Love, dread drove Carson

`Silent Spring' reflected ardor for nature, anxiety over its future

April 22, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun reporter

SILVER SPRING -- From a chair in a sun-dappled corner of her back porch, Rachel Carson embraced the birds and flowers around her. But she also envisioned their demise.

That fierce love and a sense of dread drove Carson to write Silent Spring, the cornerstone of the environmental movement, even as she battled the breast cancer that would kill her just 18 months after the book's publication in 1962.

Her warnings about pesticides such as DDT galvanized a generation of activists, many of whom gathered 37 years ago today for the first Earth Day, a grassroots plea for a cleaner planet. Later in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which in one of its first major actions banned DDT for damaging eggshells, including those of the bald eagle.

People touched by Carson's life and writings say that 100 years after her birth, she remains relevant: from Denis Hayes, the father of Earth Day, to former Vice President Al Gore, who wrote the introduction to the re-release of the book in 1994, to Jerry Longcore, a federal biologist who conducted DDT studies in Maryland in the early 1970s that reinforced Carson's findings.

On Tuesday, at Rachel Carson Elementary School in Gaithersburg - one of about a half-dozen schools nationwide to bear her name - students planted a red maple tree to honor her. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is sponsoring programs about her legacy at its facilities, including ones in Maryland. Colleges from California to Maine are having retrospective programs about Carson.

Once again, it seems, the nation is getting in touch with the slim, quiet scientist who took up her pen against poisons that were fouling the planet.

"She did a brilliant job laying out, and then defending from harsh critics, her findings," said Hayes, primary organizer of the first Earth Day who runs the Bullitt Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group. "She was this quiet profile in courage. She was clearly one of the heroes."

The reason Silent Spring was so successful is because Carson "gave us a picture of the world we love and then she smashed us into it," said Linda Tatelbaum, professor of English and environmental studies at Colby College in Maine, which is bringing together environmental leaders for a Rachel Carson weekend in early May. "That's where Earth Day comes in. This is a place we love, and that's why we care."

At Yale University's rare books and manuscripts library, 118 boxes of research, drafts, correspondence and awards are testimony to her inquisitive mind and crusading spirit.

"We still have so much to learn from her," said Dr. Gail Carlson, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby. "We can use her example as a springboard to attack present-day environmental challenges. When you read Silent Spring, you think it's going to be boring and outdated, but if you cross out DDT and put in the toxin of the day, everything is still relevant."

Carson spent more than four years researching and writing Silent Spring in her Montgomery County home and her Maine cottage. She told Life magazine that she wrote the book "because I think there is a great danger that the next generation will have no chance to know nature as we do."

Battling the effects of radiation treatments, she dictated parts of the book from bed to her assistant, Jeanne Davis. When it came time to fend off attacks from chemical companies and the scientific establishment, the shy marine biologist who never sought the limelight donned a wig and went on TV, testified before Congress and made speeches.

"Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself," she said in a 1963 CBS Reports documentary on Silent Spring. "I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."

Carson died at her Silver Spring home on April 14, 1964, of a heart attack related to her cancer. She was 56.

Move to Maryland

Carson was born May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pa., 15 miles north of Pittsburgh, the youngest of three children. Prowling her family's farm with her mother, Maria, she learned to love nature.

She earned a $100 scholarship to attend Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham College, and graduated magna cum laude in 1929. Not satisfied with a bachelor's degree, Carson moved to Maryland that fall to attend the Johns Hopkins University. Her master's thesis was on the early larval stages of catfish.

She taught part-time for four years at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland until she passed the federal civil service test in 1936 and moved to Washington to work for the Federal Bureau of Fisheries (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) as a writer. Her bosses turned to her to improve the agency's radio show, called "Romance Under the Seas," but derided by the staff as "Seven-Minute Fish Tales."

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