Rachel Carson: Giving Nature a Voice

Rachel Carson shined modern light on the connections between human activity and environmental impact.

You probably know what “carbon footprint” means, even if you don’t know what yours is.  Chances are, you used a reusable cloth bag to carry your organically grown tomatoes from the market, and you might use “green” products to clean your kitchen and non-chemical pesticides to kill the aphids on your roses.  You might do this because you care about the environment and the health of the planet and your family and yourself – and maybe in part because it’s considered socially unacceptable not to care.   It’s “cool” to be “green.”

This wasn’t the case in the early 1960’s, when Rachel Carson’s notable and influential book, “Silent Spring,” was first published.  Released under a cloud of scrutiny and skepticism, Carson’s brave book shone a spotlight on the damage caused by the indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides, a practice promoted by the U.S. government through the policies of its Department of Agriculture.

Carson’s rare ability to combine scientific fact with poetic language reached the hearts and minds of a lay audience.  Her readers’ eyes were opened not only to the beauty of nature and the tragedies of its ruin, but the travesty that this destruction was being carried out by forces supposedly acting for our own good.  The result of Carson’s tour-de-force was ultimately a new public mindset:  that the health of our environment directly affected us, and that we’d better take a stand to protect it or we would all suffer the consequences.

The ethos of post-World War II America was that scientists were infallible, chemicals were our friends, and the government’s guiding purpose was the health and safety of its citizens. Regulation of the use of insecticides was the responsibility of the Department of Agriculture –  which also happened to be arguably their greatest beneficiary.  The Environmental Protection Agency did not yet exist, and “conservation” and “ecology” were rarely used terms.

Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring"

It was in the midst of this social climate that Rachel Carson provided a passionate, poetic argument for questioning the status quo.  Toxic chemicals where being indiscriminately dispersed in the name of progress, without regard to the effects they might have on our environment and the creatures populating it – including ourselves.  Rachel Carson envisioned a time when “birds had disappeared and the spring was silent,” and gave a voice to those who could not speak for themselves.  Carson awakened the broader American public to concerns that had chiefly only been expressed only by a segment of the population regarded by some to be “bunny huggers” or “members of a ‘cult of the balance of nature’.” Carson was attacked, challenged and questioned, yet she stood in the face of the storm and turned its tide.  What inspired such a quiet, unassuming woman to speak out against forces that seemed stronger than nature?

Roots of a Legacy

Rachel Louise Carson was born in 1907, in Springdale, a rural town in Western Pennsylvania.  The Carson family lived on a 65-acre farm at the top of a hill just above the Allegheny River and a modest walk to the trickling spring of the town’s name.  It was Rachel Carson’s mother, a former schoolteacher, who instilled in her daughter a passion for nature and the outdoors, aided by Anna Botsford Comstock’s “Handbook of Nature Study,” the surrounding lush woods and waterways serving as her classroom.  One of Comstock’s lessons was that “nature’s laws are not to be evaded” – a truth that would inform Rachel Carson’s life and legacy.

Even as Carson’s love of nature was developing, the growing industrialization in her world had an impact on her during her formative years.  Locally, there was coal-mining and a glue factory, and the coal-fired power plants of West Penn Power Company and Duquesne Light operated nearby on either side of her hometown.  The river that flowed a mile from her home was a conduit to the “steel city” of Pittsburgh, which in the early part of the century produced nearly half of the nation’s steel.  Carson’s farm childhood may have sounded idyllic, but the signs of progress were never out of sight.

In addition to her fascination with nature, Carson grew up with a love of reading and writing, and animals and the natural world – the sea in particular – were favorite subjects for both.  Some of her favorite authors included Beatrix Potter, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, and another pioneering woman of her time, Gene Stratton-Porter.  Carson had her first story published at the age of 10, in St. Nicholas Magazine, a noted periodical of material for children.   She continued to write throughout her teens, and excelled as a student, graduating at the top of her high school class in 1925.

