An Environmental Icon's Unseen Fortitude

Rachel Carson in 1951, 11 years before she published
Rachel Carson in 1951, 11 years before she published "Silent Spring," part of which she wrote in Silver Spring. Events honoring her will be held this weekend. (Courtesy Of The Rachel Carson Council Inc.)

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By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007

Here, in a study that faces the garden, is where Rachel Carson would sit and write on days when she felt well. Here, in a bedroom with a dogwood outside the window, is where she would lie down and write on days when she felt worse.

On her sickest days, as Carson struggled with cancer and radiation therapy, she came back to her brick house on Berwick Road in Silver Spring and couldn't write at all. Instead, an assistant read her words back to her, allowing her to edit even when she couldn't sit up.

"She had such a sense of responsibility, that it was all on her. It had to succeed," said environmental activist Diana Post, giving a tour of the house this week. "Once she took something up, she couldn't put it down until it was finished, and finished well."

Carson's book "Silent Spring," published in 1962, led to the banning of the pesticide DDT, the launch of modern environmentalism and her enshrinement as a kind of patron saint of nature. In this region, Carson's name has been given to two schools, a park and a hiking trail -- and it is evoked seemingly whenever environmentalists gather.

But this year, as the 100th anniversary of her birth approaches, people across the Washington area are also remembering the personal story that goes with Carson's legend. She was a former government press-release writer who managed to captivate official Washington. Her public victory came at crushing private costs.

"She could not live with herself if she didn't speak out," said Post, president of an educational group, the Rachel Carson Council Inc., now run out of the Silver Spring house. The house is open to the public by appointment.

This weekend, events honoring Carson will include a 23-mile hike on the route of the planned Rachel Carson Greenway, where Montgomery County officials want to create a swath of preserved land across the county. There will be an open house at her former home and a ceremony at the National Wildlife Visitor Center in Laurel.

Commemorations are also planned at Rachel Carson Elementary School in Gaithersburg and Rachel Carson Middle School in Herndon, where next Friday children will eat "birthday cupcakes" at a party. Carson's 100th birthday would have been May 27.

Forty-three years after her death, Carson is still cited as an inspiration across the environmental spectrum, by endangered-species advocates and anti-pesticide groups and researchers concerned about hormone-mimicking pollutants.

Mark H. Lytle, a professor at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., said that all of these movements can be traced in some way to Carson and her call to look more closely at humans' destruction of natural systems.

Former vice president Al Gore cites Carson as an inspiration for his call to fight climate change. Lytle said "Silent Spring" probably had an impact on Gore's audience as well -- he was primed to speak; they were primed to listen.

"When the warning comes, people are prepared to accept it, because in some ways, this is 'Silent Spring' all over again," Lytle said.


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