“Hunger, hunger, are you listening,
To the words from Rachel’s pen?
Words which taken at face value,
Place lives of birds ‘bove those of men..” – W.E. McCauley
The first half of the twentieth century was a madman’s gallery of horrors opened by Romantic nihilists and mournfully shuttered by nihilistic Romantics. The loss in men and resources was beyond our century’s ability to even fathom, but the great unspoken loss was perhaps the diminution of our belief in collective conscientiousness. While Heidegger hijacked our conception of what science represented, the abundant spoils of war distracted the public from any nascent concerns they might have had about environmental responsibility. Western Civilization, and the United States in particular, survived two wars and came out on top – we felt, no knew, that we deserved to celebrate, to treat ourselves to two decades of unfettered self-congratulation and consumption, damn the torpedoes.
Ellen Swallow’s warnings sounded less imminent and important in America’s two-martini-lunch ears, and in that vacuum of attention the chemical industry formed an alliance with big agriculture to recklessly change the American landscape. And they would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for that darned Rachel Carson, and her 1962 book, Silent Spring.
For the first 55 years of her life, however, nobody in science seemed less likely to start an ecological revolution than Ms. Rachel Carson. She grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh, romping through the woods and writing short stories of such distinctive voice that they were published in a national children’s magazine. The portents seemed undeniable, she was bound for a life in literature. She went to Chatham College with that goal in mind, and started down the well-worn path of painful college-writing-program-prosifying, producing all the necessary awkward juvenilia that strikes one as brilliant at 19 and shameful at 24.
Then along came a biology teacher by the wonderful name of Mary Skinker. Ms. Skinker’s class challenged students to wrestle with the complexity of the world’s life forms and their interrelationships. Rachel fell in love with everything about biology, and changed her major in spite of the scant prospects available to a female biologist in the 1920s. Then, with the onset of the Great Depression, scant went to bone dry. Already in debt to Chatham after graduation, she found herself unable to pay back her loan, and had to let the college take some of her family’s land in payment. It was humiliating, but there was simply no other way. After completing her Master’s degree in zoology, she eventually asked for work at the Bureau of Fisheries, and it was there that her ability as a writer saved her, and her family, from the utter destitution that had become commonplace for once-proud families fighting their way through the dismal early Thirties.
The Bureau was producing a series of radio shorts about different aquatic animals and they were, by general assent, dull and creaking affairs. Rachel was hired to bring her literary abilities and scientific knowledge to bear on breathing life into the series again, and her success in that endeavor led to other offers to recast scientific material in a manner fit for popular consumption. She approached the task of popular science writing as no one had done before. In 1951’s The Sea Around Us, she told the story of the creatures of the ocean from their point of view, bringing her readers into the lived experience of these strange animals, letting them speak for themselves, instead of simply summarizing their physical traits and uses for mankind. The idea that the everyday life of animals has a narrative heft which can be placed at the service of scientific instruction is traceable to Carson’s works of the Forties and Fifties, and has informed every successful zoological documentary since. There aren’t many works of popular science writing that remain readable after half a century, but Carson’s storytelling bears its age nobly.
As the years wore on, however, the mammoth success of The Sea Around Us trickled to the noted success of Under the Sea Wind’s relaunch, inched to the still-quite-impressive success of The Edge of the Sea, (think Thriller – Bad – Dangerous and you’re in the right ballpark) and it seemed to all concerned like Rachel Carson had run out of things to say, and that the public had had its fill of charming stories of the sea and its environs. And that’s precisely when she began to receive letters from across the country talking about massive wildlife die-offs occurring in the wake of DDT pesticide usage.
DDT is a rather amazing little chemical, really. First discovered in 1874, its use as an insecticide was unearthed by Paul Mueller in 1939, a feat for which he would receive the Nobel Prize. In insects, it acts upon neurons, opening up sodium channels and causing uncontrolled neuronal firing, leading to spasms, and then death. That makes it a wickedly effective pesticide, so effective that nobody was particularly interested in checking its impact on other species until disaster had already struck. DDT is directly toxic to many animals, but more sinister than that, it turns out that DDE, which is derived from DDT, does some pretty nasty stuff to calcium carbonate transport pathways in egg-bearing creatures, preventing the shells from hardening. There are species of birds today that are still suffering egg-hatching complications stemming from DDT, a chemical that was banned five decades ago.
Carson’s book, Silent Spring, outlined the effects of DDT and the shape of the world if it, and other under-tested pesticides, continued to be used by the agricultural industry. It was a mammoth of a best-seller, prompting the President of the United States to form a committee to look into US pesticide policy. The chemical industry hit back hard, and had its supporters among the public: “Miss Carson is obviously a Communist,” wrote one reader to The New Yorker, “She is opposed to American business. We can live without birds but not without business. As long as we have the H bombs, everything is all right.”
Seriously, that’s an actual letter, that somebody wrote, probably proof-read, found entirely to their satisfaction, well-nigh air tight in expression and argumentation, and then mailed into The New Yorker, who looked at it, and found it a useful addition to the public discourse.
But for most of the public, Silent Spring was the jolt they needed to realize their agency in demanding sensible environmental testing and oversight. The Environmental Protection Agency was born within a decade of Carson’s book, though she, lamentably, did not live to see it. In fact, she had only another two years to live after the release of her magnum opus, as cancer slowly worked away at the energy, if not the zeal, of the woman who made understanding and explaining the small glories of nature her life’s work.
She died fifty years ago, on April 14, 1964, at her home overlooking the sea.
Imagea: (lead) Rachel Carson conducts marine biology research with Bob Hines in the Atlantic (1952). Public domain via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia. Portrait of Rachel Carson Smithsonian Institution Archives/Wikimedia
FURTHER READING: Carson’s original sea books are still available and still thoroughly charming and inspiring. As to biographies, well, that depends on how much time you have. Linda Lear’s Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (1994) is your go-to, but if you are looking for something under 700 pages, or to get a younger person interested in Carson’s life, Philip Sterling’s Sea and Earth: The Life of Rachel Carson (1970) is a wonderful book to slide into a pocket and take out into nature for a read.