Last week, I finished reading a lengthy biography about this important woman, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, written by Linda Lear and published in 1997. I'd been gnawing away at this fairly hefty book for several weeks. It wasn't a particularly easy read, and parts of it were downright dripping with details that I really didn't think needed to be included. However, over and over again as I read it, I found myself riveted by the path of her life: by her frequent troubles, by her dogged determination, by certain "silver linings" that serendipitously encouraged her along her way. By those who supported her...and by those whom she supported, literally and figuratively. (Note: All information discussed/mentioned below about Rachel Carson and her life was provided by this biography.)
A little personal back story: my 9th grade physical science teacher, Mr. Jack Pylant, encouraged a small cadre of his students to form an Ecology Club during the 1970-1971 school year. We had a blast, making a Super 8 movie about "Captain Ecology: He's Everywhere! He's Everywhere!" that showcased one of our classmates in tights and a cape jumping out of bathtubs and garbage cans, helping teach people how not to pollute in their every day life. We made posters and picketed the local grocery store on the first anniversary of Earth Day. And, during that year, Mr. Pylant had me read Silent Spring.
I'd always been a kid who loved bugs and animals and plants, but this book opened up my eyes to the longterm damage that people were doing to those same bugs and animals and plants - and also to us humans. I never again had a mentor who encouraged my interest in the environment in the way that Jack Pylant did, but I've never forgotten those early lessons in human short-sightedness either.
As I raised our children, I came across Carson's wonderful book, A Sense of Wonder, published (I learned when I read this biography) posthumously. To me, this short book is almost a prayer, asking that all children have at least one adult in their life who has retained their sense of wonder in nature and who will take the time to share the child's delight in the natural world around them. Unfortunately, I think fewer and fewer children have such an adult these days.
So why did I pick up this biography? And what insights did I gain from the life story of a woman who died almost 50 years ago?
I'd bought Linda Lear's biography of Carson shortly after it came out, following my tendency to pick up books of interest when I see them. The problem is that my interests are broader than my time to read about them is long - so, in this case, as in many other cases, I put the book on a bookshelf and left it there, intending to read it "some day."
"Some day" came about in August when I volunteered to give a program about "an influential woman in my life" for my small town sorority's monthly meeting. For some reason, my mind grabbed onto the unread biography sitting on my bookshelf, I announced my intention, and I picked up the book and started to read. Almost a month later, here are the insights (in italics) that are still rattling around in my head....
Rachel Carson didn't have a particularly easy or happy childhood. Her mother Maria was intelligent and well educated for her time, from a family that valued both. Maria was in danger of becoming "an old maid" when she married a man who turned out to be relatively sickly, unlucky, and a poor provider. There is no evidence that Robert Carson valued Maria for her intelligence or her education. Within a few years of marriage, they had two children, a girl and a boy. Eventually moved to a pretty, but hilly, piece of property along the Allegheny River near the burgeoning town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Soon after the move, and 7 years after the birth of their younger child, Maria had a 3rd child, a little girl they named Rachel. With both of her older children in school, Maria devoted herself to her youngest, roaming the woods of their farm, exploring the natural world together. Maria also shared her love of reading with her children, but it was her youngest, Rachel, who most shared their mother's interests.
At the end of the 1800's and start of the 1900's, there was a large cadre of amateur naturalists, many of them educated, middle class women. Keenly interested in natural history, Maria Carson was part of this cadre. Many of these well educated women wrote books about nature, creating a nature study movement nationwide. In 1911, the Handbook of Nature Study was published by Cornell University that provided methods and actual study guides and lesson plans for non-scientists to teach children about nature. This was a perfect fit for Maria Carson and her young daughter Rachel.
So Rachel grew up loving and knowing nature. She read a great deal and, by age 11, was writing pieces that were accepted by a children's magazine, St. Nicholas, for publication in their monthly children's writing contests.
Rachel had an adult close to her who shared her delight in nature and who encouraged her to read, instilling in Rachel twin passions that would enrich and shape her entire life.
