Sample text for Courage for the Earth : writers, scientists, and activists celebrate the life and writing of Rachel Carson / edited by Peter Matthiessen.

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She was always a writer and she always knew that. Like Faulkner,
Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and other American contemporaries with
the same affliction, ten-year-old Rachel Louise Carson, born in 1907 in the
Allegheny Valley in Springdale, Pennsylvania, was first published in the St.
Nicholas literary magazine for children. A loner and a reader and a devotee of
birds and indeed all nature, the slim, shy girl of plain face and dark curly hair
continued writing throughout adolescence: she chose an English major at
Pennsylvania College for Women and continued to submit poetry to
periodicals. Not until her junior year, when a biology course reawakened
the "sense of wonder" with which she had always encountered the natural
world, did she switch her major to zoology, still unaware that these passions
might be complementary.
Graduating magna cum laude in 1929, Carson went on to Johns
Hopkins to complete her master's degree in zoology, but increasing family
responsibilities caused her to abandon her quest for a doctorate. For a few
years she would teach zoology at the University of Maryland, continuing her
studies in the summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole,
Massachusetts. It was there, in her early twenties, that she first fell under the
spell of the eternal mysteries of the sea.
In 1932, "Ray" Carson, as some friends knew her, took part-time
work as a writer-editor for the old Bureau of Fisheries, a job that led, in 1936,
to a full-time appointment as a junior aquatic biologist. To eke out her small
salary, she contributed feature articles to the Baltimore Sun, most of them
related to marine fisheries and the sea. Though her poetry was never to be
published, a strong lyrical prose was already evolving, and one of her pieces
for a government publication seemed to the editor so elegant and unusual
that he urged her to submit it to the Atlantic Monthly.

Thus . . . the parts of the plan fall into place: the water receiving from earth
and air the simple materials, storing them until the gathering energy of the
spring sun wakens the sleeping plants to a burst of dynamic activity, hungry
swarms of planktonic animals growing and multiplying upon the abundant
plants, and themselves falling prey to the shoals of fish; all, in the end, to be
redissolved into their component substances . . . Individual elements are lost
to view, only to reappear again and again in different incarnations in a kind of
material immortality.

"Undersea," the young writer's first publication in a national
magazine (September 1937), was seminal in theme and tone to all her later
writing. Together with an evocative Sun feature, "Chesapeake Eels Seek the
Sargasso Sea" ("From every river and stream along the whole Atlantic Coast,
eels are hurrying to the sea . . ."), it was the starting point for her first book,
Under the Sea-Wind. Though its feeling was near-mystical -- the ever-
changing changelessness of life on earth -- the book's method took after
Salar the Salmon and Taka the Otter, two popular tales by the British writer
Henry Williamson. (Carson's other revered Henrys were Thoreau, Beston
(The Outermost House), and Tomlinson, the literary editor of the Nation and
Athenaeum, whose vacation chronicle, The Sea and the Jungle, described a
voyage from England to South America, then up the Amazon; The Sea and
the Jungle may well be the finest writing on the sea, Conrad included.) Like
Williamson, Carson used anthropomorphic characters to carry the narrative,
notably Scomber the Mackerel (from Scomber scombrus, the Atlantic
mackerel's taxonomic name).

He came into being as a tiny globule no larger than a poppy seed, drifting in
the surface layers of pale-green water. The globule carried an amber droplet
of oil that served to keep it afloat and it carried also a gray particle of living
matter so small that it could have been picked up on the point of a needle. In
time this particle was to become Scomber, the mackerel, a powerful fish,
streamlined after the manner of his kind, and a rover of the seas.

However, the real protagonist of this work (as of its better known
successors) was the sea itself -- "whether I wished it or not," as Carson
explained in her original foreword, "for the sense of the sea, holding the power
of life and death over every one of its creatures from the smallest to the
largest, would inevitably pervade every page."

To stand at the edge of the sea, to sense the ebb and flow of the tides, to
feel the breath of a mist moving over a great salt marsh, to watch the flight of
shorebirds that have swept up and
down the surf lines of the continents for untold thousands of years, to see the
running of the old eels and the young shad to the sea, is to have knowledge
of things that are as nearly eternal as any earthly life can be. These things
were before man ever stood on the shore of the ocean and looked out upon it
with wonder; they continue year in, year out, throughout the centuries and
ages, while man's kingdoms rise and fall.

