Rachel Carson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Freedom by Jimmy Carter. (Photo: U.S. Department of Agriculture [public domain]/Flickr)
"There was a 'before Rachel' and an 'after Rachel' in the way that we think about what matters in protecting the environment. There aren't many people who you say 'that person drove a paradigm shift' — but she did," says one of the experts in the documentary about Rachel Carson.
That's quite a statement to make about any figure in American history, but Carson — the marine biologist whose writings changed the way we look at nature — deserves it.
For those who didn't live through it, it can be hard to understand the impact Carson's fourth and last book had on the world. It has had deep and long-lasting ramifications — in fact, chemical companies are still fighting its message. That message isn't, by the way, that all pesticides are evil and should be banned. It's simply a call for moderation, that when it comes to new chemicals, we should know more about the effects they have — both in the long-term and on all life forms — before we use them.
For that moderate suggestion, Carson was pilloried when she published "Silent Spring." Monsanto even published an Onion-style mockery of the book, and she was called "hysterical," a word used throughout history to discredit women who've challenged the status quo.
In fact, what comes across in the private writings, public statements, and audio and TV clips shown in this documentary created by PBS's "American Experience" is the even keel and intellectual nature of Carson's arguments.
This quote from "Silent Spring," her most famous work, is one example of how reasonable her arguments were:
“A Who's Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones — we had better know something about their nature and their power.”
After all, as we understand from the first half of the documentary, she was a natural introvert, more interested in spending time in tidal pools along the shores of her favorite place, Southport Island, Maine, than in the spotlight. You can learn more about the documentary in the segment below. The full documentary is available on the PBS app, via broadcast, and online.
An unlikely instigator
Indeed, Carson's early and midlife history is one of a writer and scientist bent on communicating the beauty of the natural world in her first three books, a trilogy of the sea. The documentary's look into Carson's childhood highlights how her mother spent time in the woods with her in the afternoons, as part of an educational idea that focused on learning from nature. Carson said her mother, who valued education, also "taught her to be rigorous in her observations" of the natural world, which helped her tremendously in later years as a marine biologist. Carson was the kind of child who greeted birds and read books rather than socialize in her small town in Pennsylvania.
Carson fulfilled her mother's dream and went to college, where she was remembered as a strong student of first English and then biology. She went on to focus on marine biology at Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts and then moved on to graduate study at Johns Hopkins. But due to the Great Depression, her family had to come live with her in Baltimore while she finished her Ph.D. Then her father died and a sister passed, leaving Carson to support her mother and two remaining sisters.
She got a job with the government at the Bureau of Fisheries (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) to provide for her family. There she wrote guides to the national parks and did analysis of fish populations. Her burning desire to write and study was dimmed, but not extinguished. When she finally managed to write her first book, "Under the Sea," a narrative of walking along the seafloor, it was ignored — the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred just days after it was published. She didn't give up, and with the New Yorker's support of her second book, Carson became a well-known literary writer about the sea. Finally, she was able to turn to writing full-time.
But she felt a deep, inner compulsion to write what she knew of the dangers of DDT, which had been called a "miracle substance" by Time magazine in 1944 for its insect-killing abilities. She had tried to write about the pesticide's known effects on wildlife when she first learned about it during her time at the Fish and Wildlife Service, but it was rejected. By the early '60s, more studies had been done and as the documentary points out, the public was ready to hear about the dark side of the chemical miracles that surrounded them, especially as the full extent of health issues like radiation poisoning were being exposed. Carson began writing what would become "Silent Spring."
The beginning of a revolution
Knowing what we now know of DDT, it's shocking to see the 1943 footage of residents of Naples, Italy, being sprayed with the stuff (without any kind of face protection) to kill the lice that transmitted typhus; or how it was sprayed over vast swaths of land; or to know that at the time, you could purchase a cartridge of DDT to attach to your lawnmower so you could kill all the mosquitoes before guests came over for a barbecue.
"It's post-'Silent Spring' that you start seeing genuine environmental regulation in a way that you hadn't before," the documentary explains. And while Carson's book wasn't the only reason, it was a catalyst that encouraged many regular Americans to question the plethora of chemicals being sold to them and being used on their food. The bestselling book spurred legislation around chemicals and led to a public consciousness about weighing the risks and benefits of pesticides.
Rachel Carson began a conversation that we didn't have before 1963, and it has continued for decades since.
As one of the expert commentators in the documentary points out, Carson encouraged readers to look at the world from a new point-of-view:
"Carson said, 'Let's try to look at life from the other side; let's look at the natural world as if we are a part of it.' That's a different way to understand things than anyone had ever suggested before. She said, 'You're human, but you're not separate from this living world.'"