The Carson family farm was rather removed from town and Rachel grew up playing by herself most of the time. Her mother being the overprotective sort, Rachel was also frequently kept home from school if illnesses threatened in town. With her frequent absences, strong love of reading and nature, poor economic situation, rather solitary nature and her close relationship with her mother, Rachel did not fit in very well at school; she had few friends of her own age.
College only emphasized her singularity. Her parents scraped and scraped to send her to college, so the need to do well academically was deeply impressed upon Rachel. Her mother Maria, starved for intellectual stimulation, visited Rachel almost every weekend, staying with her and studying alongside her. This could not have helped her social life in college. Meanwhile, Rachel's 2 older siblings were enjoying a less academic entrance to adult life. Both became rather wild and eventually married young; neither marriage working out well. Rachel's older sister Marion was left with 2 young girls to raise on her own. She moved back in with her parents and Rachel, adding 3 more mouths to an already economically stressed family. Rachel's brother moved in and out of the family home for many years, but never seemed to contribute money or emotional support to the larger family unit. With her parents and her siblings serving as her examples of married life, it is no great wonder that Rachel Carson did not aspire to marriage herself.
Rachel only dated one young man in college, and that was briefly. While she was active socially in her all women's institution, her primary concern was learning. She started in English, planning to be an author, but switched halfway through to science, especially biological sciences. Luckily, Rachel had strong mentors, especially one of her biology professors, who guided her during college and helped her find appropriate work after college, their teacher-student relationship strengthening to a strong friendship that lasted their entire lives.
Although Carson tried hard to continue on with her education after college, enrolling in graduate work at Johns Hopkins, eventually national economic realities interfered. It was the Depression. Rachel's father was ill and couldn't support his wife, eldest daughter and 2 granddaughters adequately. Rachel ended up moving her entire family to be near her in Maryland and took part time work to both help her family economically as well as pay for her graduate work. There seems to have been no regret in leaving the family farm near Pittsburgh. By this time, the pollution generated in that large industrial city had decimated the natural environment of the area. For a lover of nature like Rachel, this rapid destruction of her home's surroundings would have been a tragedy of major proportions, a personal environmental tragedy that would thereafter color her awareness of natural process with an understanding of just how fragile the environment could be in relation to human interference.
Once again living with her family, sharing bills and housekeeping with them, maintaining stable finances continued to be difficult for Rachel, her parents and her sister. However, one of Rachel's part time jobs turned out to be writing radio program scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries...which eventually morphed into a full time position writing, and eventually into editing. Before she got the full time position with the Bureau, though, her father died, leaving Rachel as the primary economic support for the rest of the household.
Except for the brief 9 month period between college and bringing her family to Silver Springs, Rachel Carson lived with her mother for her entire life, until her mother's death 5 years before her own. Until the last few years, Maria took care of running the household for Rachel, as well as occasionally helping her with her work.
While working part time, Rachel had started freelance writing articles about nature for newspapers and magazines, including the Baltimore Sun and, eventually, the Atlantic Monthly. She was exposed to the most current fisheries research in her job and, loving the sea, would share the information she was learning with the non-scientific public. Eventually she was encouraged to write a book, Under the Sea-Wind, which was released in November, 1941. The critics raved about the book. Carson had found the perfect union of her talents and passions, uniting her love of writing and biology in a career of nature writing.
Once again, however, national events strongly effected her life. With the U.S. being drawn into World War II, there was little money to promote the book of a relatively unknown author. Very few copies of the book sold, its time in bookstores overlapping so thoroughly with a war that completely sapped the time, energy and resources of our entire nation.
Carson, however, persevered. Still working in her spare time, she started work on another book, which eventually became The Sea Around Us, published almost 10 years after Under the Sea-Wind was released. In the intervening 10 years, Carson had widened her circle of friends and professional acquaintances. She had also hired a literary agent. Last, but far from least, Carson had also learned from her previous experience. This book was promoted much more professionally - and it made quite a splash, making it onto the best-seller list and remaining there for 86 weeks.
