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Friday, August 9, 2013 Permalink

On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson


On a Farther Shore also shines insightful light on science writing and the history of American environmentalism.

To recap, Carson is credited with putting the modern environmental movement into motion with the publication of her 1962 bombshell, Silent Spring. Her signature book is both a science story on the environmental fate of pesticides and a powerful indictment of their unbridled use.

Following World War II, new classes of long-lived bug and weed killers developed for military use were loosed on American society with few restraints on potency or application. The chemical industry and federal government dispersed the poisons widely with an appalling ignorance – or denial – of their potential harm to humans and other non-targeted species.

DDT was the biggest gun in the chemical arsenal. Considered a panacea to insect-borne disease and crop damage, the Agriculture Department conducted massive aerial sprayings to wipe out fire ants and other pests. Manufacturers infused DDT in household paint, shelf paper and even soap. Hospitals sprayed their kitchens. Public health officials dispatched tanker trucks to fumigated beaches and parks as children frolicked in the murk.

The chemical recklessness was bound to incite a public backlash as evidence of collateral damage mounted: dead fish, deformed frogs and diminishing populations of birds and other wildlife. What was it about Carson and her polemic that lit the fuse?

Souder explains. First, he dispels notions of Carson being an environmental extremist out to demonize the chemical industry and ban all synthetic pesticides – myths that persist to this day, much as the residues of long-banned DDT. Carson actually acknowledged the public health merits of pesticides, though she advocated for more sustainable natural pest controls.

Drawing from a wealth of public and private sources – from intimate love letters to school yearbook signings – Souder casts Carson as an apolitical and unsociable bookworm infatuated with marine ecology, to the exclusion of nearly everything else.

And yet at 55 years old, while battling terminal breast cancer, Carson blew the lid off the pesticide industry’s new wonder products – “elixirs of death” she called them.

What turned this popular writer of starfish and eels into such a fierce polemicist? Souder shows she was driven by outrage over the “towering arrogance” of humankind reversing the laws of nature. “She had always believed that the environment molded life, not the other way around.” The proliferation of persistent, genetically altering synthetic pesticides had unnaturally altered the environment, making humans biologically defenseless.

The public, though, knew nothing about the insidious nature of these chemical compounds – how they bioaccumulate up the food chain, store in human body fat and enter unborn babies through the placenta.

The genius of Silent Spring was in framing the fallout from these compounds more broadly with something many people familiar with and worried about then at the height of the Cold War: the fallout from nuclear radiation. Carson drew parallels between pesticides and radiation throughout the book. That’s what made Silent Spring resonate from home kitchens to the Oval Office.

For all her literary heft and honors, we learn from this biography that Carson was a painfully slow but proud writer who constantly revised and tested the patience of her editors and book agents.

Souder also explores with grace and sensitivity Carson’s long romantic friendship with a married woman, concluding from their surviving correspondence that the relationship “existed in a realm above the ordinary physical love and desires.”

Readers mainly interested in Carson may be annoyed by the extensive historical context that doesn’t so much weave through the book at branch into protracted detours. The interludes are interesting, but 40 pages on the nuclear arms race without mention of Carson?

Overall, On a Farther Shore is an engaging biography that helps us understand how and why American environmentalism shifted so abruptly in the early 1960’s from optimistic conservation to the divisive movement we know today – a movement Rachel Carson catalyzed but never lived to see.


Next month Chris Bowman reviews The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause, on the new field of ‘soundscape ecology’ – relating voices of the natural world to ecosystem health.