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Art of the Wild
Nature’s Protector and Provocateur
Rachel Carson spawned the modern-day environmental movement and an everlasting legion of admirers. Nearly a half-century after the publication of Silent Spring, she also inspires vitriolic lunacy from a vocal minority of bashers.
By Frank Graham Jr.
Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement
By Mark H. Lytle
Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $23
Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson
Edited by Peter Matthiessen
Houghton Mifflin Company, 208 pages, $14.95
The centennial of Rachel Carson’s birth we are celebrating this year is producing mostly encomiums, but brickbats are also flying toward the woman whose 1962 book, Silent Spring, ignited the first great wave of concern over our planet’s deteriorating environment. Today there is a disturbing echo of the coordinated and vicious attacks launched by chemical manufacturers and their allies after she exposed the flagrant abuse of pesticides. The backlash is as startling as it would be if the tobacco industry decided to denigrate anti-smoking activists, while insisting the evidence against its products is “hogwash.” Thank you for dumping DDT on our good earth.
U.S. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) caused a stir on the eve of Carson’s centennial last May when he objected to a Senate resolution to honor her achievements. One of the senator’s aides explained that her attack on DDT deprived malaria victims in poor countries of their best defense against mosquitoes, which serve as carriers for the disease. “The result is that millions of people in the developing world died because the environmental movement, inspired by Rachel Carson, created a climate of fear and hysteria about DDT,” the aide said. As with other such charges, there was no recognition of the reality that the increasing resistance to DDT by mosquitoes has forced various agencies to curtail applications of that persistent insecticide in all parts of the world. Forty-five years ago Carson pointed out alternatives, some of them chemical, most of them not.
A more curious attack on Carson appeared in a New York Times column by John Tierney a couple of weeks later. The article ran under this mischievous heading: “Fateful Voice of a Generation Still Drowns Out Real Science.” It contrasted Carson’s “junk science” with a hostile review of Silent Spring in Science, the publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, written in 1962 by I.L. Baldwin. A professor of agricultural bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin, Baldwin had trotted out the same arguments against Carson then being distributed by the big chemical and agricultural interests, which saw her book not as a scientific challenge but as a public relations problem. The Tierney column insisted Baldwin’s science has held up better than Carson’s.
But left unsaid was that in 1963, after President Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee concluded a lengthy study by supporting Silent Spring, the editors of Science concurred. In an indirect rebuke to Baldwin’s review, they applauded the committee’s findings and remarked of the report, “Though it is a temperate document, even in tone, and carefully balanced in its assessment of risks versus benefits, it adds up to a fairly thorough-going vindication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring thesis.”
Carson died in 1964. Now two new books celebrate her work, emphasizing not simply her well-known attack on the scattergun approach to pesticide use but also her lyrical and informative books about the sea. The newcomers are The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, by Mark Hamilton Lytle, and Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson, edited by Peter Matthiessen.
Why another Carson biography in light of Linda Lear’s monumental 1997 portrait, Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature? Lytle’s book is in the long American and British tradition of “pocket-sized” biographies of historical and literary luminaries, concisely written and attractively printed and bound. (It is part of Oxford’s New Narratives in American History series.) Incredibly, for most of us older readers, whom Carson profoundly influenced by stimulating our interest in the complexities of both the sea and the newly awakened science of ecology, many bright young people today haven’t even a clue about who she was and what she accomplished. Lytle’s biography offers an inviting introduction to Carson and her challenges.
“I wanted a narrower focus that would allow me to emphasize how Carson and Silent Spring helped to inspire what Donald Worster called ‘The age of ecology,’ ” writes Lytle, a professor of history and environmental studies at Bard College. “Further, I wanted to understand why, long after her death, some critics continued to attack her work and her reputation.”
