Midpoint Series: Elizabeth Rogers on Rachel Carson & Silent Spring

This guest post from Elizabeth Rogers is part of the 2012 Midpoint Series. See all of the posts in the series here.

Yikes.  It looks as if 2012 is turning out to be the warmest year on record, and large questions regarding climate change, energy usage, water/land management, and pollution are looming, especially as the presidential election approaches.  In this critical time, I’m hoping that we don’t abandon our environmental consciousness, and that we remember our ability to take action in regards to crises we’ve caused in the natural world.

In this spirit, it’s worth noting that 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  For our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, it is Carson’s book that first drew attention to the consequences of pollution in the natural world.

Most people remember Rachel Carson for her exposure of the harmful nature of pesticides, especially DDT, which has since been outlawed in the United States.   Carson’s intentions for Silent Spring were simple: “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.”   But Carson accomplished more than just heightening public awareness.  She’s now remembered as the woman who launched the 1960’s grassroots environmental movements into full swing, eventually leading to the creation of creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.

Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27th, 1907, on a small farm in Pennsylvania.  She was a writer from a young age, and some of her childhood stories were published in St. Nicholas.   She graduated from high school at the top of her class.   Originally an English major at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), she switched to biology in 1928.  In 1932, she earned a master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University. Seeking funds to support herself and her family, she took a job with the U. S. Bureau of Fisheries as the writer of a radio show, “Romance Under the Waters,” an educational program about sea life.  In 1936, after being the first woman to take and pass the civil service test, the Bureau of Fisheries hired her as a full-time biologist.  Eventually, she became the chief editor of all publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson’s official U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service employee photo, in 1944 (photograph courtesy of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service).

Carson is also the author of Under the Sea Wind (1941), which sold poorly, despite excellent reviews, and The Sea Around Us (1951), a history of marine life, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and a Burroughs Medal in nature writing.  The success of this book allowed her to become a full-time writer.  In 1955, she published The Edge of the Sea, the last book in her “sea trilogy.”

When Silent Spring was published in 1962, it became an instant bestseller, but not without criticism and the threat of legal action from various sects of the chemical industry.  However, the book caught the attention of President Kennedy, who instructed the Science Advisory Committee to investigate the book’s claims.  The Committee’s results supported Carson’s findings, leading to the strengthening of governmental pesticide regulations.

Two years after the publication of Silent Spring, Carson died of complications related to cancer.  Yet, her mark had been made: the unrest surrounding Silent Spring led to the creation of the EPA as a separate entity from the USDA in 1970.  (Carson believed the agriculture industry couldn’t effectively protect the environment while promoting its other interests.)  In addition, the Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, is generally associated with Carson’s push for conservationism.

Al Gore wrote the introduction for the 1992 edition of Silent Spring, stating, “Rachel Carson was one of the reasons that I became so conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues … Carson has had as much or more effect on me than any, and perhaps than all of them together.”  Regarded as the “Mother of the Modern Environmentalist Movement,” I wonder what Rachel Carson would have to say in regards to our current environmental struggles, specifically in regards to global warming and energy use.  At any rate, Rachel Carson serves as a powerful demonstration of how one woman’s intellectual and social efforts can push a whole country into action.

— Elizabeth Rogers

Elizabeth Lindsey Rogers is one of two inaugural creative writing fellows at The Kenyon Review and Kenyon College in Gambier, OH.   She has taught at Cornell University and Shanxi Agricultural University in Taigu, China, where she was an Oberlin Shansi Fellow from 2007-2009.   She received her B.A in creative writing and dance from Oberlin College in 2007 and an MFA in poetry from Cornell University in 2011.   Her poems appear widely in literary journals, including Crazyhorse, Agni Online, Crab Orchard Review, Field, and many others.   Her first book of poems, Chord Box, will be published by the University of Arkansas Press in 2013.


One thought on “Midpoint Series: Elizabeth Rogers on Rachel Carson & Silent Spring

  1. Pingback: May 27th: Rachel Carson! | Speaking Up

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