SILVER SPRING — SILVER SPRING -- From a chair in a sun-dappled corner of her back porch, Rachel Carson embraced the birds and flowers around her. But she also envisioned their demise.
That fierce love and a sense of dread drove Carson to write Silent Spring, the cornerstone of the environmental movement, even as she battled the breast cancer that would kill her just 18 months after the book's publication in 1962.
Her warnings about pesticides such as DDT galvanized a generation of activists, many of whom gathered 37 years ago today for the first Earth Day, a grassroots plea for a cleaner planet. Later in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency, which in one of its first major actions banned DDT for damaging eggshells, including those of the bald eagle.
People touched by Carson's life and writings say that 100 years after her birth, she remains relevant: from Denis Hayes, the father of Earth Day, to former Vice President Al Gore, who wrote the introduction to the re-release of the book in 1994, to Jerry Longcore, a federal biologist who conducted DDT studies in Maryland in the early 1970s that reinforced Carson's findings.
On Tuesday, at Rachel Carson Elementary School in Gaithersburg - one of about a half-dozen schools nationwide to bear her name - students planted a red maple tree to honor her. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is sponsoring programs about her legacy at its facilities, including ones in Maryland. Colleges from California to Maine are having retrospective programs about Carson.
Once again, it seems, the nation is getting in touch with the slim, quiet scientist who took up her pen against poisons that were fouling the planet.
"She did a brilliant job laying out, and then defending from harsh critics, her findings," said Hayes, primary organizer of the first Earth Day who runs the Bullitt Foundation, a nonprofit environmental group. "She was this quiet profile in courage. She was clearly one of the heroes."
The reason Silent Spring was so successful is because Carson "gave us a picture of the world we love and then she smashed us into it," said Linda Tatelbaum, professor of English and environmental studies at Colby College in Maine, which is bringing together environmental leaders for a Rachel Carson weekend in early May. "That's where Earth Day comes in. This is a place we love, and that's why we care."
At Yale University's rare books and manuscripts library, 118 boxes of research, drafts, correspondence and awards are testimony to her inquisitive mind and crusading spirit.
"We still have so much to learn from her," said Dr. Gail Carlson, visiting assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby. "We can use her example as a springboard to attack present-day environmental challenges. When you read Silent Spring, you think it's going to be boring and outdated, but if you cross out DDT and put in the toxin of the day, everything is still relevant."
Carson spent more than four years researching and writing Silent Spring in her Montgomery County home and her Maine cottage. She told Life magazine that she wrote the book "because I think there is a great danger that the next generation will have no chance to know nature as we do."
Battling the effects of radiation treatments, she dictated parts of the book from bed to her assistant, Jeanne Davis. When it came time to fend off attacks from chemical companies and the scientific establishment, the shy marine biologist who never sought the limelight donned a wig and went on TV, testified before Congress and made speeches.
"Man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself," she said in a 1963 CBS Reports documentary on Silent Spring. "I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature, but of ourselves."
Carson died at her Silver Spring home on April 14, 1964, of a heart attack related to her cancer. She was 56.
Move to Maryland
Carson was born May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pa., 15 miles north of Pittsburgh, the youngest of three children. Prowling her family's farm with her mother, Maria, she learned to love nature.
She earned a $100 scholarship to attend Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham College, and graduated magna cum laude in 1929. Not satisfied with a bachelor's degree, Carson moved to Maryland that fall to attend the Johns Hopkins University. Her master's thesis was on the early larval stages of catfish.
She taught part-time for four years at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland until she passed the federal civil service test in 1936 and moved to Washington to work for the Federal Bureau of Fisheries (now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) as a writer. Her bosses turned to her to improve the agency's radio show, called "Romance Under the Seas," but derided by the staff as "Seven-Minute Fish Tales."
The pay was slim, so Carson turned to Baltimore once again, supplementing her income by writing for The Sun.
Her work included coverage of the spring shad spawning run, a look at the trout season and a review of duck hunting opportunities and coverage of a 1938 Baltimore outdoors convention. But she also wrote more complex articles about aquaculture farming in the Chesapeake Bay and non-native bird species pushing out native birds in the Baltimore area.
She used the byline "R.L. Carson" because "she knew a woman would never be heard. Women weren't in science unless they were secretaries to scientists," said Linda Lear, her biographer.
At night and on weekends, Carson wrote her first book, Under the Sea Wind, published in 1941 with little notice. Her second effort 10 years later, The Sea Around Us, was on the best-seller lists for nearly 1 1/2 years and won the 1952 National Book Award. That book, translated into 30 languages, opened doors. She retired from the federal government and built a cottage where the ocean meets the Sheepscot River in Maine.
