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Why is Rachel Carson important to your life? Because your body is contaminated with the very chemicals she blew the whistle on over fifty years ago. Outrageous if you take a moment to think about it.
So why, you might be asking yourself, has the majority of the population never heard of Rachel Carson? Her potent book Silent Spring, written in 1962, did for the global environmental movement what The Second Sex did for feminism.
This pixie-like woman, binoculars slung over her shoulder, at home amongst the wildflowers along the rugged coast of Maine, was a multi-armed goddess: a poet, marine biologist, conservationist, the first woman scientist to work for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and one of the world’s greatest natural history writers.
Rachel Carson should be celebrated and taught at school, but she’s strangely missing in action. Her life was cut short in 1964 when she died of breast cancer aged 57, less than two years after the publication of the book that changed the world.
In Silent Spring her forensic assessment of the science on pesticides like DDT showed their devastating effects on wildlife, especially birds, which were literally dropping out of the sky, or dying in their eggshells. She documented how pesticides were polluting the entire food chain, from groundwater to bald eagles. And yes, humans too.
Far from being a turgid text, Silent Spring owed its enormous success to Carson’s ability to tell this frightening story in captivating prose. William Shawn, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker at the time Silent Spring was serialised said, “She had turned the issue of pesticide use into ‘literature’.”
“No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves,” she wrote.
Those who rallied around the anti-DDT cause at the time were accused of being “bird-lovers”, “organic gardeners” and my favourite, “unreasonable citizenry” – as if these were insults.
At the time Carson was writing Silent Spring in the early 1960s, citizens were living the ‘duck and cover’ life of the atomic age. Nuclear bombs had been dropped, the cold war was raging and there was a lot of big-red-button-that-could-end-the-world tension.
For Carson to speak out about the possibility of the extinction of humankind by its own suicidal hand, comparing pesticide pollution with radiation, was seen by those in suits and cuffs as “unpatriotic, unscientific and hysterical”. The same old script runs today with the attack on climate scientists.
If it were not for her meticulous research and the furore she created we would have waited a lot longer for the establishment of the US Environmental Protection Agency, which played a significant role in reining in industrial pollution and providing protections for the environment.
As you might have guessed, for having the gall to take on the establishment, Rachel Carson was subjected to vitriolic personal attacks, criticism that continues today. Critics called her a “priestess of nature” (read “witch”) and the anodyne-sounding, but loaded, “spinster”.
A confession: Rachel Carson is one of my heroes. While I am in no way comparing myself to someone of her stature, there are many similarities about our lives. I am a biologist and a writer. I also run an environmental organisation and campaign on chemical pollution issues, including pesticides.
I want to tell you a story to illustrate how some things stay the same (but should most definitely change). Some years back I was invited to address a public meeting in Gunnedah, NSW. Local women asked me to come. They were concerned about the use of pesticides to grow cotton crops and had been experiencing nosebleeds and miscarriages. Crop-dusting planes were criss-crossing the skies all day long, raining down pesticides. Endosulfan was one of those pesticides – one that has since been banned because it turned up in breast milk, just like DDT.
A couple of hundred people showed up at the rustic town hall. They politely listened to my presentation and also heard from the local women. A row of blokes stood leaning against the back wall, bandy-legged, in big hats, arms crossed tightly against their chests.
At the end I asked, “Any questions?” The room was silent. One of the blokes up the back piped up, yelling, “Youse are a pack of lesos and you need a good root!” A showstopper as they say. Over tea and biscuits I was inundated with whispered stories from women about cancers, difficulties conceiving, strange rashes and so on. Yet they were afraid to speak out.
Many of the tactics used to silence Rachel Carson are still used on those scientists and activists raising concerns about pesticides today. While we present scientific information, they attack our gender and attempt to undermine our credibility. But Rachel will not be silenced.
William Souder’s biography of Rachel Carson, On a Farther Shore, written to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her death in 2012, notes that, “the prospects for anyone to live as a writer were then – as now – uncertain. But for a woman, a career in science was an even more daunting undertaking.”
Silent Spring was Carson’s last book, but for most of her writing career she wrote beautiful, lyrical books about the sea, and published a trilogy of best-selling books about its wonders. She forged a unique literary voice, blending science and majestic prose.
“The sediments are a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we will read in them all of past history,” she wrote in The Sea Around Us.
It’s hard to imagine now, but when Carson was writing about the sea it was a mysterious place, an abyss yet to be explored. At the time, pioneering ocean explorer William Beebe was only just lowering himself into its inky depths on a cable in the bathysphere, a submersible hollow metal ball with a small round window not much bigger than a man’s head. Scientists didn’t even know how deep the oceans were.
For Carson the sea was the “great mother of life”, the place where all life began, with its recurring themes of time and seasons, migration, life and death, and evolution. She loved nothing more than to stroll the seashore at night, torch in one hand and a little black notebook in the other, jotting down her observations and sensory experiences.
Carson lived her life the way she wanted to at a time when women were being told to stay at home, have children and do the ironing. Due to her brilliance, she won scholarships to esteemed universities and developed close friendships with mentors and editors to further her career.
She was also pragmatic. When The Atlantic Monthly published her first essay Undersea in 1937 she asked the editors to use the byline “R.L. Carson”, “to enhance her credibility by permitting readers to assume she was a man”.
It’s over fifty years since the publication of Silent Spring and the message Rachel Carson imparted to the world is just as relevant today. DDT is long banned in most countries but will circulate in the environment and our bodies for many years to come. Other pesticides she identified as dangerous are still being widely used – the herbicide 2,4-D and the insecticide parathion, for instance.
Her prophetic words about systemic insecticides, designed to turn a whole seed, plant or animal into something indiscriminately poisonous – are especially chilling.
“The world of systemic insecticides is a weird world, surpassing the imaginings of brothers Grimm… It is a world where the enchanted forest of fairy-tales has become the poisonous forest in which an insect that chews a leaf or sucks the sap of a plant is doomed. It is a world where a flea bites a dog, and dies… where a bee may carry poisonous nectar back to its hive.”
And what of her beloved sea? Today scientists are protesting about disappearing sea life, acidifying oceans and vast gyres of microscopic plastic pollution the size of small nations floating around in the oceans.
That is just the beginning – a hideous new machine has been unveiled, the stuff of dystopian nightmares, designed to scour the deep ocean floor, vacuuming up rare minerals for the manufacture of yet more electronic gadgets, leaving a trail of utter destruction in its wake.
Rachel Carson left us with unfinished business that we can’t ignore. I don’t know any woman who wants toxic chemicals in her body, or in her baby’s body. Who wants a world without coral reefs? Bees are dying and birds are disappearing, one by one, as the world grows more silent to nature.