One of the preeminent naturalist writers of the twentieth century, Rachel Carson was widely praised for her coupling of scientific acumen with a lyrical prose style. Her trilogy of books about the sea - Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955) - established her as a gifted translator of things scientific for the lay reader. But it was Silent Spring, published in 1962, that can be said without exaggeration to have made history.
Silent Spring catapulted Carson to the forefront of a cause that at century's end remains uppermost in the minds of scientists, policymakers, and citizens alike: the protection of the environment. The strong case she made against the indiscriminate spraying of DDT and other toxic chemicals found in pesticides and weed killers aroused public opinion, put Carson at loggerheads with the manufacturers of these chemicals, and triggered numerous government-sponsored studies to ascertain their effects on the environment and on human health. After years of painstaking, dedicated research, the relatively reserved scientist found herself at the center of a national controversy.
In Rachel Carson, Mary McCay traces Carson's career as she moved from respected biologist at what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to astute observer of the natural world to key figure in a politically charged debate. McCay assesses all of Carson's significant writings: her publications in newspapers and magazines; her path-breaking series of pamphlets on shore life for the federal government, Conservation in Action; her essay for children and adults on keeping alive a sense of wonder at the natural world; and her four books of nonfiction, concluding with the controversial Silent Spring.
Far from signifying a radical shift in Carson's worldview, McCay writes, her progression to the writing of Silent Spring was a logical one. "At first glance Silent Spring looks quite different from Carson's earlier, benign books about the sea. But the book was not just a single act of courage; it was the product of all the work she had done previously both as a scientist and as a writer."
The cornerstone of Carson's philosophy in her books about the sea, particularly her critically acclaimed and widely read The Sea around Us, is now a tenet of environmentalist thought: that it is the rare event in the natural world that has no ramification elsewhere. Carson's repeated observation of how the ecological balance of the sea is maintained through numerous connections and dependencies among its creatures came to a likely conclusion, McCay explains, in Silent Spring. The persistent toxic chemicals in pesticides and herbicides would not only affect their targets - insects and weeds - but could inflict damage all the way up the food chain to human beings.
"As a writer," Carson wrote, "my interest is divided between the presentation of facts and the interpretation of their underlying significance, with emphasis, I think, toward the latter." Ultimately much more than reporter or observer, Carson, like writer Henry David Thoreau and conservationist John Muir before her, put forth a philosophy that changed irrevocably the way we think about the environment today.
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