Fifty years ago a woman’s voice portrayed the natural world’s reaction to human intrusion. Fifty years ago that portrayal created a firestorm with the publication of a “bristling, anti-pesticides polemic Silent Spring,” writes William Souder in his new book, On a Father Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, published this month by Crown Trade, a division of Random House, Inc.
Carson’s opening fable of a once robust mid-American town, rich with bird song, deer, and abundant meadows, falls silent with death. “It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was no sound; only silence lay over the woods and marsh,” reads page 2 of Silent Spring.
Since 1941 Carson, a writer and conservationist, with a graduate degree in marine biology, wrote four books about the natural world that brought her recognition as a naturalist and science writer. But when Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962, Carson’s work changed the course of environmental activism. Carson also became the target of a vicious campaign to personally and academically discredit her research and her results.
Her plea to reconsider the use of DDT, a powerful pesticide manufactured by Monsanto Company, Velsicol, and American Cyanamid, raised the hackles of the chemical industry.
Eliza Griswold recently wrote in a New York Times Magazine article, “The personal attacks against Carson were stunning. She was accused of being a communist sympathizer and dismissed as a spinster with an affinity for cats. In one threatening letter to Houghton Mifflin, Velsicol’s general counsel insinuated that there were ‘sinister influences’ in Carson’s work: she was some kind of agricultural propagandist in the employ of the Soviet Union, he implied, and her intention was to reduce Western countries’ ability to produce food, to achieve ‘east-curtain parity.’ “
TIME magazine also wrote an unflattering review of Silent Spring in 1962. In yesterday’s TIME article, How Silent Spring Became the First Shot in the War Over the Environment, Brian Walsh writes, “While the piece praised her graceful writing style, it argued that Carson’s ‘emotional and inaccurate outburst’ was ‘hysterically overemphatic,’ which I believe is a fancy way of saying that the lady writer let her feelings get the best of her. The title of the review — ‘Pesticides: The Price for Progress’ — gave away the game.”
The attacks on Carson for her sex are outstanding: spinster, an affinity for cats, emotional…outburst, hysterically overemphatic. The same style of coding remains in today’s political non-dialogue. And the suggestion that Carson employed “sinister influences” from the Soviet Union, would be laughable, if not pathetic. All this, because Carson dared challenge the better living through chemistry mantra so popular in the 1950s—she saw another side of progress that could do more harm than good. Her detractors hobnobbed in the same club that claimed smoking as sexy and non-addictive, and the manufacturers of the sedative, thalidomide, frequently prescribed to pregnant women.
I read Silent Spring in 1968. It changed my view of the natural world and was more than incidental in my personal growth. Carson’s plea for moderation and close observance to what and how we walk upon this earth speaks louder today than it did 50 years ago. Her opponents live on and rally against anything that smirks of environmentalism. To my point of view their arguments remain shallow and manipulated.
Caring for the planet given us, is to me, our spiritual duty. I don’t propose resumption of cave-like living. Modern conveniences are a blessing and allow us more opportunity to study and appreciate the beauty of the night sky, the magnificence of a peaceful or raging sea, the joy of watching a red-shouldered hawk perch on a pole just feet away, the exhilaration of overcoming breast cancer through medicine, the abundance of a farmers’ market, and the ability to inhale flower-fragrant fresh air.
But to brush off the warnings of those who make it their life study to understand our natural world, is foolhardy, regardless of the opinions of those who take without question and demand more wealth and power within their reach.
Breast cancer killed Rachel Carson two years after Silent Spring’s publication. Like excellent art, poetry, song, science and exploration, the book remains relevant to anyone that marvels and savor the joys our planet freely gives.