I began writing poems about Rachel Carson shortly after I began teaching introductory Women’s Studies classes. I like teaching first-year women’s studies because the students are such an eclectic bunch. Most are women, but very few are actually interested in feminism. They’re interested in an elective that the program (nursing, police studies, business) they really want to be in recognizes, and they’ve heard it’s a bird course. But they’re generally game and it’s fun to watch young minds warm up to feminism. One term, I decided to ask my students (two classes of about 40 students each) to write a biography about a woman they admired. Handing out the assignment I thought it was a brilliant idea: the students would learn some things about research and I’d learn all sorts of things about 80 admirable women. Twenty-five Oprah Winfrey biographies later, I began to question my professorial brilliance.
It was my own fault. I was new to teaching and had given the assignment very few parameters. A wiser instructor would’ve given the students a list of names and asked everyone to pick one, but a list like that didn’t occur to me until about the tenth Oprah in, and by then it was too late. Of course Oprah Winfrey is an admirable woman, as is Diana, Princess of Wales (10-12 biographies), and there were other women in the mix (Mother Theresa, Nellie McClung, Rosa Parks—all more than once).
When I designed that assignment it never occurred to me that I’d get a bunch of papers on Oprah Winfrey and the Princess of Wales. How do we choose our female heroes? In a mass-mediated world, if they’re not media moguls, must they be media darlings? I assumed my students would have a wide-range of female mentors they’d want to research and write about. I think I made that assumption because I had recently begun to read about a fascinating writer named Rachel Carson; if I’d been a student in my class, I would’ve been thrilled to write a paper about her. Then again, I didn’t know anything about Rachel Carson until I stumbled across the book Silent Spring while doing coursework for a PhD. If I were still an undergraduate student, I might’ve written about Oprah Winfrey too.
Published in 1962, Silent Spring is often cited as the catalyst of the modern environmental movement. It’s a book about the dangers of pesticides, but in a broader context it argues that humans need an attitude adjustment: newer technology isn’t always better technology, and science must help us to better know and live in harmony with the natural world, not conquer it. Carson does not call for a complete ban on pesticides; she presents scientific evidence to illustrate that we must use caution. She sees humans as part of nature, not above it. If we poison the natural world with chemicals, we poison ourselves. These statements might not sound groundbreaking today, but in the pesticide playground of post-WWII, they were revolutionary.
An invention of the Second World War, pesticides were used to protect soldiers from outbreaks of pest-borne diseases like malaria. After the war, the miraculous powers of pesticides were promoted for home use. “Your New World of Tomorrow,” an article published in the October 1945 issue of National Geographic, includes a photo of two boys chasing a white cloud of spray as it’s pumped out the back of a truck. DDT is printed in big black letters on the side of the truck. The boys are playing on a beach, wearing swimsuits. In its 1962 guide to plant protection, House and Garden—a magazine “for young homemakers”—advises readers to use chlordane to get rid of pesky slugs, and to apply DDT to protect chrysanthemums and forsythia.
When Silent Spring was published, the pesticide industry was big business—in municipalities, on farms, and at home—and the publication of a book that criticized it was big news. Carson and Silent Spring were all over the US media, and not only in book reviews and letters to the editor. Carson was lauded or lampooned in political cartoons and in the Sunday comics (Lucy to Schroeder in Peanuts: “We girls need our heroines!”). On April 3, 1963, CBS Reports featured a televised debate between Carson and representatives from the chemical industries under the headline “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson.” Audiences of the day knew who Rachel Carson was and what her book was about: she was engrained in the public imagination.
In 1962 environmentalism was new. Today, green is the new black, but aside from folks who have environmental studies degrees, work in the field, or remember 1962, I come across very few people who know the name Rachel Carson. What gives? David Suzuki and Al Gore, men who could arguably be called environmental pop stars in North America today, have both cited Silent Spring as the book that turned them into environmentalists. These guys would’ve been young men when Silent Spring was first published. Maybe one of the reasons they’re on the pop culture radar more than Miss Carson is that they’re alive. Rachel Carson died in 1964 and we’re not always good at remembering our dead, not even those who’ve had a profound impact on our history, especially when they’re women. Unless maybe they were beautiful actresses, who had affairs with powerful men, and died young enough to stay forever gorgeous in our minds: these ladies—such as Marilyn Monroe, who died the same year Silent Spring was published—make for great poster material.
Yet in the early 60s, the fact that Carson was a woman may have added fuel to the fire of media attention surrounding Silent Spring. Rachel Carson was already a famous author when Silent Spring was published. She’d written three best-selling non-fiction books about the ocean, but an anti-Carson campaign launched by the pesticide industries turned this particular book into even bigger news. Carson’s publisher was threatened with a lawsuit; when that tact didn’t stop the book’s publication, Carson’s detractors publicly dismissed her as an hysterical woman, a bunny-lover and a communist. Much was made of the fact that she was unmarried and in her 50s. One critic, a former secretary of agriculture, is reported to have asked, “What does Miss Carson care about genetics, isn’t she a spinster?”
I still like that word spinster. A spinster spins things—wool, words—and Rachel Carson spun words eloquently. We think of the 1950s as a time of turquoise kitchen appliances and well-dressed housewives popping Valium in the suburbs. But in the 1950s, Rachel Carson was a well-dressed science writer buying her own seaside property and researching the book that kick-started the modern environmental movement. In all her published work, Rachel Carson wrote about scientific material in an accessible manner. Because Carson used poetic language and clearly exhibited a love of the natural world in her writing, some critics dismissed her work as unscientific, but her words were grounded in extensive scientific research and Carson herself dismissed the notion that science could only be communicated in code. The Sea Around Us, her second book, won the National Book Award. In her acceptance speech Carson said, “The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that, I take it, is the aim of literature… it seems to me, then, that there can be no separate literature of science… If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.”
Danielle Devereaux’s chapbook, Cardiogram, will be published by Baseline Press this fall. She lives in St. John’s.