Rachel Carson (1907–1964)

Two books, The Sea Around Us (1950) and Silent Spring (1962), are the monuments of Rachel Carson’s writing career. The Sea Around Us is primarily a work of art, a poetic exploration, in her time, of an almost unexplored part of the world. Silent Spring, on the other hand, is an impassioned public appeal, the first effective warning of chemical attack on the human environment, a warning “comparable in its impact on public consciousness, and demand for instant action, to Tom Paine’s Common Sense, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle,”as Robert B. Downs, author of Books that Changed America, commented.

Silent Spring opens with a fable. Carson creates an “our-town” with an idyllic landscape. Her description is suffused with a nostalgia that may be difficult to understand these days, except for those who may recall vividly the processions of arching elms that once lined residential streets of American towns. Carson lovingly describes these and all the other natural beauties we took for granted and then contrasts them with the tragic waste that came after: plants and animals dying, people sick, some dying, no birds singing. “I know of no community,” she says in Silent Spring, “that has experienced all the misfortunes I describe. Yet every one of these disasters has actually happened somewhere, and many real communities have already suffered a substantial number of them.”

A chapter-by-chapter glance at the topics she engages reveals the thoroughness of her attack. She begins by affirming our moral obligation to assure that life endures despite the poison we have released. Then she details how we have poisoned the waters, the soil, vegetation, birds, mammals, and fish. We have even sprayed destruction from the skies. All of that poison, of course, filters into our food. She probes, finally, into the cell, the root of all life, especially the place where cancers are born and spread. She warns us toward the end that nature fights back and concludes by suggesting alternative ways of living within our limited environment.

Rachel Carson was a noted biologist and ecology writer whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, led to a shift in public attitudes about the use of pesticides.

Rachel Carson was a noted biologist and ecology writer whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, led to a shift in public attitudes about the use of pesticides. (Library of Congress)

It would be wrong to think that the power of Silent Spring is merely rhetorical. Analysis is what Carson does best:

Under primitive agricultural conditions the farmer had few insect problems. These arose with the intensification of agriculture—the devotion of immense acreages to a single crop. This set the stage for explosive increases in specific insect populations. Single-crop farming, in other words, does not take advantage of the principles by which nature works; it is agriculture as an engineer might conceive it.

This point takes us all the way back to the birth of agriculture in ancient Mesopotamia. But in the next paragraph she brings us up to our own day and the destruction of the American elm trees that once formed those Gothic arches over the streets of so many small towns. Because the trees were all American elms, one beetle was able to wipe them out, all of them. Trucks rumbled through the streets spraying insecticide high into the air in a vain attempt to control them. Those arches are long gone, replaced by a scraggle of quick growing cottonwoods and other replacement trees.

Carson’s systematic analysis includes a technical discussion of the toxicity of the chemicals that have been used to control insects. One of the chief villains in her story is, of course, DDT, the synthetic pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. She tells the story of Clear Lake, north of San Francisco, a popular lake for amateur fishermen, but an ideal habitat for a harmless but very annoying mosquito-like gnat. Note well: a harmless insect. Nothing was able to control these gnats until DDD (dichlorodiphenyldichloroethane), a relative of DDT, was applied. DDD was chosen because it was harmless to the fish. It was very judiciously applied, 1/50 part per million. In the following winter, the western grebes began to die. They were examined and found to be loaded with DDD “in the extraordinary concentration of 1600 parts per millions.” Then the fish themselves were analyzed, and the picture became clear. That tiny, minutely measured 1/50th part per million application of DDD to the water had been picked up by the smallest organisms. They had concentrated the chemical and passed it along to the plankton eaten by the fish. The ultimate result: “a brown bullhead had the astounding concentration of 2500 parts per million.” Worse, “the poison had not really left the lake; it had merely gone into the fabric of the life the lake supports.”

Story after story like this one unfolds as her chapters proceed up the chain of life. As for government protection, there was little; instead, there was endless denial and procrastination by officials in charge of land, woods, and water. There were, in fact, large blank spaces in pesticide research. “Manufacturers’ tests” she continues, “on the common laboratory animals—rats, dogs, guinea pigs—include no wild species, no birds as a rule, no fishes, and are conducted under controlled and artificial conditions. Their application to wildlife in the field is anything but precise.”

