a book review by Judy Wyper

Silent Spring, Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson, famous for writing Silent Spring, led the way for science writers.  In that 1962 book she synthesized scientific information from a wide range of fields and interpreted the results in a format that the general public could understand and relate to.  She warned of humanity’s ability to destroy the planet by disrupting its systems, bringing a terrible fate for all life.  She warned that the toxic chemicals being indiscriminately sprayed were killing more than the target insects.  Pollinators were being killed in record numbers, DDT and related insecticides were causing the shells of birds to soften, leading to fewer hatchlings.  A silent spring without bees, birds, and other creatures would be the result unless steps were taken.  She warned of the dangers of single-crop farming and promoted biodiversity as the means to foster a healthy ecosystem.  “We have allowed these chemicals to be used with little or no advance investigation of their effect on soil, water, wildlife, and man himself.”  She included a long chapter on suggestions for mitigating the problems.

My copy is the 50th Anniversary edition, and it includes 55 pages of principal sources used when writing the book.  As I read it now, it is an indictment against ignoring the scientific knowledge we have and putting short term economic gain ahead of long term wise planning. The Afterword, written by E. O. Wilson in 2002, concludes with: “We are still poisoning the air and water and eroding the biosphere, albeit less so than if Rachel Carson had not written.”

Carson had written three well received nature books previously:  Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955). These are beautiful books full of information and descriptions of the natural world gleaned from her experiences as a marine biologist.  Her love and understanding of the various marine creatures and their interconnections shine forth on every page, enhanced by her ability to help the reader see their importance, no matter how humble the species might seem at first.  Each part of the ecosystem benefits from the other parts.  Harm one and you eventually harm all.

One of Carson’s literary heroes was Henry Beston.  I have a copy of The Outermost House:  A Year of Life on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, written in 1928.  It is a short and simple book to read, full of Beston’s personal observations of the shifting nature of the local animals, plants, sea, dunes, and the precarious nature of living close to the ocean.  Great historical writing.

Maria Popova writes an online blog, The Marginalian, formerly called Brain Pickings. Her 2019 book, Figuring, includes a large section devoted to Rachel Carson, with references to Henry Beston.  Popova describes the difficulties and successes Carson had as a female researcher, includes details of other interests, like reading H. D. Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, listening to Debussy’s La Mer, reading E. B. White’s Charlotte’s Web and Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows.  It is a fascinating account of how she developed as an individual and researcher, encouraged by different people to express her landmark ideas in writing.    It is a brilliant book that shows us Rachel Carson the person.  Happy reading!