By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007
Before global warming was hot and Al Gore was cool, there was Rachel Carson, the maverick marine biologist from Silver Spring who sounded an environmental-awareness alarm. Memories of her work return periodically to remind us how far we have come in making the world a safer place, and how far we have to go.
Her 1962 manifesto "Silent Spring" -- in which she envisioned a planet imperiled by pesticides -- is still taught in schools and universities around the world. Each Earth Day her name is invoked as a godmother of the green movement. And now comes a screening of a 1963 "CBS Reports" episode, "The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson."
There is, in the hour-long, black-and-white warning, a sort of retrospectral sense, an I-told-you-so from beyond the grave. Up against a smooth-talking scientist and befuddled bureaucrats, Carson cuts through the hazmat haze and warns that widespread use of biocidal chemicals will silence birds, still fishes and destroy innocent plant life.
The film, which has pretty much been locked away in the network's vaults since it originally aired, will be shown tomorrow night at the National Archives as part of the Environmental Film Festival. In addition, there will be a month-long exhibit of documents to honor Carson in the centennial year of her birth. She died of cancer in 1964.
With the underlying reportage of Eric Sevareid's investigative team, the TV report validates Carson's findings. And the world around us -- with the collapse of bee colonies, reduced fish populations and other natural deteriorations -- validates Carson's warnings, says Diana Post, executive director of the Rachel Carson Council in Silver Spring. The group, established by Carson's friends in 1965 to honor her work, champions organic foods and alternative methods of pest control.
The CBS news show "brought the message of 'Silent Spring' to many people who maybe hadn't read the book," Post says. The council headquarters is in the Silver Spring home where Carson lived when she wrote 'Silent Spring' and where she raised Roger Christie, the great-nephew she adopted when his mother died. Another popular Carson book, "The Sense of Wonder," was published after her death. In it, she introduces young Roger to the marvels of nature.
Post will speak at the screening, as will Christie, who is 55 now. He has teenage children, lives in Massachusetts and is a recording engineer. By phone, he remembers his Silver Spring upbringing -- the neighborhood, Quaint Acres, and the Cynthia Warner School in Takoma Park.
Carson, who lived in Silver Spring from 1937 until her death, was a lab instructor in zoology at the University of Maryland, then a writer and editor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service until she retired in 1952 to write full time.
Christie recalls his excursions into the wild with her. "She would lie for hours on a blanket in the woods up in Maine and see what would come and go." Sometimes the bird-watching outings, he says, "were a little too boring for me."
As she researched "Silent Spring," Christie says, she knew she didn't have long to live, "but she was determined to finish the book." She died just a few weeks shy of her 57th birthday.
Excerpts were published first in the New Yorker in the summer of 1962. The book appeared that fall and became a Book-of-the-Month selection and a national bestseller. The CBS report was filmed soon thereafter; by then, Carson was undergoing radiation therapy, Post says, and she was wearing a wig. "She was not in a happy state physically."
But she was on a mission.
In the report, Sevareid imparts a ton of information, giving both sides room enough to ruminate. He traces the postwar development of the pesticide industry and says that each year the environment is bombarded with 900 million pounds of pesticide. This was back when a "60 Minutes"-type story lasted a full 60 minutes. There are interviews and readings from newspaper excerpts. There is period film footage, including a shot of kids walking along a street in the contrails of a mosquito-fogging truck.
Proponents of pesticides point out their benefits in the film. "When pesticides, registered pesticides, are used in accordance with label instructions and recommendations, then there is no danger to either man or to animals and wildlife," said Robert White-Stephens, a spokesman for American Cyanamid. In black-rimmed glasses and lab coat, surrounded by beakers and lab equipment, he is the perfect counterpoint to Carson, who sits on a porch or in a den and comes across as a straightforward, nature-loving schoolteacher. Representatives from the federal government argue throughout the report that chemicals curb disease and save lives.
In a dark suit and flanked by a typewriter and books, Carson says, "We have to remember that children born today are exposed to these chemicals from birth, perhaps even before birth. Now what is going to happen to them in adult life as a result of that exposure? We simply don't know."
Diana Post says, "I was impressed with the fact that the government officials in the film were so forthcoming to speak with reporters. But I also felt that they were not as familiar with the subject as they should have been." The commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration said the book "causes all of us to take a new look at our responsibilities to the general public."
Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman told CBS that he thought the book would help the American people by "alerting them that we need to do more work, but we also need to be personally conscious. This is like anything else. The government isn't going to do it for you."
One person who did have working knowledge of Carson's thesis: President John F. Kennedy, who mentions her work at a news conference in the film.
So in more than 40 years, has anything changed?
Well, yes. Some substances, such as DDT, have been banned and the Environmental Protection Agency was formed. But others insist Carson's work hasn't been fulfilled. Citing an EPA report, Post says, "It's a paradox that right now we are using pesticides at a greater rate than when 'Silent Spring' was published."
Post adds: "The implication of that film is that we need to do a massive amount of research and consider these conditions being caused by chemicals. We haven't done all those things to a satisfactory degree."