Under the Sea-Wind was to remain Carson's favorite among her
books. Published in 1941, on the eve of World War II, it sold less than two
thousand copies and passed almost unnoticed. Meanwhile, the Bureau of
Fisheries had joined in 1940 with the old Biological Survey to become the
Fish and Wildlife Service, and her editorial duties had increased, together
with her biological assignments; she was specializing now in marine zoology
and was later promoted to chief editor of publications.
Although gentle with contributors, Carson the editor (according to
her colleagues) could be "tart and wry" about lackluster writing. Toward her
own work, she was ever more rigorous and demanding, not only in regard to
the depth and breadth of her research but in the economy and clarity of her
style, which she revised, read aloud, and tightened with the glad exhilaration
of the born writer.
Colleagues enjoyed working with her because of her uncommon
competence and dedication but also because of her childlike enthusiasm and
undiminished wonder at the myriad ways of nature, which made a scientific
expedition out of the simplest foray into field or tide pool. In their first
meeting, the naturalist Louis Halle (Springtime in Washington) found
Carson "quiet, diffident, neat, proper, and without affectation -- serious,
dignified, with a gentle voice." Nothing written about her since seems to
dispute this. But for all her modesty and restraint, she had confidence in her
own literary worth and was neither prim nor meek; she had a mischievous
streak and an edge to her tongue, and once she was published, became an
astute businesswoman and career tactician.
A decade after Carson's first book, her agent, Marie Rodell,
circulated a second work in progress that proposed to explore the origins and
geological aspects of the sea. Already the author was corresponding with
marine scientists everywhere and had even embarked on a Woods Hole
research vessel for a sea voyage -- her first and last -- to the Georges
Banks. Because her first book was unsuccessful and its author little known,
the new one was widely rejected, despite strong endorsements and support
from such influential eminences as the great Woods Hole oceanographer Dr.
Henry Bigelow, Dr. Robert C. Murphy of the American Museum of Natural
History, Dr. William Beebe of the New York Zoological Society, Thor
Heyerdahl of Kon-tiki, and the best-selling naturalist-writer Edwin Way Teale.
The material was refused by fifteen magazines, including National
Geographic. In September 1950, however, a section titled "The Birth of an
Island" appeared in the Yale Review; another section was subsequently
accepted by Science Digest. Eventually the material came into the hands of
Edith Oliver at The New Yorker, who recommended it to William Shawn, who
recognized its exceptional quality at once. Much of it was serialized as "A
Profile of the Sea," and in July of the following year, the whole manuscript
was published as The Sea Around Us. It won the John Burroughs Medal,
then the National Book Award, and within the year sold more than 200,000
copies in hardcover. (Under the Sea-Wind, resurrected, was to join it for a
prolonged stay on the bestseller list.)
What came across in all of Carson's work was what Alfred
Schweitzer called "a reverence for life." Accused of "ignoring God" in The Sea
Around Us, she responded, "As far as I am concerned, there is absolutely no
conflict between a belief in evolution and a belief in God as the creator.
Believing as I do in evolution, I merely believe that is the method by which
God created, and is still creating, life on earth. And it is a method so
marvelously conceived that to study it in detail is to increase -- and certainly
never to diminish -- one's reverence and awe both for the Creator and the
Although the sea was her obsession, Carson wrote beautifully on
other subjects, from the threat of nuclear technology and the first signs of
global warming to animal rights and the importance of introducing nature to
young children. She was always interested in the writing process,
understanding that "the writer must never try to impose himself upon his
subject. He must not try to mold it according to what he believes his readers
or editors want to read. His initial task is to come to know his subject
intimately, to understand its every aspect, to let it fill his mind. Then at some
turning point the subject takes command and the true act of creation begins."
In combining her writing with a career in science, she had what she once
called "the magic combination of factual knowledge and deeply felt emotional
In accepting the National Book Award in 1952, with cowinners
James Jones and Marianne Moore, she said, "There is no such thing as a
separate literature of science, since the aim of science is to discover and
illuminate the truth, which is also the aim of all true literature." As Paul
Brooks, her friend and editor at Houghton Mifflin, comments in Rachel
Carson: The Writer at Work, "As a writer she used words to reveal the
poetry -- which is to say the essential truth and meaning -- at the core of
any scientific fact. She sought the knowledge that is essential to appreciate
the extent of the unknown."

Success permitted Carson to retire from the FWS in 1952 and write full-time.
The following summer she bought land and built a cottage on the Sheepscot
River near West Southport on the coast of Maine, where she and her mother
had visited since 1946. Maria Carson, a kindred spirit in her nature study,
had been subtly possessive of her gentle daughter, whom she encouraged to
support several family members in addition to herself. Her mother, who died
in 1958, is generally accounted responsible for the fact that Carson never
married and had children, although she would adopt her sister's orphaned
son. In an article of this period called "Help Your Child to Wonder," Carson
expressed her intense belief in the importance of nature study for the young.

