The Unsilent Spring
The sedge is wither’d from the lake,
And no birds sing.
– John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”
My absorption in the mystery and meaning of the sea have been stimulated and the writing of this book aided by the friendship and encouragement of William Beebe.
– Rachel Carson, dedication in The Sea Around Us
William Beebe, the raison d’être behind our previous two investigations, led a quixotic life and blazed many scientific paths that branched into bountiful fractals, but he gained my heart for another reason: he was an early champion of women in science. He promoted, inspired, and hired women when most men preferred to promulgate the patriarchy.
One such beneficiary was Rachel Carson. I hesitate to open an article on the life of a woman in science by touting the virtues of a man. I like to believe Rachel Carson would prosper on her merits and she very well might have done so, but I open thusly for several reasons. First, Carson read Beebe’s book, Half a Mile Down, in which he vividly describes the wonders of the deep sea, and found herself awed and motivated to emulate it. Second, as quoted above, Carson dedicated her 1951 treatise on the ocean to Beebe. Third, Beebe used his clout to tout Carson’s works and to secure her scientific grants. Fourth, as intimated in the dedication, the two formed a bond that went beyond that of colleagues. Lastly, despite the gender paradigm of the middle of the 20th century, today, Carson is far more famous than Beebe. If Carson were alive, I wager she would want to shine a light on the legacy of William Beebe. In short, I connect Carson to Beebe because she overshadows him in the popular imagination anyway.
Plus, we’re in the middle of a theme week, so it doesn’t hurt to connect the dots!
Rachel Carson’s first day on the planet Earth occurred on 27 May 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, just a short jaunt on the Allegheny River north of Pittsburgh. From an early age, she found herself drawn to nature. She explored her family’s expansive farm constantly and devoured books about animals. As a teenager, she gravitated toward the ocean, finding a home in the works of Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
In 1925, she finished top of the class in high school, then matriculated to Pennsylvania College for Women, now known as Chatham University. She received a degree in biology and headed to Johns Hopkins University for graduate studies in zoology, marine biology, and genetics. Initially intending to obtain a doctorate, monetary difficulties in the family forced her academic career to become sporadic and interrupted.
After the death of her father, Carson turned toward professional positions in an attempt to support her family. She landed at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, where the department realized they had a talented writer on their hands. Carson began to produce content for radio programs on marine life. A supervisor asked her to write an introduction to the Bureau’s public brochure. What she produced was so good that the supervisor realized it belonged somewhere more prominent than a brochure. In 1937, Atlantic Monthly published her essay, The World of Waters.
A nature-loving star was unleashed.
Between 1941 and 1955, Carson produced the Sea Trilogy, which chronicled her studies of the ecology of the Atlantic Ocean. The works are poetic and personal while maintaining scientific rigor and offering insight into previously unexamined biomes. Under the Sea-Wind dropped in 1941, developed from articles she had written for various publications previously. The Sea Around Us arrived in 1951 (World War II put a big crimp in the demand for science unrelated to the conflict effort) and established Carson as one of the preeminent science writers of the era; it won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. 1955’s The Edge of the Sea completed the trio.
Through decades of examining the ocean, Carson felt drawn more and more to conservationism. The prevailing attitude of science after World War II might distill to something along the lines of “unending progress.” Carson started to notice things that contradicted this mantra, one of which would lead to her greatest literary achievement and her life’s most important contribution.
In 1945, Carson first encountered the “insect bomb.” A radical new pesticide, DDT seemed to be the perfect chemical for farmers and haters of insects everywhere. But new developments are not automatically magic bullets. Sometimes consequences are unintended and deadly.
Carson received a letter from a friend, who recounted how the birds on her property dropped dead after the usage of DDT to kill mosquitoes in the area. As it turns out, DDT is a magical pesticide. It’s also a magical life-icide.
The powers-that-be had not considered and adequately tested the effects of DDT on objects they did not want to kill. Carson launched a comprehensive investigation, leaning on experts and scientific observation. The result was Silent Spring. Taking its title from a poem by John Keats, in which birds no longer sing. Carson imagined a vernal season in which the birds never came back because they had been eradicated.
Silent Spring was a revolution. It tackled the holistic, environmental aspect of pesticides. Pushback from chemical companies, politicians, and others with ulterior motives was fierce and disgusting. The book and the scientist behind it, however, were too much to ignore. In the short term, Silent Spring ushered in the banning of DDT; on a longer horizon, it helped launch the environmental and ecological movement. Thanks in large part to Carson’s book and the awareness it raised, President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, removing the conflicts of interest inherent in environmental oversight in previous government institutions.
Carson unwittingly kicked off a new movement of conservationism. Humans might have the ability to create all sorts of new materials and inventions, but that power does not always come without a cost. Today, Silent Spring is a touchstone of environmental writing. The world is infinitely better for its composition and existence.
Unfortunately, Rachel Carson did not live long enough to see her impact blossom across the years. Just a year and a half after the 1962 publication date of Silent Spring, Carson died from complications of breast cancer in April 1964. Her early passing surely deprived the world of future wonder-books. Fortunately, we have her legacy to remember, a legacy that puts her firmly into the Hallowed Halls of Woman Crush Wednesday. Her spring is eternally unsilent.