The popularity of The Sea Around Us was partially due to Rachel Carson's poetic ability to interpret science for the non-scientific reader, but it was also because this was the right book for its time. At a point in history when a great chasm was opening up between most people and the natural world, Carson helped to bridge that chasm in understandable, enjoyable prose. She presented her information in a format that took a long view of time, helping ease people's fears about current events.
Interestingly to those of us used to current standards, Carson's success created a maelstrom of criticism based entirely on her gender. A FEMALE writing a successful, scientific book? Her looks and her persona were the subject of much speculation. At least one high profile interview with Carson, after her book was a strong success, talked more about how she was dressed and what makeup she wore than it did about her academic background or her interest in the sea. This was just 60 years ago. Perhaps it's not surprising that there is still a strong element espousing this view of the world - and frantically trying to recreate their desired reality before it disappears completely into the past.
For the most part, all of this angst simply amused Carson. This second book had allowed her to do something she'd been wanting to do more and more: to quit her job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so that she could concentrate more completely on her writing and on caring for her mother, who still lived with her and was, at this point, over 80 years old.
The next project that Carson undertook was a guide to the sea shore, connecting the world of The Sea Around Us to the land that most people were more familiar with. Once more Rachel started doing both scientific literature research in libraries and field work along the Atlantic shore to fully understand her topic and to be able to interpret it for her nonscientific audience. Originally scheduled to be completed in two years, it was actually four years until The Edge of the Sea was published, in 1955.
During this time, Carson had many claims on her time. Not only was she researching and writing, as well as caring for her mother, she received several major awards that required both travel and well thought out acceptance speeches. Since she saw these speeches as important opportunities for her to share her love of nature and the environment with others, she always prepared for them carefully. There were magazine articles to write and even the script to a television show. Friends came to visit, often staying for a week or more at a time.
Her family was also claiming more of her time and energy. Rachel was assuming another family burden - her niece, Marjorie, a fragile diabetic, became pregnant unexpectedly and suffered a complicated and dangerous pregnancy. The father of the child being unavailable, this family dilemma became, to a great extent, Rachel's responsibility. Roger was born early in 1952, living with his mother (but both of them spending large amounts of time with Rachel and her mother) until Marjorie died early in 1957, at which time Rachel assumed primary care of the not-quite-5 year old boy.
One of the things Rachel most loved to do on visits with her great-nephew Roger was to explore outside with him, much as her mother had done with her. In 1956 she wrote an article about their times together for the Woman's Home Companion, "Help Your Child to Wonder." She always intended to lengthen this essay and publish it as a book, but that was never to be. The article is the basis for The Sense of Wonder, published posthumously in 1965.
The years of 1956 to 1958 were difficult ones for Rachel Carson, as she tried to combine her writing with caring for her extremely ill niece, her elderly mother, and her young great-nephew. As mentioned, Marjorie died early in 1957. Maria, Rachel's mother, passed away at the end of 1958. Now it was just Rachel and her young grand-nephew left in the household.
Life, of course, rarely gives anyone clear lines of demarcation...or time to grieve. Shortly after Marjorie died, early in 1957, Rachel learned about a new USDA program, trying to eradicate fire ants in the south, that involved the aerial spraying of powerful pesticides over thousands of acres of land. There was even some talk, on the part of government scientists, about such spraying being able to eradicate insects altogether.
Back in 1945, Rachel had learned about DDT through her work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The new chemical DDT was used in World War II against lice and insect-borne diseases; after the war, the government and the chemical companies that manufactured DDT were left with large stockpiles of it. Wanting to use this material up, the government decided to release DDT for non-military use. Testing of DDT's toxicity to humans was woefully incomplete; testing of its toxicity in the general environment was even weaker.
The Fish & Wildlife folks decided to run some preliminary tests on DDT's broader effects at their Patuxtent Research facility in Laurel, Maryland. Rachel learned the results of the early tests through her professional colleagues and by editing some of the reports. At the time, she wanted to do an article on DDT for Readers' Digest, but the magazine wasn't interested. Meanwhile, others who learned of the test results likened DDT to the atomic bomb in its ability to create whole scale destruction of "the enemy."