When it comes to human health, Carson reveals a danger even more profound. In our time, as we know, cholera, smallpox, and plague, the age-old threats to human health, have been largely controlled. Today she argues, we are threatened not only by radiation but also by a “never-ending stream of chemicals, of which pesticides are a part.” The danger is insidious. It lurks. She cites Dr. David Price of the U.S. Public Health Service: “our fate could perhaps be sealed twenty or more years before the development of symptoms.”

In Chapter 15, titled “Nature Fights Back,” she argues that not only do insects develop resistance to insecticides, but also “our chemical attack is weakening the defenses inherent in the environment itself, defenses designed to keep the various species in check. Each time we breach these defenses, a horde of insects pours through.” First, in nature, insect populations are controlled by the internecine war they carry on among themselves. Yet, in our society, “most of the chemicals now used kill all insects, our friends and enemies alike.” Second, species do not simply multiply. Once their enemies are gone, they explode. Moreover, they develop resistance: “The list of resistant species now includes practically all of the insect groups of medical importance.” Carson notes the worldwide insecticide resistance of houseflies, body lice, mosquitoes, and others. Experts have even concluded that “housefly control has escaped insecticidal techniques and once more must be based on general sanitation.”

In a final passage, Carson abandons her scientific detachment to give us a taste of the cold fury that has motivated her jeremiad: we are, she says, living in a Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, a Stone Age of science:

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.

Back in the mid-1800s, a terrible battle was waged over requiring doctors to wash their hands between patients—a war that, astonishingly enough, is still going on in the hospitals of our time. No surprise, then, that Silent Spring was greeted with rage and contempt, mixed with blatant sexism. Within the dark storm of obloquy, however, there appeared one bit of light: President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee, against the wishes of the Department of Agriculture, based a strong report in 1963 on her book and her testimony. The report required such agencies as the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of Agriculture to rethink their pesticide-related programs and keep the public apprised of decisions regarding pesticide use and monitoring.

Carson is famous as a reformer. But before she took up the role of reformer, she was an artist. From her earliest years she had decided to be a writer. Under the Sea Wind (1941) was her first imaginative venture. In it she assumed the viewpoint of the creatures of the sea, personifying them, giving them names as she followed their migrations. Human beings were dangerous intruders. Unfortunately, and in spite of good reviews, this first major imaginative essay was crowded out of public attention by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the beginning of World War II. She did not emerge again for a decade as the poet of the sea she had intended to be.

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh and graduated from the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) with a major in biology. She went on to graduate school at Johns Hopkins University where she graduated with an MA in zoology in 1932. She began her career as a marine biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, writing pamphlets on guarding wildlife and on various wildlife refuges. But a decade later, she emerged more definitively into the world of literature with The Sea Around Us. Excerpts were published in both The New Yorker and the Yale Review. The excerpt in the Yale Review won her the George Westinghouse Science Writing Award.

Juggling her various responsibilities, it took her all of 10 years to write The Sea Around Us, which she called “the story of how the young planet Earth acquired an ocean.” She began her story with “The Gray Beginnings,” a title belied by the poetry of her writing: “For there was no living voice, and no living thing moved over the surface of the rocks.” Note the unmistakable echo of the Book of Genesis here. Our modern world needs its own science-grounded story of creation. Carson was not alone in giving us one. Loren Eiseley, a contemporary of hers, also assumed the important role of rewriting Genesis. The Bible, however, emphasizes the ascendance of man over beast, giving man power over them all. The scientific genesis cannot afford to be anthropocentric. As Carson says:

Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal—each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements of sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water. This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulatory system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.

