Saluting Rachel Carson and A SILENT SPRING
Essay and photos by Patricia Zick @PCZick
“All mankind is in her debt.”Sen Abraham Rubicoff in 1964 after the death of Rachel Carson
You might ask who is Rachel Carson? I had heard of her prior to moving to Pittsburgh in 2010, but I wasn’t completely aware of her impact on the environment. There are triplet bridges over the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh. The first leads to PNC Park where the Pirates play, so it makes sense that it is called the Roberto Clemente Bridge. The second, the Andy Warhol Bridge, honors the artist who grew up in Pittsburgh. But the third, the Rachel Carson Bridge, puzzled me.
That’s when I did my research. And I learned the author of Silent Spring started in motion the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Born in 1907, she grew up on the banks of the Allegheny River in the community of Springdale, just upriver from the city that was coughing its way to becoming the Steel Capital of the World during the years of her childhood. Ms. Carson played in the hills surrounding the river as it wound its way to meet the Monongahela and Ohio rivers. When she found a fossil on the banks of the Allegheny, she became obsessed with the sea and the history of nature.
Ms. Carson was a writer – a poetess of prose – from an early age. But in college at Pittsburgh Women’s College (now Chatham University) the study of biology beckoned. She went on to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where her talents as a writer emerged in the writing of boring fact sheets about species. She eventually left the USFWS to write books about the sea when she began hearing about illnesses caused by the wholesale spraying of pesticides. Thus began her four year journey in researching and writing of Silent Spring published in 1962.
The shocking and controversial book set in motion a string of actions that eventually led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of l the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. Unfortunately, she didn’t live long enough to witness the explosive impact of her research and words.
In Silent Spring, Carson exposed the practice of wholesale spraying of lethal toxic substances on all living things to kill one pest.
While the book became a bestseller almost immediately, it created a firestorm of vicious attacks on Carson by the pesticide industry and the media. She remarked that her critics represented a small, yet very rich, segment of the population.
An editorial in Newsweek soon after its publication compared Carson to Sen. Joseph McCarthy because the book stirred up the “demons of paranoia.”
She didn’t want to write Silent Spring, but she stated in an interview, “the subject chooses the writer, not the other way around.”
The Earth Day Network credits the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in 1962 as a “watershed moment for the modern environmental movement.”
That first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, came in part as a public response to the gargantuan oil spill in Santa Barbara in 1969. Ironically, on the fortieth anniversary of Earth Day in 2010, news of another oil spill began trickling into the media.
Ms. Carson’s book from almost sixty years ago brought change – that can’t be disputed. The Environmental Protection Agency and passage of legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act stand as testament to the revolution and scrutiny she brought on industry in the United States. But it didn’t protect us completely from big corporations’ quest for profit over safety. And we still have so far to go.
Yet, her words still are relevant and pertinent today, and we must not forget them. We’ve come so far since she made the connections between what we do to the environment and the toll we pay for its destruction. We can’t let her down now as we prepare to celebrate another Earth Day, the fifty-first.
The PBS documentary A Sense of Wonder uses Ms. Carson’s words in her final year to sum up her legacy.
“Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself in his cities of steel and concrete, away from the realities of earth, water, the growing seed. And intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into experiments toward the destruction of himself and his world. . .I do believe, that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and the realities of this universe about us, the less taste we shall have for its destruction.”Rachel Carson