Review of ‘Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature’

Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature
Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature Amazon

Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature
Linda Lear
Henry Holt

When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and E. B. White of the New Yorker both compared the impact of the book to that of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Carson's study of the dangers of pesticides, said White, was a work that would "help turn the tide" of environmental degradation. Time has proven him right: Silent Spring changed our thinking, our society, our world.

Carson, at least superficially, seems an unlikely prophet. She spent most of her working life inside a government agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service, editing technical studies and writing booklets publicizing departmental preserves and programs. Her biographer describes her, in what seems like a triumph of understatement, as "emotionally as well as physically constrained." Still, when the environment needed an advocate, few were better prepared than Carson.

She had a first-rate scientific education, including three years of graduate study in biology at Johns Hopkins, and a deeply spiritual love of the natural world. During her years in the Fish and Wildlife Service she had acquired a network of connections with researchers and policymakers in Washington's environmental bureaucracy. She was an award-winning author of two best-selling books about the ocean--The Sea Around Us, published in 1951, and The Edge of the Sea, which was published four years later. When Rachel Carson talked about a threat to the environment, people were going to listen.

As a child, Carson was fascinated by the natural world. She also loved writing. But science, she decided, offered a more realistic career. In college she concentrated on biology, and then won a full scholarship for graduate study at Johns Hopkins and a summer appointment at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole in Massachusetts.

Then family difficulties, and the Great Depression, intervened. Carson's household--her parents and the families of her brother and sister--was in strained circumstances. In 1934 she dropped out of the PhD program and began looking for work.

Carson took a part-time job writing scripts for a radio program produced by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Then, in 1936, a position for an aquatic biologist opened up at the Bureau of Fisheries. Carson was chosen for the job. "I had given up writing forever, I thought," she wrote several decades later. "It never occurred to me that I was merely getting something to write about."

That "something" was the sea, and the life that filled it. For the next 15 years she wrote formal studies, booklets and brochures during the day, then used what she had learned to write freelance articles and essays for broader public consumption. Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, had the misfortune of being published the year America entered World War II. Still, it established her reputation in the world of commercial publishing and led to a contract for a second book, The Sea Around Us. The success of this book allowed Carson to quit her job and become a full-time writer.

Rachel Carson, a biologist by training, became a writer by writing. But it was her love of nature--and particularly the world between the tide lines near her summer cottage in Maine--that made her an environmentalist. When people began to recognize the dangers of pesticides in the 1950s, Carson was able to understand the science involved and explain it to the reading public. Still, Silent Spring would never have had the impact it did if Carson had not believed, fervently, that the indiscriminate use of environmentally persistent pesticides threatened the entire fabric of the natural world she loved.

Lear's biography contains too much inconsequential detail and says too little about the intellectual context in which Carson's ideas developed. Nevertheless, it offers a fine portrait of the environmentalist as a human being; an odd and obsessive woman buffeted by the difficulties of life, yet still ready to watch and wonder and find fascination in the world around her.

John R. Alden, a writer living in Michigan, is particularly interested in natural history and the history of environmental preservation.

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