The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, by Mark Hamilton Lytle. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007. x, 277 pages. SHU Library: New Books QH31 .C33 L98 2007
This short book tells an intellectual, ecological biography of Rachel Carson (1907-1964), a founding writer of the environmental movement. Lytle (who teaches history and environmental studies at Bard College) puts Carson into context in her time, and bases his text on wise readings of her books and carefully selected materials from Rachel Carson's papers at Yale University, in other collections, and comments in the literature about her. Lytle never forgets Carson's patient care for her mother and the financial exigencies she faced, but also portrays the courage and stamina of a female scientist willing to take on major corporations in the time before the femininst movement.
Trained as a biologist and originally employed by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, Carson began to publish naturalist essays in 1937 in The Atlantic Monthly. Her first book, Under the Sea Wind (1941) was reviewed well but sold poorly; she continued to write magazine articles while working for the Bureau and writing a biological history of the ocean which became The Sea Around Us (1951). This popular and well-received book enabled her to move to Maine to write The Edge of the Sea (1955) about ecosystems of the North American north Atlantic coast. Continuing to care for her relatives in Maryland, she began to investigate synthetic pesticides (especially DDT) and the harm they did to wildlife and the coastal ecosystems.
Carson began especially to study carcinogenesis (origins of cancer) which was beginning to be associated with synthetic pesticides at the National Institutes of Health; she was drafting the "cancer chapters" of Silent Spring when she was found to have cysts in her breasts, and underwent a mastectomy. The cancer, however, had metastasized and Carson was in a race with cancer to write what she knew before was she realized would be her inevitable death.
Silent Spring found that synthetic pesticides are as crude "as a cavemans club" which simply kill everything they touch and release toxins into the ecosystem. In fact she was "calling into question the paradigm of scientific progress that defined postwar America." (p. 166) Corporate producers of synthetic pesticides fought back hard, calling her a subversive. Ezra Taft Benson, Eisenhower's (Mormon) Secretary of Agriculture, wondered "why a spinster with no children was so concerned about genetics" and labelled her "probably a Communist." (p. 175) By April 1964 she was vindicated in stark terms: a massive fish kill in the Mississippi River was traced to the pesticide endrin that entered the river at the Memphis waste-treatment plant. It was produced by Velsicol (now Eastman Chemical Company) a corporation which had tried to block publication of Silent Spring. In that month Carson died.
Lytle provides context and nuance to this sad and heroic story. She saw humans in the ecological web; her opponents saw (and continue to see) humans as masters of nature. At the end of Edge of the Sea (1955) she writes,
What is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is sea lace, existing for some reason that is inscrutable to us--a reason that demands its presence by the trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore? The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of life itself. (p. 216)