Portrayed by Caroline McIntyre
Step inside the revolutionary book, “Silent Spring” as Rachel Carson reveals the reckless destruction of our living world.
Written more than 55 years ago, Silent Spring inspired the Environmental Movement and has never been out of print. And now you have a chance to ask the author, Rachel Carson, how this came to be.
Caroline has performed as an historical interpreter since 2006. A former history teacher, theater manager and corporate presenter, she graduated Bucknell University, and holds a MA from New York University, both degrees in American Studies. She recreates the roles of three of her personal heroes – Frances Perkins, first female presidential cabinet member, Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring and Mary Draper Ingles, SW Virginia frontierswoman captured by Shawnee Indians. She likes to point out that one word describes all three – fearless! McIntyre weaves the stories of these heroic women into the fabric of their historical times and inspires the audience to ask questions and thirst for more. The Chautauqua theater experiences runs in her genes, as both her mother and father were active on the Chautauqua Circuit in the 1920’s.
1950’s America – prosperity, a booming economy and “Better Living Through Chemistry” — a world made safe by the war won by science and technology. In that war a new chemical, DDT, sprayed on troops and civilians alike – clobbered malaria and typhus, which in most wars killed more people than bullets. Radar, airplanes, missiles and ultimately the atomic bomb brought the “evil empires” to their knees. Dr. Salk’s vaccine destroyed the dreaded polio. GI’s went to college Sputnik took us where no man had ever gone before. And American families flocked to the suburbs — where their greatest enemy was crabgrass.
But there was trouble in paradise. Dead birds appeared on golf courses and campuses. Dying fish clogged streams and lakes. Babies were born deformed. In a new war to make the world safe from insects and weeds, the stockpile of DDT was sprayed from airplanes on farms and cities. Seizing the opportunity, chemical companies began to brew up more powerful, more profitable pesticides. By the 60’s prosperous post-war America would be shocked to its roots to find that science and technology were not infallible and that “progress” had a price.
One woman stood poised in a unique position to reveal that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” were not what they seemed. She was a scientist and a good one, but also an internationally famous author. Her 1952 book The Sea Around Us was on the national bestseller list for 86 straight weeks (39 in first place). Her previous book Under the Sea Wind joined it, and for a while she had two books on the bestseller list. With critical acclaim, she left her obscure civil service position to write a third bestseller ocean biography, The Edge of the Sea. There was hardly an award she did not receive.
With a unique collaboration of right and left brain skills, she was able take dull scientific fact and translate it into lyric prose that enchanted the public. She understood the jargon of science. She simply didn’t use it. She wrote not only so the general public could comprehend, but so that they could “feel” and “wonder.” Serialized in magazines and selected for Reader’s Digest Book of the Month Club, her “science” books captured the hearts of both the literary elite and the general reader.
Rachel Carson grew up a shy girl in a rural home without indoor plumbing but surrounded by nature. More comfortable with dogs and birds than with people, she was just 11 when her first story was published. She always knew she would be a writer. And,always, she was poor. For college, her mother sold the family china; the school loaned the rest. Graduating magna cum laude in biology in 1929 at the onset of the Depression, there were no jobs for female scientists. She earned a full graduate scholarship to John Hopkins in zoology, and eked out a living as a teaching assistant supporting her parents, an ailing sister and two nieces.
In 1935 the death of her father destroyed any hope of a doctorate. At 28 and sole support of a family of 5, she took a job with the US Bureau of Fisheries writing radio scripts about fish. One of the first two women hired by the Bureau in a professional capacity, she eventually became editor of all bureau publications. To supplement her civil servant’s salary, she turned the marine biology research she did by day into newspaper feature stories by night. For 17 years she worked in obscurity honing her skills writing government brochures explaining complex biology to the consumer.
As early as 1945 she had been aware of the devastating effects of chemical pesticides on wildlife. For a decade while over a half million tons of pesticides were sprayed on American farms, cities, suburbs and forests, she tried unsuccessfully to find someone to alert the public. Reluctantly, in 1958 she resigned to spend four years of her all too short life researching and writing, not of the beauties and wonders of nature she loved, but what she would call her “poison book’.
It was a frightening task. She would be taking on the powerful affluent chemical industry. She had no financial backing, only book royalties. She had no university research facilities, only personal contacts. She had no computer, just thousands of hand-written 3 x 5 cards.
She was a woman alone caring for an elderly mother and an orphaned grandnephew. She physically suffered with arthritis, ulcers, periodic blindness and cancer, to which she succumbed 18 months after the publication of Silent Spring. Yet it was this lone woman who accepted the gauntlet.
Carson’s poetic expose of the indiscriminant use of pesticides was vehemently attacked by the whole chemical industry Monsanto, Velsico, American Cyanamid — and the Department of Agriculture. But the more the industry spent on discrediting Rachel Carson, the more Silent Spring was read. In an incredible new wave of American citizen outrage, the more she was attacked, the more the nation rallied to her cause.
The chemical companies poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a marketing campaign against her, including free distribution of a parody “The Desolate Year” to the general public, and to the scientific community, a line-by-line instruction guide to answer Silent Spring. Carson jokingly asked her publisher if she could sue them for plagerism.
Silent Spring was written as airtight as a lawyer’s brief with 55 pages of notes and a list of experts who had read and approved it. When the chemical companies couldn’t fault her research, they resorted to name calling — hysterical woman, bird lover, — a communist whose extreme views and junk science threatened the health and welfare of the nation. Their attempt at personal assassination catapulted her book to stardom.
