destroy it.


Banned in Canada February 7, 2013

In the Abyss December 6, 2012

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