Over Increasingly Large Areas Of The United States, Spring Now Comes Unheralded By The Return Of The Birds, And The Early Mornings Are Strangely Silent -- Rachel Carson, From Her Book "Silent Spring"

March 04, 2007|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

In 1962, the idea of progress, of modern man striding step by inevitable step up the staircase of history, was virtually unchallenged in the United States.

One slim volume changed all that. It was written in Maryland by a woman born 100 years ago this year.

Rachel Carson would live for only 18 months after Silent Spring was published. But that was long enough for her to get an idea that she had changed the world.

"Silent Spring was a polemic in the best sense. It was meant to be a prophecy," says Carson's biographer Linda Lear. "A prophecy is something that is outside our narrative of time, that suddenly tells us if he don't wake up, that whole narrative will be blown to bits.

"That's what Carson was doing, writing apocalyptic literature," she says. "It took its direct aim from the Old Testament prophets, warning that if you don't change your ways, oh, Israel, then you are going to get it."

Before Silent Spring, airplanes would fly over wide swaths of land, dropping poisons meant to kill pests on houses and fields alike. In seaside communities, mosquito trucks would make their daily rounds, pumping out clouds of the pesticide DDT as children romped on nearby lawns.

No one thought a thing of it. These were chemicals, and chemistry was a marvelous thing. And they were being dispensed by governmental authorities who knew what was best for us. DDT was a wonderful invention, responsible for the elimination of malaria in this country.

"The idea of modern progress transforming the world for the better was part of the ethos of the Western world," says Robert Nelson, a professor of environmental policy at the University of Maryland, College Park.

In Europe especially, that idea had been battered, first by World War I, then by the Holocaust. But many of the objections were philosophical, not popular. And in the United States, which had been shielded from the worst of the blows suffered by Europe during the two world wars. few questioned the benefits of technological and scientific progress in the early '60s.

"I think it was Rachel Carson who first brought that kind of perception of doubting the benefits of modern progress to a broader context," Nelson says. "She made people realize that maybe if there was progress, there might also be a downside to it.

"We see that now with global warming. On the one hand, the use of energy is what makes life what it is today. On the other hand, there are potential, and real, problems with that usage," he says. "Carson was pointing that out with respect to chemicals and pesticides which were a major part of the whole modern project.

"Chemists could do, and did do, miraculous things," Nelson says. "What she wrote led in some ways to a loss of faith in scientific experts."

And what gave Silent Spring its credibilty was that not only was Carson a celebrated writer, she was just such a scientific expert. Born in Pennsylvania on May 27, 1907, she came to Maryland in 1929 to attend graduate school at the Johns Hopkins University after graduating from Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham College.

"It was the thick of the Depression," says Lear, whose biography, Rachel Carson, Witness for Nature, was published in 1997. "Things were very hard. And she was one of the very few women in the cohort of students at Hopkins."

Carson first lived on the Hopkins campus, then in a house in Stemmer's Run, northeast of Baltimore, not far from the Chesapeake Bay. Her scholarship money and a variety of jobs - including free-lance work for The Sun - supported her extended family, including at various times her mother and father (who died while she was at Hopkins), a brother and a sister and some nieces and nephews.

"She was a woman who knew very early in life, certainly by the time she went to college, that she had a mission," Lear says. "She knew she was not just to lead an ordinary life."

Lear, who maintains the Web site www.rachelcarson.org, says that Carson realized she had a gift for writing as well as an interest in science. She left Hopkins with a master's degree in marine biology but would certainly have gone for her doctorate if not for the financial straits of those Depression years.

"She never really thought seriously about marriage," Lear says of Carson. "She realized that if she was married, she would not be able to write. In those days, that was a realistic appraisal."

Carson moved to the area around the University of Maryland in College Park, where she taught in what was then the zoology department. She also taught summer school at Hopkins. Eventually she got work writing radio scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, rising to editor-in-chief of all publications for the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Her first love was the ocean. She received excellent reviews for her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, in 1941, but any possibility of significant sales ended when World War II began.

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