It was the early 20th century, and the environment wasn’t yet a priority. It was seen – primarily by government and big industries – as something to be controlled, to be bent to the will of the human race.
One young girl from Pennsylvania decided that this simply wouldn’t do. She would spend the next five decades studying beaches at night with a flashlight, wading through the ocean and scraping her knees on rocks to get a better look at sea-life. Rachel Carson would go on to challenge every notion of her era, and ultimately raise the consciousness of an entire generation.
“As a writer, [Carson] was like the stonemason who never lost sight of the cathedral.” – Paul Brooks, Editor at Houghton Mifflin
Carson was born in 1907, and quickly developed a love of both nature and writing. At the tender age of ten, she became a published writer for children’s magazines, writing stories about the environment. She continued to hone her writing after she’d left home at 18, sending countless poems to magazines and papers, brimming with hope of just a few being published. One after the other – Poetry, Good Housekeeping, The Atlantic – they would mail her their standard rejection notice. It’s said that she kept them all, forming a little pile of politely worded consolations.
With little money coming in, her mother did her best to help pay for the tuition to study English, primarily through selling fruit, chickens and even the family china. Four years later she graduated, moving on to eventually earn her Masters in Zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. She enrolled in a Ph.D. program, but the burden of the Depression forced her to abandon her studies in favour of full-time work.
The Making of an Activist
Despite the Depression dampening spirits around the globe, Carson was determined not to allow it to interfere with her goals. She began working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1936, after outscoring every other applicant. The job was mostly made up of writing radio scripts and brochures about the ocean. Early in her time there, she drafted an essay called ‘The World of Waters’, and decided it should go beyond her Head of Department. She sent it to The Atlantic, and this time there was no politely-worded rejection note. Instead, her remarkable essay was published as a piece titled ‘Undersea’. It marked the beginning of something wonderful for Carson.
“Slowly but surely, people’s perception of nature was being reformed, a difficult task during the middle of a war.”
She spent her spare time studying the ocean, the shorelines and the precious sea-life that lived within. She noticed its fragility, and began to write about her concern for the impact humans were having on nature. Her carefully-penned books like ‘Under the Sea Wind’ (1941) were written with the aim of educating. Slowly but surely, people’s perception of nature was being reformed, a difficult task during the middle of a war.
But in 1945, as WWII came to a close, she noticed something had changed. Some of the chemicals used during the war by the military had crossed over into everyday civilian life. A particular chemical known as DDT was used in the war to kill lice, but was now being sold as a pesticide for gardens and farms. Carson contacted Reader’s Digest to pitch a piece about the consequences of DDT to our oceans. They declined, so she took matters into her own hands.
In 1962 she released a book called ‘Silent Spring’, her most passionate and alarming book to date. It detailed the adverse effects of chemicals on the environment, and laid bare a bleak future for the natural world. As the public began to join her in questioning the DDT chemical, the companies producing it sought to defend themselves. Industries branded her as a ‘hysterical’ woman, attacking her at every chance. Unfortunately for them, the public chose to side with the apparently hysterical woman. And when one of President John F. Kennedy’s science committees released a report backing up Carson’s concerns, big pesticide brands could almost feel the final nail in their coffin.
As Carson received various medals and awards, some members of the public were busy voicing their disbelief. Countless book reviewers and critics figured that this ‘Carson’ figure must have been a man. When she was clearly shown to be female, her critics tweaked their onslaught, stating that she must be ‘half-man’ due to her forceful writing style. She, of course, ignored them.
Despite speaking so often about her concerns for the ocean, Carson never spoke of the concerns in her personal life. She had been battling breast cancer on-and-off for years, but kept it very much to herself. Several treatments had kept it at bay for a time, but it was once again growing. In true Carson fashion, she refused to let the illness disrupt her life. She also refused to let a member of the public see her in her weakened state. When she interviewed, she wore heavy wigs to hide the hair loss. Her spine had started to collapse, and so she was never filmed standing up. Yet she still interviewed, spoke at events and interacted with the public. It was the purest example of stoicism.
Alone on a quiet morning in 1964, Carson passed away. Her legacy wasn’t one that needed time to form – it had already started. The wave of environmental protection bills came through, inspired by her life’s work. The Wilderness Act and Clean Water Act were passed, amongst others. Perhaps most importantly, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established thanks to her work. Two years later, this very agency banned the DDT pesticide. It eventually went on to become banned globally.
In 1980, she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Various landmarks and plaques bear her name, and her homes are considered national treasures. Her last book ‘Silent Spring’ remains one of the most iconic handbooks for the natural world. And while parts of the world are still reeling from the effects of DDT, it was her efforts that resulted in its ban.
It’s somewhat harrowing to think where we might be without Carson. It’s likely that DDT would have been used for far longer than it was, probably causing huge amounts of damage. We wouldn’t have remarkable books like ‘Silent Spring’ and ‘Under the Sea Wind’.
And for all the future young girls wading through rock pools with a flashlight, we wouldn’t have Carson’s story to tell them. Thankfully, we do.