The “subversive” of Lytle’s title explains his approach. Eschewing much of the complex detail Lear recorded in her book, he concentrates instead on weaving Carson’s life and writing into the social, scientific, and political events of the post–World War II era. Lytle sees Carson, by nature a shy and very private person, as subverting the fundamental values of her time, encouraging readers to shift their view of our relationship with nature “from an anthropocentric notion of earth to a biocentric worldview in which people coexisted with nature and not over it.” Only then, she felt, could we take responsibility for the destruction we were visiting upon the planet.
“Carson offered a scathing critique of corporate irresponsibility, misguided science, and government complicity in what amounted to a pollution scandal,” Lytle writes. “Ecology was subversive because it put nature rather than humans at the center of a living world in which everything is connected to everything else.”
Lytle sees the campaign Carson waged against man’s attempt to subdue nature as a moral statement, and Carson herself as a secular prophet. Taking on powerful politicians and industrialists, she offended many people who believed she undermined “the American way”—the right to do what one pleases on one’s property, and the inviolability of man’s dominion over nature. Thus Lytle is able to bring her story up to date, explaining the anger that leads people not even born when Silent Spring appeared to charge her, in so many words, with murder.
The other descriptive word in Lytle’s title, gentle, is not as clearly justified. Surely Carson was deeply sympathetic to suffering and oppressed people everywhere, just as she was on another level to both wild and domestic animals. But there was a hard core to Carson. Overcoming the obstacles in her early life created by a somewhat dysfunctional family (a father who was an uncertain provider, an adoring but controlling mother, a boorish brother), she rose to achieve professional success as a marine biologist and international eminence with The Sea Around Us and other award-winning books that were as notable for their evocative prose as they were for their scientific precision. Despite an agonizing struggle with the cancer that would kill her, she pushed through to finish Silent Spring, then withstood the most humiliating assaults on her professional and personal life.
Lytle writes, “Ezra Taft Benson, a Mormon elder who served as President Eisenhower’s secretary of agriculture, turned viciously ad hominem when he wondered ‘why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics?’ He added his voice to those who saw Carson as an agent of subversion by concluding that she was ‘probably a Communist.’”
This subversive, in standing up to the attacks, could be tough as well as compassionate. Courage, of course, played a large part in her career, too, as indicated in the title of the book Peter Matthiessen has edited. Matthiessen, the author of The Snow Leopard and other prize-winning books, contributes an introduction to Courage for the Earth, and follows it with essays by a variety of Carson’s admirers, including her incomparable biographer Linda Lear, Al Gore, and Edward O. Wilson. Most of these pieces aren’t so much about Carson as they are revelations of the impact her work and “moral courage” (Terry Tempest Williams’s expression) have had on the writers’ own lives.
“Rachel Carson was one of the reasons why I became so conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues,” Gore writes. “Her example inspired me to write Earth in the Balance. Her picture hangs on my office wall among those of the political leaders, the presidents, and the prime ministers. Carson has had as much or more effect on me than any of them, and perhaps than all of them together.”
Often grab bags of short pieces timed for a certain occasion or anniversary have as their chief object the making of a buck, not a book. But Matthiessen’s collection offers genuine value for readers. It preserves, from a variety of perspectives and in specific, personal terms, Carson’s legacy. “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,” writes Matthiessen, in the book’s introduction.
Her great book had an immediate result, prompting the federal government to take action against air and water pollution, as well as persistent pesticides, several years before it otherwise might have intervened. Passed down to a subsequent generation, Carson’s legacy endures as a chilling reminder: Long before we discover the extent to which we have contaminated ourselves and our planet, we may have determined, irrevocably, our own fate.
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Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World
By Kathleen Jamie
Graywolf Press, 164 pages, $14
Kathleen Jamie was attempting to explore the beach’s shoreline, but all she could really focus on was the steady downpour. “Walking in this way . . . head down into the rain and wind, I didn’t see the big whale until I was next to it. It didn’t startle me—it was too big and too dead to be startling,” she writes in Findings, a collection of quirky essays set in her native Scotland, where she ponders sites as varied as city skylines, old sheep-herding grounds in summer highlands, and remote islands, such as this one in the Outer Hebrides, where the whale had washed ashore. As Jamie wanders, she asks: How does our modern world connect with worlds past? What should we save and how? Jamie, a fairly celebrated poet with the beguilingly ancient Scottish lexicon at her disposal, is particularly skilled at finding spaces where the older worlds and newer ones sit in uneasy alignment. In this engaging book, Jamie looks at both of them together and tries to make sense of the shared landscape they inhabit.
