When Rachel Carson was growing up in a five-room farmhouse in the small town of Springdale, Pennsylvania, the land was in ruin. Pittsburgh lay only 18 miles away, and over 1,000 factories gushed coal smoke into the air. Steamboats and barges added their exhaust, along with Model Ts and forests of brick chimneys. On “two-gaslight days,” the air was so blanketed with black mist that pedestrians couldn’t see the end of the street. Many neighborhoods were clogged with makeshift slums, and the cobbled lanes were full of trash, manure and putrid organic waste.
Meanwhile, open mines and sewers drained directly into Pittsburgh’s three rivers (the Allegheny, the Monongahela and the Ohio), making the slow-moving waters acrid, acidic and sometimes flammable. Animal carcasses clumped along the shores and bridge bases like exposed mass graves. The once-popular rowing clubs had disbanded for health reasons, and swimming or washing in the rivers was impossible.
Carson was a country girl. Her home was small and remote, and she spent many days wandering the property’s 65 wooded acres. But all around her boomed heavy manufacturing. Nearby places took their names from industry—Glassport, Freeport, Oil City, Millvale, Milltown—or the industrialists who commissioned them, like Carnegie, Frick Park or Westinghouse High School. To process one-third of America’s steel, hundreds of forges operated 24 hours a day. The byproduct of the smelting process, known as “slag,” was carried a short distance from the factories and dumped, white-hot, into mountains of rock. Runoff was so toxic that entire water systems were tainted, and all meaningful life was destroyed.
From the day Carson was born, in 1907, to the day she died, in 1964, her home was surrounded by rampant manufacture and ecological catastrophe, as septic and leached as any place on Earth. As the author James Parton famously quipped, Pittsburgh was “hell with the lid off.”
“What Carson got out of Pittsburgh,” says Linda Lear, Carson’s biographer and author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (Holt Paperbacks), “was that the captains of industry took no responsibility for what they were doing to the natural world. She carried that her entire life.”
This was the ecosphere that Silent Spring helped transform. In a way, it is remarkable that Carson’s most famous book is half a century old. Conversely, it’s hard to believe that only 50 years have passed. The exposé that shocked America and sparked the environmental movement is still a living memory.
The Road to Silent Spring
By the time Carson wrote Silent Spring, she was already a respected marine biologist and bestselling author. The quiet girl raised in a dysfunctional family came to blossom beyond expectation. Before she was published, she had studied at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) and Johns Hopkins University. Carson’s studies in genetics and zoology were impressive, as was the fact that she, as a woman, became a scientist in the 1930s
Carson found widespread success with The Sea Around Us, a scientific ode to oceanic life that won the National Book Award and Burroughs Medal in 1952. It’s exactly the kind of book one would expect Carson to write. Who but a marine biologist could pen an epic love letter to salt water fauna? There is nothing confrontational about Carson’s freshman book. Like the narration to a Jacques Cousteau documentary, The Sea is full of romantic prose, the tone wide-eyed and celebratory.
But as she matured, Carson shifted her focus. Instead of pursuing a book on evolution, as she had planned, she was drawn to the formidable pesticide DDT.
“She got angry,” says Lear. As Carson followed pesticide use across the country, she saw frightening evidence of DDT’s damage. “This was not a demure little woman in a white blouse. She was a good journalist, and she knew how to get around. She was an incredible synthesizer. She knew how to synthesize information for the general public. To my mind, Silent Spring is one the finest examples of apocalyptic writing you can find.”
Carson’s attempt to sell excerpts to Reader’s Digest was rejected. The editors weren’t comfortable with a story about dying quails, infected waters and chemicals mixing into deadly new concoctions. After all, housewives—perceived as emotionally delicate—were their primary readership. Instead, the book first appeared as a serial in the New Yorker.
