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In 1962, the marine biologist Rachel Carson published her seminal book on the ecological effects of ...
2019-10-20 09:30:00

A Lesson in Wonder
The Life of Rachel Carson

Drawing by Daniel Mróz. From the Przekrój archives, no. 383/1958
A Lesson in Wonder
A Lesson in Wonder

She was accused of excessive emotionality, reproached for her spinsterhood. Some even suggested she was a Soviet spy. That was the price she paid for writing about the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment. Her name was Rachel Carson.

Read in 14 minutes

1962, in the midst of the Cold War. The US imposes an embargo on Cuba; the nuclear arms race and the space race are on. Lou Reed is 20 years old; Bob Dylan is 21 and has just released his first album. 19-year-old Janis Joplin begins her studies at the University of Texas at Austin, which she never finishes. On 5th August, Marilyn Monroe dies – the circumstances are unclear, and her death is referred to as a “probable suicide”. On 28th August 1962 at 4pm, President John F. Kennedy hosts a press conference during which he is asked whether he is considering engaging the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to investigate the impact of DDT and other popular pesticides on human health. Kennedy responds without hesitation that the investigation is already underway, thanks to “Miss Carson’s” book.

The book Kennedy was referring to was Silent Spring, widely regarded as a crucial work for the development of ecological awareness in the US. Combining top-tier literature with scientific deduction, author Rachel Carson, a zoologist by education, argued that the mass use of insecticides, mainly DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), could have a detrimental effect on the environment and human health. Carson’s accessible, evocative style made readers realize that the range of impacts of the synthetic agents being introduced into the environment could never be limited to a single niche, since all elements of the ecosystem are interrelated. The poisons with which plants are doused get into the soil, reaching lakes and rivers through the groundwater, where they poison the fish. Birds are affected too, because DDT leads to a reduction in eggshell thickness. Carson painted an apocalyptic vision of a ‘silent spring’, a spring without birds: “There was a strange silence. The birds […] – where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices.”

Rachel Carson. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
Rachel Carson. Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The publication of Silent Spring ignited a bomb, inciting fear and outrage among readers. Scores of letters were sent to the editorial office describing cases of mysterious diseases in people and animals. Modern ecological awareness was born. Carson’s name was everywhere – she was even made the protagonist of an episode of the popular comic Peanuts. However, she also had many opponents, especially among representatives of the chemical industry. Critics claimed that the book was unscientific, too poetic and one-sided. Carson was accused of hysteria. The 55-year-old author’s spinsterhood became the subject of mockery. It was even suggested that she was a Soviet spy. She had an important ally in Kennedy, although most of Washington was against her (including the head of the Department of Agriculture, Orville Freeman). As Carson’s biographer William Souder wrote, the dynamics of a conflict that has continued along similar lines to this day were quickly established: on one side were the voices of scientists and defenders of nature; on the other, a coalition of government and industry – in other words, the concentrated force of the establishment.

Knowledge and care

Rachel Carson was not the celebrity type. She spent most of her adult life with her mother, observing nature, writing, and walking by the sea. She lived in the suburbs of Silver Spring, Maryland and looked after her nephew Roger, the orphaned grandson of her sister. She was born on 27th May 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania. After graduating from a women’s college, she studied zoology at Johns Hopkins University. In the summer of 1932, she began writing her doctoral thesis in the Marine Biology department, but the tough financial situation during the Great Depression meant that she had to leave her studies and work at the Bureau of Fisheries. When her father died in 1935, she became the family’s sole breadwinner, moving to Silver Spring two years later. She worked for the Bureau of Fisheries (later called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) until 1951, and at the same time she wrote articles about wild nature, which were much loved by readers.

