Arts & Events

Re-Reading Rachel Carson in Spring

By Helen Rippier Wheeler, Special to the Planet
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:42:00 AM

Where have the mourning doves and hummingbirds gone? I used to hear a pair of murmuring doves as they explored, not silently, the sidewalk and nearby rooftop of my north Berkeley neighborhood. And hummingbirds flitted at feeders containing sugar water that hung from balconies (where permitted) and porches. Rachel Carson’s two favorite kinds of birds were the veery, a member of the thrush family, and the tern, a small, black-capped gull-like bird with forked tail.  

Rachel Louise Carson (1907–1964) believed that “we must come to terms with nature ... we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves.” With her writings and with her brief life, she advanced the global environmental movement.  

She began her career as a U.S. Bureau of Fisheries biologist and emerged as a full-time nature writer and environmentalist. The 1951 bestselling The Sea Around Us won her recognition and the security she surely needed as the support of her adopted son and her mother, to whom she owed her love of nature. She had taught Rachel “as a tiny child joy in the out-of-doors and the lore of birds, insects, and residents of streams and ponds.”  

Carson’s next book, The Edge of the Sea, and the republished version of her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, were also bestsellers. Her sea trilogy explored the whole of ocean life and her belief that “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.” 

As a biologist concerned about the problem of chemical contamination of the environment, Carson devoted five years, 1958–1962, to gathering data on the effects of pesticides in general use. She set forth the alarming facts in 1962 in Silent Spring. The title came from her opening chapter, which pictured how an entire area could be destroyed by indiscriminate spraying. She contended that the “control of nature” philosophy is born of an age when it was believed that nature exists for the convenience of humans. 

Because Carson alerted the public to the widespread use of substances of great potential harm to people and the natural environment, she was attacked by business interests. She defended her theories at Senate hearings that led to stricter regulation, although not to prohibition, of the use of such toxic chemicals as DDT.   

Silent Spring brought environmental concerns to the American public and spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, leading to a nationwide ban on DDT and other pesticides. The inspired grassroots environmental movement led to creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Clean Air Act of 1963 created funding for air-pollution research, and in 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Wilderness Act. 

With only a master’s degree in zoology and without a literary pedigree, this feminine female editor of government wildlife publications had produced a scientific book for the popular audience and become an overnight literary sensation. She was, however, the only woman present at President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee. “The industry-led attack on Carson began early. Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson supposedly wondered why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics? His explanation was that she was ‘probably a Communist.’” The Monsanto Corporation parodied Silent Spring in a publication titled “The Desolate Year” that described a world without pesticides.  

Linda Lear, Carson’s biographer, writes that “Some reviewers, most of whom were male science writers, were hesitant to give Carson or her book the critical accolades that such a display of learning and eloquence deserved. Reviews of The Sea Around Us were prejudiced by her [non]status as a scientist, the audience she addressed, and her gender. “Rachel Carson must be a pen name,” one reviewer wrote. “I assume from the author’s knowledge that he must be a man.” Almost every male who reviewed the book speculated about what a woman able to write such a book looked like. And the press was inordinately interested in Carson’s marital status. When a reporter asked her why she never married, she responded, “No time.”   

Rachel Carson was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Jimmy Carter. Her physician had lied to her when her cancer was first diagnosed. She died on April 14, 1964 at age 56 of metastasized breast cancer. Especially notable at this time of questioning relevance of mammography is the multitude of 20th-century women writers also afflicted with breast cancer. They have included Margery Allingham, Barbara Ehrenreich, Oriana Fallaci, Mary Tyler “Molly” Ivins, June Millicent Jordan, Violette LeDuc, Audre Geraldine Lorde, Margaret Mead, Jerri Lin Nielsen Fitzgerald, M.D., Grace Paley, Barbara Mary Crampton Pym, May Sarton, Susan Sontag. Death from breast cancer (female) is second only to prostate cancer. The female breast cancer number projectioned for 2015 California is 374,900. The death rate has recently decreased. Walk on! 


Helen Rippier Wheeler is a Berkeley resident.