Some books when written mark the time when nothing will ever be the same again – Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Common Sense — and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Once it was published, our planet would never be seen in the same light again.
Silent Spring is said to have been the genesis of the environmental movement. It entered the words “ecology”, “reverence for life”” and “balance of nature” into our common language. It inspired a nation to proclaim “our fundamental right to a healthy environment.” It etched on our national consciousness the Jean Rostand words: “The obligation to endure, gives us the right to know.”
To many of us, its author was Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa and Lois Lane all rolled into one. For the young women of the 60’s, Rachel Carson was our first hero.
Silent Spring opens with an apocryphal fable, imaginary in whole, but in each small part painfully true.
“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings . . . Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community . . . No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.”
The reader is then led effortlessly through the complex chemistry of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides and the contamination of our waters, soil and food resulting in the death of birds, fish and wildlife and the bioaccumulation of chemicals in human fatty cells. All in simply elegant prose.
Silent Spring ends not with wholesale denigration of all chemicals but with great hope for biological control and return to a balance of nature.
Written 55 years ago, Silent Spring has never gone out of print.
- 1941 Under the Sea Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life
- 1952 The Sea Around Us 86 weeks on bestseller list, 39 in first place. Translated into 30 languages. First serialized in New Yorker. Selected for Reader’s Digest Book of the Month Club. Under the Sea Wind republished and also made bestseller list.
- 1953 RKO film of The Sea Around Us (Oscar for best documentary)
- 1955 Edge of the Sea Also and bestseller list. Excepts in New Yorker
- 1956 Something about the Sky (Clouds). TV program for Omnibus
- 1962 Silent Spring. Excerpts in New Yorker. Albert Schweitzer Medal of Animal Welfare Institute. National Wildlife Federation “Conservationist of the Year award. Garden Club of America Commendation. Isaac Walton League of America award. Audubon Medal of National Audubon Society. Cullum Medal of American Geographic Society. American Academy of Arts and Letters.
- 1963 CBS Reports TV special The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson(April). President’s Science Advisory Committee report endorses Rachel Carson’s stand (May). Carson appears before Senate hearings: Ribicoff Committee and Common Commerce Committee (June).
- April 15, 1964 Rachel Carson dies Silver Spring, MD. at age 56 after a long battle with breast cancer.
- 1965 The Sense of Wonder published by Harper and Row, posthumously
- 1999 Time Magazine selects Rachel Carson one of the 100 most important people of the century.
- “Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.”
- “If there is poetry in my book about the seas, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
- “The discipline of the writer is to learn to be still and listen to what his subject has to tell him.”
- “The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery – not over nature but of ourselves.”
- “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and … the convenience of man.”
- We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road / the one less traveled by / offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”
- “Anyone who has really read the book knows that I do not advocate the complete abandonment of chemical control, that I criticize modern chemical control, not because it controls harmful insects but because it controls them badly and inefficiently. . . We really are capable of much greater sophistication in our solution to this problem.”
- “The beauty of the living world I was trying to save has always been uppermost in my mind – that, and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done. . . . Now I can believe I have at least helped a little.”
About Rachel Carson
- Lytle, Mark Hamilton. The Gentle Subversive, Rachel Carson, “Silent Spring” and the Rise of the Environmental Movement. Oxford University Press, April 2007. A short biography that uses Carson’s life as a story to show how Rachel Carson and Silent Spring inspired the “age of ecology” and remain controversial today. It’s a fast and interesting read and if you have time for just one book, try this one.
- Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson, Witness for Nature. Henry Holt & Co. 1997 A full spectrum, multidimensional biography that Linda Lear spent ten years researching. As Mark Lytle said “there is little we are every likely to discover about Carson that Lear has not already found.” Magnificently written, it is a biography you can wrap yourself up in and savor.
- Musil, Robert. Rachel Carson & Her Sisters, Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment, Rutgers Press, 2014. Short bios of female environmentalists before and after
- Rachel Carson – she was not alone.
- Brooks, Paul. The House of Life. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1972. The first Rachel Carson biography by her editor who adopted her grandnephew Roger after her death. Not wanting to invade the privacy of this very private person, Brooks focuses on biographical details that reveal Carson’s approach as a writer. There are numerous excerpts from books and articles.
- Matthiessen, Peter, ed. Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activist Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson. Mariner Books, April 22, 2007. Contributors include John Elder, Al Gore, John Hay, Freeman House, Linda Lear, Robert Michael Pyle, Janisse Ray, Sandra Steingraber, Terry Tempest Williams, and E. O. Wilson. Relates Rachel Carson to current environmental issues.
By Rachel Carson
- Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring (40th anniversary edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2002. Introduction by Linda Lear and afterward by E.O. Wilson. 1994 edition has introduction by Al Gore. First published 1962.
- Carson, Rachel. A Sense of Wonder. Harper and Row, 1965
- Carson, Rachel. The Edge of the Sea. Houghton Mifflin, 1955
- Carson, Rachel. The Sea Around Us. Oxford University Press 1951 most recent 1991
- Carson, Rachel. Under the Sea Wind. Simon and Schuster 1941. Penguin Books 1996
Annotated Collections of Writings
- Lear, Linda, ed. Lost Woods, The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Beacon Press, 1998. A wide range sampling of her writing showing – childhood, books, speeches, letters each one flowingly poetic and crystal clear.
- Freeman, Martha, ed. Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1964. Boston, Beacon Press, 1995. Ten years of correspondence detailing an intimate relationship between Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman.