Rachel Carson

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Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of this world.

The most alarming of all man's assaults upon the environment is the contamination of air, earth, rivers, and sea with dangerous and even lethal materials. This pollution is for the most part irrecoverable; the chain of evil it initiates not only in the world that must support life but in living tissues is for the most part irreversible. In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world—the very nature of its life.1

Silent Spring (1962) embodies a connectedness with nature, a kinship with other species, a feeling of the responsibility to take personal action. From what wellsprings had such a mature environmental philosophy flowed? What influences led to such profound insights, personal courage and ultimate heroism in face of vilification by the American corporate and scientific establishment? What experiences led Carson to such deep understanding of nature awareness and how it might be conveyed, to her surpassing understanding of human ecology, and to her realization of the end of nature as humans had known it throughout time?

Carson was born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, and had positive formative experiences in nature and in literature under the tutelage of her mother, Maria. She was strongly influenced in a romantic view of nature by several children's magazines. She published her first story in St Nicholas at age 11. She attended the private Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham College, in Pittsburgh just a few miles from home. Carson was educated at great financial sacrifice to her family and with the aid of several scholarships. She continued her close relationship with her mother throughout college. She had faculty mentors, in writing, Grace Croff, and in biology, Mary Scott Skinker. She followed the latter into science as her academic major, to advanced study at Johns Hopkins University, and into work as a government scientist.

Rachel Carson's writing about the sea fulfilled a childhood inland dream. Her favourite line of poetry while studying English and science in Pennsylvania, proved prescient: 'For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.'2 She wrote, 'I can still remember my intense emotional response as that line spoke to something within me, seeming to tell me that my own path led to the sea—which then I had never seen—and that my own destiny was somehow linked with the sea.'3

She became a biologist at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, eventually working her way to the position of editor-in-chief. She ultimately became, in writing a trilogy of popular books, Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955), what she called a biographer of the sea. She was captivated by the eternal mysteriousness of the sea. She wrote in such a way as to express the facts as well as the beauty of nature—the knowledge as well as the poetry. According to Paul Brooks, her editor and biographer:

Though she had the broad view of the ecologist who studies the infinitely complex web of relationships between living things and their environment, she did not concern herself exclusively with the great impersonal forces of nature. She felt a spiritual as well as physical closeness to the individual creatures about whom she wrote: a sense of identification that is an essential element in her literary style.4

This writing was in the spirit of John Muir, William Burroughs, Anna Botsford Comstock and others in the nature-study era of North American environmental writing. Through her nature-study writing, voice was given both to nature and to the unexpressed sensibilities of readers. The depth and power of her insights and the authority of her research educated readers to a world they did not know. Carson shared a subject she believed was vital. Through effective, powerful writing, she vivified the sea.

Carson contextualized her scientific writing within this vastness of time and space. Her writing conveys a sense of proportion—a soul aware of sitting at the edge of the continent, at not only the edge of the sea, but the edge of the sea of stars. These vast expanses of time and the cycles of recurring natural events situate her insights of the human place in science. She understood the limits of science—even when she enriched its definition to include humans as feeling and socially responsible participants in its study. She saw the power of science to reveal knowledge of natural processes and to raise questions of the human relationship to such processes and to human knowledge of them. Finally, Carson saw science as needing to evoke the sister of identification and knowledge—personal responsibility.

In addition to scientific knowledge of the 'nearly eternal', she would have us feel the poetic essence of our response to nature—and of reverence for it. Rachel Carson's combined knowledge and love of nature has been compared in a feminist critique of her writing to Barbara McClintock's 'feeling for the organism'.5

The scholar Vera L.Norwood has plumbed the subtext of Carson's work and its epistemology. Carson's thinking and feeling lead her to question how we know what we know. She has no God-like perspective apart from nature and human nature, rather she struggles to locate herself. In 'The Nature of Knowing: Rachel Carson and the American Environment', Norwood writes:

The occasions when the economic metaphor shatters against the unwillingness of the natural world to 'produce' meaning provide her most telling critiques of human limitations and lead her to doubt all context, [sic] Carson becomes more than a nature writer; she raises fundamental questions about how human knowledge is constructed, questions that reveal the epistemological hubris underlying much human understanding. These questions prompt her later normative work in Silent Spring and The Sense of Wonder.6

Carson's nature writing has been celebrated for sensitivity, complexity and depth. She taught about life in the sea but also to stand in reverence of how little is known. She educated towards another way to know—to feel nature. And finally she raised questions not only about nature, but about the nature of the knowledge by which we know nature.

A qualitatively different stage of Carson's writing began in 1956 when she wrote an article for Woman's Home Companion entitled 'Help Your Child to Wonder'. This was the first time in seven years she had not had a book in production. She wanted to leave the sea for a time; she wrote to her editor 'like that old scorpionlike thin in the Silurian, I have come out on land'.7 She had hopes to develop the article as a book, but soon she was to start her research on pesticides, and she never did. The article was published post-humously in 1965 as a book, The Sense of Wonder.

It is in this work that Carson is explicitly an environmental educator and can be best critiqued for her philosophical and pedagogical contributions to the field. She asks:

What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the boundaries of human existence? Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper?