A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement.
It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct
for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we
reach adulthood . . . The years of early childhood are the time to prepare the
soil. Once the emotions have been aroused -- a sense of the beautiful, the
excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity,
admiration or love -- then we wish for knowledge . . . Once found, it has
lasting meaning. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to
know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.

During her Maine summers Carson was active in local
conservation efforts and engaged, as she did everywhere, in the close
examination of nature, from rocks to insects to marine flora. Nothing was lost
on her.

[The firefly] was flying so low over the water that his light cast a long surface
reflection, like a little headlight. Then the truth dawned on me. He "thought"
the flashes in the water [the phosphorescence of sparkling diatoms thrown up
by small breaking waves] were other fireflies, signalling to him in the age-old
manner of fireflies. Sure enough, he was soon in trouble and we saw his light
flashing urgently as he was rolled around in the wet sand. (From a letter to
Dorothy and Stanley Freeman, 1956)

By now, The New Yorker had serialized The Edge of the Sea, the
third volume of her marine trilogy, which evoked the ecology of maritime
communities on three types of coast -- the rock-bound shores north of Cape
Cod, ruled by the tides; the sand beaches to the south of it, ruled by the
waves; and the coral reefs of southern Florida, whose ecology is mainly
determined by the ocean currents. This book, which was also a bestseller,
was followed in March of the following year by a Carson-scripted television
film on clouds called Something About the Sky.

Carson's new celebrity had given her the confidence and opportunity to speak
out strongly for the environmental cause. In an op-ed letter to the Washington
Post condemning the ouster by the new Republican administration of a
competent and principled secretary of the interior, Albert M. Day, in favor of
the crass, partisan political appointee Benton McKay, she found the cool and
furious tone that would serve her well in Silent Spring a few years later.

For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been
working for the conservation of natural resources, realizing their vital
importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard-won progress is to be wiped
out, as a politically-minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of
unrestrained exploitation and destruction. It is one of the ironies of our time
that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from
without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.

She could have signed that identical letter today.
As early as 1945, Carson and her close colleague Dr. Clarence
Cottam had become alarmed by government abuse of new chemical
insecticides such as DDT. Most of these highly toxic materials had been
derived from lethal compounds developed originally for use in war;
the "predator" and "pest" control programs, in particular, which were
broadcasting poisons with little regard for the welfare of other creatures. That
same year, she offered an article to Reader's Digest on insecticide
experiments going on in nearby Patuxent, Maryland, not far from her home in
Silver Spring, to determine the effects of DDT on valuable insects as well as
on birds and other life. The Digest was not interested, though Harper's and
the Atlantic Monthly had published articles by others that same year that
warned of the dangers of DDT to the balance of nature. Carson went back to
her government job and her sea trilogy, and not until after the third volume
had been completed did she return to this earlier preoccupation.
By that time, the insecticide barrage had been augmented by
dieldrin, parathion, heptachlor, malathion, and other fearful compounds many
times stronger than DDT, all of which the government planned to distribute
through the Department of Agriculture for public use and commercial
manufacture. "The more I learned about the use of pesticides, the more
appalled I became," Carson recalled. "I realized that here was the material for
a book. What I discovered was that everything which meant most to me as a
naturalist was being threatened, and that nothing I could do would be more
important." She intended to make certain that if the public continued to let
itself be led by politicians who stood by and permitted the looting of world
resources and the pollution of the land, air, and water that our children must
inherit, it would not be because we knew no better.
With her fame, eloquence, and reputation for precision, Carson
could count on the support of the leading scientists and conservation
organizations and was well positioned to command a hearing. Even so, the
Digest and other magazines had little interest in her gloomy subject. Then, in
1957, came a startling wildlife mortality in the wake of a mosquito control
campaign near Duxbury, Massachusetts, followed by a pointless spraying of
a DDT/fuel-oil mix over eastern Long Island for eradication of the gypsy moth.
Next, an all-out war in the Southern states against the fire ant did such
widespread damage that its own beneficiaries cried out for mercy, and after
that a great furor arose over the spraying of cranberry plants with
aminotriazol, which led to a Department of Agriculture ban against all
cranberry marketing, just in time for Thanksgiving 1959.
"During the past 15 years," Carson protested in a letter that year
to the Washington Post, "the use of highly poisonous hydrocarbons and
organophosphates allied to the nerve gases of chemical warfare built up from
small beginnings to what a noted British ecologist recently called 'an
amazing rain of death upon the surface of the earth.' Most of these chemicals
have long-persisting residues on vegetation, in soils, and even in the bodies
of earthworms and other organisms . . . If this 'rain of death' has produced
such a disastrous effect on birds, what of other lives, including our own?"
Earlier that year, the ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson, alarmed
by the falloff in bird numbers, had declared that the current broadcasting of
lethal chemicals was the greatest threat to wildlife of all time. DDT had been
classified as a "chemical carcinogen" by one of Carson's informants, Dr.
Wilhelm Hueper of the National Cancer Institute (who found Carson "a
sincere, unusually well-informed scientist possessing not only an unusual
degree of social responsibility but also having the courage and ability to
express and fight for her convictions and principles"). She was fighting more
desperately than he knew. In 1960, Rachel Carson had learned that her
doctors had misdiagnosed what turned out to be a fatal breast cancer.
Despite a mastectomy and debilitating illness, she would persevere in the
most demanding book she had ever written.
As a new writer in this period, I was reading all her books with the
greatest admiration as fast as they appeared. By ill luck, I never met Carson,
although I worked with some of her FWS colleagues, including Dr. Clarence
Cottam and also Bob Hines, whose superb line drawings illustrated The Edge
of the Sea and also Wildlife in America, my own contribution to the new
environmental movement. Though that book and others had already
denounced the indiscriminate broadcasting of pesticides by the time Silent
Spring appeared, it was Carson who hit upon the brilliant metaphor that drew
all these warnings to a point:

