RACHEL CARSON: Witness for Nature
By Linda Lear
Henry Holt. 634 pp. $35

Go to the first chapter of "Rachel Carson"

Go to Chapter One

A Voice For the Wilderness

By Bill McKibben
Sunday, September 14, 1997; Page X05
The Washington Post

The more time passes, the larger Rachel Carson looms. By now Silent Spring seems a rare fulcrum point in our history, a work that began to change our very understanding of who we are and what our place in the order of things might be. A few weeks after its publication in the fall of 1963, she told a Washington audience that her mail already showed a change in public attitudes, a willingness to ask questions. People no longer "assumed that someone was looking after things," a sentiment that explains much of the late 20th century in America. The flavor of the world changed when Carson in Silent Spring unmasked some of the chemical agents driving Progress, and that can be said of a bare handful of books.

We need, then, a definitive biography of Carson in order to understand how and why she drew back her bow and let fly. Linda Lear, a professor of environmental history at George Washington, provides us with such a book -- competent, careful, comprehensive. If it is not perfect, if it fails to quite explain how Carson made the leap to a kind of radicalism in Silent Spring, this is because Lear is a modest and earthbound biographer. And that fits her subject completely.

Carson, born in a small Pennsylvania river town at the turn of the century, was years younger than her brother and sister. She spent a lot of time alone, wandering the woods and fields, which is the cliched-but-true beginning to the life story of nearly every naturalist I know. Her famous reserve came partly from the isolation of her childhood, partly from the shame of a failed-middle-class kind of poverty, and partly from the constant, almost smothering, attention of her mother, who followed her even to college, arriving almost every weekend to sit on the bed, eat cookies, and chat. Pennsylvania College for Women offered Carson mentors both for writing and biology; it was science that grabbed her first, leading her to Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and then on to Johns Hopkins, where she earned a masters in zoology. The Depression and her gender made an academic career unlikely, so she went to work instead for the federal government, editing and writing pamphlets for the Fish and Wildlife Service of the Interior Department.

Those pamphlets turned into feature articles for newspapers and magazines and finally, after many years, into The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea, which were published to great success in the 1950s. The Sea Around Us, which offered most people their first real glimpse beneath the ocean's surface, spent 32 weeks atop the bestseller list, and The Edge of the Sea joined it in the top 10 immediately upon publication. The heroes of Lear's book include the New York editors -- Paul Brooks at Houghton Mifflin and William Shawn at the New Yorker -- who brought this government scientist to everyone's attention.

But had she stopped with those books, Carson would have faded away by now, like Edwin Way Teale or Donald Culross Peattie, other specimens of the beloved middlebrow naturalist who have left few traces on the culture. Instead, she almost by accident began stumbling across new studies being done on the pesticides that had emerged during and after World War II and were now being sprayed by airplanes and tanker trucks the length and breadth of the nation. Working amid the distractions of her literary fame and of a metastasizing cancer, she somehow compiled this collection of obscure data into Silent Spring, which she originally intended to title "Man Against the Earth."

Its three-part publication in the New Yorker set off a storm that occupied the last few years of Carson's life. The chemical companies reacted with expensive fury, but President John F. Kennedy and Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall helped ensure that her work would lead to the first Clean Water Act. Carson, Lear reminds us, was not really equipped for such battles, but she rose to the occasion, staunch and eloquent in public, though in private she leaned hard on her few close friends. Chief among those was Dorothy Freeman, a neighbor at her Maine cottage; employing blessed discretion, Lear does not press too hard to define the nature of their relationship, save to show that it was close and crucial.

This book could not come at a better time. The particular environmental crusade begun by Carson, the fight against toxic pollutants, shows signs of final triumph -- President Clinton's recent decision to back new EPA standards on clean air is the direct descendant of the legislation passed in the wake of Silent Spring. But the next great fulcrum point is at hand. Somehow we must reverse the even larger tragedy that stems from the sheer volume of our appetites. Global warming is chief among these problems, and many of the same industrialists and public relations firms that battled Carson in the 1960s have managed to so confuse the public that America now blocks international progress on the issue. Would that we had someone of her stature to turn the tide, to remind us of how precious and how vulnerable the threatened world really is.

Bill McKibben is the author of "The End of Nature" and, most recently, of "Hope, Human and Wild."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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