William Souder’s On a Farther Shore, a new biography of Rachel Carson, reveals the woman behind the groundbreaking book Silent Spring, which exposed the environmental dangers of DDT and other chemicals and effectively launched the modern environmental movement 50 years ago. (For a chance to win a copy of On a Farther Shore, head over to our Facebook page.)
In June of 1962, Rachel Carson—among America’s most celebrated writers and soon to become one its most controversial—traveled from her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, to Claremont, California, to deliver a commencement address to the graduates of Scripps College. Carson told her friend Dorothy Freeman she was glad for this brief escape from a difficult time. Before the month was out Silent Spring, her new book exploring the dangers of pesticide use, would ignite a firestorm when it was serialized in three long installments in the New Yorker magazine. The reaction to the series would pit an alarmed public against the chemicals industry and its allies in government—the massed might of the establishment. Carson anticipated the withering attacks that would soon come her way but remained calm ahead of the onslaught. A quiet but courageous woman, Carson was confident in her facts and in her own ability to cope with challenging circumstances, as she remained equally stoic about her struggle against the breast cancer that would take her life two years later.
Carson’s remarks to the students at Scripps gave some clues as to the source of her resolve.
Her theme that day was nature—or as she put it more specifically, man’s attitude toward nature. Carson said she liked the definition of nature as “that part of the world that man did not make.” But our mistake, Carson said, was to think that means man is apart from nature and immune when it is imperiled.
“Man has long talked somewhat arrogantly about the conquest of nature,” Carson told the students, “Now he has the power to achieve his boast. It is our misfortune—it may well be our final tragedy—that this power has not been tempered with wisdom, but has been marked by irresponsibility; that there is all too little awareness that man is part of nature, and that the price of conquest may well be the destruction of man himself.”
Carson spoke that day at the height of the Cold War, in fact during the peak year of nuclear weapons testing, when fallout rained down everywhere on earth and the threat of nuclear annihilation was a constant fear. But that same blind arrogance—and Carson believed that human arrogance was the root of many of our problems—applies today, notably to climate change, the great environmental peril of this age.
Inspired by the English essayist Richard Jefferies, Carson spent her life devoted to the proposition that nature is a wonder to behold and to be thrilled by, not a problem to subdue or a consideration to ignore. She often said that in her life and in her writing, it was Jefferies’ admonition that animated her thoughts and her work: “The exceeding beauty of the earth, in her splendour of life, yields a new thought with every petal. The hours when the mind is absorbed by beauty are the only hours when we really live.”
Carson challenged those students half a century ago. “Your generation must come to terms with the environment,” she said. “Your generation must face realities instead of taking refuge in ignorance and evasion of truth.”
That generation is alive today and dominates human affairs. We might ask ourselves how well we have lived up to the obligation Rachel Carson placed upon us.