Ten years after The Sea Around Us, Silent Spring’s debut was a coup—tough, meticulous and combative. Carson was no longer a dreamy scientist, but a true conservationist, a revolutionary thinker and a menacing threat to the chemical industry. Her name became synonymous with environmental activism. Unbeknownst to Carson, a new era was dawning.
Silent Spring is a book about insecticides. Not about smog, recycling, roadside litter, global warming, sustainable living, overpopulation, alternative energy, veganism or the potential of hemp. She never protests animal testing, carbon footprints or riding ATVs in the desert, nor do melting icecaps and ozone deterioration ever come up. Carson mentions contaminated aquifers, but only in relation to agricultural runoff. Her nuclear anxieties are more about missiles than power plants. Carson couldn’t write about any of the aforementioned concepts, because they didn’t exist as mainstream preoccupations. Three Mile Island and the Exxon-Valdez oil spill were decades away. Challenges that environmentalists now take for granted make no appearance in Silent Spring, nor in any other literature of the time.
The strangest aspect of Silent Spring is Carson’s anger toward the government. To her, it was government agencies like the Department of Agriculture that promised to eradicate entire species of insects, such as the fire ant, and ultimately failed. The military was the first to test airborne poisons during World War II, and it just happened that chemicals designed to kill people were also effective insecticides. Silent Spring traces this history of chemical warfare on the natural world. Government researchers, public servants and excitable politicians were the culprits in the DDT debacle, and they receive the brunt of Carson’s ridicule. She says little about the pesticide companies themselves, their board meetings and aggressive advertising. In 1962, Carson was angrier at federal cooperation than corporate greed. Ironically, it was the manufacturers who most fervently attacked Carson, and Congress that passed a DDT ban. Today, the blame is often inverted: Environmentalists are quicker to vilify companies, like British Petroleum or Massey Energy, and often turn to the government for help.
At its core, Silent Spring is a levelheaded polemic about DDT and its deadly siblings. The book is science writing in its purest form. Her thesis is simple and direct. She doesn’t rant, she doesn’t abuse graphic imagery and her tone stays calm and editorial. Carson riffs on her theme with data and anecdotes, but the melody stays the same: Pesticides are dangerous poisons, we don’t know enough about their long-term effects and we should use them only as a last resort.
Yet Silent Spring is credited with blueprinting the environmental movement, and the reasons are clear: Carson dared to challenge “progress” at a time of technological zeal. What sets the book apart from a research paper or legal document is Carson’s singular eloquence, published in the New Yorker’s pages: “Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home of insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity?” she asks. “Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal?”
“I see Carson as, fundamentally, a witness for the natural world,” says Lear, who graduated college in 1962 and went on to teach environmental history. “My take on Rachel is that she is much more than Silent Spring. And she’s certainly more than hydrochloric pesticides. Carson was about ecology. She was about living in the natural systems of the planet. She never called for an end to DDT. She called for an end to widespread misuse of pesticides. Carson is responsible for changing the public’s consciousness, and for the first time making nature the centerpiece of human thinking.”
In an era of pulsing industry, brand-new interstates, electric dishwashers, sprawling suburbs, live television and a global Space Race, Carson’s radical sentiment sent a shockwave through postwar American culture. Manufacturers were indignant and hostile. Industrialists strove to undermine and discredit Carson, deriding her as a “hysteric.” Silent Spring protested only one kind of pollution, but it opened a very large door. Just when automated America hoped to fully dominate nature, Carson petitioned to embrace and protect it. “In nature,” she wrote, “nothing exists alone.”
More severely: “[M]an is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”
The tragedy of Carson’s life is that she passed away only two years after Silent Spring hit bookstores. Carson died in 1964, a month before her 57th birthday, of breast cancer. Few people, even fans, know the nature of her death, partly because of the culture at the time. Her untimely death gave rise to the Silent Spring Institute in Newton, Massachusetts, which is dedicated to studying environmental impacts on breast cancer.
“I was always interested in nature as a kid,” says Julia Brody, Ph.D., executive director of the institute. “My grandfather taught me a lot about insects.”