Carson chose English as her major at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), but the influence of biology professor and mentor Mary Scott Skinker caused her to rethink her career goals.  Despite the fact that career opportunities for women in the sciences were extremely rare at that time, Carson changed her major to biology in her junior year.

It was clearly the right move — Carsongraduated Magna Cum Laude in 1929, and continued on to graduate work, studying zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University, and earning her master’s degree in zoology in 1932. Despite her initial concerns that, in her new field, she would have to give up writing, Carson discovered that her new focus actually gave her “something to write about.”

Branching Out

The Carson family had experienced financial difficulties throughout Rachel’s life, and in 1934, Rachel chose to abandon her doctorate studies at Johns Hopkins and take a full-time teaching position to help support them.  In 1935, Carson’s father died, which added to the family’s troubles. To help provide for her mother, sister and two nieces, Carson took what she expected to be a temporary job with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, writing a series of short, educational radio programs which focused on aquatic life.  Impressed with her ability to mold dry science into audience-friendly material, Carson’s supervisor fought for her to obtain a full-time position.  Carson became the first woman ever to pass the U.S. civil service exam and the first to hold a full-time professional position at the bureau, as a junior aquatic biologist.

To Carson, the seas were a mysterious new frontier, an unexplored realm.  She had developed a particular fascination for the oceans from an early age, by some accounts due to the discovery of fossils bearing the imprint of ocean shells in the hills surrounding her childhood home.  Although she didn’t get her first view of the ocean until 1929, during summer graduate studies at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts, she was now virtually immersed in it.  Her new position entailed analyzing field data on fish populations, as well as writing brochures and bureau literature.  She was also able to use the research from her work as a basis for her articles for local newspapers, including The Baltimore Sun.

In 1937, her essay, “The World of Waters,” which she had written for the Atlantic Monthly, garnered the attention of publishing house Simon & Schuster.   This led to the publication, in 1941, of her first full-length book, “Under The Sea Wind.”  The book received excellent critical reviews, but sold poorly.

Though her desire was to write full time, she was unable to give up the steady income which her job at the Bureau provided.  Still, Carson continued to write articles for publications such as Natureand Colliers, and began compiling materials for another book.  In 1940, the Bureau became the Fish and Wildlife Service, and by 1949, Carson had risen to the position of Chief Editor of Publications.

In 1950, Carson completed her second book, a history of the oceans entitled “The Sea Around Us.”   First serialized in the New Yorker, it was published in 1951 by the Oxford University press, to widespread critical acclaim.  The book became a bestseller, remaining on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks, and won the 1952 National Book Award and the Burroughs Medal.  The book’s success also led to the re-publication of “Under The Sea Wind,” and also finally gave Carson financial security.  She left the Fish and Wildlife service in 1952 to devote herself to her lifelong dream of writing full time.

A Bellwether

Best known for her 1962 book, Silent Spring, and widely credited with inspiring the modern-day environmental movement, Rachel Carson was also the author of three other bestselling books: The Sea Around Us(1951), The Edge of the Sea (1955), and the re-publication of her first book, originally written in 1941, Under The Sea Wind. Notably, all of Rachel Carson’s books are still in print.

The popularity of her books, thanks to her informative yet evocative style, had made Rachel Carson a household name.  Throughout the 1950’s, Carson continued to produce work which introduced readers to the wonders of the natural world, including a third book on the subject of the oceans entitled “The Edge of the Sea.”  But her lifelong interest in nature and conservation, her skills as a scientist, and her talents as a writer, were brought to the fore in the late 1950’s, as she embarked on the journey that would produce her greatest and most influential work, “Silent Spring.”

Rachel Carson had long been interested in the subject of the dangers of chemical pesticides.  In 1958, Carson’s friend Olga Hutchinson recounted to her how a massive kill-off of birds occurred on her two-acre bird sanctuary in Massachusetts, after being doused in DDT as part of a mosquito eradication program.   This knowledge worked against Carson’s every sensibility and she resolved to bring her attention “back to a problem with which [she] had long been concerned.”