Man is, chemically, an altogether earthly creature of the sea.
“The Sunless Sea” is, like “The Gray Beginnings,” a chapter title belied by its rich descriptions of color and sound. Colors of marine animals, she tells us, “tend to be related to the zone in which they live”: blue and green in surface waters; crystal clear in the waters just below; at a thousand feet, silvery with a scattering of other colors; at 1500 feet black, deep violet, or brown. As for silence, there is none; rather, “an extraordinary uproar produced by fishes, shrimps, porpoises.” The snapping shrimp produces “a crackling, sizzling sound, like dry twigs burning or fat frying.”

The more interesting aspects of The Sea Around Us are the hints, the intimations, and the questions that Carson raises about a topic that was, at the time, uncharted territory: plate tectonics, the theory that the surface of the earth is divided into continental plates that are in constant movement. Contemporary atlases include maps that trace the shifting of continents over millions of years. Those maps did not exist when Carson was writing. Still, she notes that island arcs and deep trenches occur in ocean areas of volcanic unrest, and the “pattern is associated with mountain making and the sharp adjustments of the sea floor that accompany it.” In speaking of the mid-Atlantic Ridge, she also notes that “according to one theory, the continents of North and South America drifted away from Europe and Africa,” an interesting foreshadowing of the geological revolution to come. She notes too that “the deep trenches that lie off the coast of South America, from Alaska along the Aleutian Islands and across to Japan, and southward off Japan and the Philippines give the impression of a landscape in process of formation.” And yet, in speaking of “The Birth of an Island,” she tells us that “the major land masses and the ocean basins are today much as they have been throughout the greater part of geologic time.” Carson attributes the presence of related species on distant land masses to land bridges, to drifting on the air or on masses of seaweed in the water. Similarly, she notes the presence of sea fossils on mountain tops and attributes their presence to the rise and fall in place of the regions of the earth.

The fact that so much of her treatment of the sea lacks the benefit of later scientific insight into the movement of tectonic plates does not detract from the mass of organized detail that she has artfully arranged in The Sea Around Us. The fact that she was unaware of plate tectonics merely underlines one of the central problems of the literature of science. The most beautifully executed description of our evolving planet runs the risk of becoming outdated by the evolving sciences on which it is based. Still, not all of The Sea Around Us suffers from this disadvantage. “The Global Thermostat,” her chapter on global warming, is still relevant, though perhaps controversial. Considering climate change at the scale of centuries, she lays out the scientific evidence that it is cyclic. There is no mention of pollution as a cause of global warming. In “Wealth from the Salt Seas,” she notes a very curious phenomenon: that “in a cubic mile of sea water there is about $93,000,000 in gold and $8,500,000 in silver.” Extracting it, of course, would cost more than either of these figures. Eventually she discusses oil, which, of course, we are still discussing.

The Sea Around Us climaxes and concludes with an essay on notions, images, and stories of the sea in the world’s many cultures:

For the sea lies all about us. The commerce of all lands must cross it. The very winds that move over the lands have been cradled on its broad expanse and seek ever to return to it. The continents themselves dissolve and pass to the sea, in grain after grain of eroded land. So the rains that rose from it return again in rivers. In its mysterious past it encompasses all the dim origins of life and receives in the end, after, it may be, many transmutations, the dead husks of that same life. For all at last return to the sea–to Oceanus, the ocean river, like the ever-flowing stream of time, the beginning and the end.

Two years before the publication of Silent Spring, Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer. Her stubborn battle with the chemical industry was carried on at the same time as she was battling cancer, both battles complicated at intervals by an ulcer, pneumonia, staph infection, and herpes. She had also assumed responsibility for the care of her grandnephew Roger, the son of her niece Marjorie Williams, who was born in 1952. He was a difficult child, and her faithful care for him adds a dimension of deep, personal loyalty to her stubborn persistence at her work as a revolutionary public figure. She died on April 14, 1964.

—John E. Becker


Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. Revised edition. New American Library, 1950, 1951, 1961

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1962, 1987.

Chen, Pauline W. “Why Don’t Doctors Wash Their Hands More?” New York Times, September 17, 2009.

Downs, Robert B. “Upsetting the Balance of Nature.” In Books that Changed America. London: Macmillan, 1970.

Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

McCay, Mary A. Rachel Carson. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.