Chaffinches with Their Beaks Pushed into the Soil, Woodpigeons with a Froth of Spittle at Their Open Mouths

Stephen Mills

  • Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature by Linda Lear
    Allen Lane, 634 pp, £25.00, March 1998, ISBN 0 7139 9236 0

I remember a nightmare walk in the Oxfordshire woods of my childhood. Among the trees, I stumbled on an eerie flock of birds: chaffinches – brilliant dabs of green, orange, blue and white – with their beaks pushed into the soil; woodpigeons, their wings and tails spread like fans for flight, a froth of spittle at each open mouth; greenfinches and reed buntings, tree sparrows and yellowhammers, hundreds of them, all dead, the last gleam soon to be washed from their feathers by the rain. This was pesticide-land, early 1962. For more than a decade the DDT and the other organochlorines that had kept armies disease-free and clear of lice had been at work on the crops and soils of Europe and America – doing their bit in the battle to feed the peacetime population.

The US authorities declared Total Insect War as early as 1945, encouraging chemical companies to release their huge military stockpiles for civilian use with minimal safety screening. The gypsy moth caterpillar (a voracious defoliant), the mosquito, the fire-ant were all enemies that the American Government believed could be wiped out for ever, and aircraft began drenching vast swathes of countryside with poison. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring focused public interest on the appalling risks that the US Government had ignored and stopped the policy of blanket spraying in its tracks. Its publication marked the beginning of the activism and public involvement that would characterise the Sixties.

It was one of the first books to persuade its readers of the interdependence of all life and of the fact that the technical properties of such chemicals as dichloro-diphenyl-trichloro-ethane were of considerable significance. Carson moved from a catalogue of the wildlife disasters already caused by the toxic policies of recent governments to the cutting edge of medical research, where the chemical link to human cancers was already being made. She showed how insect pests, with their rapid reproductive cycles, would quickly develop resistance to specific chemicals, whereas higher organisms would suffer long-term damage. Most important, she showed that biological controls, like the introduction of pest predators and the better management of crops and habitats offered a safe alternative to indiscriminate spraying.

The book’s publication was a dramatic event, and the conflicts and crises it involved form the climax of the second half of Linda Lear’s excellent biography. One revelation is Carson’s fear that she would be sued. The chemical companies got wind of the book long before publication and, seeing the risk to their hugely profitable government contracts, tried some muscle-flexing. First to act was the Velsicol Chemical Company of Chicago. Lear quotes a letter from their lawyer to Houghton Mifflin, Carson’s publisher, hinting at litigation and, in McCarthyite language, implying an anti-American conspiracy. The National Agricultural Chemicals Association beefed up its public relations department, produced anti-Carson leaflets and warned any magazine that intended a favourable review of her book to think of their advertising revenue. According to Lear, Velsicol made a more thuggish approach to the National Audubon Society, reminding the editors of its magazine that they had ‘wives and children’ and that it would be a shame ‘to jeopardise their financial security’. Reader’s Digest dropped plans for a condensation but most publications, including Audubon, which published excerpts, held firm.

At the forefront was the New Yorker, whose editor William Shawn was already an admirer of Carson’s work and had taken part in initial discussions of the book with Carson and her agent. The problem was whether she could make such complex issues accessible to a wide readership. Shawn’s decision to serialise the work in advance would place her argument before America’s intellectual élite and ensure runaway sales. The Supreme Court Justice, William O. Douglas, in a comment for Houghton Mifflin, called Silent Spring ‘the most revolutionary book since Uncle Tom’s Cabin’. It was selected by the Book of the Month Club and Douglas introduced it in the Club News as ‘the most important chronicle of this century for the human race. The book is a call for immediate action and for effective control of all merchants of poison.’

