In Rachel Carson's centennial year, why there won't be another one like her

Review Ecology

March 04, 2007|By Susan Salter Reynolds | Susan Salter Reynolds,Los Angeles Times

Hardy Californians: A Woman's Life With Native Plants

Lester Rowntree

University of California Press / 310 pages / $19.95 paper

Who is the next Rachel Carson? It's a question you hear a lot in environmental circles. Where is the writer who can bridge the gap between poetry and science? Where is the book whose message is so accessible, so imperative, that it inspires not only activism but legislation? In his introduction to the 1994 edition of Silent Spring, Al Gore wrote that it and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin "rank among the rare books that have transformed our society." When Carson died in 1964 of a heart attack after battling breast cancer, she left a gaping chasm between raw data and literature.

This is not to say that several authors haven't come close. The three most often mentioned as worthy of the Carson mantle are Theo Colborn, whose work on the 1996 book Our Stolen Future took on the issue of how chemicals affect fertility, development and intelligence; Bill McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature was one of the first to tackle climate change and how the very definition of what it means to be human will change as we destroy nature; and Gore, whose movie, book and ever-evolving slide show, An Inconvenient Truth, have awakened many to the immediate implications of climate change.

Two new books offer explanation as to why no new Carson has emerged: The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, "Silent Spring", and the Rise of the Environmental Movement by Mark Hamilton Lytle and The End of the Wild by Stephen M. Meyer. The first builds on previous biographies - most notably by Linda Lear and Paul Brooks and also Always, Rachel, the letters from Carson to her dear friend Dorothy Freeman - but goes beyond these books to explore the roots of Carson's environmentalism and reasons for her powerful impact on the American imagination. And if it is true, as Meyer claims, that "[w]e have lost the wild for now," then the very source of inspiration for writers and naturalists like Carson has dried up. The End of the Wild is one of those terrifyingly clear little books, seemingly undaunted by hand-wringing in the marketing department, in which the author states unequivocally that the battle has ended in defeat. No amount of regulation will alter the fact that, he writes, "the extinction crisis - the race to save the composition, structure, and organization of biodiversity as it exists today - is over, and we have lost."

Carson was born in 1907. Her mother, Maria, who was Rachel's friend and source of strength, believed in the teachings of the Arcadians, "a sentiment that flourished in early 20th-century America and harked back to the 18th-century parson-naturalist Gilbert White," and scientist-philosophers like Alfred North Whitehead who began thinking and writing about nature as a "web of life." Carson, encouraged by her mother, published her first stories in St. Nicholas magazine for children, which encouraged young naturalists across the country. She was drawn to what Lytle calls "the literature of escape" - writers such as John Burroughs, Edwin Way Teale and John Muir, wandering naturalists whose writing invoked the spirit of the natural world as well as a sense of freedom and discovery.

Carson believed that it was just as important to know as to feel: "Once the emotions have been aroused," she wrote, "a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love - then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response." Lytle takes it one step further: "Carson's writing did not simply evoke the dangers of science run amok. A reverence for the mysteries of nature and the intricate web of life linked her to the romantics. With their idealism, passion, and fascination with the unknown world, romantics often flaunt convention."

What made Carson a true subversive, writes Lytle, was the philosophy at the core of all these books, as different as they are in tone and structure and subject matter - the idea that nature, not man, is and should be at the center of the living world; that nature is not something to be managed by its creatures, however puny or powerful they may be. And that we ignore this cosmography at our peril.

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