Maryland's Carson a force for nature

May 27, 2007|By CANDUS THOMSON

Let's take a few minutes on this, the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, to consider the treasures she left us.

Of course, we have her trilogy of environmental books --The Sea Around Us,The Edge of the Sea and the 1962 hallmark, Silent Spring.

But in the 1930s, she also wrote outdoors articles for The Sun under the byline R.L. Carson. The biologist lived in Maryland for 35 years while attending Johns Hopkins University, teaching at the University of Maryland and writing for what is now called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In April 1964, Carson died in her Silver Spring home at the age of 56 after a long struggle with breast cancer.

Sun research wizard Paul McCardell went back into the newspaper's morgue and dusted off a stash of her writings. After reading them, you come away with two thoughts: Marylanders have been fouling their nest for a long time, and we sure could use another Rachel Carson.

Carson's columns decry waterways too choked with industrial waste to support life, diseases that threaten hatchery fish and a commercial trawling fleet setting up shop at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay to scoop up croaker, sea bass and flounder. She warns of taking too many fish, too many ducks, too many oysters, too many diamondback terrapins.

Seventy years later, we still have runoff clouding a bay nearly devoid of oysters. The state has had to kill tens of thousands of hatchery trout tainted by whirling disease. And a commercial fleet still vacuums fish -- this time menhaden -- out of the bay.

Talk about a learning deficit.

But what keeps Carson from being a one-note prophet of doom and gloom is her unbridled love of the wonders of nature.

Here's her opening on a 1938 fishing column: "Giant bluefin tuna, the speed of torpedoes and the strength of tigers in their streamlined bodies, are keeping a rendezvous this weekend off the rocky shores of Nova Scotia."

In that same year, Carson explains how eels migrate from rivers in the United States and Europe to the Sargasso Sea in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to spawn and die: "One dark night, when wind ruffles the surface of the river and clouds hide the moon, she slips away downstream on a journey which she will never retrace. Hiding by day and drifting with the currents by night, she finds the river ever widening, the channels deepening, the water bringing unfamiliar tastes to her keen senses."

A 1936 article describes a new baby shad: "He escapes into the world, a fish indeed, yet not a perfect fish. ... A mouth he has, yet his most important adjunct to the enjoyment of life and liberty, to say nothing of the pursuit of happiness, has no passageway through to the alimentary canal.

"Of fins, the badge of fishhood, he has but two, and these are poorly developed. His heart is imperfectly formed, and perhaps its position in his throat betrays his natural timidity of spirit. ... Yet these apparent deficiencies do not appear to weigh heavily upon the spirit of the youngster. From the moment he leaves the egg he is the personification of joyous energy, swimming by continuous and rapid vibrations of his tail."

Yup, Carson could flat-out write.

For her 1956 book, The Sense of Wonder, Carson 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.

"If I had influence with the good fairy, who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from sources of our strength."


It is time to honor the life of Maryland's most famous environmentalist -- although we almost didn't. A bill to do so passed the state Senate this year, but was killed in committee by a Baltimore lawmaker who proudly proclaims himself a member of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Nature Conservancy.

Del. Pete Hammen told Sen. Brian Frosh, the bill's sponsor, that he was tired of all these ceremonial bills gumming up the legislative gears.

Yeah, it's really beneath the legislature to honor a longtime resident and an environmental pioneer who warned of indiscriminate pesticide use, who was on best-seller lists for years, who was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

Better to use that time on naming roads and other public works projects after retiring state government officials. I, for one, get goose bumps driving on the Sen. Ida Rubin Highway in Montgomery County and over the Sen. Leo Green Bridge in Prince George's County on my way to the Gov. Parris N. Glendening Natural Environment Area in Charles County.

I tried contacting Hammen by phone and e-mail to get his side of the story, but he never responded.

Luckily, Gov. Martin O'Malley stepped in earlier this month with a proclamation at a ceremony at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel.

"With eloquence and insight, Rachel Carson helped people around the world understand the most simple of truths, that we are part of our natural world and that what we do to that world we do to ourselves. Today, a century after her birth, our collective ability to address the challenges facing our environment is only limited by our willingness to take responsibility for our actions and preserve our natural world."


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