Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment by Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson: Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment (Library of America) BY Rachel Carson. edited by Sandra Steingraber. Library of America. Hardcover, 605 pages. $35.
The cover of Rachel Carson: Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment (Library of America)

If you were to saunter through the spruce-scented church of American environmentalism, looking upon the portraits of its saints, you’d first see John Muir, father of the Sierra Club, defender of the Yosemite, a green Abraham with a mossy old-man’s beard. Next to him, his camping companion, Teddy Roosevelt, protector of nearly 230 million acres of land. You’d find Aldo Leopold, whose A Sand County Almanac (1949) has become a sacred text. David Brower, whom John McPhee called “the sacramentarian of ecologia americana, the Archdruid himself,” director of Muir’s Sierra Club and founder of both Friends of the Earth and the Earth Island Institute, would hang next to Howard Zahniser, author of the 1964 Wilderness Act. Al Gore’s likeness would be there. So would Bill McKibben’s. Somewhere in the middle you’d find Rachel Carson, whose Silent Spring, a 1962 expose of DDT and eighteen other pesticides, has just been reissued, along with a host of letters, talks, essays, and short articles, by the Library of America.

Silent Spring, then as now, is a shock. After all, pesticides were considered the cutting edge of modern progress, and “better living through chemistry,” a variation on the Dupont’s chemical company’s slogan, was the catchphrase summing up postwar American optimism. Yet, in seventeen short chapters Carson conducted her electric case against pesticides, powered by meticulous research (she drew from 507 sources), and delivered with a scorching rhetorical jolt: “Chemicals sprayed on croplands or forests or gardens,” she began, “lie long in soil, entering into living organisms, passing from one to another in a chain of poisoning and death.” Pesticide makers, and the scientists, Department of Agriculture officials, and lobbyists they had bought, were scared by Carson’s audacity. There was no way, they argued, that a woman could write knowledgeably about a topic of such complexity. There was no way, they argued, that progress could miscarry so badly. There was no way that Silent Spring would go unchallenged. And so the profiteers of poisoning and death came. Wrote one angered reader:

Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies. . . . We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.

Nevertheless, Silent Spring resonated. It had the backing of the New Yorker, was the subject of a CBS Reports documentary, and was praised by President Kennedy. Within a decade of its publication, DDT and six other pesticides were either banned or had their use severely curtailed. Silent Spring­ helped galvanize the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and it’s often seen as the thing that kicked off modern mainstream American environmentalism. “Without this book,” Al Gore wrote in a foreword to an earlier edition of Silent Spring, “the environmental movement might . . . never have developed at all.”

Each edition in the Library of America series is an argument; the pieces that find their way between these hard-backed covers together proclaim: “Here’s what’s worth knowing about this person.” In Carson’s case, the Library of America declares that Silent Spring was Carson’s magnum opus, that hers was most notably a scientific mind. As Sandra Steingraber—biologist, accomplished environmental writer, and the Carson edition’s editor—puts it in her introduction, “the veracity of its science is the central genius of Silent Spring.” Two hundred pages of letters and talks and short articles fill out the balance of the edition, two hundred bright points of light whose constellation is an image of scientific effort, scientific outreach, science-backed advocacy.

Yet, we learn little of Carson before age forty, before she pitched Reader’s Digest the first version of what would eventually lead to Silent Spring (the pitch is the earliest source in the collection). We learn little of Carson the thinker, of the woman whose emerging environmental ethic came close to doing what mainstream American environmentalism fails to do, even today: reconciling care for the nonhuman world with social justice.

Rachel Carson was born in 1907 into a country home outside of Pittsburgh, where, early on, she discovered her life’s twin passions: writing and nature. It was a good time for a youngster so disposed. The nature studies movement—which got children out of the classroom and into the fields, forests, and streams—was at its peak, and Carson’s mother ensured that her children tromped through the countryside, watching birds, identifying trees, and developing sympathy with the little live things. All of this a young Carson put down in her journals. She aimed to be a writer in the John-Muir-wilderness-worship mold, and, at Pennsylvania College for Women, initially joined the English department. But then, in her junior year of college, she discovered biology. She switched her major, believing that she had to choose between the pen and the pipette, entered Johns Hopkins’s graduate program in zoology, and prepared for the life of a lab scientist.

