Perhaps the finest nature writer of the Twentieth Century, Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is remembered today as the woman who challenged the notion that humans could obtain mastery over nature by chemicals, bombs and space travel than for her studies of ocean life. Her sensational book Silent Spring (1962) warned of the dangers to all natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT, and questioned the scope and direction of modern science, initiated the contemporary environmental movement.
Carson was a student of nature, a born ecologist before that science was defined, and a writer who found that the natural world gave her something to write about. Born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, upstream from the industrial behemoth of Pittsburgh, she became a marine scientist working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Washington, DC, primarily as a writer and editor. She was always aware of the impact that humans have on the natural world. Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941) was a gripping account of the interactions of a sea bird, fish and eel.
A canny scholar working in the government during World War II, Carson took advantage of the latest scientific material for her next book, Silent Spring. Evidence of the widespread misuse of organic chemical pesticides government and industry after World War II prompted Carson to reluctantly speak out not just about the immediate threat to humans and non-human nature from unwitting chemical exposure, but also to question government and private science’s assumption that human domination of nature was the correct course for the future. In Silent Spring Carson asked the hard questions about whether and why humans had the right to control nature; to decide who lives or dies, to poison or to destroy non-human life. In showing that all biological systems were dynamic and by urging the public to question authority, to ask “who speaks, and why”? Rachel Carson became a social revolutionary, and Silent Spring became the handbook for the future of all life on Earth.
Fun Fact: She published her first story, “A Battle in the Clouds,” at the age of ten!