Now, in 1957, not only was this new program to eradicate fire ants being proposed, but DDT mixed with fuel oil was being aerially sprayed over wide areas of the east coast in an attempt to eradicate Dutch elm disease. This lethal mixture was also being widely used in fogging to try to control mosquitoes. In fact, a group of Long Island residents (including Dr. Bejamin Spock's younger sister, Marjorie) had sued the government to discontinue this spraying of their land, in concern for their own personal health. At one point, Spock's garden had been aerially sprayed with this mixture 14 times in a single day. Folks in other areas of the country were watching the Long Island case closely, as their land was being sprayed with the same mixture in an attempt to control gypsy moth and tent caterpillars, as well as mosquitoes.
It wasn't too long before Rachel Carson realized that a book on the subject of these synthetic pesticides and their environmental effects was something tremendously important that she needed to write. By 1958 she had begun work on this project, which essentially took up the remainder of her life.
Once she started this work, all was not smooth, however. First of all were her mother's health issues, culminating in her mother's death at the end of 1958. 1959 was a little better, although research for her book had to compete with care of Roger and with other writing obligations. 1960, however, almost immediately brought with it major health problems. In early January, Rachel was diagnosed with a serious ulcer. By the end of January, she got hit with a serious viral pneumonia, followed by a sinus infection. In March she found several "cysts" in her left breast, which turned out to be cancer. Surgery, which ended up including a radical mastectomy and the removal of multiple lymph nodes, occurred in early April. Under careful questioning, her surgeon assured her that she didn't need any followup treatment because the lumps and nodes he'd removed weren't actually malignant, but just bordered on malignancy.
Roger, now 8 years old, was starting to act up in school, adding another component of stress to Rachel's life. Then, in November, her cancer reoccurred in the form of a hard lump on a rib, and she started radiation treatment. Radiation treatments continued, off and on, for several years, making her feel extremely ill each time. From here on out, Rachel Carson's life feels like a race between finishing her book and dying of cancer.
Despite her seriously bad health (about which she swore those near her to secrecy), Rachel continued on with her research and writing. The invading cancer weakened her body, never truly strong in the first place, bringing a serious Staph infection the following January. Just as the infection seemed to be responding to antibiotics, one knee and the opposite ankle became extremely painful and swollen, keeping her confined for a long while to a bed or wheelchair and eventually requiring hospitalization. Radiation treatments brought serious nausea. The first 5 months of 1961 flew by with little work on the pesticide book getting done. The summer and early fall were better; most of the research and the writing were finally complete. The title, Silent Spring, was finally decided upon. It was time to revise...and ill health intervened again. This time Rachel developed a severe inflammation of the iris in November, causing her great pain and making her essentially blind.
Finally, in January 1962, Rachel was able to work again for a few hours a day without too much pain. Now she commenced fact checking, again and again. Chapters were sent out to scientific experts for editing and to check for factual errors. Every statement was carefully sourced. Rachel and her agent discussed the possibility of libel suits, being particularly worried about this possibility because of Rachel's financial vulnerability. This made Rachel doubly and triply cautious about making sure her statements were true and verifiable.
The publisher and Rachel's agent began to talk about publicity for the book. Two friends of Rachel's, who had each been professionally involved in fighting against pesticide use for some time, took the time to prepare her for the industry attacks that they were sure were going to come her way.
In the midst of all the furor of the upcoming publication, Rachel discovered more lumps. They were, indeed, further metastases of her cancer. Radiation began again, with all its side effects, while work continued. Rachel continued to work hard to hide her illness, buying wigs and getting friends to spread rumors about how wonderful she looked.
