Around the time Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, the picture here appeared on the cover of Seventeen Magazine with the headline: How to make a boy say wow! And, at least this too: How to get the most from a college visit. The message? Go to college and find a husband.
Rachel's Silent Spring unsettled a lot of scientists, specifically chemists working for the chemical industry who had everything to lose financially from her radical thesis. So they questioned it. Were we over using chemicals? Was the government not protecting its citizens?
Her message rattled farmers dependent on chemicals to protect their crops from pests, and scientists who advocated DDT would eradicate pests plaguing majestic street trees like the Elm. There was also the fact that our government used DDT during World War II to protect troops stationed in Italy and the Pacific against malaria. Everything she proposed in her book went against the standards of the time.
Predictably, she was ridiculed and demeaned by the press, by politicians, public figures who represented the agricultural industry, and by heads of corporations.
However, she had the public in her favor. In fact, the letters to the editor of The New Yorker after Rachel's excerpts appeared in their June 1962 issue were overwhelming in her favor. Many were from state agencies of fish and wildlife that wanted copies of the magazine to distribute to politicians in their region. Luckily, an archivist saved me some time by providing a list of the handful of letters unfavorable to the article, and the majority that were favorable. So I didn't have to comb through each one. I went right to the disgruntled letters.
"In any large scale pest control program in the area, we are confronted with vociferous, misinformed, ...bird-loving...citizenry that has not been convinced of the importance of agriculture..."
Another wrote that her work was misleading. It produced fear and didn't educate.
Another stated that her reference to the selfishness of the chemical industry is from her Communist sympathies.
And we can live without birds and animals, but not business. Isn't it like a woman to be scared?
There were other attacks on Rachel after Silent Spring was published in the fall of 1962. She handled it with grace. In a CBS documentary titled The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson, she didn't lose her composure as she adamantly defended her work. As a counter-point, the show also interviewed chemist Dr. Robert White Stevens who claimed if we were to follow her advice, man would return to the Dark Ages. An over-generalization if I ever heard one.
In her statement before the Senate Government Operations Committee in 1963, she raised awareness that the indiscriminate application of pesticides. Their ubiquitous presence in the environment, she intimated, could be wreaking havoc on humans, and there was no effort to examine the implications at a national level.
I think what she demonstrated is if you know you're right about something, people eventually come around to the same conclusion. And they come to respect you for your determination. So as long as you can hold on to your conviction, whatever that might be, without losing your dignity in the process.
Source: New York Public Library The New Yorker Records.
Rachel was first alerted to the detrimental effects of DDT while working for the government after World War II. Reports of massive fish kills at processing plants and government research facilities after widespread spraying of DDT trickled into her office at the Fish and Wildlife Service. She took note. DDT was popular with the U.S. government. It was credited for saving thousands of servicemen from getting sick while serving overseas where malaria was still a threat. After the war it was used heavily in areas to kill insects that threatened crops, forests, and urban trees. Local governments frequently blanketed whole neighborhoods with DDT to prevent Dutch Elm disease. As we know now, it didn't work. But the spraying did alarm bird enthusiasts who noticed dead robins and other songbirds blanketing the grounds after a spray.
Rachel began writing about her concerns which gained the attention of people who agreed with her. They wrote her letters, letting her know about incidents in their neighborhoods. Beekeepers lost entire hives, pond owners found dead fish floating to the surface, birds collapsed at feeders, writhing in pain on the ground. She filed these anecdotes away, determined to spend more time researching the cause and effect of mass spraying of these chemicals and the consequences to wildlife, and possibly, humans.
After years of collecting data from government reports, newspapers, and scientific experts, she published serialized versions of her work in The New Yorker in 1962. And all hell broke loose with the chemical industry. This was before her seminal work on the topic - Silent Spring was published.
As I procrastinate on my next novel, I think back at how invested both financially and emotionally I've been to my writing life. I traveled everywhere to research the Durant Family Saga, and when I decided I wanted to turn it into a tv series, I took a course on screenwriting. I dedicated about a year to the effort, attending webinars, placing scripts in contests, paying for feedback, etc., etc. I'm pretty determined when I want to be. In fact, I've a few notebooks filled with ideas for new plots, novels, short stories and screenplays. I thrive on the creative work.
But I never know what to expect from it. It's hard at times not to compare my experience with more successful authors.
Rachel Carson grew up knowing the world expected something from her. In a college essay she claimed to be seeking a "fuller determination of her dreams." And she did it all without social media. She did it because she stayed focused.
Although not one to pursue materialistic enterprises, her ambition did lead to financial freedom for her and her family. She grew up in Springdale, Pennsylvania in a small home with no running water or electricity. Even though the family was broke, her parents (most of all her mother) believed she had something special to contribute to the world and encouraged her to attend college. Rachel's laser sharp focus on her studies may well have been due to the fact they were always scrambling to come up with the $300 tuition to the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University), at one point selling off their dish-ware.
When selling the family goods didn't prove enough, her father agreed to put up parcels of land he owned as collateral to the school. By the time Rachel graduated in 1929 she owed the college $1500.00. Her father lost his land.
She went on to attend graduate school and ended up caring for her ill father, mother, and sister who was twice divorced with two daughters. They all crammed into an apartment in Baltimore where she attended Johns Hopkins University. To keep the family fed she took a job as a lab assistant in the medical school maintaining a colony of rats and fruit flies. It still wasn't enough. A friend visiting them at their cramped apartment found the family hovering over a bowl of fruit for dinner.
Rachel pursued research at Woods Hole in Massachusetts where she discovered her passion for all things having to do with the Sea. She was always drawn to writing (she entered contests at an early age) and it was her ability to convey the wonders of the ocean to a lay audience that eventually propelled her to fame. But it took time. And Rachel didn't allow her family obligations to distract her from her goals. If anything, the financial turmoil she faced made her more determined than ever to make a living wage from her talents.
Source: Souder, William. 2012. The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.
When people ask me what I'm working on, I tell them I'm writing a novel set on the Maine coast that centers around a young protagonist pretending to assist Rachel Carson (1907-1964) with her research in order to impress a boy. Inevitably people ask me, who is Rachel Carson?
If you ever studied environmental science, as I have, you would know Rachel is famous for her non-fiction Silent Spring (1962) which upended the chemical industry, made people aware that the Bald Eagle was at risk of extinction, and is credited with STARTING the environmental movement.
And I've come to learn from reading one of the many biographies about her, she was a slow writer. Yay! Something to emulate. Because the idea for writing this story has been brewing in my mind for well over three years now. I've collected all of her books, read a tome of personal letters she exchanged with her best friend Dorothy and visited the Inn along the coast of Maine where her ashes were scattered. Yet I only just started writing the novel.
It's not like me to take this long. I've published five novels in the span of ten years and have three completed works, in draft form sitting on my laptop (one will never be published - it's that bad).
But for some reason, I'm only at 1600 words for this novel and the motivation to write it is paralyzed by my motivation to get it just right.
I'm embarking on this blog to educate and excite the reading public, to draw attention to this woman scientist, a quiet revolutionary, so I can procrastinate. Join me! And learn more about this remarkable woman and her work.
Source: Souder, William. 2012. The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.
Hi, I'm an author of contemporary and historical fiction. My next novel features a young protagonist from a lobstering family living on an island in Maine who pretends she's doing research for Rachel Carson to impress the people in her small town. Join me as I procrastinate writing the novel by blogging about Rachel.
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