When she was young, Brody’s family moved to Richland, Washington, where she lived near the Hanford Site, a nuclear complex that released radiation into the air and the Columbia River, tainting fields and food supplies via grazing dairy cows. “We didn’t know that at the time,” Brody says. “But it doesn’t take a lot of imagination when you’re living next to a nuclear facility. You’re always thinking about whether it’s safe.”
She learned of the institute in 1996, when a friend was scouring the Boston Globe classifieds. A position was open, and Brody seemed the perfect candidate. “You need to do this,” her friend insisted.
Fifteen years later, Brody and her colleagues perform cutting-edge research on breast cancer. Where traditional researchers use epidemiological studies—basically a Q&A format—the institute studies environmental conditions. Victims may have no idea what an endocrine disruptor is, nor how such chemicals entered their bodies. “[Taking surveys] doesn’t work for environmental factors,” says Brody, “because you can’t ask people what’s in their air, or what was in their water when they were a little girl.”
As Brody writes on the institute’s website: “If natural estrogen increases breast cancer risk, we must study synthetic estrogens from detergents, plastics, pesticides, cosmetics, and myriad sources in commerce today. If we know that more than a hundred compounds in air pollution, solvents, and other products cause mammary tumors in animals, we must follow those clues.”
When Brody was first hired, she reread Silent Spring in its entirety. “I was really impressed by the depth of her scientific observation,” she remembers. “You can open this book to almost any page, and find something that’s still relevant today. We haven’t fixed the problem. It was an early recognition of the interconnectedness of nature. If we observe the effects on wildlife, we should be worried about the effects on people. To protect our own health.”
But Carson’s influence on the institute goes beyond science or nomenclature. “It’s hard to remember this, but breast cancer was a hidden disease,” Brody says. “Rachel Carson didn’t tell anyone [about her diagnosis]. When she was testifying before Congress, she was wearing a wig. Here was this incredibly courageous woman, who was afraid that if people knew she had breast cancer, it would damage her credibility.”
When First Lady Betty Ford spoke publically about her own mastectomy in 1974, the paradigm shifted. Not only could women speak publically about the disease; the enormous number of diagnoses was brought out into public light. Such multitudes begged the question: Why was this disease cutting short the lives of so many women? For the first time, Americans considered an environmental link to breast cancer. Carson never lived in this candid, inquisitive age, when everyone assumes an invisible tie between terrestrial chemistry and malignant neoplasms. Just as she never celebrated an Earth Day, never saw the Endangered Species Act put into practice, never imagined biofuel cars and cornstarch silverware, Carson had no idea how much her life would impact modern science.
Even today, Carson remains something of an enigma.
When Lear was teaching environmental history in the late 1980s, she discovered that her students had heard of Silent Spring, but knew nothing of its author. Lear was a veteran activist, who had admired Carson since Silent Spring emerged. What’s more, she was raised outside of Pittsburgh, and grew up in the shadows of industrial Pennsylvania. But she, too, knew little about the life of the woman who had written Silent Spring. Lear describes this as her “Rachel who?” moment. She managed to piece together a brief handout on Carson, but biographical information was scarce. What followed was a 10-year mission to illustrate Carson’s life. Not only was the research difficult, but the Estate of Rachel Carson was hesitant to give permission for an authorized biography. The author’s life had been so controversial, and her work so often misconstrued, that Lear needed to prove her mettle as a biographer
Permission was finally granted, and Lear published Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (Holt Paperbacks) in 1997. For the first time, readers learned about Carson’s overbearing mother, her struggle at Johns Hopkins and the bitter harassment and criticism she faced at the end of her life. Since the biography debuted, Lear has become the foremost authority on Carson’s life, writing introductions to all of her books, including posthumous works. Because Carson’s life is so obscure, Lear has spent 15 years describing the conservationist as a person.
