Top of page

landscape photograph of clearing in a forest
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. View from woodland trail alongside estuarine marshes in the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Reserve in Wells, Maine. Photographs in Carol M. Highsmith's America Project in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division.

Not So Silent Spring: Remembering Rachel Carson

Share this post:

Inspired at a young age by her twin muses, literature and nature, Rachel Louise Carson (1907-1964) is remembered today as a pioneer in environmental awareness and protection. A marine biologist and conservationist, Carson wrote eloquent and engaging prose for a broad audience about ecological issues that made a lasting impression on her immediate community and upon subsequent generations of environmentalists. She is remembered as an impactful author, whose life was influenced by her early exposure to nature and to books.

Born and raised on a 65-acre farm outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carson discovered her love of animals and nature through her own exploration of the land as well as by reading. She was influenced by the works of Beatrix Potter, Gene Stratton-Porter, Herman Melville, and Robert Louis Stevenson among others. At only ten years old, Carson’s first story was published in St. Nicholas Magazine, and she continued to have her own stories published throughout her childhood.

Title page of the Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher with a picture of a turtle.
Beatrix Potter. The tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher. New York : Frederick Warne & Co., 36 East 22d Street, [1906]. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Beatrix Potter was one of the authors who influenced Rachel Carson as a child.
As she progressed through formal education, graduating first in her high school class (1925) and attending the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), Carson continued to focus on her writing. She majored in English and contributed to the school’s newspaper. In her sophomore year of college, Carson enrolled in a biology course led by instructor Mary Scott Skinker. Under Skinker’s mentorship, Carson changed her major from English to Biology in 1928, and in 1932, she earned her master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University.

Though she had every intention of pursuing a doctorate, the Great Depression forced Carson to look for work to help support her family. At the urging of Skinker, Carson secured a temporary position writing weekly educational and entertaining radio broadcasts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Her success stemmed from her ability to explain the important work of the Bureau in a way that was engaging for a broad, popular audience. This informed approachability became one of Carson’s most effective tools throughout the rest of her career.

Black and white professional photograph of Rachel L. Carson from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Rachel Carson, 1944 – Author, editor and aquatic biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1944. Public domain.

During the 1940s and 1950s, Carson wrote essays and articles for newspapers and magazines in her signature style—entertaining and informative. Her first book-length work, published in 1941 with the title Under the Sea Wind, was a reworking of essays originally published in the Atlantic Monthly. Though the book received positive reviews, it was commercially unsuccessful. Carson released another series of essays and articles in 1951 that were published as The Sea Around Us, which was followed in 1955 by The Edge of the Sea.

In 1952, Carson retired from government service to focus on her writing. She published several articles and essays that emphasized the beauty of the natural world to foster within her readers an appreciation for their role within a larger ecological system. Carson’s biographer, Linda Lear, wrote the following of her work: “Embedded within all of Carson’s writing was the view that human beings were but one part of nature distinguished primarily by their power to alter it, in some cases irreversibly.”

During World War II, Carson became increasingly concerned about the long-term impact of chemical pesticides on the environment—particularly the use of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) which was introduced in 1945 in the United States. As a biologist, Carson saw beyond the immediate benefits of its use and began writing about her observations of the way in which the substance was linked to abnormalities in fish and wildlife. The resulting volume, published in 1962 with the title Silent Spring, was read widely and helped to advance the modern environmental movement and the eventual national ban on DDT.

cover of book Silent Spring
Rachel Carson. Silent Spring; drawings by Lois and Louis Darling. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1962. Aramont Library, Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Carson’s signature combination of scientific knowledge and skillful nature-writing coalesced in Silent Spring, as she described her observations about the negative effects of synthetic pesticides on interconnected ecosystems. The copy of Silent Spring held in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division’s Aramont Library, still pristine in its original dust jacket, contains a typewritten letter from Cameron M. Baird, then the president of Baird & McGuire, Inc. to William A. Straleau, the tree warden of Sheffield, Maine that testifies to the lasting impact of Carson’s writing. In the letter, Baird describes the process of development, review, and approval required of new chemical products prior to being put on the market.

While these letters are a testament to the pragmatic realities of specific policies and practices, Silent Spring itself was the product of Carson’s fundamental belief in something greater than quotidian bureaucratic imperatives. Part of what inspired Carson’s writing was her determination to preserve the source that gave her strength and filled her with wonder as a child. In an interview with the Evening Star printed on March 8, 1953, Carson attributed her interest in preserving nature to her formative childhood experiences. Her essay, “Help Your Child to Wonder,” published in the Women’s Home Companion in July of 1956 and reprinted as a monograph, sought to encourage other adults to provide similar experiences to children which would leave a lasting sense of natural awe and duty to the environment. In her deeply emotional prose, Carson argued in favor of introducing children to the natural world as an important aspect of human development and the larger social good:

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. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

The legacy of Carson’s nature writing includes not only a concern for environmental protections but also a broader effort to introduce young people to the natural world to preserve their sense of wonder and beauty. Carson’s writing inspired the environmental movement that eventually led to the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, a tradition observed on April 22nd for more than 50 years. For more information and resources relating to Carson’s work and environmental topics, see the Rachel Carson Resource Guide from the Science, Technology and Business Division.

A color image of a bald eagle sitting in a tree.
An image of a bald eagle, one of the species whose birthrates were documented as being impacted by DDT. Carol M. Highsmith. A bald eagle at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado… Photograph. 2015. Prints and Photographs Division.

 

SOURCES

Carson, Rachel. The Sense of Wonder [by] Rachel Carson. Photos. by Charles Pratt and others. New York, Harper & Row [1965, c1956]. https://lccn.loc.gov/65018934

Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Drawings by Lois and Louis Darling. Boston : Houghton Mifflin Company / Cambridge : The Riverside Press. 1962. https://lccn.loc.gov/60005148

Evening star. (Washington, D.C.), 08 March 1953. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1953-03-08/ed-1/seq-151/

Lear, Linda J.. Rachel Carson : Witness for Nature. 1st Mariner Books ed. Boston : Mariner Books, 2009. https://lccn.loc.gov/2009288432

 

RESOURCES

Cuffia, Ashley. “Rachel Carson: Defender of the Natural World.” Inside Adams. March 25, 2022.

Rachel Carson: A Resource Guide. Science, Technology and Business Division. Library of Congress.

RachelCarson.org

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, “Rachel Carson (1907-1964) Author of the Modern Environmental Movement.”

Comments

  1. Hi – I enjoyed your article and want to ask if you can post this. We as volunteers, we maintain the place where Rachael was born and lived her first 22 years.
    Would like to help build an audience with these free events

    https://rachelcarsonhomestead.org/2024/04/12/april-2024-earth-day/

    Thanks for any help, and for what you do!
    Jeanne cecil

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.