Carson devoted the next 4 years to researching her book, detailing what she claimed were mis-uses by the U.S. government, chiefly by its Department of Agriculture, of lethal, untested chemical pesticides – and their effects on the environment, and human and animal populations.

“Silent Spring” was first serialized in New Yorker, starting in June of 1962, and the excerpts ignited a national controversy.  Carson knew that the book would bring a shower of scrutiny down upon her, and when it was published in full, she included 55 pages of research footnotes to back her claims.  The book attracted strong praise but also elicited criticism, though mostly from those who sought to benefit from discrediting it.   It was a love letter to nature and a cautionary tale, with the short-sighted greed of chemical companies and the U.S. government’s own Department of Agriculture cast as the main villains; a new breed of deadly pesticides as their weapons.

In a chapter entitled “Indiscriminately From The Skies,” Carson details the USDA’s disastrous 1957 campaign of chemical warfare on fire ants.  The South American import, unintentionally introduced to the U.S. in the early 1920’s, was decidedly a nuisance, with its painful sting and large mounds, but government studies had deemed it barely a pest, and hardly a threat to agriculture or livestock.  But with the advent of new methods of chemical pest control, the USDA embarked on an ill-conceived eradication program.

Enormous quantities of the chlorinated hydrocarbons dieldrin and heptachlor were unjudiciously applied to 20,000,000 acres of farmland in nine southern states, in an effort to eradicate what the government now considered a threat to livestock, despite their earlier assertions to the contrary.  Dieldrin is a chlorinated hydrocarbon which has since been shown to be a persistent organic pollutant, 50 times as poisonous as its more infamous cousin, DDT, and which “biomagnifies” as it is passed down the food chain.  The losses to wildlife – and the livestock that the spraying was supposed to protect – were widespread, disastrous, and easily attributed to the spraying program, though the government denied any connection.  Carson contended that the “pest eradication” program was nothing more than an ill-disguised, poorly conceived public relations campaign to sell pesticides.

In her book, Carson recounts nearly a dozen real-life horror stories exposing the results of misuses of chemical pesticides:  A 1954-62 “eradication” program in Illinois against Japanese beetles with aerial spraying of dieldrin, resulting in the annihilation of the populations of several species of birds and mammals – both wildlife and livestock; a 1956-1957  “all-out chemical war” with DDT against the gypsy moth in the northeastern United States, which killed birds, fish, crabs and useful insects, contaminated milk and farm produce and devastated honeybee colonies;  the1959 aldrin spraying of Japanese beetles in Michigan , which killed birds and squirrels and sickened dogs and cats, begging the question  of what it was doing to people?

These government spraying programs not only ravaged wildlife populations, for the most part, they did little to nothing in terms of providing long-term pest control.  Carson contended that, in nearly every case cited in the book, the results of the spraying programs were eventual upsurges in insect populations attributable to both the development of resistance and the destruction of natural predators.  Carson accused the USDA of recklessness, claiming that they did little to no testing on their own and ignored research that existed.  They sprayed first, and didn’t even ask questions later.

In addition to her focus on ill-conceived pest eradication programs, Carson also called out the Food and Drug Administration for promoting an unjustified impression that safe limits of chemical pesticides in food had been established and were being adhered to.  She called for public education as to the nature of household chemicals offered for sale, and brought to light distinct connections between pesticides and cancer, and reproductive and genetic harm.

The public audience was skeptical at first – how could scientists not have our best interests in mind?  Carson made clear her belief that, when scientists were acting on behalf of business, their interests were not neutral and their focus was protecting the bottom line, not the common citizen.

Naturally, the outcry from chemical companies over publication of the book was harsh.  Velsicol threatened to sue Houghton Mifflin, the book’s publisher, and Carson was subjected to personal attacks on her credentials and character.  She was labeled a “fanatic,” a “hysterical woman,” and a Communist.

