Magazine article The Spectator

Nature She Loved

Magazine article The Spectator

Nature She Loved

Article excerpt

In January 1958, a Mrs Olga Huckins of Duxbury, Massachusetts, wrote enraged to her friend, the naturalist and writer Rachel Carson, to say that uninvited planes spraying insecticide to kill mosquitoes were also killing large numbers of birds in her bird sanctuary. The result, four years later, was Carson's best-selling Silent Spring, an attack on the reckless use of pesticides and a book which changed the way people looked at the world.

By 1962, some SS,000 pesticides had been registered in the United States. Their effects, in particular those following the widespread use of DDT, had begun to cause alarm among scientists. But Carson, already a famous author of books about the sea and the sea-shore, moved the debate out of learned journals and onto the front page of newspapers.

Silent Spring was serialised in the New Yorker, became a best-seller, the subject of two documentaries on American network television, of hearings in the American Senate and debate in our Parliament. The damage that man was doing to his environment had been put on national agendas and has stayed there ever since.

Linda Lear spent 10 years on her biography of Rachel Carson and the result is a bit too long, with many potted biographies of minor players clogging the narrative. Despite that, Lear's book still has momentum and her account of Carson's admirable but too short life is well worth reading.

Carson was born in 1907, the youngest by several years of three children. The family was poor and dreary and lived in a fourroomed clapboard house with no indoor plumbing on the outskirts of a poor and dreary town in Pennsylvania. Carson's father seems never to have done much work. Her mother was clearly ambitious for her last child and when Carson won a scholarship to a local women's college would turn up most weekends to encourage her, thus reducing her daughter's chance of a social life. When Carson moved to university in Baltimore to study biology, the family moved with her.

Carson spent many years as a modestly paid civil servant at the Fish and Wildlife Service, in its publication department. Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, was published just two weeks before the American fleet was attacked at Pearl Harbor and sank with it. Her second, The Sea Around Us, was serialised in the New Yorker and became a best-seller, 10 years later refloating in its wake Under the Sea-Wind, which also became a best-seller. …

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