Beginning in May, the public events to publicize Silent Spring began. First was a luncheon in D.C. where particularly influential women who might be interested in the book were invited. Next was the White House Conference on Conservation, convened by Stewart Udall at the request of John F. Kennedy, with Rachel as a distinguished guest. By this time, many of the conference attendees had received advance copies of Silent Spring. Rachel gave the commencement address at Scripps in California. Book-of-the-Month Club chose Silent Spring as its October selection. The New Yorker began its planned serial installments.
And the criticism started... First out of the box was a letter suggesting that Rachel Carson was a Communist sympathizer and that "We can live without birds and animals, but...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."
In August, the thalidomide scandal (with the disclosure that the U.S. drug companies had tried to market thalidomide in the U.S. but been blocked by a single - female - scientist at FDA). Perhaps serendipitously, public interest was focused on the health consequences of using the wrong chemical.
The chemical companies and certain governmental agencies began their response to Carson's soon-to-be-released book. They could find few errors of fact to attack, so they started by attacking her writing skill and her "one-sided approach." The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, home of the DDT spraying campaigns, issued a bland statement in support of the concerns brought forward by "Miss Carson." One chemical company threatened legal action against the publisher and suggested that Carson was part of "a conspiracy" with "sinister influences" at work. Houghton-Mifflin refused to capitulate to the threat, simply responding that the facts had been thoroughly checked. When that threat didn't work, the chemical company lawyers talked with National Audubon Society leaders (Audubon having agreed to publish excerpts of Silent Spring in their magazine), suggesting that they had wives and family to care for that might be jeopardized by the publication of the Silent Spring excerpts. Audubon didn't cave either and, in fact, published excerpts of the chemical company's original letter to Houghton-Mifflin.
Undeterred, publication of Silent Spring occurred on September 27, 1962.
Letters poured in. Many were from doctors. Over half the letters were written by men, a fact that Carson felt was important to mention publicly, in that it showed that men, as well as women, were concerned about the effects of pesticides.
Public interest and support was high. So was criticism. It rapidly became obvious to Carson that few of her critics had actually read her book. So she pointed this out in her speeches. She described the liaison that had developed between science and industry, asking, "When the scientific organization speaks, whose voice do we hear, that of science or of the sustaining industry?"
By Christmas, Carson was having to curtail speaking engagements and was back at the hospital daily, enduring more radiation treatments. She started having severe chest pain. Although she was trying to keep things normal for Roger's sake, it became increasingly difficult.
Criticism and attacks continued, none substantive against her facts, but all determined to undermine her credibility. A former Secretary of Agriculture commented, "Why [is] a spinster with no children...so concerned about genetics?" He postulated that she was "probably a Communist." Once again, a great deal of focus was placed on Carson's gender and marital status. Her book was dismissed as overly emotional and "inaccurate" (but no factual errors were actually pointed out). Because she "only" had a master's degree, she was characterized as being an amateur, not a professional scientist, and therefore too unskilled to truly understand and critique the "scientific" synthetic pesticides. Carson loved birds and had cats, therefore she was characterized as hysterical and overly sensitive.
The trade associations for the chemical industry printed brochures and "fact sheets" denouncing Carson's work. They parodied her opening chapter and sent it to newspapers across the country. They characterized anyone who believed and/or supported her book as faddists and pseudo-scientists. They publicly castigated her for "abandoning scientific proof and truth for exaggeration," but they provided no proof of their own. One industry affiliate rewrote and publicized a nursery rhyme, "Rachel, Rachel, we've been hearing...," in which they mocked her and her conclusions. She was accused of telling half truths, and the public was warned that listening to Carson (and using fewer pesticides) would cause widespread starvation and death. At one point when she declined an invitation to be on a public panel because of health issues (and before she knew who the other panelists would be), the sponsoring group published a statement saying that she had declined to attend AFTER she found out who the other panelists would be. (Furious, Carson was able to get the group to admit their fallacy and to retract their statement.)
(Note: What really made an impact on me about all of this was that these same tactics are still being used on a widespread basis today, in many different public arenas, to protect monied interests and to discredit the work of those who threaten them.)
