Putting her awe in

Rachel Carson
May 1, 1998

Most observers of the contemporary environment movement take the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962 as its foundation stone. There were, of course, plenty of environmentally concerned people and organisations before then, but they did not see themselves as part of a wider movement or united by a single cause. In that respect, it is impossible to overestimate the historical significance of the book or its author.

Yet in many respects, Carson made an unlikely heroine. Indeed, Linda Lear's exhaustive biography seems to delight in revealing just how unlikely a heroine she was, grinding through the first 40 years of her life in remorseless detail, leaving no banality unturned.

It is not easy to feel much sympathy for the rather prim and buttoned-up young Carson as she struggles against the odds to get into and graduate from the Pennsylvania College for Women. It is not easy to get excited by the imperturbable and determined way she progresses through the ranks as a government scientist in the Fish and Wildlife Service. There is so little retrospective glamorisation going on here that it somehow comes as no surprise at all when Carson's first book (Under the Sea Wind, published in 1941) disappears almost without trace.

It is as if, piece by piece, Carson was putting her own life together, developing her contacts, experimenting with different writing styles and outlets, broadening her experience of the natural world and deepening her own personal response to it. Only when it has all come together in the early 1950s can one begin to see the whole person. And a much more interesting person at that.

The turning point came in 1951 with the publication of The Sea Around Us, which for many Carson fans is still the best book she wrote. It was a huge and instant success, selling 250,000 copies in the first year, and leading to countless literary and scientific awards.

That combination (a really good scientist who can also write really well) was as rare then as it is today. For Carson herself, who gave up literature at college to become a scientist, there was no necessary divide: "The aim of science is to discover and eliminate untruth." And that, I take it, is the aim of literature, whether biography or history of fiction. It seems, then, that there can be no separate literature of science.

The Sea Around Us exemplifies that ambition, revealing the diversity and beauty of the marine world with a measured lyricism that had escaped her in her earlier work. As Lear points out, this did not come effortlessly: "She reworked whole sections of The Sea Around Us over and again until she was satisfied with the cadences, the sonority as well as the clarity of each sentence. Her editing of the manuscript shows tireless attention to poetic nuance and skilful use of poetic techniques."

For Carson, nature was quite simply awesome. It inspired in her wonder, curiosity and a deep affection. She was never happier than when out on field work, in the rock pools or the forests of her beloved Maine. But there was no sentimentality about this relationship, and she despised the kind of anthropomorphism with which other writers sought to articulate the connections between us and the natural world. She was not a Christian, so had little time for the notion of nature as a revelation of the Divine, but felt seized by what Albert Schweitzer described as "reverence for life''. It was her mother, Marion, who first nurtured this affinity in her, and it remained a powerful bond between them until her mother's death in 1958.

If The Sea Around Us marked a literary turning point, her meeting with Dorothy Freeman in 1953, at the age of 46, marked an emotional turning point. Lear's account of this relationship is one of the greatest strengths of this book, eschewing speculation about how such "an overwhelming emotional experience'' should be categorised, and allowing their own words, in a ten-year exchange of letters, to speak largely for themselves. It was a deeply fulfilling relationship for both, giving Carson that assurance of shared love without which her struggles against illness and other adversities would have been very difficult.

From 1960 until her death at the age of 57 in 1964, Carson was battling against cancer. For reasons that still remain unclear, her doctors failed to recommend further treatment after the initial removal of two tumours in her left breast, and this almost certainly diminished the odds of any subsequent recovery. She was often in great pain, yet refused to let anyone beyond her most intimate friends know of her illness or the problems it caused.

It was against that backdrop that Silent Spring was written. Although she had been interested in the impact on nature of DDT and other persistent pesticides for many years (Reader's Digest turned down a proposal for an article on that subject in 1945), her research did not get under way until 1958. And even then she did not have in mind the kind of blockbuster that Silent Spring became.

Its power as a book works at several levels. First and foremost, she marshalled the empirical evidence of the damage then being done by these chemicals to bird life and many other species with steely authority. The chemical companies were unable to refute a single claim she made in that respect. She also, with great circumspection, brought home to readers the possible impact of these chemicals on human health, though cause and effect could not then be definitively proved.

Beyond that, she stripped bare the arrogance and folly of those who sought to conquer nature, perilously disregarding the inherent integrity of the natural world and the interdependence of all living things. As Lear puts it, "this fundamental social critique of a gospel of technological progress'' savaged the ineptitude and moral inadequacies of a scientific establishment that was then largely out of control.

The response of that establishment was vicious. Her scientific qualities were impugned and her status as an unmarried, childless woman were endlessly turned against her. The chemical companies mounted a huge PR campaign to belittle her findings and to reassure the political elite in Washington that the world was safe in their pesticide-drenched hands.

Because of her poor health, Carson had to leave much of the fight to others. But she was able to call on a wide circle of influential scientists and erstwhile colleagues in government, and a special CBS documentary seen by more than 10 million people provided the most powerful contrast between her calm, measured integrity and the increasingly hysterical self-interest of the chemical companies.

As the evidence of ever-graver ecological damage kept coming in, public opinion remained solidly on her side and the political machine slowly moved into gear to rein in the worst excesses of a still unapologetic and unchanged industry.

It was the first of many battles that pitched cohorts of environmental Davids against the Goliath of industrialism, and Lear brilliantly captures both the drama and the significance.

But her admirable book ends abruptly with Carson's death in 1964, making no attempt to map out the way in which her work and ideas have contributed to the modern environmental movements. Yet it is that legacy as much as the books themselves that makes Carson one of the most influential of all those over the years who have felt that same passionate obligation to bear witness for nature.

Jonathon Porritt is programme director, Forum for the Future.

Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature

Author - Linda Lear
ISBN - 0 713 99236 0
Publisher - Penguin
Price - £25.00
Pages - 634

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