Rachel Carson wrote the book Silent Spring, published in 1962, which set in motion a string of actions that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. All of these exploded into fruition within a decade of her death. She exposed our country’s practice of wholesale spraying of lethal toxic substances on all things to kill one pest. The book took four years to write because as she researched one case it led to discovering many more cases where poisons were killing everything they touched.
While the book became a bestseller almost immediately, it created a firestorm of vicious attacks on Ms. Carson by the pesticide industry and the media. She remarked that her critics represented a small, yet very rich, segment of the population.
An editorial in Newsweek soon after its publication, compared Ms. Carson to Sen. Joseph McCarthy because the book stirred up the “demons of paranoia.”
I have to admit my knowledge of Ms. Carson was limited until one day in the spring of 2010 after I’d moved to the Pittsburgh area. I knew enough about her attend a showing of a documentary from PBS about her life. A Sense of Wonder chronicles the last two interviews Ms. Carson ever granted. She conducted them from her cottage in Maine and her home in Baltimore during her final year on this earth. Actress Kaiulani Lee stars in this documentary using Ms. Carson’s own words from the interviews.
The film – only 55 minutes in length – moved me to tears several times. Ms. Carson was a writer – a poetess of prose – from an early age. But in college at Pittsburgh Women’s College (now Chatham University) the study of biology beckoned. She went on to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where her talents as a writer emerged in the writing of boring fact sheets about species.
Born in 1907, she grew up on the banks of the Allegheny River in the community of Springdale, just upriver from the city that was coughing its way to becoming the Steel Capital of the World during the years of her childhood. Ms. Carson played in the hills surrounding the river as it wound its way to meet the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers. When she found a fossil on the banks of the Allegheny, she became obsessed with the sea and the history of nature.
It wasn’t until her later college years that she finally made it to the ocean for the first time, and she never left the east after her memorable experiences in worshipful study of the sea. Her first three books explored all aspects of the ocean and gave her enough financial success to quit her job with the Service.
“Finally, I was the writer I’d always dreamed of becoming. I thought I had abandoned my writing for science,” her character states in A Sense of Wonder. “But it was the study of science that was making my literary career possible.”
She didn’t want to write Silent Spring, but as her character points out in the documentary, “the subject chooses the writer, not the other way around.”
“All mankind in in her debt.”Sen. Abraham Rubicoff in 1964 after receiving the news of Rachel Carson’s death.