Why does Rachel Carson matter?

Monday, March 4, 2013

This post originally appeared on The Sieve.

As my devoted readers no doubt realize by now, I’m on a bit of a Rachel Carson kick. I wrote a blog post and produced a radio show about her last fall, and I’m working on an article about her for Johns Hopkins magazine (Carson got her master’s degree at Hopkins). Why this slight Carson obsession? It started with the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, which got me wondering, as a science writer, how someone armed only with scientific knowledge and words could have such influence. I believe we science writers sometimes sell ourselves short in terms of what we can accomplish, especially in this age of disposable Web writing. Carson can remind us of the potential of writing for impact, not just for mouse clicks.

In 1953, Rachel Carson spoke at a symposium at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting. The topic was the sea frontier. Unlike the other eight panel members with whom she shared a stage, Carson was not a research scientist; she had until recently worked as a staff writer for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. (She was also the only woman on the panel).

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/7a/EdgeOfTheSea.jpgAt the conference she talked about the book she was writing, The Edge of the Sea, which would be based mainly on her observations, and less on the work of other scientists, as her previous books had been. Carson had scientific training, but it was her writing that earned her the speaking slot: her 1951 book The Sea Around Us had made her the nation’s most famous writer about the oceans and perhaps about all of science.

Although Rachel Carson spent almost her entire career writing about the sea, she is remembered today for her one book about things that happen on land. That book, Silent Spring, awoke the American public to the dangers of many common pesticides, and launched the environmental movement. But while the birth of environmentalism would not have happened exactly when it did and how it did without Carson’s advocacy, it would have happened: Americans would not have tolerated smoggy cities, burning rivers, and toxic chemical clouds for much longer. “I suspect that the audience [of Silent Spring] was close to an environmental awakening,” said Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist and past head of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, at a symposium dedicated to Carson at this year’s AAAS meeting. “No doubt [Carson] catalyzed it, but the ground was fertile.”

Carson built her more enduring message around themes of ecological connection and interdependence, Lubchenco and her fellow speakers argued. Jane Maienschein, director of the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University and organizer of the 2013 session, noted that this motif permeated Carson’s AAAS talk, as she drew connections between what happens on land and in the oceans, as well as what happens in nature and in the human sphere. Nancy Langston, an environmental historian at the University of Wisconsin (who was not on the AAAS panel), told me that bringing this burgeoning ecological awareness to the public was, in her opinion, “probably [Carson’s] greatest legacy.”

Sharon Kingsland, a historian of science at Johns Hopkins University, took the idea of Carson as connector a step further. In her talk, she made the case that Carson united science and the humanities—the “two cultures” made famous in a 1959 lecture by British scientist and writer C. P. Snow. Specifically, Carson saw in the natural world more than just scientific facts—she saw “clues to a deeper meaning of life” that required pulling in knowledge from the realms of literature and religion as well as science. Moreover, the humanistic perspective provided a check on what Carson saw as the arrogance of scientists who thought they could dismiss the idea of the balance of nature. “This higher truth is revealed to us by contemplating ecological relationships,” Kingsland said. “The concept of the balance of nature functioned for Carson as the link between the two cultures of science and the humanities.”

That these ideas may seem obvious today is a testament to Carson’s enduring influence. But they also suggest a way in which her impact has been limited, because while we may largely accept the premises of ecological interconnectedness and the limitations of science, our actions suggest we don’t accept the conclusions. We continue to fill our environment with carcinogens, neurotoxins, and endocrine disruptors; and we continue to hope for technological solutions to environmental problems, rather than ask how we might restrain the activities that cause the problems in the first place. When I asked Langston’s UW colleague Warren Porter, an environmental toxicologist, what has changed since Carson’s time, he bluntly told me “not much.”

To me this doesn’t diminish Carson in the least. I think she accomplished as much one can with words: she changed the conversation both at the grass-roots level and at the highest ranks of government. But I would like to consider another dimension of her legacy, which is what she has given to my chosen field, science writing. Carson became a full-time science writer in 1934, at a time when no specialized training programs existed in the field, and when the National Association of Science Writers, which formed that same year, consisted of twelve members. Thus, Carson was very much a pioneer in forging a career out of writing about, rather than conducting, scientific research. UW Rachel Carson Professor of English Rob Nixon credits her with “establishing the model of the radical generalist” who “doesn’t necessarily contribute original research, but does read the research and assemble it into powerful images and story forms.” Moreover, Carson set the bar so high that no one has done it better since.

The AAAS 2013 speakers argued that Carson provides a valuable model of a writer who developed a deep subject matter expertise and an ability to write about it both precisely and lyrically. In Lubchenco’s words, she was “an honest broker” of science. Gregg Zachary, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, said Carson was a member of a rare species: “journalists who seriously endeavor to write about complexity.” Writing has never been an easy vocation, but times are especially tough today; Zachary warned the audience that the financial support Carson had while developing her expertise and writing voice is no longer available to today’s science and environmental journalists. “They don’t have the support to put in the thousands of hours that she put in,” he said. Be that as it may, we at least have Carson as a beacon to strive towards.


Rachel Carson at microscope, 1951, Brooks Studio. Courtesy of the Rachel Carson Council

I want to contribute a related but less tangible answer to the title question. I believe that Carson matters because she gives us a model for seeing. This may seem odd, since we all know Carson for her writing; shouldn’t the skill we hope to learn from her be how to write? Well, yes. But putting words on page is merely the writer’s final act of translation. Most of what Carson did throughout her life, I would argue, was seeing. Even during her scientific training at Johns Hopkins, she spent painstaking weeks sectioning fish embryos, looking at them with a now obsolete optical device called a camera lucida, and drawing them; these drawings make a sizable fraction of her master’s thesis.

Indeed, science is essentially a process of seeing ever farther and deeper; this theme echoes from the ancient Greek philosophers through Copernicus and Galileo to deep-sea explorers to modern physicists who build enormous colliders in order to peer at the tiniest particles imaginable. But writing is also largely a process of seeing. Flannery O’Connor noted that many writers paint, “not because they’re any good at painting, but because it helps their writing. It forces them to look at things.” Annie Dillard, who indeed paints, is downright obsessed with seeing: she devotes a chapter to it in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and then, for good measure, another in Teaching a Stone to Talk. Several of the most common photos of Carson show her with either binoculars or a microscope, and I don’t think this is accidental. If she achieved more—if her words went farther than those of others—it is mainly because she saw the world more precisely and penetratingly.

This theme resonates for me because I too have lately been trying to learn to see. And in doing so, I’ve realized I’ve been living half-blind. Only in the past year or so can I look at a tree in my neighborhood and have any clue what it is. I’m still all but hopeless with flowers or birds, not to even mention the insects. Even harder to see is what is not there but should be. Warren Porter told me the air used to teem with insects, before we doused our environment with pesticides and let deer and invasive species devastate the native plants that insects eat. I still can’t see the lack of them—the insects or the plants. When I look at the night sky I recognize only a few obvious shapes. And more to the point, I don’t see the missingness of the stars that earlier astronomers saw, stars that are now invisible due to light pollution.

Rachel Carson spent much of her time reading and writing, but she also went to estuaries and marshes and took rides on fishing vessels to study firsthand what was going on with the ocean. From these observations, she developed the motifs of interconnectedness and balance of nature that permeate her work, from her earliest newspaper articles to her magnum opus. If we who are writing about environmental problems today wish to learn from her, we might do well to step away from our computers for a moment, go outside, and practice seeing.