One key to the book’s success was the precision of Carson’s research. Though they spent a great deal of money on challenging her thesis, denigrating her qualifications and ridiculing her for being a woman, the chemical lobby could do nothing about her facts. In April 1963, CBS Reports broadcast a discussion on ‘The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson’, in which a quiet, confident Carson was opposed by a ranting spokesmen for the chemical industry, while a whole parade of government witnesses proved unable to answer questions on the long-term impact of pesticides. Two days before the show, three of the five sponsors withdrew their support: CBS went ahead all the same and the broadcast was a sensation. The following morning the Ribikoff Committee was set up by the US Congress to investigate a range of environmental hazards, including pesticides. As if to vindicate Carson, a few months later more than five million fish were found belly-up on the Mississippi River, killed by the pesticide endrin. The source of the pollution was traced to a waste-treatment plant in Memphis, owned by the Velsicol Corporation.

Carson was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania in 1907, into a poor family that grew poorer. Her father was an insurance salesman who sank his savings into a few acres of real estate beside the Springdale River. Here, as a girl, Rachel learnt about natural history from her mother, but the river was soon polluted by the heavy industry that sprang up to hem in the farm. Her older siblings made disastrous marriages, bringing their children home to share the four-room cabin and a tent outside. The land was parcelled into lots which seldom sold, but the money from those that did went to cover the costs of Rachel’s education. Constrained by a sense of the sacrifices that had been made for her, she supported her mother, her sister, her sister’s children and their children for the whole of her adult life: a life without privacy, but one that allowed her to concentrate on work and put in long hours, since so many depended on what she published.

Carson began writing very early. At the age of ten she wrote war stories for St Nicholas, the best children’s magazine of its day; later, she won a scholarship to read English at Pennsylvania College for Women. There, however, she switched to science, under the influence of a brilliant biology teacher, Mary Scott Skinker. Carson paid her way through a Master’s in biology at Johns Hopkins, eventually taking a job in the Bureau of Fisheries (later the Fish and Wildlife Service).

She was a government scientist for 14 years; but her work allowed her time for her own marine studies – she published her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, in 1941 – as well as access to a vast network of scientists and their research. Her writing benefited enormously. She was able to sell an article to Collier’s magazine and Reader’s Digest on echo location in bats which was based on military and scientific papers that had found their way to her office. The article was subsequently distributed throughout the Navy as ‘one of the clearest expositions of radar yet made available to the public’. As early as 1945, she offered Reader’s Digest a piece on the possible side-effects of pesticides, drawn from unpublished work done at the Government’s research centre at Patuxent. On the ball as ever, Reader’s Digest turned it down.

In the mid to late Forties Carson produced a series of pamphlets for the Fish and Wildlife Service entitled Conservation in Action, which were as elegantly written as they were scientifically clear. Her ability to absorb and explain scientific data was extraordinary. One clue, according to Lear, was her talent for conscripting the right experts to her cause, and then listening to them. When she came to write Silent Spring other scientists were indefatigable in their willingness to check her work, to ensure that none of the facts were wrong.

Under the Sea-Wind, after earning some admiring reviews, disappeared without trace, obliterated by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Her second book, however, did not disappear. Written late at night, from source material carted round each evening to her in boxes from libraries by friends and returned each morning, The Sea around Us detailed the infinitely many life-forms found in the ocean. It was translated into 32 languages, sold 250,000 copies in its first year and was awarded the National Book Award for Non-Fiction in 1952. The success of The Sea around Us may have had something to do with the growing anxieties of a public entering the Cold War and the Korean crisis. As Lear points out, the ocean was seen as America’s best line of defence and it is interesting that the best-seller lists of the time were dominated by sea books: From Here to Eternity, The Cruel Sea, The Caine Mutiny and the Kon-Tiki voyage of Thor Heyerdahl.

Carson’s fan-letters also revealed what she called ‘an immense and unsatisfied thirst for understanding the world about us’; it was to these readers that she was to appeal with her last and finest book. In a speech to the National Parks Association in 1962, ‘On the Origins of Silent Spring’, she noted a change in the letters she now received, which displayed a willingness to challenge government and ask awkward questions of it. People, she said, ‘no longer assumed that someone was looking after things – that the spraying must be all right or it wouldn’t be done.’ By now Rachel Carson was dying of cancer, but forced to suffer in secret, afraid that if her illness were publicised her opponents would ascribe a personal motive to a work in which she had striven so hard for objectivity. Within a year of Silent Spring’s publication, however, her personal life could no longer affect the outcome of the argument. She died in April 1964.