“I’m very excited about bringing Carson’s message to new audiences,” Lear says. This year is particularly busy, as Lear has been lecturing across the country in celebration of Silent Spring’s anniversary. “I’m going to be talking about Carson as witness, as the person who made us aware and tried to wake us up.”
In 1962, when Attilio Favorini, Ph.D., was a student at Fordham College, he read the New Yorker excerpts of Silent Spring. “I was very taken with her,” Favorini recalls. “It’s not a thriller in the normal sense. But it begins with a fable that metaphorically tells of the dangers we’ve put in our own future. There was something inherently dramatic about the way she approached the story.”
Decades later, Favorini is now the founding chair of the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Pittsburgh. Around 2000, the department planned to produce a series of plays based on great American literature. Favorini turned to Silent Spring.
“It occurred to me, it’s one of the few books you can say changed the world,” he says. “There aren’t many, and Silent Spring is one of them.”
Favorini co-wrote a script with playwright Lynne Conner, and the resulting production was Silent Spring: Alarums & Excursions, an impressionistic interpretation of Carson’s themes. The play was a strange quilt, combining biographical elements, Lewis Carroll references, dance, giant bug costumes and a recurring Dr. Strangelove motif. The script won a prestigious award through the Kennedy Center and was produced across the country, from Kentucky to Texas. Since then, Favorini has helped write and produce educational shows, such as Rachel Carson Saves the Day, which toured western Pennsylvania for three years.
“It was extremely popular,” Favorini says. “It hit three themes—environmental science, Pennsylvania history and women in science. These were all hot-button issues for the schools. We got a lot of positive feedback from students and teachers.”
But dramatizing Carson’s life and work is no easy task, and no one has yet done it justice. Silent Spring is imagistic, even horrifying, but Carson wrote in a humble third person, and her characters are few and far between—concerned chemists, farmers who get sick and all kinds of wild and domestic animals killed off by the DDT aimed for insects. Carson was famously private, despite her exponential fame, and she wrote only a few books, never about herself. (Her most revealing books, Always, Rachel and Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, were published after her death). She has inspired biographies and documentaries, but a Hollywood film is unlikely. The closest approximation might be A Sense of Wonder, a 2008 film that features actress Kaiulani Lee impersonating Carson and reciting some of her more prescient quotes.
“My book was optioned for a movie right off the bat,” Lear says of Witness for Nature. “We went through almost 10 years of screenplays. You can’t really have a movie about this poor woman writing this great book and then having all these medical problems. Aside from her dying, that’s it. Dying is not an action flick.”
Dozens of nature writers have found their voices since Silent Spring premiered, but the majority of them write comfortably in the first person. Annie Dillard, Wendell Berry, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams and Edward Abbey have all written passionate screeds about humans and nature. They all have robust personalities, and they usually write from their own perspective. Even more scientific writers, like John McPhee and Bill McKibbon weave their own stories into their nonfiction. Carson never wrote so forthrightly.
Unlike the generation of protesters and activists she inspired, Carson led a quiet life. She never waved signs or tied herself to trees. In photographs, she is generally pictured looking demure and distant. No scandals followed her; even the speculation that she shared a lesbian intimacy with friend Dorothy Freeman is pretty tame. Carson had a passion for woods, water and the slow discipline of the lab and typewriter. She buried herself in data, studies, testimonies, news and official reports. She allowed herself to be interviewed and photographed, but even her fame was short-lived.
Yet for her readers, Carson’s presence is visceral. Never does the author refer to herself in Silent Spring, but her singular voice carries throughout. To know this book is to know her passion, her determination and the singular focus of her final days. Carson lives between the lines.
