LOST WOODS The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson Edited and with an introduction by Linda Lear Beacon Press. 267 pp. $24
This collection of miscellaneous writings by Rachel Carson gives a new generation an opportunity to rediscover the legendary biologist and ecologist. In some ways it's better than sitting down to read "Silent Spring," since there's something in all of us that doesn't like to be preached to -- that doesn't willingly take to hearing bad news.
It's 34 years since Rachel Carson's death, and it's entirely possible that a great many people haven't heard of her, or, perhaps, have heard of her but never read her books. Carson pursued her education in biology at Johns Hopkins, did some graduate work -- all of this in the '30s. She began her writing career by working on government brochures and radio scripts and, in 1941, published her first book, "Under the Sea-Wind." She was a nature writer at that time, given to lyricism. She was the very opposite of controversial: a woman writing about a "beautiful" ocean, working in the northeastern corner of America with important white males as her mentors. What could be bad about any of this? What wasn't to like?
In 1951 Carson published "The Sea Around Us." Again, her prose was lyric, her subject "beautiful," her task was to awaken the larger public to the hidden mysteries of our oceans. The New Yorker serialized the book; it stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks and weeks. Carson won the National Book Award that year, along with novelist James Jones and poet Marianne Moore. Carson was famous.
At that time she was still a nature writer, with all that that implied. She was capable of sentences like: "Let's picture the spawning journey of the Chesapeake Bay eel." (Certain people I know might have responded: "Aaw, you picture it! I'm going out for a drink!") Or, writing about the chimney swift: "During the nesting season the salivary glands enlarge, providing copious supplies of the needed cement. Later they shrink, but the hollow spaces left in the cheeks of the swift are put to good use -- the bird crams them full of insects to bring back to its hungry babies." Prose like this conveys the very essence of safety. It's like listening to a secular Sunday sermon; the only criticism this kind of writing is open to is perhaps a little mean-spirited kidding around. (Remember Evelyn Waugh's clueless nature writer in his comedic masterpiece, "Scoop"? Remember that "questing vole" who went "featherfooted through the plashy fen"?)
Rachel Carson instructed a somewhat bemused public through three volumes of informational material on the ocean and its shores. She commended the sand dunes to us, and the tide pools, and the hermit crabs, and those Chesapeake Bay eels. Her writing was almost invariably beautiful to the point of being placid, distinguished to the point of a big yawn: "Within its depths the marsh concealed the lurking bittern, the foraging heron, the meadow mouse running down long trails overarched by grass stems."
But as early as 1953 Carson remarked in a speech that the Earth was moving into "a warm cycle of unknown duration." She had been looking at the natural world around her in a new way. She couldn't help but notice that the government was tossing radioactive waste into her beloved sea. She turned her attention to the air, to the ozone layer; she noticed that some of her beloved birds were dying. In 1962, she published "Silent Spring," a book, editor Linda Lear notes, "that literally changed the course of history."
"Silent Spring" didn't just describe the environment -- those lurking bitterns and foraging herons -- it dared to point out that deadly synthetic pesticides were invading the water tables and the entire food chain, that these pesticides were in danger of killing off perhaps all life on the planet. Almost overnight, it could be said, Rachel Carson changed from being an insider to an outsider, from being a genteel cheerleader for nature to an impassioned activist.
The chemical industry squawked, and squawked hard. It accused her of hysteria, inaccuracy, of being dead wrong. There was nothing bad about substances like DDT. DDT was good, and good for you! Carson responded in editorials and speeches. She gave specific examples -- of dying birds, of Turkish children growing fur on their faces, of detergents foaming up in public water supplies, of radioactive substances in the bones of Laplanders (and all this was years before Chernobyl).
But she fought back without raising her voice into stridency, or so it would seem from these published speeches. She seems to have banked on all the calm credibility she'd built up through her earlier, uncontroversial writings. Her message was implicit. If you look hard enough at the natural world around you, you can't help but love it. And if you love something hard enough, it follows that you must do what you can to keep it from being destroyed.
These writings -- essays, letters, magazine pieces, speeches -- show us the evolution of a decent woman from scholar to warrior for all that's right. And there's nothing here at all that sounds like a sermon. By Carolyn See, whose reviews appear on Fridays in the Style section.