By Loren Anne Barnett
t was a letter from a friend that prompted
Olga certainly sounded the alarm to the
right woman. When Carson received the
letter in 1958, she was already an accomplished biologist, environmentalist, and
Carson’s rural roots grew on a family farm in
Springdale, Pennsylvania, where the big
business was a glue factory. She was a writer
and an animal lover early on, publishing her
first stories about nature at age 11.
Rachel Carson outside near her home in Silver Spring, Maryland, the year Silent Spring was published.
She pursued her two passions at the
Pennsylvania College for Women—now
known as Chatham University. Seemingly
torn, Carson began as an English major and
finished with a biology degree in 1929.
Carson continued her studies at Johns
Hopkins, earning a Masters in Zoology and
Genetics in 1932.
Carson honed her skills writing radio show
scripts for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries
(now U.S. Fish and Wildlife) and a series of
articles on the natural history of the
Chesapeake Bay for The Baltimore Sun.
In 1936, Carson was hired by U.S. Bureau
of Fisheries as a scientist and editor where
she analyzed and reported fish population
data, writing publicly distributed brochures
and other publications.
In the following years, Carson wrote her
first books with growing respect from the
scientific community and the public. She
was promoted to Chief Editor at U.S. Fish
and Wildlife in 1949. Carson carried on,
writing her first best seller, The Sea Around
Us, in 1951. With this acclaim, Carson left
her post a year later to pursue her dream of
writing full time.
Fast forward six years to Olga’s letter. It
sparked a fire that resulted in Carson’s most
well-known work, Silent Spring—the title
referencing the loss of her friend’s birds.
Although the book mostly covers the
effects of pesticides on ecosystems, Carson
wove in much broader topics. She discussed the relatively short amount of time
that the environment has been modified by
humans, rather than the other way around,
and that humankind is subject to the same
damage we impose on nature.
This clear tie to human-health risks, including cancer, in Silent Spring seems oddly foreboding. During the writing of the last couple chapters, Carson was diagnosed with
cancer and endured a radical mastectomy.
Naysayers called Carson an alarmist, but
many followed the call. Silent Spring was
wildly popular, serialized in The New Yorker,
and featured on a CBS Reports TV Special.
President Kennedy was a fan and formed a
special committee to study pesticide use. In
1963, Carson testified before Congress for
new policies to protect the environment
and human health.
Sadly, in 1964, Carson lost her battle with
breast cancer. She accomplished so much in
her 56 years, and she would have been proud
to see the lovely ripple effect of her work.
In writing Silent Spring, Carson inspired the
environmental movement that spurred the
creation of the EPA. She likely saved some
of her favorite creatures, like the bald eagles
and peregrine falcons about which she
wrote during her experiences on the
Appalachian flyway in Pennsylvania.
Perhaps she saved some of us as well.
She used her gifts to the utmost, writing for
her life, and for ours.
Loren Anne Barnett—CBF’s
Director of Creative Services
and Editor of Save the Bay
magazine—grew up on
Maryland’s Severn River.