A breakthrough came with the publication of The Sea Around Us in 1951. This meditation on the sea around us and in us, the great mother of all life, combined scientific precision and poetry in Carson’s typical style, according to a principle she disclosed – that the ambition of both science and literature is to reveal the truth. She described geological sediments on the seabed as an “epic poem of the earth”. She explained: “If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”

Carson sensed what has become obvious in our times: care for the natural environment is not only a task for science, but also for the imagination. No technology will benefit life unless its application goes hand in hand with empathy. An ardent researcher and nature explorer, as well as a lifelong carer for others, Carson developed a unique style for talking about the relationships between people and nature, based on knowledge and care, invariably referring to the unscientific and irrational (but necessary) concept of wonder. The Sea Around Us remained on The New York Times Best Seller list for 39 weeks and received the National Book Award, which allowed Carson to quit her office job. She used the money from the award to build a summer house in Southport on the coast of Maine, which became her base for further explorations into the world of marine life.

While working on The Sea Around Us, Carson was already beginning to think about DDT. Like the nuclear weapon, DDT was a product of World War II. The atomic mushroom and clouds of insecticide sprayed by aircraft were two of the characteristic images of that era. During the war, DDT actually saved human lives, being an effective tool used to fight louse-borne typhus. However, its mass application in agriculture was not preceded by appropriate testing. Carson noticed an analogy between radioactive fallout and pesticides. The consequences of using these ubiquitous, barely detectable substances were spread out over time and were hard to predict. Nuclear tests primarily generated isotopes of strontium-90 and iodine-131. Concerns had arisen that radioactivity was harmful to humans (in 1954, Japanese sailors aboard the Daigo Fukuryū Maru died as a result of radiation), but the Atomic Energy Commission refused to carry out research.

The same was true of pesticides – here, too, despite increasing social concerns, research was not permitted. According to Carson, radioactive fallout and the ubiquity of insecticides were a testimony to human short-sightedness and the distorted rate at which human civilization was developing. She didn’t oppose progress, but she argued that we were making changes too quickly before we fully understood their possible consequences. 60 years on, we’re starting to see what she meant…

While the attention of both supporters and critics was focused on the “inconspicuous” (as she was described) author of the bomb book, Carson was hiding her own private drama. In 1960, two lumps were found in her left breast; one turned out to be benign, but the other was suspicious enough that a radical mastectomy had to be carried out. After the surgery, the doctor – according to the prevailing custom of lying to oncology patients, especially women – told her that nothing further needed to be done. However, it soon became clear that the disease was progressing, and Carson had no chance of recovery.

While working on Silent Spring, Carson was suffering. After the book’s publication, she gave interviews, took part in public debates and appeared on television, all the time hiding her medical condition, because she knew that information about her illness would provide her opponents with a whole new range of arguments, since she was contending with substances that might cause breast cancer. The attacks on Carson reflected the attitude to women who dared to speak out on such ‘male’ subjects as science or politics. Despite her pain and illness, she was unyielding. Her work led to the adoption of the Clean Air Act and the establishment of a national system for the protection of wildlife. She died on 11th April 1964 in Silver Spring.

Along the seashore

According to Jill Lepore, who wrote about Carson in The New Yorker (where Silent Spring appeared in episodes before the book’s publication), Rachel couldn’t have written her most famous book had she not spent decades climbing the rocks, wading in the bays and observing all the connected processes of life. She loved the sea, although she couldn’t swim very well. Above all, she was fascinated by the shore – the endlessly dynamic transition zone between sea and land. She wrote: “To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and the flow of the tides, to feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of shore birds that have swept up and down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be.” And: “The shore is an ancient world, for as long as there has been an earth and sea there has been this place of the meeting of land and water.”

While carrying out research for The Edge of the Sea (published 1955), Carson met the love of her life. Dorothy Freeman was 55 years old, married with an adult son, and she often spent her summers in Southport. When they weren’t together, the women wrote passionate letters to one another. “Why do I keep your letters?” wrote Carson to Freeman in the winter of 1953. “Why? Because I love you.” Freeman replied: “My love is as boundless as the sea.” Both of them worried that their correspondence could fall into the wrong hands. Their letters would often consist of two parts – one that could be read out to the family (Carson’s mother, Freeman’s husband), and another intended exclusively for the addressee, to be destroyed after reading. A collection of those that survived was published by Freeman’s granddaughter in 1995.

