The Book That Changed the World: 50 Years after Silent Spring, Rachel Carson Still Has Something to Teach Us

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When Rachel Carson was growing up in a five-room farmhouse in the small town of Springdale, Pennsylvania, the land was in ruin. Pittsburgh lay only 18 miles away, and over 1,000 factories gushed coal smoke into the air. Steamboats and barges added their exhaust, along with Model Ts and forests of brick chimneys. On "two-gaslight days," the air was so blanketed with black mist that pedestrians couldn't see the elm of the street. Many neighborhoods were clogged with makeshift slums, and the cobbled lanes were full of trash, manure and putrid organic waste.

Meanwhile, open mines and sewers drained directly into Pittsburgh's three rivers (the Allegheny the Monongahela and the Ohio), making the slow-moving waters acrid, acidic and sometimes flammable. Animal carcasses clumped along the shores and bridge bases like exposed mass graves. The once-popular rowing clubs had disbanded for health reasons, and swimming or washing in the rivers was impossible.

Carson was a country girl. Her home was small and remote, and she spent many days wandering the property's 65 wooded acres. But all around her boomed heavy manufacturing. Nearby places took their names from industry--Glassport, Freeport, Oil City, Millvale, Milltown--or the industrialists who commissioned them, like Carnegie, Frick Park or Westinghouse High School. To process one-third of America's steel, hundreds of forges operated 24 hours a day. The byproduct of the smelting process, known as "slag," was carried a short distance from the factories and dumped, white-hot, into mountains of rock. Runoff was so toxic that entire water systems were tainted, and all meaningful life was destroyed.

From the day Carson was born, in 1907, to the day she died, in 1964, her home was surrounded by rampant manufacture and ecological catastrophe, as septic and leached as any place on Earth. As the author James Parton famously quipped, Pittsburgh was "hell with the lid off."

"What Carson got out of Pittsburgh, says Linda Lear, Carson's biographer and author of Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature (Holt Paperbacks), "was that the captains of industry took no responsibility for what they were doing to the natural world. She carried that her entire life."

This was the ecosphere that Silent Spring helped transform. In a way, it is remarkable that Carson's most famous book is half a century old. Conversely, it's hard to believe that only 50 years have passed. The expose that shocked America and sparked the environmental movement is still a living memory.

The Road to Silent Spring

By the time Carson wrote Silent Spring, she was already a respected marine biologist and bestselling author. The quiet girl raised in a dysfunctional family came to blossom beyond expectation. Before she was published, she had studied at the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham University) and Johns Hopkins University. Carson's studies in genetics and zoology were impressive, as was the fact that she, as a woman, became a scientist in the 1930s.

Carson found widespread success with The Sea Around Us, a scientific ode to oceanic life that won the National Book Award and Burroughs Medal in 1952. It's exactly the kind of book one would expect Carson to write. Who but a marine biologist could pen an epic love letter to salt water fauna? There is nothing confrontational about Carson's freshman book. Like the narration to a Jacques Cousteau documentary, The Sea is full of romantic prose, the tone wide-eyed and celebratory.

But as she matured, Carson shifted her focus. Instead of pursuing a book on evolution, as she had planned, she was drawn to the formidable pesticide DDT.

"She got angry," says Lear. As Carson followed pesticide use across the country, she saw frightening evidence of DDT's damage. "This was not a demure little woman in a white blouse. She was a good journalist, and she knew how to get around. …