(Rachel Carson at Hawk Mountain, Penn., in 1946. Photo by Shirley Briggs.)
By Annette Hinkle
In the late 1940s, after decisive victories in W.WII on two fronts, the United States turned its attention to waging war on a new enemy at home.
The weapon of choice was DDT and in the post-war years, it played a huge role in the growth of this country. DDT was sprayed on farm fields to destroy pests which devoured the nation’s crops. It killed gypsy moths, eradicated fire ant colonies in the south and wiped out mosquito populations in newly created suburbs where single family Cape Cod and ranch homes replaced what had been open space and wetlands.
Who can forget newsreels of the ‘40s and ‘50s showing sunbathers braving clouds of DDT as it’s being applied at the beach, or the young children trailing after the sprayer truck in their neighborhood as if it’s the ice cream man?
It’s hard to imagine a time when it wasn’t understood (or even believed) that the overuse of chemical pesticides in the environment could have a detrimental affect on all living species – not just those targeted.
But 50 years ago, a woman from Pennsylvania wrote a book that changed it all.
Her name was Rachel Carson and the book, of course, was “Silent Spring.” The title was a reference to the absence of birdsong that Carson, a marine biologist and conservationist, felt would result from unchecked over-use of pesticides. The book brought about a ban on DDT in this country and upon its release in 1962, it was controversial beyond measure — in some circles, it still is.
“Rachel Carson did not have a PhD,” explains Linda Lear, Carson’s biographer. “She had a master’s degree in zoology and aquatic biology from Johns Hopkins. She didn’t go on to get a PhD because of the depression. Without a terminal degree, it was a handicap.”
What Carson did have was a lyrical ability to write about the science of the environment in a way that the average person could understand and appreciate.
“Her goal was to get people to wonder about the natural world and care for it,” says Lear.
That was what made “Silent Spring” groundbreaking and that’s what changed the way we think of chemicals in the environment today.
Lear’s biography, “Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature,” came out in 1997 and with this year’s golden anniversary of “Silent Spring,” it has been reprinted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Carson’s publisher. On Saturday, April 28, 2012 Lear will be at the South Fork Natural History Museum in Bridgehampton to take part in a 50th anniversary celebration of “Silent Spring.” The event is from 4 to 7 p.m. and includes a talk by Lear followed by hors d’oeuvres and wine and is cosponsored by Canio’s, Friends of the Long Pond Greenbelt.
For close to 20 years, Carson worked as a biologist in the US Fish and Wildlife Services and Lear explains Carson’s interest in the topic began in 1941 as a result of her familiarity with research that had been done by the military on DDT and pheasants in Florida. That interest expanded as Carson witnessed ever stronger forms of DDT used in new ways in the years that followed against all sorts of insect species.
As a cautionary tale, though “Silent Spring” still reverberates half a century later, Lear notes that it was Carson’s earlier titles — particularly “The Sea Around Us” — which put her on the national stage as a science writer. That book, the second in a trilogy, came out in 1951 and was culled from oceanographic information discovered during W.W. II. It was a blockbuster, translated into 60 languages and on the best seller list for 86 weeks. Nine chapters were serialized in The New Yorker shortly before the book’s publication.
“It synthesized all this new research for the general public,” explains Lear. “Carson could not have been noticed and written ‘Silent Spring’ if she was not first serialized in The New Yorker.”
When you read through “Silent Spring” today, so much of it seems self-evident. But Lear reminds us that Carson’s work was groundbreaking when it was first presented to the public.
“It was jaw dropping – if you believed it,” says Lear. “Because of the book, Kennedy set up a Presidential Science Advisory Committee to examine toxic chemical misuse. The endline in the Congressional report in 1963 was ‘until Carson’s ‘Silent Spring,’ the American public didn’t understand pesticides were toxic.’”
“That’s why you get the mosquito spray in the baby’s room and the kids dancing in the spray,” she adds. “This stuff kills bugs, but they had no idea how harmful it was.”
Because she was a biologist without a terminal degree, Carson’s research was questioned and she was largely vilified, particularly by the manufacturers of the chemicals she wrote about. It probably didn’t help that she was a single woman.
“The physicists and chemists were gods. The biologists no one paid any attention to,” says Lear. “The FBI kept a file on her. She was accused of being a communist because she was threatening American agriculture.”
“Rachel never called for a ban on DDT,” clarifies Lear. “She wanted people to be alerted to its misuse and explained that once something’s out there in the environment you can’t take it back.”
So 50 years after “Silent Spring,” what’s changed? DDT may be banned in this country, but it continues to be manufactured and used around the world in large amounts, as do a full range of newer chemicals.
“Use of pesticides has increased – it’s 15 times what it was in Rachel’s day,” says Lear. “Insect resistance has allowed companies to put out more, better and worse chemicals.”
Putting Carson in context, Lear notes that while some things may not be better than they were in 1962 in terms of chemical use, people are at least more aware.
“I don’t think Rachel should be or would want to be credited with starting the environmental movement or banning pesticides,” says Lear. “I think what she was hoping to do is raise the American consciousness about the natural world and our interconnection to it, instead of thinking we can control nature.”
Even as “Silent Spring” was being published, Carson was battling malignant breast cancer which took her life in 1964. Along the way, she cared for her mother, brother, two nieces and an orphaned great nephew. In Carson’s personal life, Lear sees a woman quietly struggling to keep her family together while publicly taking on one of the biggest issues of her time.
“Carson had a huge family load,” says Lear. “Family life was not easy and she had to work all night to do her writing. She was a quiet, laid back and reticent woman. But she was a real politico. She knew how to navigate government and a lot of ‘Silent Spring’ information comes from ‘moles’ she found in wide places.”
“It did surprise me she was as effective as she was in government,” she adds. “She understood power.”
To reserve tickets ($60) for “Honoring Rachel Carson: Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of ‘Silent Spring’” call South Fork Natural History Museum (377 Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike) Bridgehampton at 537-9735.