For her wider audience, Carson wrote about the open sea, about the living, evolving nature of the ocean; poetic metaphors interlaced with reports in the fields of geology, physics and biology, blurring the boundaries between disciplines, opposing the ossification of human sensitivity and knowledge. She wrote about the seashore, the border crossed by all lifeforms that ventured ashore, one of the results of which was the evolution of man. She wrote about soil alchemy, microorganisms, and the processes of decay and synthesis. Her greatest talent was her immense ability to feel wonder – and to share it with others. Carson thought that without wonder, without being surprised by the mysterious, wise power of nature, we simply would not survive. She also believed that you can learn wonder from children, as long as you create the right conditions for them to cultivate this natural gift.

Every spring, she would travel with Roger to her home in Southport, where they explored the surrounding nature together. She described these experiences in an article entitled “Help Your Child To Wonder”, which appeared in the monthly Woman’s Home Companion in July 1956. She wrote: “One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about 20 months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in the rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy – he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me. But I think we felt the same spine-tingling response to the vast, roaring ocean and the wild night around us.”

Later, she describes night-time trips with her nephew along the shore and in the Maine forests in search of ghost crabs. While the child had sometimes seen the crabs during the day, they are essentially nocturnal, so they walked with a torch, keeping an eye out for the mysterious creatures. They admired nature in both good weather and bad; rather than any kind of lesson, their outings were based on play, “in the spirit of two friends on an expedition of exciting discovery.”

She explained that she let Roger enjoy the games that children are usually denied because they involve some kind of discomfort, interfering with bedtime, or ending with wet feet and muddy clothes. She argued that the best day for a walk in the forest is a rainy day, when all the trees come alive, the needles seem to “wear a sheath of silver” and the ferns are edged with “crystal drops”. Fungi and lichens also undergo a magical transformation, acquiring distinctive shapes and colours. She wrote: “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”

Voices of the Earth

According to Carson, knowledge was secondary to feeling. When we feel the beauty of the world and have respect for non-human nature, we will naturally want to get to know it. You don’t need any knowledge to feel rain on your face, or to contemplate the route along which the drops of water have travelled from the sea into the air, from the clouds to the rain. We must become sensitive to what surrounds us, learn to use our eyes, ears, noses and fingertips, fire up our neglected channels of sensual perception. What would she have to say about human senses now, 60 years later, seeing children glued to smartphones?

The most moving passage in Carson’s extremely topical essay describes an epiphany. It happened, as usual, in Maine. Carson and her friend were observing the night sky. Captivated by the “misty river of the Milky Way”, the bright, clear glow of the constellations of stars and planets, she thought: “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again? […] If this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. […] Because [people] could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it.”

Carson encouraged readers to explore the world with a hand lens or magnifying glass, reasoning that such simple experiments can be great lessons in wonder. Looking at a handful of sand, you can see glistening crystals and Lilliputian rocks. Moss seen through a lens becomes a dense tropical jungle in which huge insects prowl between peculiar, towering trees. A piece of seaweed placed in a glass and observed in magnification turns out to be inhabited by a swarm of strange creatures immersed in their mysterious activities. Look through a magnifying glass at a flower or a bud, and an extraordinary complexity and beauty will be revealed.

And besides sight, we have smell, hearing and touch: “Take time to listen and talk about the voices of the earth and what they mean – the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf or flowing streams.” Or on an October night when there’s a full moon, take your binoculars and await the silhouettes of migrating birds. “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.”

Since Carson’s death, her memory has lived on, and her books have continued to be influential. The Environmental Protection Agency was set up in 1970. Two years later, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act were passed. The use of DDT in agriculture was banned. Nonetheless, for the time being, the combined forces of technocapitalism are winning out over such ‘wild’ entities as imagination, empathy and wisdom.

In Silent Spring, Carson wrote: “We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one less traveled by – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

Where are we now, 60 years on?


Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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