Miss Carson’s Book

Late in the summer of 1962, extreme weather visited both ends of the United States. In the West it was so hot that women wore swimsuits on the streets of San Francisco, and the smog levels in that city were the highest ever recorded. On the East Coast, Hurricane Alma churned northward, interrupting a pleasant spell as it neared the tip of Long Island. On August 28 the edge of the storm ended play at Yankee Stadium one inning after Mickey Mantle blasted what proved to be the game-winning home run to right center field through a driving rain. The next morning it was sunny and warm in the nation’s capital, where the Washington Post’s weather section reported daily radiation levels of just three micromicrocuries per cubic meter of air—unchanged from the day before and not bad given the recent pace of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests by both the United States and the Soviet Union.

That same day, President John F. Kennedy appeared at the State Department at four in the afternoon for the forty-second press conference of his year and a half in office. The president began by announcing Felix Frankfurter’s retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court. He then fielded questions about farm policy, tensions in Berlin, and whether he would meet with Nikita Khrushchev during the Soviet premier’s upcoming visit to the United Nations. Kennedy also answered several vaguely portentous queries about an apparent increase in Soviet shipping traffic to Cuba. Near the end, Kennedy took an unusual question. “Mr. President, there appears to be a growing concern among scientists as to the possibility of dangerous long-range side effects from the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered asking the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take a closer look at this?"

If he was surprised, Kennedy did not miss a beat. “Yes,” he said quickly, “and I know that they already are. I think, particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book, but they are examining the issue.”
In this brief exchange something new came into the world, for this was a cleaving point—the moment when the gentle, optimistic proposition called “conservation” began its transformation into the bitterly divisive idea that would come to be known as “environmentalism.” Kennedy’s promise of a government investigation into the contamination of the environment by a widely used and economically important class of products had no precedent. And because the government itself used pesticides extensively, any such inquiry necessarily had to look in the mirror. Compared with the other matters Kennedy had discussed that day—policies that would evolve, situations that would change and fade away—a problem with the health of the environment became by definition a problem with the totality of human existence. At issue was humanity’s place in the natural order of a world increasingly subservient to the human species. Who but us could devise so perfect a way to contend with ourselves?
On a Farther Shore launch party
Click here to listen to the audio of William Souder's talk during the launch party.

The president’s reference to “Miss Carson’s book” would now be opaque to the several generations of Americans who have come of age in the intervening years—Rachel Carson is unknown to almost any one under the age of fifty. But in 1962 no elaboration was needed. Carson was the bestselling author of three books about the oceans and by any measure one of America’s most respected and beloved writers. Or so she had been. The new book to which Kennedy referred, Silent Spring, was a bristling polemic about the indiscriminate use of pesticides. It was unlike anything Carson had previously written. Although not yet actually a book—it wouldn’t be published for another month—in June three long excerpts from Silent Spring had appeared in consecutive issues of The New Yorker. By the time of Kennedy’s press conference, The New Yorker articles had raised public alarm in the United States and abroad and prompted the chemicals industry to launch an angry and concerted effort to discredit Silent Spring and destroy its author.
The woman at the center of this firestorm scarcely seemed capable of becoming such a polarizing figure. Now fifty-five years old, Rachel Carson had spent most of her adult life in the company of her mother—writing, bird-watching, and visiting the seashore. Petite,soft-spoken, and nearly apolitical, she lived quietly in a leafy suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, with a cat and her orphaned ten-year-old grandnephew, Roger Christie, whom she had adopted. Carson had earned a master’s degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University but had never worked as a scientist. In the gloom of the Great Depression, she instead found a job as an information specialist with the federal government’s Bureau of Fisheries, an agency later merged with the Biological Survey to form the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
In 1951 her book The Sea Around Us made Carson’s literary reputation—it stood atop the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-nine weeks and won the National Book Award—and she left government service. Every spring Carson and Roger drove north to Southport Island on the Maine coast, where she owned a cottage on a rocky bluff overlooking Sheepscot Bay. Here Carson passed her summers in reflection, gazing at the ebb and flow of the sea, collecting marine specimens in the tidal pools along the shore, and visiting, often deep into the fog-shrouded nights, with her neighbors Dorothy and Stanley Freeman. In the fall, she went home.

William Souder 
photo credit: Dani Werner

This excerpt of On a Farther Shore by William Souder has appeared here with permission from the publisher. Click here to read more of the excerpt. 

Click here to read Elizabeth Royte's review of On a Father Shore -- in the 9/14/2012 edition of The New York Times

Click here to listen to the interview with William Souder on The Diane Rehm Show.

Click here to read "On a Farther Shore: William Souder on the Legacy of Rachel Carson" -- on the Milkweed Editions blog. 

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