Carson herself continued to speak, as much as her ongoing illness allowed her. She urged people to pay careful attention to what they were hearing about pesticides, being sure to ask themselves who was speaking and what their motivation might be. She testified to Congress. She accepted several awards, making a final speech during her last trip to New York City in December, 1963.
On April 14, 1964, Rachel Carson passed away. Her brother Robert, who had never been supportive, came rampaging through the house within hours of her death to collect things he felt were his (including the TV in Roger's bedroom) and to destroy letters and documents that he didn't like. Roger, only 12 years old, went to live with Rachel's editor at Houghton-Mifflin.
Robert also assumed control of her funeral arrangements. Rachel had wanted a quiet memorial service at All Souls Unitarian Church. She wished to be cremated and her ashes scattered in the Atlantic Ocean off her beloved Maine coast. Instead, her brother Robert insisted on an elaborate funeral at the Washington National Cathedral. On a positive note, her pallbearers were some of her best friends, including Edwin Way Teale, a U.S. senator, and Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall. Brother Robert also insisted on Rachel's burial alongside her mother, Maria. Enough friends knew of her desire to be cremated that Robert was forced to compromise, having Rachel's body cremated and half of her ashes interred at the cemetery, while half were given to her good friend in Maine to scatter in the ocean, as Rachel had wished.
Rachel's agent, Marie Rodell, arranged for the desired quiet memorial service at All Soul's Unitarian Church after Robert had left. Later she spent 2 years sorting through Rachel's letters and papers, returning letters to their senders and requesting them to review them all and return only those they were willing to give permanently to Yale, where Rachel's papers were to find their final home.
Marie Rodell's final two projects for Rachel were to organize a committee of her friends to form The Rachel Carson Trust for the Living Environment, and to posthumously publish The Sense of Wonder.
So.... My final insights from Rachel Carson's life?
1. Some people truly seem to be born to accomplish an important task. In Carson's case, this was calling attention to the natural world and to the dangers being arrayed against it by human activity.
2. As I have come to realize more and more, successful people do not necessarily have happy childhoods. Often times, the very things that make a person successful later in life serve to isolate them during childhood.
3. Carson would probably not have been able to accomplish her life's work if she had been married. Her mother's lifelong support was also very instrumental in helping Rachel's interests and talents to develop and in allowing them to blossom and fruit.
4. Adversity that forced changes in her early plans actually worked to create the opportunities that Carson needed to do her work. Going to work for the Bureau of Fisheries, for example, showed her the way to combine her love of science with her writing talent, as well as giving her access to many scientists and their research.
5. Like Thoreau and the Concord, MA, transcendentalists, Carson was part of an important cadre of environmentalsts, including Teale, Eiseley, and Beston, who all knew each other and complemented each other's work and philosophy. Friends, personal and professional, can form an incredible scaffold of aid and support to enrich one's life.
6. Family can build a person up...or it can tear a person down. Carson had some of both in her life.
7. The powers-that-be (monied or influential, political or business) will be ruthless in attacking anything and anyone that threatens them. Their methods of attack include innuendo, outright lies, ridicule, belittlement, threats, and many other difficult-to-withstand tactics. They have no compunction about viciously tearing a person down to attain their own goals, and no ethical or moral code that involves telling the truth.
8. National events can have strong effects on individual lives...whether a person pays attention to politics or current events or history, or not.
I asked my Facebook friends how many of them had read Silent Spring. No one answered in the affirmative. I haven't read it since 9th grade, but maybe it's time to revisit it. I've read The Sense of Wonder many times now, and it never grows old.
As global climate change seems to be taking strong hold, year by year, and as our use of toxic chemicals continues, seemingly with little thought to the future, I wonder if Rachel Carson's warning to us all has been heeded, or whether it has just been forgotten, buried under the cacophony of everyday life. She closed Silent Spring with an epigraph, a quote from E. B. White. It seems very appropriate to close this post with the same quote:
I am pessimistic about the human race because it is too ingenious for its own good. Our approach to nature is to beat it into submission. We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially.