By Ray Zimmerman
“For many years public-spirited citizens throughout the country have been working for the conservation of natural resources, realizing their vital importance to the Nation. Apparently their hard won progress is to be wiped out, as a politically minded Administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction.
It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.” (Lost Woods, P. 100)
The above words sound as though they could have been written this year. They are, in fact, from a letter to the editor of the Washington Post written by Rachel Carson in 1952. This letter is among the articles, speeches, correspondence, and other short works collected in Lost Woods: The Discovered Works of Rachel Carson (Linda Lear, editor).
Miss Carson wrote those words to protest the dismissal of Mr. Albert Day, director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, by then Secretary of the Interior Douglas McKay, a political appointee of the Eisenhower administration. At the time, she could not have imagined that she would fight her own battle against the forces of the agricultural pesticide industry ten years later.
Miss Carson’s waged her own battle over the publication of her book Silent Spring, which alerted the public to the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. As Carson sounded her clarion call, executives of the pesticide industry, assisted by their allies in politics and government, launched a relentless attack on her book, her reputation, and her career. Carson did not shrink from the battle, and her book continues to sell 25,000 copies per year. The attacks also continue into the present day.
These modern day critics are eloquently countered by Tucson author Reed Karaim in his article “Not so Fast with the DDT: Rachel Carson’s Warnings still Apply” (American Scholar, Volume 74, issue 3). The same issue of the American Scholar includes an excellent biographical sketch of Rachel Carson, “Turning the Tide: How Rachel Carson Became a Woman of Letters.” Author William Louis Howarth draws heavily on the letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, published in the book, Always, Rachel (Beacon Press, Boston).
In the debates and discussion of DDT and pesticide use, it is easy to loose track of the writer, Rachel Carson, and her lyric voice. In 1952, even as she protested Mr. Day’s dismissal in her letter to the editor, Miss Carson had resigned her own position at Fish and Wildlife. Her book, The Sea Around Us, had just been published, and the income that it generated provided her with the opportunity to become a full time writer.
In the aftermath of the success of The Sea Around Us, Carson’s earlier book, Under the Sea Wind was given a second release and met with great success as well. This was followed in 1955 with her third work The Edge of the Sea. These three books served to popularize the science of oceanography in the minds of the American public. Carson’s lyrical prose makes any of the three well worth the read.
When Miss Carson died of cancer in 1964, her work was just beginning. She had defended Silent Spring against the critics, brought the question of pesticide use to the attention of many supporters, including president Kennedy, and was planning ten more books.
These books were not to be completed, although parts of one of them appeared in The Sense of Wonder, published posthumously. This wondrous little book is the story of her explorations of the natural areas around her summer home with her nephew, Roger Christie, whom she had adopted when he was five years old. The work began as a magazine article, “Help Your Child to Wonder,” published in The Women’s Home Companion.
The following passage from The Edge of the Sea illustrates the lyric nature of Miss Carson’s work:
“Now I hear the sea sounds around me, the night high tide is rising, swirling with a confused rush of waters from the open sea, and it lies over water and over the land’s edge, seeping into the spruces and stealing softly among the Juniper and the bayberry. The restive waters, the cold wet breath of the fog, are of a world in which man is an uneasy trespasser; he punctuates the night with the complaining groan and grunt of a foghorn, sensing the power and menace of the sea.
Hearing the rising tide, I think how it is pressing also against other shores I know – rising on a southern beach where there is no fog, but a moon edging all the waves with silver and touching the wet sands with lambent sheen, and on a still more distant shore sending its streaming currents against the moonlit pinnacles and the dark caves of the coral rock.”
Sidebar - Works Cited
Under the Sea Wind
Simon and Schuster, 1941
Oxford University Press, 1952
This book was initially well received. Shortly after its issue, the United States entered World War II, and promotion of the book was cut short. It was reissued after publication of the Sea Around Us.
The Sea Around Us
Oxford University Press, 1951
This book established Rachael Carson’s literary career. Income from the book allowed her to resign her position at the US Fish and Wildlife Service and become a full time writer. Some her most stunning prose appears in this book.
The Edge of the Sea
Houghton – Mifflin, 1955
This book is a tour of the Atlantic coast. A chapter is devoted to each of three types of shorelines, specifically “The Rocky Shore,” “The Rim of Sand,” and “The Coral Coast. “
Houghton – Mifflin, 1962
This book alerted the nation to the dangers of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Business interests immediately attacked it, and an unrelenting smear campaign has continued into the present day. The book continues to sell approximately 25,000 copies per year.
The Sense of Wonder
Harper and Row, 1965 (posthumous)
This book began as a magazine article; “Help your Child to Wonder,” published in The Women’s Home Companion. Miss Carson’s death cut short her plan to expand the article into a book length text. The published book contains the text from the article and photographs by Charles Pratt.
Lost Woods: The Discovered Writings of Rachel Carson
Edited by Linda Lear
Beacon Press, Boston, 1998
This book contains speeches, articles, and letters, many of which are not currently available elsewhere.
Always, Rachel: The letters of Rachel Carson and Dorothy Freeman, 1952 - 1964
Edited by Martha Freeman
Beacon Press, Boston, 1995
Turning the Tide, How Rachel Carson Became a Woman of Letters
William Louis Howarth
American Scholar, Volume 74, Issue 3
Not So Fast With the DDT: Rachel Carson’s Warnings still Apply
American Scholar, Volume 74, Issue 3
Also of Interest
The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work
Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972
Mr. Brooks was Miss Carson’s Editor, and well qualified to describe the author and her work.
Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature
Henry Holt, 1997
This book is a biography by the editor of The Lost Woods. The depth of research essential for this project obviously involved a substantial investment of time and effort on the part of the author.