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 . . . There was a strange stillness . . . The
few birds seen anywhere were moribund: they trembled violently and could
not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once
throbbed with the dawn chorus . . . of scores of bird voices there was now no
sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.

That same year, E. B. White had recommended Carson's project
to William Shawn at The New Yorker. In January 1960, delighted by Shawn's
response to her material, she wrote to her friend Dorothy Freeman, "Suddenly
the tension of four years was broken and I let the tears come. I think I let you
see last summer what my deeper feelings are . . . when I said I could never
again listen happily to a thrush song if I had not done all I could. And last
night the thoughts of all the birds and other creatures and all the loveliness
that is in nature came to me with such a surge of deep happiness that now I
had done what I could -- I had been able to complete it -- now it had its own
Silent Spring, serialized in The New Yorker in June and July 1962,
gored corporate oxen all over the country. Even before publication, Carson
was violently assailed by lawsuits and derision, including suggestions that
this meticulous scientist (whose master's thesis had been titled "The
Development of the Pronephros During the Embryonic and Early Larval Life of
the Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)" was a "hysterical woman" unqualified to
write such a subversive book. For Silent Spring had dared to say, among
many other unconscionable things, "This is an era dominated by industry, in
which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged." A
huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American
Cyanamid--indeed, the whole chemical industry, duly supported by the
Department of Agriculture as well as the domesticated ostriches in the
media. (Time's reviewer deplored Carson's "over-simplifications and downright
errors . . . Many of the scary generalizations -- and there are lots of them --
are patently unsound.") Reader's Digest tagged along with an abridgment of
the Time review, with which it replaced its own canceled condensation of the
original. (Seven years later, in April 1969, Time would feel obliged to run
Carson's photo at the head of an environmental article citing new evidence
that completely supported the data in Silent Spring.)
By year's end, Audubon and National Parks magazine had
published additional excerpts from the book, and all but the most self-serving
of Carson's attackers were backing rapidly toward safer ground. In their ugly
campaign to reduce a brave scientist's protest to a matter of public relations,
the chemical interests had only increased public awareness. Silent Spring
became a runaway bestseller, with international reverberations. In the next
two years, in what the author herself called "an extraordinary constellation of
events," Carson was awarded the Audubon Medal and numerous honors,
including election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in homage
to her rare literary gifts. Nearly fifty years later, the book is still regarded as
the cornerstone of the new environmentalism movement. Well crafted,
fearless, and succinct, it remains her most celebrated book, although her
wonderful essays on the world around us may be remembered longer.
Though she worked in nonfiction, Rachel Carson understood the
task of all good writing as a work of creation: "The writer moves into a realm
where he had never been before -- perhaps where no one has ever been. It is
a lonely place, and even a little frightening." Famed as a scientist whose
timely book on chemical poisons had served as a warning to the world about
the insatiable nature of corporate greed, she was at the same time an
important writer, one of the finest nature writers of her century. And it is for
her literary excellence, not her cry of warning, that in the end, she may be
best remembered.

Off the shore from her Maine cottage is an island forested in spruce, which
Carson invested with many lovely reveries.

