Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Rachel Carson's 100th Birthday

Sunday, May 27, will be Rachel Carson's 100th birthday. I'm rereading her books this year, although I don't think I'll get through Silent Spring again. I was an entomology student in the early days of the DDT ban, working in a mosquito control lab. DDT was once as promising in the control of infectious disease as antibiotics, and its loss was a blow to public health, especially in the tropics, but blaming all this on Rachel Carson (as some people did) was naive. For years before it was banned, indiscriminate overuse of DDT had produced many resistant strains of disease-vector insects, and its effectiveness was in serious decline, a pattern that ought to have inspired antibiotics resistance research long ago.

It seems the voting public only considers problems when they reach the status of impending apocalypse, so I understand the desperate rhetoric of Silent Spring (and An Inconvenient Truth as well), but I really hope people will remember Rachel Carson for the beautiful, inspiring books she wrote about the natural world: Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea. Here's a passage from The Edge of the Sea.

On the sands of the sea's edge, especially where they are broad and bordered by unbroken lines of wind-built dunes, there is a sense of antiquity....the sea and the land lie here in a relation established gradually, over millions of years.

During those long ages of geologic time, the sea has ebbed and flowed over the great Atlantic coastal plain. It has crept toward the distant Appalachians, paused for a time, then slowly receded, sometimes far into its basin; and on each such advance it has rained down its sediments and left the fossils of its creatures over that vast and level plain. And so the particular place of its stand today is of little moment in the history of the earth or in the nature of its beach--a hundred feet higher, or a hundred feet lower, the seas would still rise and fall unhurried over shining flats of sand, as they do today.

Here are some interesting Rachel Carson links.

  • An Environmental Icon's Unseen Fortitude: Rachel Carson's Persistence and Pain In Focus 100 Years After Her Birth a Washington Post article by David A. Fahrenthold, Friday, May 18, 2007. Fahrenthold focuses on how Carson kept her terminal cancer a secret, lest people attribute the message of Silent Spring to personal outrage over her own illness. The cost of this approach was that Carson fought her disease nearly alone. Her cancer was still a surprise to many people when she died at the house in Silver Spring in 1964, at age 56.
  • The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, a website by Linda Lear, author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature
  • Time Magazine's profile of Rachel Carson in their "100 Most Important People of the Twentieth Century." Lots of interesting photographs; a slick, professional site.
  • The Rachel Carson Homestead.
    The Rachel Carson Homestead is the birthplace and early home of scientist and author, Rachel Carson (1907-1964). The 19th century farmhouse is listed as a National Historic Landmark and is located in Springdale, Pennsylvania. The Homestead is situated in a suburban neighborhood where visitors can tour the four remaining rooms that Rachel Carson shared with her parents, her brother and sister. Standing in her bedroom, you can look through the window as she did and imagine what life was like for her as a young girl in the early 1900s. This was a humble home that had no indoor plumbing and a lean-to kitchen at the back of the house.
  • The Lies of Rachel Carson by Dr. J. Gordon Edwards, an editorial from 21st Century Science and Technology Magazine, 1992. The article is subtitled "A well-known entomologist documents some of the misstatements in Carson's Silent Spring, the 1962 book that poisoned public opinion against DDT and other pesticides." Edwards focuses on Carson's use of inflammatory language and misleading statements, and there is no doubt, she was writing political polemic. Unfortunately, Edwards is as angry as Carson was, and uses inflammatory rhetoric that poisons his case too.

Update: For a detailed discussion of the Rachel Carson controversy, see Paul Decelles' blog.


Paul D. said...

Her books were a major influence on me when I was a teenager-and yes her science wasn't perfect in Silent Spring and yes her rhetoric was a bit over blown. But it got people's attention to what truely was and is a major problem. I wonder how much effort would have been put to producing less persistant pesticides in the absence of her work.

Rebecca Clayton said...

So many people have been inspired by her books about marine biology, yet the centeniary celebrations I've seen only mention Silent Spring. She was a wonderful nature writer, and her early death was a loss to all of us who love such writing.