'Mother' of Environmentalism Celebrated

A play will honor the
A play will honor the "Silent Spring" writer; a day might be named for her. (Courtesy Of The Lear/carson Collection)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Environmentalists and Maryland legislators began a two-month-long celebration yesterday of the life of Rachel Carson, the Silver Spring-based activist whose book "Silent Spring" helped make environmentalism a political force and who would have turned 100 this year.

The commemorations include performances of a one-woman play about Carson and the awarding of scholarships to conservation-minded high school students. Bills would declare her birthday, May 27, as Rachel Carson Day.

At a news conference in Annapolis, the events' organizers said Carson -- who died of breast cancer in 1964, two years after publishing her most famous book -- helped changed the current of American thinking about the environment.

"Rachel Carson really is the mother of the environmental movement in the United States," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery), sponsor of the bill to name a day for her. Frosh said "Silent Spring" is "really the building block, the foundation of the environmental movement."

The book focuses on the dangers posed by the widespread use of pesticides, most famously DDT. The chemical was found to accumulate in the bodies of birds, including bald eagles, and fatally weaken their egg shells.

"Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song," Carson wrote.

Historians say the book contributed to a wave of outrage that eventually coalesced into modern environmentalism. In the years after Carson's death, DDT was banned, and the Environmental Protection Agency was established as a watchdog on pollution.

"She was the one who kind of rang the alarm bell, that we have to start thinking about the world around us in a different way," said Laurie M. Deredita, curator of a collection of Carson's papers at Connecticut College in New London, Conn.

"Silent Spring" was highly controversial in its time, with Carson's opponents accusing her of tarnishing products that killed disease-bearing insects. Yesterday showed that the controversy isn't finished.

During a hearing on a Senate bill to create Rachel Carson Day, Sen. Andrew P. Harris (R-Baltimore County) said worldwide bans on DDT had allowed the spread of malaria, an often fatal disease transmitted by mosquitoes.

"Millions of people -- literally millions of people -- died as a result of banning DDT as a result of that book," Harris said.

The bill's supporters said Carson did not want to ban all uses of pesticides such as DDT, only to end indiscriminate use that put people or animals at unnecessary risk.

Carson grew up in rural Pennsylvania and spent time at a summer cottage on the coast of Maine. But she lived in Maryland for much of her life, studying at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, teaching zoology at the University of Maryland and settling in a brick rambler in the Quaint Acres area of Silver Spring, off New Hampshire Avenue.

The house, where she wrote "Silent Spring," is the home of an environmental group, the Rachel Carson Council.

The events commemorating her 100th birthday will include performances of a play, "A Sense of Wonder," about Carson's life. Two shows will be performed Friday -- one at the D.C. Environmental Film Festival and the other on Capitol Hill for members of Congress.

Others will be May 17 at the Arlington County central library and May 24 at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

On May 24, the Rachel Carson Scholars will be chosen from high school juniors and seniors who show an "interest in or knowledge of the natural world." First prize is $1,000.

Information about these programs can be found on the Web site of the Newton Marasco Foundation, a McLean-based nonprofit group that is sponsoring many of the commemorations, http://www.newtonmarascofoundation.org.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company