I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant. Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.8

In the most direct statement of Carson's rationale for her kind of environmental education, she assures us of a deeper meaning, a hidden soul, that lies just beyond our experience in the natural world. Much of education teaches not to trust wonder, intuition and the ineffable sources of human strength. Yet these are part of our knowledge of nature, Carson says. She offers a validation of the power and authority of childhood experience and an invitation to reconsider its depths. The reader is enticed to wonderment in the sensual experience of nature. This work, with its explicit inclusion of affect and questions of value, foreshadows the raising of these questions by educators in the 1970s. She gives permission to explore the actual and perceived landscapes of childhood. Rachel Carson's philosophy of environmental education speaks of sensory creatures in a sensory world, humble citizens of a mysterious universe, and people free to place themselves 'under the influences of earth, sea, and sky and their amazing life'.9

In 1958, Carson decided to write a brief article on the impact of DDT spraying upon bird life—her next four and a half years were spent researching and writing one of the most influential books of the age. She told her long-time friend Dorothy Freeman she had proposed an article about it in 1945. The 1945 article became her magnum opus in 1962. Silent Spring has demonstrated remarkable vitality. It has been translated into 'nearly every language on the planet'.10 Thirty-eight years after US publication, it has never been out of print and continues to sell. It is given great credit for changing the way we see our world. According to H.Patricia Hynes, 'Silent Spring crystallized an "ethic of the environment" which inspired grassroots environmentalism, the "deep ecology" movement and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its state counterparts; it influenced the ecofeminist movement and feminist scientists.'11

Through her research on pesticides, Rachel Carson saw the vast destruction of which humans are capable. Hynes, in a chapter entitled 'Silent Spring: A Feminist Reading', writes:

Rachel Carson told students of Scripps College in 1962 that 'in the days before Hiroshima,' she thought that there were powerful and inviolate realms of nature, like the sea and vast water cycles, which were beyond man's destructive power. 'But I was wrong,' she continued. 'Even these things, that seemed to belong to the eternal verities, are not only threatened but have already felt the destroying hand of man.'12

Her dedication of Silent Spring is instructive of her environmental world-view. She quoted Albert Schweitzer, 'man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth.'13 She was among the very first to appreciate the gravity of the human impact on nature and her writing in this period precedes the concern to follow in the years leading up to Earth Day 1970 and the popular recognition of the seriousness of the environmental crisis. Rebecca Raglon gives Carson a new place in the context of the tradition of women's writing in nature-study and of nature writing by both women and men. She writes:

Silent Spring marks the origin of a new kind of nature writing: a dark new genre that deals with the horrific consequences of human actions upon the earth.. .Carson's legacy has insured that such innocent nature appreciation will now have to occur within a much darker context.14

Destined to be considered a seminal work in environmentalism, and perhaps one of the most important books of the twentieth century, its writing is meticulously chronicled by Carson's editor Paul Brooks in his biography The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work:

The storm aroused in certain quarters by the publication of Silent Spring, the attempts to brand the author as a 'hysterical woman,' cannot be explained by the concern of special interest groups for their power or profits. The reasons lie deeper than that. Rachel Carson's detractors were well aware of the real danger to themselves in the stance she had taken. She was not only questioning the indiscriminate use of poisons but declaring the basic responsibility of an industrialized, technological society toward the natural world. This was her heresy. In eloquent and specific terms she set forth the philosophy of life that has given rise to today's environmental movement.15

Carson's environmental philosophy raises questions about the nature of nature and human knowledge of it; it invites the reader to stand in wonder at the depth of nature's influence upon values and attitudes; and it calls a people to their responsibility to halt its destruction. Indeed, the recent intellectual history of environmental thought owes much to the wisdom of this remarkable scientist, writer, educator, elder and lover of nature.


2 Alfred Lord Tennyson, 'Locksley Hall'.

3 Paul Brooks, The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, p. 18, 1972.

5 H.Patricia Hynes, The Recurring Silent Spring, New York: Pergamon Press, p. 57, 1989.

6 Vera L.Norwood, 'The Nature of Knowing: Rachel Carson and the American Environment', Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 12, pp. 747-52, 1987.

10 Michael Brosnan quoted in Caskie Stinnett, 'The Legacy of Rachel Carson', Down East, June, p. 43, 1992.

13 Silent Spring, p. v. This is, fascinatingly, a slight misquoting of Schweitzer, who said, 'Modern man no longer knows how to foresee or to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth from which he and other living creatures draw their food. Poor bees, poor birds, poor men.'

14 Rebecca Raglon, 'Rachel Carson and her Legacy', in Barbara T.Gates and Ann B.Shteir, Natural Eloquence: Women Reinscribe Science, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 198, 207, 1997.

See also in this book Comstock, Griffin, Muir, Schweitzer

Carson's major writings

Under the Sea-Wind, New York: Oxford University Press, 1941.

The Sea Around Us, New York: Oxford University Press, 1951.

The Edge of the Sea, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1955.

Silent Spring, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1962.

The Sense of Wonder, New York: Harper & Row, 1965; this edition is now out of print. The Nature Company has published a new version (1994) as has HarperCollins (1998).

Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson, ed. with an Introduction by Linda Lear, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1998.

Further Reading

Freeman, Martha (ed.), Always, Rachel: The Letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952-1965, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1995.

Graham, Frank, Jr, Since Silent Spring, Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1970.

Lear, Linda, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, New York: Henry Holt & Company, 1997.

Further readings and information may be found at the following websites:




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