Such a life was not to be hers. As Carson biographer Mark Hamilton Lytle points out in The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, some of Carson’s professors weren’t impressed with her. And the Great Depression hit. And Hopkins increased its tuition. And her father dropped dead, leaving Carson’s cash-strapped family desperate. So, Carson went back to earning a living the best way she knew how—by writing. What started as a few scripts for a radio show on marine biology turned into an article for The Atlantic, which became Under the Sea-Wind, the first of Carson’s three ocean books. The success of her second, The Sea Around Us, let Carson retire from her day job and focus on writing full-time, first on the last of her ocean trilogy, The Edge of the Sea, and then on what she called her “poison book.” (All three of the sea books are also to be collected and released by Library of America.) The poison book was, of course, Silent Spring.

Though Carson has been beatified for Silent Spring’s science, the book is primarily a work of razor-sharp criticism, and the anger that clangs through Silent Spring’s pages is the ringing of Carson’s anguish. “For the first time in the history of the world,” she wrote, “every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.” Yet Silent Spring is more than a condemnation of industry: it’s a condemnation of a thoughtless culture that would destroy the world for a single dollar. That condemnation includes the culture of science, because the same mentality that brought the atomic bomb into the world—what Steingraber calls the “command-and-control” ethos—also gave us synthetic pesticides: “The parallel between chemicals and radiation,” Carson wrote, “is exact and inescapable.”

The problem, Carson suggested, was that modern science had gone astray in its misplaced worship of hard facts—a kind of thoughtlessness. A fact alone, Carson knew, is meaningless. It’s only with sentiment that a fact can bear meaning, and it is sentiment that is the key to Carson’s ethical, ecological, life-affirming science.

This sentiment has a name: wonder. It was an overwhelming sense of wonder that washed over Carson when she saw the ocean for the first time, during a summer spent at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. It was wonder that led her to write her ocean trilogy. And it is wonder that best captures Carson’s care-filled attunement to the creatures, plants, and people of the world, to the ways that they all interact.

Silent Spring is typically taken as the summit of Carson’s career, but it’s an earlier essay, “Help Your Child to Wonder,” included in the Library of America edition, that best captures Carson’s ethic. Carson never had a child—her most passionate relationship was with another woman, Dorothy Freeman—but she raised one, her grandnephew, Roger, whose mother died when the boy was five. It was for Roger that she penned “Help Your Child to Wonder.” “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement,” she wrote. But soon comes the Fall: “It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.” The antidote was sentiment. “I sincerely believe,” Carson wrote, “that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.” Feeling was the path to wonder. Care was the way to cultivate it. And with wonder came a reverence for life.

Silent Spring, then, was a divergence, but a productive one: The anger Carson felt led her to confront the violence of thoughtlessness, led her to pass judgment, led her toward a more explicit cultural politics. “The ‘control of nature,’” she wrote in the book’s most memorable line, “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.” Two years later, Carson would be dead, in 1964, at age fifty-seven, of breast cancer.

I wonder: What if she had lived ten more years, had witnessed Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Stonewall rebellion, had read the Redstocking Manifesto, had watched the profits of Dow Chemical, purveyors of DDT, climb even as their Agent Orange and napalm fell upon the Vietnamese and stripped the leaves from their once-green trees? Here she is, in 1953, criticizing Aldo Leopold, whom she called “a completely brutal man”:

Until we have courage to recognize cruelty for what it is—whether its victim is human or animal—we cannot expect things to be much better in the world. There can be no double standard. We cannot have peace among men whose hearts find delight in killing any living creature.

Carson was a scientist, yes, but, in our time of global warming, rampant inequality, and mass extinction, it is Carson the ailing woman, the surrogate mother, the queer green thinker, unafraid of sentiment, enraptured by “the wonder and beauty of the earth” and all its inhabitants, that we need.

Daegan Miller is the author of This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent (University of Chicago, 2018). He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.