Whenever I try to point out the debt of gratitude we owe to Rachel Carson, the response is often, "I know the name," but not much else.
I was in that camp myself until several years ago when I read her book, Silent Spring. At that time, several women and I were concerned with the chemical spraying of mosquitos in Michigan. And there in her book, written 50 years ago, the same chemical was defined as toxic. What? Fifty years ago? That was when my exploration of environmental concerns intensified and became more focused.
2012 is the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring. What a perfect time to acknowledge Rachel Carson and reiterate her message. With political attacks on the EPA and existing environmental laws, we need her voice more than ever. It is acknowledged that without her book, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and numerous other environmental agencies would not exist.
Her professional story initially drew me to her. Born in 1907, Carson published an article at the tender age of 10. Her mother, a naturalist, engaged her and instilled in her a passion for nature. Although she thought writing would be her life's work, she became intrigued with biology in college, culminating in the degree she earned in science. She finished a master's degree and began writing articles for the Fish and Wildlife Department, eventually completing several books about the sea. These earned her the respect of the literary world, as well as prestigious accolades, including the National Book Award. Her books were serialized in the New Yorker, among other publications. One book critic defined her method of integrating impeccable scientific research with literary style as "Catching the life breath of science on the still glass of poetry." Beautiful!
Yet it is her personal life that makes her a hero in my eyes. Along with her mother, she raised her two orphaned nieces. One niece eventually had an affair, resulting in the birth of a baby boy. When the boy was five, his mother died, so Carson adopted him.
Perhaps it was out of concern for those future generations that she was emotionally drawn and morally driven to write her influential book about the dangerous, indiscriminate use of pesticides (neurotoxins).
While her mother was dying, Carson had a recurrence of cancer and was in treatment. Personal and professional attacks on her character and credentials forced her to spend precious energy defending herself against detractors from the chemical industry and testifying before the U.S. Senate. At the age of 56, Carson died, just two years after the publication of Silent Spring.
What a model for proving that one person can make a difference. And what a perfect time to embrace her message once again, since today we are bombarded with even more chemicals than Rachel Carson could have ever imagined.
"The current vogue for poisons has failed utterly to take into account ... fundamental considerations. As crude a weapon as the cave man's club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life — a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways. These extraordinary capacities of life have been ignored by the practitioners of chemical control who have brought to their task no 'high-minded orientation,' no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper." (Silent Spring p. 297)
Throughout 2012, in honor of the 50th anniversary of "Silent Spring," Wednesday Journal will explore Rachel Carson's challenge in the context of present-day environmental concerns.
Answer Book 2017
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