Science writer Rachel Carson writes to The New Yorker editor E.B. White suggesting that he write an article about the danger of pesticides. White demurs, but suggests that Carson write the article. It's the genesis of Carson's pioneering book, Silent Spring.
White wasn't throwing a Hail Mary pass to an unknown receiver on this play. Carson was already a successful scientist and author
. She'd earned a master's degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins and worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service as an aquatic biologist and editor. She'd already written for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and other publications, and authored a best-selling book.
Carson wrote a letter to Reader's Digest in 1945 proposing an article on the destructive effects of spraying the pesticide DDT
. The magazine wasn't interested.
In 1951, The New Yorker serialized excerpts of her manuscript, "A Profile of the Sea," which was soon published in book form
as The Sea Around Us. It was a best-seller and received the National Book Award.
So, Carson was no environmental Jenny-come-lately in January 1958 when her friend Olga Huckins sent her a copy of a letter she'd written to a Boston newspaper. Huckins reported that many birds had died on her private, two-acre bird sanctuary in southeastern Massachusetts after planes sprayed pesticides to kill mosquitos in 1957. Huckins wanted Carson to get somebody in authority to take note.
Carson was also aware of the opposition to pesticide spraying to control gypsy moths on New York's Long Island, and she wrote to White suggesting that he write that story for The New Yorker. White quickly said the magazine wanted it, but that she should write the article
Carson's scientific training, literary stature and passion for nature made her uniquely qualified for this assignment. What started as a magazine article or perhaps a short book became a multiyear project, interrupted by the death of her mother and Carson's own diagnosis with breast cancer in 1960.
Carson called her book Silent Spring, calling forth the image of a spring without birdsong. She painstakingly pointed out how insufficiently tested pesticides
were being widely released into the environment, killing hundreds or even thousands of beneficial species, and reducing biodiversity.
Not only did the chemicals often not work against their intended targets, Carson wrote, but they concentrated as small animals and poisoned vegetation were eaten by other animals, who were eaten by larger animals and so on up the food chain. Nor had the interactions of multiple chemicals or their possible effects on humans, pets and farm animals been properly studied, she pointed out.
The New Yorker started serializing Silent Spring in June 1962, and it was published in book form later that year. It was a runaway best-seller, later serialized in newspapers across the country.
With its concluding warning that it was arrogant to believe humans could totally control nature, Silent Spring is probably the most influential environmental book of the 20th century. Still in print today, it stands on par with the previous century's Walden as a foundation volume of eco-awareness.
Carson galvanized the modern environmental movement. Despite a massive counterattack by the chemical industry, the book was instrumental in bringing about the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Occupational Safety and Health Act and creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — all within a decade of its publication.
Carson, however, had succumbed to breast cancer in 1964, 18 months after Silent Spring was published. She was 56.
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