Today, Carson’s name is everywhere. The Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society is based in Germany. The Rachel Carson Trail Challenge is a 34-mile hike along the Rachel Carson Trail, sponsored by The Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy. At Chatham University, the Rachel Carson Fellowship supports an MFA student with an interest in nature writing. Every two years, a female researcher is awarded the Rachel Carson Prize in Stavanger, Norway. There’s a Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, Virginia, and a Rachel Carson Bridge in downtown Pittsburgh. A waterfront statue of Rachel Carson is planned for Falmouth, Massachusetts, where she spent the summer of 1929 studying at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, later serving on its board. The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge is a 5,400-acre parcel of protected land in southern Maine. Her childhood home has become the Rachel Carson Homestead, which gives regular tours; her adult home in Colesville, Maryland, is a national historic landmark. And the Rachel Carson Council, a group dedicated to ending the use of harmful pesticides, continues to fight in her name.
Carson’s legacy persists—and her hometown is the ultimate litmus test for Silent Spring’s impact. Pittsburgh is no longer a capital of industry. Nearly all the mills have shut down and a third of the population has emigrated. Hospitals have replaced factories, and green spaces have emerged where abandoned buildings once moldered. While the air is still hazy and the water still tainted with sewage, the environment has vastly improved since the 1960s. Native plants and wildlife are returning to places that were once uninhabitable. Triathletes swim the rivers, bike trails line the banks and anglers cast lines for fish that have only recently returned.
Some areas have completely transformed, like the Nine Mile Run watershed, which was once so noxious and contaminated that residents avoided it. After a $7.7 million ecosystem restoration, spearheaded by the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association, 6.5 square miles of land have made a comeback. The Run is now a clear creek that snakes through Frick Park, completely redesigned by the Army Corps of Engineers. The park is a popular destination for joggers, and trails helix through cattailed wetlands.
Above Nine Mile Run stands Summerset at Frick Park, a progressive housing development built atop a former slagheap. What was once a dead, forbidding landscape has been transformed into a coveted residential neighborhood where houses are diversely designed, green spaces circumscribe the lots and gates are eschewed to encourage an interactive community. All over the city, similar brownfields have been rezoned as progressive commercial districts.
Meanwhile, Pittsburgh is home to an astonishing number of green architectural projects—such as the new stadiums and Convention Center—and hundreds of urban gardens have sprouted across the city, thanks to the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy. Neighborhoods like Braddock have received national attention for their transformation from mill towns to blighted ghettos to post-urban organic farmland.
Pittsburgh is broadly hailed as a success story, and the region owes enormous gratitude to Carson and her rallying cry. Had Carson lived another 50 years, she might be shocked by the city’s makeover. As green roofs, urban apiaries, improved recycling and bicycle culture become de rigueur, Rust Belt cities have hope for postindustrial life. Carson may not have written about these ideas, but her words started a powerful conversation.
The celebration is bittersweet, of course. In general, humanity still struggles with nature on an unprecedented scale. It’s true that children no longer run outside for “DDT baths,” and most sensible people no longer dump paint thinner down the drain. It’s true that recycling has become a global industry, alternative energy is a growing prospect and many endangered species are on the rebound.
But the global population has doubled since 1962, and so has our collective appetite. More than a billion consumer automobiles now cruise the world’s roads. Slash-and-burn deforestation is rampant, coal burning is at a record high and untold species go extinct every day. Plastic and polymers are used for nearly every household item, and landfills for domestic and industrial waste are larger than Carson could have ever imagined
Meanwhile, Carson is routinely attacked by a new generation of critics. Many contrarians still cast her as a misguided hysteric, and some even blame Carson for the deadly effects of malaria.
It’s difficult to gauge what Carson would think of the 21st century. “Things are far worse now than when Rachel wrote,” Lear says. “We have so many more pesticides. We put things out before we know for sure [their long-term impact]. The Earth is a much more fragile and vulnerable place, with carbon and global warming. I’m not sure if the book has made a great big difference, except that now we know it’s worse. The [fiftieth] anniversary reminds us how much more there is to do, how little progress we’ve made. Rachel Carson set us on the path to thinking about how to live. Period.”
ROBERT ISENBERG is a writer, photographer and stage performer living in Pittsburgh. He is online at robertisenberg.net.