Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania – in the lower Allegheny Valley, where her mother took her on excursions into the countryside. As a young girl, she explored the woods and streams, learned the names of birds, insects and flowers, and wrote stories about her experiences. She went on to study science and continued to write highly successful books about the natural world for the rest of her life.
The spring of 1958 marked a turning point in Rachel Carson’s writing and entire life. Her friend, Olga Owens Huckins, wrote to her about the birds dying in her sanctuary. It had been bombarded with the aerial spraying of DDT, not uncommon in an era of “better living through chemicals.” The bomb had been dropped in Japan and atmospheric testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs became an unremarkable commonplace. “Dominion over nature” began in the back yard and on the home front. The chemicals in the water, soil and air and the fruit on the table became synonymous with progress. We were to believe that the fruit would not be there if not for the chemicals.
Rachel Carson had always been a conservationist, and she immediately embarked on a meticulous research project on the effects of DDT. And in doing so, she uncovered a labyrinth of horrors of pesticide poisoning more deadly than she had imagined. After this discovery, as biographer Mark Hamilton Lytle wrote, Carson "quite self-consciously decided to write a book calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar American culture." That book was called Silent Spring.
The Monsanto Chemical Company immediately published a parody of Silent Spring.
She was called “a nature fanatic.”
She was called “a communist bent on destroying the world’s food supply.”
She was called “an eccentric spinster who knows nothing about the welfare of future generations.”
Company “scientific experts” and politicians whose wealth and livelihoods depended upon the everlasting honeymoon between science and industry denounced the book. Many had never read it.
Rachel Carson went on to write other books, adopt her nephew when his mother died, and give interviews although she was dying of breast cancer. She died in April of 1964, her close friend, Dorothy Freeman, at her side.
Take your child out on a still October night when there is little wind and find a quiet place away from traffic noises. Then stand very still and listen, projecting your consciousness up into the dark arch of the sky above you. Presently your ears will detect tiny wisps of sound…they are the voices of bird migrants, apparently keeping in touch by their calls with others of their kind scattered through the sky.
-Rachel Carson, Sense of Wonder
Since the publication of Silent Spring, there have been well known “silent springs” and many not so publicized.
The sedge is wither’d from the lake
And no birds sing.
-- John Keats
along the Rhine River…
and in the garden and at the table, I hear Rachel’s voice.
Earth Day 1995