Her third book, The Edge of the Sea, came out in 1955 and also was a critical and popular success. Carson finally had financial security and the audience she needed. She adopted her niece's 5-year-old son, Roger Christie, in 1957 after his mother died; she built a house in the Quaint Acres subdivision of Silver Spring for the two of them.
Then she began the book that became the talk of a nation:
"There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings," Silent Spring begins. "Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. ... There was a strange stillness. ... 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 scores of bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh."
Industry fights back
As her life drew to a close, Carson wrote to a friend that she believed Silent Spring "at least helped a little. It would be unrealistic to believe one book could bring a complete change."
The public devoured her message, buying 250,000 hardcover copies in the first year, an unheard-of triumph for a science-based book.
Chemical manufacturers fought back with all the muscle of a $300 million industry, labeling her a "hysterical woman." A spokesman for the industry told The New York Times that Carson was "a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature."
But not every critic mocked her findings. In its book review, the Chicago Tribune called Carson "the still, small voice that carries a long way."
After battering Carson, the chemical industry next took aim at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, where biologists were determining which species were susceptible to thinning shells because of DDT.
Longcore, a waterfowl biologist, studied the shells of black ducks. He was called to testify at the 1972 DDT hearings that led to the banning of the pesticide.
Despite being badgered by industry lawyers, Longcore got through his testimony, which ended, he said, "Alice's Restaurant-style, with me holding up the 8-by-10 color glossy photo of crushed black duck shells. The lawyers tried to object, but I made my point."
Now retired in Orono, Maine, Longcore says Carson influenced his career and his view of the world: "Even though you might have the right information and the correct information and a very sound study, still it can be sullied by people who don't want to believe it. She made you look at the politics of science."
These days, the U.S. State Department's Web site lauds Carson's best-seller as "the book that changed the nation."
Yet Carson's detractors remain. Chat rooms that serve as gathering places for people who doubt climate change and bloggers of a similar persuasion excoriate Carson, calling her conclusions flawed and her admirers misguided. Google "Rachel Carson" and "Hitler." You'll find people who put her in the same company as some of the greatest mass murderers, tying the banning of DDT to rising death rates from malaria in Africa.
However, Carson never advocated a prohibition on DDT and other chemicals. What she opposed, she said in Silent Spring, was putting poisons "indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm" and placing an unsuspecting public in harm's way.
"Not everything she was concerned about turned out to be right, but she was right on some very big things," said Hayes, 62, who added that he believes the world needs more people like Carson. "There are all kinds of problems out there that cry out for a person who had her gift and, candidly, her courage to advance the cause."
Hayes sees Gore, the author and star of An Inconvenient Truth, "as the new Rachel Carson" because, like her, the former vice president is focused on one environmental problem, climate change.
In a foreword for the 1994 re-release of Silent Spring, Gore acknowledged Carson's "profound impact" as a key reason he became involved in environmental issues.
Even decades after its release, "This book continues to be the voice of reason breaking in on complacency," Gore wrote. "This book was a shaft of light that for the first time illuminated what is arguably the most important issue of our era."
The Maryland-based Newton Marasco Foundation is funding a Rachel Carson Scholar program for high school students interested in science and literature. Florida Gulf Coast University has a lecture series named for Carson. Chatham College, her alma mater, has an environment curriculum that bears her name, and the College of the Atlantic in Maine is establishing a Rachel Carson Chair in Human Ecology.
Carlson, the Colby professor, says Earth Day, like Carson, is more relevant than ever.
"We finally turned the corner in the media and in people's minds with climate change," she said. "The environment is not a fringe issue anymore. It's not something you can pay attention to or not. Carson and Earth Day are mainstream now."
Carson's modest brick rambler, surrounded by a carpet of Virginia bluebells this time of year, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991. Above the kitchen sink she had builders install a mirror so she could watch the birds while doing dishes.
Her house is not a museum, however. Today, it is the headquarters of the Rachel Carson Council, a pesticide watchdog group.
May 19: Patuxent National Wildlife Center, Laurel. "Sense of Wonder of Wildlife Ceremony," with activities and talks about Carson's work, 10 a.m. to noon. Free. www.fws.gov/northeast/patuxent.
May 19: Open house, Rachel Carson home in Silver Spring, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Call 301-593-7507 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 24: Patuxent National Wildlife Center, Laurel. A Sense of Wonder, a one-woman show by actor Kaiulani Lee on the life of Rachel Carson, 1 p.m. Free. For reservations: 301-497-5887.
June 23: Rachel Carson Trail Challenge. Hike Montgomery County's 34-mile primitive trail in a sunrise-to-sunset marathon. Two shorter courses of 8 miles and 19 miles available. Details: www.rachelcarsontrails.org.