Rachel Carson

Silent Spring

“The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings.”

The inexhaustibly talented Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964) was an extremely gifted writer and biologist who patiently wrote throughout the 1940s to the 1960s of the effect of pesticides on soil, water, and air. Her work, however, received little attention.

Undeterred in purpose, Carson’s detailed and emphatic 1962 publication, Silent Spring finally gained widespread recognition.

Corn field. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana

Although the sudden death of thousands of fish or crustaceans in some stream or pond as the direct and visible effect of insect control is dramatic and alarming, these unseen and as yet largely unknown and unmeasurable effects of pesticides reaching estuaries indirectly in streams and rivers may in the end be even more disastrous.

Silent Spring was profound, not only because it delivered a thunderous awareness of the harm of modern farming, and launched an overhaul of the industry, but also because it imagined a new partnership between humans and nature.

The history of life on earth has been a history of interaction between living things and their surroundings. To a large extent, the physical form and the habits of the earth’s vegetation and its animal life have been moulded by the environment. […] Only within the moment of time represented by the present century has one species—man—acquired significant power to alter the nature of his world.

Like Polish poet and Nobel laureate Wislawa Szymborska, who was incredulous of the power within our microbial realms, Carson urged a focus on the small as a window to the consequential.1

So it is that only when we bring our focus to bear, first on the individual cells of the body, then on the minute structures within the cells, and finally on the ultimate reactions of molecules within these structures—only when we do this can we comprehend the most serious and far-reaching effects of the haphazard introduction of foreign chemicals into our internal environment.

Bird nest. Featured in Paul Nurse's "What is Life?" in the Examined Life Library.
“The yolk of an egg is a single cell” informs biologist Paul Nurse in What is Life?. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Carson’s science-based position in Silent Spring launched a movement of environmentalists who questioned the invisible effects of civilization on our environment. But what she believed, that we are connected with nature, wasn’t new—it echoes ancient beliefs of the Stoics, the Romantics, and the 19th-century Transcendentalists.2

Yet, Silent Spring was highly unique. It was a perfect symbiosis of compassion, beautiful writing, and meticulous science:

The ultimate work of energy production is accomplished not in any specialized organ but in every cell of the body. A living cell, like a flame, burns fuel to produce the energy on which life depends. The analogy is more poetic than precise for the cell accomplishes its ‘burning’ with only the moderate heat of body’s normal temperature. Yet all these billions of gently burning little fires spark the energy of life. Should they cease to burn….

Of Carson’s many lessons, to care is first and foremost. To care and then to know. There is a gentle kindness in her writing, a wonder of nature, and, despite all cause for it, a lack of admonishment for those who destroy it.

Common Red Damselfly by Joshua Burch for "Close Observation of Insects" on The Examined Life.
A common red damselfly by nature photographer Joshua Burch.

“For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” wrote Walt Whitman in his epic poem Song of Myself. This is the thesis of Silent Spring.

Unfortunately, it is still much unheard, unheeded.

The farmlands and woodlands of this neighborhood are being hurt worse and faster by bad farming and bad logging than at any other time in my memory. The signs of this abuse are often visible even from the roads, but nobody is looking. Or to people who are looking, but seeing from no perspective of memory or knowledge, the country simply looks “normal.” Outsiders who come visiting almost always speak of it as “beautiful.” But along this river, the Kentucky, which I have known all my life and have lived beside for half a century, there is a large and regrettable recent change, clearly apparent to me, and to me indicative of a drastic change in water quality, but perfectly invisible to nearly everybody else.3

From Wendell Berry’s Our Only World

Photo of yellowed leaves. Featured in Emma Mitchell's "The Wild Remedy" in the Examined Life Library.
Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The pathos of evolving nature at the hands of humans is not modern, but it does need to be modernized, yet again, as we continue to leave more than our fair share of sinister impact.
Rachel Carson