“Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall.
He will end by destroying the earth.”
In this post, I am writing about Rachel Carson, whose prophetic warning in her famous book “Silent Spring” steered our attention into the path of the oncoming truth. This book was highly influential in highlighting the American government’s abuse of new chemical insecticides like DDT which was sprayed over farmland fields without any regard for the welfare of humans or other creatures. The highly toxic material was derived from lethal compounds developed originally for use in war. In her book, Rachel Carson wrote:
“For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of natural resources, realising their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently, their hard-won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically-minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction.”
She was a messenger of modern environmentalism, and through her facts-finding that rocked the world, she became a towering figure whose light illuminated our sense of the world forever. The power of her words showed us how interconnected are our actions with all life on Earth. Rachel Carson was a woman of substance and courage, and generations were directed by her moral compass. We envy her spirit and we can only resolve to continue her work, needed even more now than ever.
27 May 1907 – 14 April 1964
Rachel Carson was born in the Allegheny Valley at Springdale, the youngest of three children. She grew up on a Pennsylvanian farm, where she learned about nature and wildlife. From a very young age, she knew that she was born to write. When she was ten-years-old, her first work was published in the St Nicholas literary magazine for children. A reader and loner, she was a devotee of birds and all nature. She continued writing during her studies at Pennsylvania College for Women where she was studying English. The biology course reawakened her ‘sense of wonder’ which she had always brought to the natural world, and she switched to zoology.
Allegheny River, Springdale in Pennsylvania
The family homestead in Springdale
Graduating manga cum laude in 1928, Carson went on to John Hopkins University to complete her Master’s degree in zoology. It is at this time that she first saw the sea and fell under the spell of its eternal mysteries. Her strong lyrical prose caught the attention of the editors at the Atlantic Monthly. She was invited to write her first work ‘Undersea’ for them. Its feeling was near-mystical – the ever-changing changelessness of life on Earth. She explained that it was the sea that fascinated her, ‘for the sense of the sea, holding power of life and death over every one of its creatures from the smallest to the largest, would inevitably pervade every page.’
This is an extract that I feel compelled by its haunting beauty to quote:
“To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shorebirds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be. These things were before man ever stood on the shore of the ocean and looked out upon it with wonder; they continue year in, year out, throughout the centuries and ages, while man’s kingdoms rise and fall…. Thus… the parts of the plan fall into the place: the water receiving from earth and air the simple materials, storing them until the gathering energy of the spring sun wakens the sleeping plants to a burst of dynamic activity, hungry swarms of planktonic animals growing and multiplying upon the abundant plants, and themselves falling prey to the shoals of fish; all, in the end, to be redissolved into their component substances… Individual elements are lost to view, only to reappear again and again in different incarnations in a kind of material immortality…. Against this cosmic background, the life span of a particular plant or animal appears, not as a drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.”
In 1940 she was working at the Fish and Wildlife Service as an editor specialising in marine zoology. She was liked by all her colleagues for her uncommon competence and dedication but also for her childlike enthusiasm and undiminished wonder at the myriad ways of nature which made a scientific expedition out of the simplest foray into field or tide pool.
At that time, Carson learned of the government’s plans to distribute through the Department of Agriculture pesticides, even more toxic than DDT, including dieldrin, parathion. heptachlor, malathion, and others, for public use and commercial manufacture. “The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more appalled I became, I realised that here was the material for a book. What I discovered was that everything that meant most to me as a naturalist was being threatened and that nothing I could do would be more important.”
She intended to make sure that if the public continued to be led by politicians who stood by and allowed the looting of the world resources and the pollution of the land, air, and water that our children must inherit, it would not be because we knew no better. In 1957, startling wildlife mortality in the wake of a mosquito control campaign near Duxbury, Massachusetts, was followed by a spraying of DDT over eastern Long Island for the needless eradication of the gypsy moth. That year Carson protested in a letter to the Washington Post about the use of highly poisonous hydrocarbons and organophosphates allied to nerve gases to chemical warfare build-up from small beginnings to what a noted British ecologist recently called “an amazing rain of death upon the surface of the earth.” Most of these chemicals have long-persisting residues on vegetation, in soils, and even in the bodies of earthworms and other organisms. If this “rain of death” has produced such disastrous effects on birds, what of other lives, including our own?
Rachel Carson hit upon a metaphor with her book title “Silent Spring” which would draw these dire warnings to a powerful point.
“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings… Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change… There was a strange stillness… The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that once throbbed with the dawn chorus… of scores of bird voices, there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”
The house of Rachel Carson in Colesville, near Silver Spring, Maryland
Silent Spring, serialised in the New Yorker in June and July of 1962, raised the violent fury of the entire chemical industry. As the book said: “This is an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged.” She was accused of many things, including that she “ignored God” and she responded: “As far as I am concerned, there is absolutely no conflict between a belief in evolution and belief in God as the creator. Believing as I do in evolution, I merely believe that is the method by which God created, and is still creating, life on earth. And it is a method so marvellously conceived that to study it in detail is to increase – and certainly never to diminish – one’s reverence and awe both for the Creator and the process.”
By the end of 1969, Time would run Carson’s photo at the head of an environmental article citing new evidence that completely supported the data in Silent Spring. The book became a runaway bestseller, with international reverberations. Miss Carson was awarded the Audubon Medal and numerous honours. Famed as a scientist whose timely book on chemical poisons served as a warning to the world about the insatiable nature of corporate greed, she was at the same time a great writer, perhaps the finest nature writer of her century. Throughout her life, she was brave and fierce in her defence of what she held most sacred, which was the wonder of life and all its creatures, even such malignant creatures as ourselves.
She wrote about forest spruce behind her cottage which she planted:
“The island voice which came… most beautifully and clearly each evening was the voice of a forest spirit, the hermit thrush. At the hour of the evening’s beginnings, its broken and silvery cadences drifted with infinite deliberation across the water. Its phrases were filled with beauty and its meaning that were not wholly of the present, as though the thrush were singing of other sunsets, extending far back beyond his personal memory, through aeons of time when his forebears had known this place and from spruce trees long since returned to earth had sung the beauty of the evening. Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of its own creation… But I believe that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
The song of the Hermit Thrush
At one of the World Wildlife Fund dinners, its former president, the Duke of Edinburgh said:
“Miners used canaries to warn them of deadly gases. It might not be a bad idea if we took the same warning from the dead birds in our countryside.”
Since Rachel Carson wrote “Silent Spring”, her fame can be seen acknowledged everywhere…
The Rachel Carson Bridge spanning the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
I leave the last word To Rachel Carson, a remarkable woman:
“The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from the Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.”