Rachel Carson – writer, scientist, prophet

I knew that Rachel Carson WROTE books. But somehow the existence of a book ABOUT her, and about how and why she wrote her books, had remained a secret from me – even though this particular book was first published back in 1972, a VERY long time ago.

Cover of Rachel Carson biography
Rachel Carson biography

But once a chance conversation revealed the existence of “The House of Life” to me, a biography of Carson by her long-time editor Paul Brooks, it was an inevitability that I would go straight to the Internet in the hope of finding a copy. A somewhat battered and obviously pre-loved copy turned up on my doorstep.
And it turns out that there is so much that I did not know.
First of all, she was a sort of sister – a scientist by training, a writer by vocation, she was someone I could deeply and personally understand. Paul Brooks, her erstwhile editor and now biographer in this book, quotes Rachel several times on the subject of writing, and every single thing she said made me grin and nod vigorously because she is right she is right oh she is so right she UNDERSTANDS.
A writer’s occupation is one of the loneliest in the world,” she wrote, “even it if is only an inner solitude and isolation, for that he must have in order to be truly creative. And so only the person who knows and is not afraid of loneliness should aspire to be a writer.
And then, the crowning understanding: “For most talented and painstaking authors writing is – like love – a bitter-sweet experience. Misery, yes; the only greater misery would be not to write at all.”
Oh, how I feel all those feels.
Rachel Carson’s writing gives me goose bumps. I can’t do better than to show you.
In her book Under the Sea Wind, Rachel writes under different headings, and every one of them is luminous.
From ‘Flood Tide’:
The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of the palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where the water ended and the land began…”
From ‘Winter Storm’, an account of life clinging to itself in the teeth of bitter and relentless death brought on the wings of a winter storm. The passage is brutal, but it begins like this:
Winter still gripped the northland when the sanderlings arrived on the shores of a bay shaped like a leaping porpoise, on the edge of the frozen tundras of the barren grounds. They were among the first to arrive of all the migrant shore birds. Snow lay on the hills and drifted deep on the stream valleys. The ice was yet unbroken on the bay, and on the ocean shore it was piled in green and jagged heaps that moved, straining and groaning, with the tides…
It sounds like pure fantasy, wrapped around cold hard facts, and it makes me want to cry just from the beauty of those words, the images they so effortlessly convey. Paul Brooks writes, “…the merging of two powerful currents – the imagination and insight of a creative writer with a scientist’s passion for fact – goes far to explain the blend of beauty and authority that was to make her books unique.” There is a transcendence to it. Because she is capable of so much.
In the section of Under the Sea Wind called ‘The Abyss’, Carson dips into the cadences, the tone, and the power of a dark Oscar Wilde fairy tale:
Above the eels was the sunlight world where plants grew, and small fishes shone green and azure in the sun, and blue and crystal jellyfish moved at the surface. 
Then came the twilight zone where fishes were opalescent or silver, and red prawns shed eggs of a bright orange color, and round-mouthed fishes were pale, and the first light organs tinkled in the gloom. 
Then came the first black layer, where none wore silvery sheen or opalescent luster, but all were as drab as the water in which they lived, wearing monotones of reds and browns and blacks whereby they might fade into the surrounding obscurity and defer the moment of death in the jaws of an enemy. Here the red prawns shed deep-red eggs, and the round-mouthed fishes were black, and many creatures wore luminous torches or a multitude of small lights arranged in rows or patters that they might recognize friend or enemy. 
Below them… lay the abyss
Rachel Carson wrote of the natural world that surrounded her – and her love for it shines through. It was perhaps inevitable that she then felt moved to rise to defend it in a war that was only just beginning to be defined – but whose echoes, today, are eerie. It’s as though we’re still there, in Rachel Carson’s trenches, STILL fighting the same battles, STILL losing them.
Photo of Rachel Carson and her famous book
An author and book that changed the world

The work Rachel Carson’s name is most linked to, the one she is best known for, is of course her Silent Spring. book was published in 1962 and immediately drew fire. Carson’s strong belief that strong chemicals for pesticides should not be used at all before they can be certified for safety clashed directly with the chemical industry’s view that it was fine to use such things unless their danger has been proved to a high standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’, a bar set impossibly high.
When Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, she basically questioned the irresponsibility of an industrial/technical society towards the natural world. This question has only been sharpened in the years that have passed. The concerns she raised are still in play today 60 years later. This is why Rachel Carson’s work is still so vitally important today.
When I read accounts of DDT spraying ‘for mosquitoes’, I am taken back to my own childhood, to the village house where my grandfather kept his beehives. The village was a short walk from the shores of the river Danube, whose waters were a breeding ground for mosquitoes – I know this because I well remember a canvas jacket, so hard and stiff that it would stand upright of its own accord if you posed it on the ground, without which I, a mosquito magnet, could not venture outside if I didn’t want to be devoured by the little suckers. But the spraying had very little effect on those creatures. If anything, it created supermosquitoes, made of India rubber (if you swatted one it would only shake its head and fly away none the worse for wear) and the size of small hummingbirds (I exaggerate. Of course. But not by much.)
The mornings after the twilights during which they sprayed for the mosquitoes, there would be no appreciable decrease in the number of the pests – the canvas armor was still more than essential for me – but I remember my grandfather sweeping up into pathetic piles the small bodies of his bees, scattered around the hives, fallen from the air, tiny lives stolen by a harsh chemical death. I will never forget the way his eyes gleamed with tears as he performed these burial rites. I don’t know if what they sprayed was DDT. But it killed, just the same. What Rachel Carson writes about, I witnessed and experienced, first hand.
In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson writes,
We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been travelling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road – the one ‘less traveled by’ – offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth.”
We may have passed that crossroads some time ago. And it makes me heartsick to think about it.
Carson was not religious; she’s been described as a “nun of nature” and she would probably have recoiled from that description, but her attitude to the world was that of a deeply spiritual person. She wasn’t so much a nun as a high priestess, and her prayers were life itself, and an unquenchable sense of wonder. In fact, in a book called The Sense of Wonder, Rachel wrote,
If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world is a sense of wonder so indestructible that it should last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”
In a very real way, she WAS that good fairy, and the sense of wonder she awakens only deepens with a deeper acquaintance with her work.
At the closing of the last summer she would spend at her beloved Maine cottage, in September, Rachel and her friend Dorothy Freeman witnessed a fall migration of the Monarch butterflies. Rachel wrote of the experience in a letter to her friend:
…this was the closing journey of their lives. But we had felt no sadness when we spoke of the fact that there would be no return, and rightly – for when a living thing has come to the end of its cycle we accept that end as nautral. For the Monarch butterfly the cycle is measured in a known span of months. For ourselves the measure is something else, the span of which we cannot know. But the thought is the same: when that intangible cycle has run its course it is a natural and not unhappy thing that a life comes to its end.”
Rachel Carson died in the April of the following year. She was fifty six.
I never knew her – I could not have known her, when she died; I was less than a year old, and living on a different continent – but I feel, especially now after reading this biography, that she is someone I would probably have loved.
I have – we all have – the legacy of her thoughts, her passions, her battles, her words.
We should treasure them.
~~~

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