In the end, the chemical industry faced a backlash.  They protested too much, it seemed, and weren’t able to stand up the scrutiny which, invited by Carson, they brought upon themselves.  People took notice, and a movement was born.

“So nature does indeed need protection from man, but man too needs protection from his own acts, for he is part of the living world. His war against nature is inevitably a war against himself. ” 
Source: Rachel Carson’s Speech on “Silent Spring” at Scripp’s College in June of 1962

Seeds Planted

“Silent Spring” has become famous as the “book that got DDT banned,” which was one eventual result of the public outcry that followed its release.  But contrary to popular belief, Carson never actually called for outright bans on substances, she merely argued for controlled restraint and scientific accountability.  And while the book was intended to bring to light irresponsible government practices, what Rachel Carson achieved was far greater. Her passion for her subject planted the seeds of a movement towards environmental awareness.  Carson described a picture of ecological balance – when a species is uniformly destroyed, other species can multiply with impunity.  She understood the interconnectedness of nature, and her poetic descriptions of seemingly mundane biological processes probably had as much of an effect of luring people to a love of nature and its stunning variety and brilliance as it did in sounding an alarm at its destruction.

The fact of this shy, retiring woman’s willingness to take on the “powers that be” awakened many to the possibility that they shouldn’t necessarily accept the status quo without question.   Carson was willing to speak out, even in the face of personal hardship.  She had learned she had breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy while researching and writing the book.  By 1962 the cancer had spread and she was undergoing debilitating radiation treatments.  Yet she was willing to fight on for what she believed, and her passion was as strong a force as her intellect.  People listened, responded, and started to ask questions of their own.

Some of the things which we take for granted now  – packaging on chemicals, pesticide warning labels – were the result of the movement created after the publication of Carson’s book.  In 1973, the Endangered Species Act was passed, and its protections have led to the recovery of several species which were decimated by use of chemical pesticides, including the American alligator, the peregrine falcon and our nation’s mascot, the bald eagle.

Ecology Heroine

Heroes commit feats of courage involving risk or sacrifice, and which have a nobility of purpose.  Rachel Carson died of cancer in 1964, two years after the publication of  “Silent Spring.”  She might not have lived to see the full effects of her influence, but she had a good feeling that she might have opened some peoples’ eyes. She certainly paved the way for future women scientists.  But perhaps her most enduring legacy is the notion that one voice, no matter how small and quiet, could speak volumes and open the eyes of millions.

Rachel Carson’s unique combination of intellect, talent and courage helped to birth future generations of nature-lovers.  She was the mother of a movement that made it “cool” to be green.  Business and governments in the twenty-first century have come a long way towards environmental responsibility, but the consumer and the bottom line still rule.  It will require vigilance and passion to defend the health of our planet and ourselves, and it will take heroes like Rachel Carson to protect our futures.

Some of Rachel Carson’s other Notable Achievements

Best known for her 1962 book, “Silent Spring”, and widely credited with inspiring the modern-day environmental movement, Rachel Carson was also the author of three other bestselling books – 1951’s “The Sea Around Us,” “The Edge of the Sea,” (1955) and the re-publication of her first book, originally written in 1941, “Under The Sea Wind.”  Remarkably, all of Rachel Carson’s books are still in print.

  • Graduated Magna Cum Laude with a degree in biology in 1929 from the Pennsylvania College for women; Granted a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, where she received her M.A. in 1932.
  • In 1936, became the first woman to pass the U.S. civil service exam and the second woman hired to work in a full-time position for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.
  • Charter inductee, in 1973, to the Ecology Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
  • In 1999, chosen as one of Time Magazine’s “100 Heroes and Icons Of the 20thCentury.”

Further Reading

  • “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, ” by Linda Lear
  • “Rachel Carson – A Biography,” by Arlene R. Quaratiello
  • “Handbook of Nature Study,” by Anna Botsford Comstock