On Earth Day, Remember Rachel Carson
This year is the centennial of the mother of the environmental movement
by M.L. Faunce
Hot off the presses in 1962, Silent Spring was on my high school senior class reading list. Before the Chesapeake Bay Bridge had been built and before the Chesapeake Bay Foundation was formed to Save the Bay, 1962 was a time when my summers were filled with fishing, crabbing and swimming (yes swimming) local waters. Then, the environment was not a term, not yet a call to action, not yet a movement for new public policy.
Rachel Carson changed all that with her startling wake-up call that exposed the hazards of DDT, the cheap pesticide that became commercially available after World War II and that would have costly consequences for fish and wildlife. For DDT’s effectiveness against malarial insects, its inventor received the Nobel Prize. Carson, a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, got a different reception after her years of meticulous research on the effects of DDT and the indiscriminate destruction of insects, the good with the bad.
Silent Spring and with it, its author was ridiculed and fought by the chemical companies. Carson died of breast cancer only two years later, so she never knew that her book would galvanize public sentiment, provoke the environmental movement and raise new awareness of the complex web that nature and humans share. The rest, as they say, is history.
My senior year paper has been lost to time, but the haunting passages of Silent Spring have stayed with me: The devastation of birdlife caused by the widespread use of pesticides, the contamination of the world food chain, the silencing of nature.
Political activism in the 1960s may have begun with opposition to the Vietnam War, but Rachel Carson’s work and words gave activism new direction and energy. Many of the ’60s’ generation still heed her call to action. In 1994, while Al Gore was Vice President long before he won an Academy Award for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth he wrote the introduction to a reprinted Silent Spring. “Against overwhelming difficulties and adversity, but motivated by her unabashed love of nature, she rose like a gladiator in its defense,” wrote Gore of Carson.
Gore follows Carson as the gladiator fighting the DDT of our times, global warming.
In Maryland, May 27 this year the 100th anniversary of the celebrated author’s birth is Rachel Carson Day. I share that birthday. When I hear the birds outside my windows and see eagles soar over the Bay, I think of the woman who taught us to see not just the beauty of nature but how its survival is in our hands.
Celebrate Rachel Carson’s centennial at the Patuxent Research Refuge National Wildlife Visitor Center, Laurel at 10am-noon Sat., May 19 and see her in actress Kaiulani Lee’s one-woman play at 1pm Thursday, May 24, at the Patuxent Research Refuge National Wildlife Visitor Center, Laurel. free; rsvp: 301-497-5887.
ML Faunce, of Churchton, is an award-winning and long-time contributor to Bay Weekly.