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Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography
By Douglas Carlson
University of Texas Press, 304 pages, $24.95
Roger Tory Peterson’s singular obsession with birds, which he called “the most vivid expression of life,” made him a pioneer in the birding world. His 1934 A Field Guide to the Birds was “one of the most important and influential books about the natural world written in the twentieth century,” writes Douglas Carlson, in Roger Tory Peterson, the first biography of Peterson since his death in 1996. That guide appeared just as birding was being transformed from a wealthy pastime involving shotguns into a harmless and bona fide American hobby. Peterson, Carlson writes, “recognized that he was not the best painter or writer or photographer, but he was able to do all three. In that sense, he represented the last generation of generalists.” Charming anecdotes pepper the book, such as when a teenaged Peterson sought and received permission from the police chief in Jamestown, New York, to stay out past curfew so he could collect moths beneath streetlights. But the book focuses largely on assessing Peterson’s professional abilities and impact. His adult private life is seen at a distance, as if through field glasses. That may be appropriate as even into his late eighties Peterson rarely paused in his work. One of Peterson’s two sons described his father as someone “just passing through” rather than part of the household. Whatever his parental shortcomings, his impact on the world was hard to overstate. Carlson concludes, “Peterson’s contribution was to change the way his readers saw the natural world,” preparing the way for the conservation movement as we know it.—Ted O’Callahan
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The Unnatural History of the Sea
By Callum Roberts
Island Press, 392 pages, $28
Marvelous creatures, large and small, inhabit the sea. But in many places the marine life remaining today is a mere sliver of the abundant and diverse panoply that once teemed beneath the waves. In The Unnatural History of the Sea, Callum Roberts tallies the devastating toll humanity has taken on sea creatures over hundreds of years. The author, a marine biologist at the University of York, in England, painstakingly compiles cases of overconsumption, revealing a heartbreaking pattern of waste and mismanagement: Steller’s sea cows hunted to extinction in the late 1700s, king cod populations decimated by the 1980s, and the present-day assault on Atlantic bluefin tuna, to name just a few examples. “Today, many fish stocks languish at between a tenth and a thousandth of their unexploited numbers,” he writes. Roberts argues passionately that each generation suffers a “collective societal amnesia” about environmental problems in the recent and distant past. This is partly because some species are just no longer around or as abundant as they once were. “Nobody alive today has seen the heyday of cod or herring,” he writes. “No one has watched sporting groups of sperm whales five hundred strong or seen alewife runs so thick up rivers there seemed more fish than water.” But The Unnatural History of the Sea is not just another lament over bygone environ-mental conditions. Roberts highlights the value of conservation efforts, such as marine reserves (areas off-limits to fishing), reminding readers that an awareness of history is essential to designing such programs. “If people forget what the seas were once like, and consider today’s waters as something approaching natural, then we could end up trying to maintain marine ecosystems in their present degraded states,” Roberts writes. “We have to do better than that.”—Andrea Anderson
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Art of the Wild
Award-winning photographer Scott Ian Barry’s deep personal connection with wolves is on full display in his gorgeous book Wolf Empire: An Intimate Portrait of a Species (The Lyons Press, 208 pages, $29.95). Nearly 100 arresting black-and-white photographs capture the animals’ rugged beauty and, along with the text, provide glimpses into their behavior—from rowdy play to peaceful reverie. “Although wolves are beasts of great power, stealth, and vitality, they possess a skill that we are rapidly losing,” Barry writes, “which is the ability to stop, rest, and shut out the poisons of the world around them.” Click here for more wolf portraits. —Andrea Anderson
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