I’ve just finished watching a documentary on PBS on Rachel Carson, the writer who is credited with single-handedly starting the environmental movement in the early 1960s with her book “Silent Spring”. It’s on the PBS show “American Experience”. No doubt it will be shown
again, I highly recommend you watch it.
I first encountered Carson when as a kid I read her National Book Award winner “The Sea Around Us” (1955). This is a remarkable work, a seamless melding of science and literature that puts Carl Sagan to shame. In fact, “Sea” does for the ocean what “Cosmos” did for the Universe. Check it out from your local library, even though it is probably way out of date now, it is still worth reading, if only for the prose. It’s a magnificent read.
I quickly tracked down another book by her, “Under the Sea Wind”, a highly detailed and poetic view of life in the sea as seen through the eyes of three separate creatures as she follows them through their entire life cycles: the Atlantic Mackerel, the eel, and the black skimmer (a species of shore bird common on the Florida Gulf Coast where I grew up). It is a breathtaking book, Carson was a trained biologist, but she was also an exquisite writer, a poet as well as a scientist.
Many years later, I read the third volume of her ocean trilogy, “The Edge of the Sea”, a naturalist’s manual of seashore life, carefully examining the three major intertidal habitats of the US Atlantic Coast: The Rocky Beach, The Sandy
Shore, and the Coral Reef.
“Edge” is really a beautifully illustrated field guide, something an advanced beachcomber might carry in a waterproof pouch to help him identify the critters on the seashore. But it still is written in such beautiful English…I often just pull it off the shelf and read a few pages at random just for the sheer glory of the prose.
I never read “Silent Spring”, her blockbuster best-seller about pesticides and their effect on the environment, but I certainly recall the controversy and public debate it sparked as it (and she) were viciously attacked by the pesticide and agricultural industries and their lobbies. Rachel defended her work vigorously and successfully, in writing and in Congressional testimony, and she gained public respect and
acceptance for her views while she demolished her shrill opponents (while slowly and privately succumbing to cancer).
The whole affair was very reminiscent of what happened just a few years later when the tobacco industry went to war to protect their right to peddle carcinogens without criticism or interference.
Watch the show if you get a chance, no doubt it will be broadcast again, or is available on demand. Rachel L Carson was a brilliant writer, a fine scientist, and a dedicated environmental champion. I admire her immensely.
I have posted this here before, but here it is again, just in case you missed it…
Carson chose this excerpt, the closing lines of “The Edge of the Sea”, to be read at her funeral
“Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp. What is the message signaled by the hordes of diatoms, flashing their microscopic lights in the night sea? What truth is expressed by the legions of the barnacles, whitening the rocks with their habitations, each small creature within finding the necessities of its existence in the sweep of the surf? And what is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is a sea lace, existing for some reason inscrutable to us – a reason that demands its presence by the trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore? The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.“