William A. Souder’s meticulously researched and beautifully written biography of the mom of the environmental movement launches today. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published fifty years ago, forever changed our relationship with nature. No small feat for an unassuming biologist from Springdale, Pennsylvania.
Reprinted from the book On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder. Copyright © 2012 by William Souder. Published by Crown Trade, a division of Random House, Inc.
Three long excerpts from Silent Spring ran in consecutive issues of the New Yorker beginning on June 16, 1962. Although abridged, Carson’s story began in the magazine almost word for word as it would in the book—with the short, foreboding fable that would become one the great set-pieces in American literature. In it, Carson imagined a nameless town “in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” This idyllic place, flanked in every direction by lush farm fields and cold, clear-running trout streams, was home to an abundance of wildlife—foxes and deer and especially birds, an aviary so rich during the migrations of spring and fall that people traveled great distances just to see it. So it had been, Carson wrote, since “the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.”
But then a “strange blight” invaded the area. It was like an “evil spell” that brought with it unexplained sickness and death to livestock. Chickens laid eggs that did not hatch, cattle and sheep turned up dead, pigs gave birth to stunted litters that lived only days. The fish in the rivers died and trout anglers stayed away. People, too, fell ill. Some died, leaving their families grieving and their doctors perplexed. The roadsides, formerly lush with bushes and wildflowers, were now brown and withered, “as though swept by fire.” Here and there, a mysterious white powder clung to the rooftops and lay in the gutters of the houses in the town, deadly traces of something that had “fallen like snow” from the skies only weeks before. And everywhere there was an ominous quiet, a silence that closed off the town and its surroundings from the living world as if the area had become entombed:
There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
In the space of just ten paragraphs—the New Yorker combined them into three—Carson had written the story of the end of the world. What reader in 1962 could fail to see in this description all the bleak possibilities of the modern age? Carson’s subject was pesticides, but she began in a way that just as surely evoked images of nuclear devastation and all its ensuing sickness and pallor, right down to the residue of poison from the sky.
This was a familiar tableau, as the Cold War had offered a running preview of such scenes of annihilation in the picture many Americans already had of the colorless, lifeless void that resided behind the “iron curtain,” where an oppressive society was understood to be functionally dead but at the same time a deadly threat. In September 1961, the Soviet Union had resumed atmospheric testing and by early December had detonated thirty-one nuclear devices, including one more than 3,300 times the size of “Little Boy,” the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Though not a practical bomb, this gargantuan device produced the largest nuclear explosion in history. The United States immediately embarked on a crash program to restart its own testing in the South Pacific—and did so in April 1962, just as Carson was finishing Silent Spring. The testing continued at a furious pace through the spring and into the summer and then fall. In the month of June alone, as readers were learning of the dark promise of pesticides from Rachel Carson in the New Yorker, the United States exploded ten nuclear devices in the atmosphere. That year a nuclear device exploded somewhere in the world every few days.