Rachel Carson
by Brian Payton

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Rachel Carson received an award from Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall in 1962. Udall considered Carson the "fountainhead" of the new environmental movement. (Image courtesy of the National Conservation Training Archives).

Carson underwent tremendous personal and creative turmoil as she wrote Silent Spring. She was an intensely private person who felt despair at the storm of criticism she knew would come her way. During this time, when her work was most demanding, so, too, were the needs of her family. She lived with and cared for her aging mother, who needed almost constant attention. And Carson financially and emotionally supported her niece, Majorie Williams, who was stricken with diabetes and arthritis—as well as Majorie's young son, Roger, whom she adopted after Majorie's death. As the weight of familial burdens increased, Carson's own physical health began to deteriorate. She was literally dying of breast cancer as she wrote her groundbreaking book.

Although she never married, Carson enjoyed strong friendships and the peace she found in her cabin on the coast of Maine. She drew upon a reserve of calm assurance that she was indeed doing what had to be done, and that she was fulfilling her destiny as a writer.

When the first installment of Silent Spring appeared in The New Yorker in June 1962, it caused an immediate sensation. It was also met with a savage and relentless attack by the pesticides industry.

Rachel Carson was discounted as a "hysterical woman," and there were various attempts to discredit both her and her findings. Carson's meticulous research, however, left her detractors little room to maneuver. Pesticide producers tried to intimidate Carson's publisher into suppressing the book before publication. Agricultural and trade journals attacked Silent Spring before it hit the shelves. Chemical companies attempted to discredit Carson and her findings, and threatened to pull ads from magazines and newspapers that gave Silent Spring favorable reviews.

This multifront assault on Rachel Carson and her work, ironically, had the opposite of its intended effect. The biased, distorted attacks helped bring more attention to Silent Spring, attracting a large global audience. Soon after it was published, grassroots environmental organizations were formed to watch government and industry. Across the country, people began to educate themselves about environmental issues and pressure government and industry to stop poisoning the environment.

President John F. Kennedy discussed the book at a press conference and appointed a special panel to examine its conclusions. The panel's report was an indictment of corporate and bureaucratic indifference and a validation of Carson's findings. It criticized government pest-control programs, ordered government agencies to re-evaluate how they use pesticides, and required them to inform the public about their actions. In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, in large part due to environmental consciousness raised by Silent Spring.

Rachel Carson's goal, to alert the public and "to build a fire under the Government," was an astounding success.

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Rachel Carson as Editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1944. (Image courtesy of the National Conservation Training Archives).

Brian Payton writes fiction, nonfiction, and drama. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, The Globe and Mail, Islands, and Canadian Geographic. He can be found online at www.brianpayton.com

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Rachel Carson

Silent Spring
Quiet Courage