The island voice which came . . . most beautifully and clearly each evening
was the voice of a forest spirit, the hermit thrush. At the hour of the evening's
beginning its broken and silvery cadences drifted with infinite deliberation
across the water. Its phrases were filled with a beauty and a meaning that
were not wholly of the present, as though the thrush were singing of other
sunsets, extending far back beyond his personal memory, through eons of
time when his forebears had known this place, and from spruce trees long
since returned to earth had sung the beauty of the evening.

Perhaps the imminence of her own mortality had helped her find
her precious balance and perspective. In most photographs, the pensive face
appears a little sad, but this was true long before she knew that she had
cancer. And surely a lingering sadness is unavoidable for all who revere the
natural world and bear witness to its ongoing degradation, as the rightful
heritage of our children and grandchildren diminishes day by day. "Of course I
felt special sympathy with your thoughts on 'the secret tension between love
[of nature] and despair' so that 'no carefree love of the planet is now
possible.' Each day those words become more true!" she wrote to her friend
Lois Crisler, author of Arctic Wild. Carson died at the age of fifty-six, in April
1964, in Maryland.

Sometimes I would watch the island from the hill that sloped up from the
water line . . . The woods . . . were bright with the moving, flitting forms of
many warblers -- the exquisite powder-blue parula with his breast band of
orange and magenta; the Blackburnian, like flickering flames in the spruces;
the myrtle, flashing his yellow rump patch. But most numerous of all was the
trim little black-throated green warbler, whose dreamy, nostalgic song drifted
all day long through the woods, little wisps of song lingering like bits of fog in
the tree tops. (unpublished essay)

"The beauty of the living world I was trying to save," she wrote in a
letter to a friend in 1962, "has always been uppermost in my mind -- that,
and anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done. I have felt
bound by a solemn obligation to do what I could -- if I didn't at least try I
could never be happy again in nature. But now I can believe that I have at
least helped a little. It would be unrealistic to believe one book could bring a
complete change."
Sadly, the damage to wildlife being done by poison chemicals
today is far worse than it was when she wrote her book. When Silent Spring
was published, I could still count sixteen species of wood warblers in May
migration on my own small property on the northeast Atlantic coast, and
several species of shy woodland thrushes appeared regularly in spring and
fall. In recent years, I have seen fewer than sixteen warblers of all species
during spring migration, and a few hermit thrushes only. While this "silent
spring" is not entirely attributable to pesticides, one shudders to imagine
nonetheless how much more impoverished our habitat would be had Rachel
Carson not sounded the alarm.
Rachel Carson was not a born crusader but an intelligent and
dedicated woman who rose heroically to the occasion. Rightly confident
about her facts as well as her ability to present them, secure in the approval
of her peers, she remained serene in the face of her accusers. Throughout
her life, she was brave and fierce in defense of what she held most sacred,
which was the wonder of life and all its creatures, even such malignant
creatures as ourselves.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The "courage" in the title of this fine variegated collection is
rightly celebrated in virtually every essay in this book, including my own
introduction, and this dedicated bravery of Rachel Carson, born of a quiet self-
assurance, can scarcely be overpraised. Her tenacity withstood the
subversion, slander, and mendacity of our greedy industries and corporations
and their errand boys in Congress and the media--forces that for long
decades, doing great harm to their own country and the citizen-consumers
who have made them so wealthy, have defeated any lasting progress against
the pollution of our environment by chemical wastes and inefficient, filthy, and
toxic fossil fuels.
As a dying woman all too aware that her time was running out
even as she struggled to finish Silent Spring, Rachel Carson also left us
prescient warnings -- largely subverted or ignored -- about the sickening of
oceans and the contamination of the earth's climate, already manifesting the
first symptoms of what all but hired scientists have come to recognize as
global warming.
Again, I agree with more than one of the excellent essayists in
this volume that in years to come, a time-bound tract such as Silent Spring,
for all its eloquence and deserved renown, may not be esteemed quite so
highly as the beautiful writings and responses that record Rachel Carson's
thoughts and observations in the field of the life of seas and songbirds. In her
lyrical intuitions and extraordinary ear for the precision and balance of well-
fashioned English sentences, her work transcends most so-called nature
writing, earning a place as real literature beyond all genres that will endure to
inspire those who follow. Rachel Carson is still insufficiently recognized for
what she is and always will be, an American writer who escapes her several
categories to endow us with some of the finest prose in the English language.

-- Peter Matthiessen

Copyright © 2007 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Introduction copyright ©
2007 by Peter Matthiessen. An earlier abbreviated version appeared in Time
magazine. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Carson, Rachel, -- 1907-1964. -- Silent spring.
Pesticides -- Environmental aspects.