The Chronicle Review

Rachel Carson's Prescience

Alfred Eisenstaedt, Time & Life Pictures, Getty Images

Rachel Carson, field biologist, at work
September 03, 2012

Fifty years ago, on September 27, 1962, Houghton Mifflin published Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, among the 20th century's most influential books. To honor the anniversary, the University of Cape Town invited me to lead an interdisciplinary forum this past June on Carson's environmental legacy.

Spurred by the prospect of this event, I set myself a happy task. I would read all of Carson in sequence: her ocean trilogy, Silent Spring, her essays, her collected letters. I have long loved her work—she is a writer, like James Baldwin, whom I savor for the inventive cadences of voice, someone who exhibits syntactic as well as social courage. I have taught Silent Spring often, but have gotten to know her other work only in a piecemeal, random way. I laid out a reading plan: I would start with her essay "Undersea" (published in The Atlantic Monthly, in 1937, when Carson was 30) and head toward her celebrated letter on transience and migrating monarch butterflies, written shortly before her death, at 55, in April 1964.

The young Carson and I set off from Madison, Wis. traveling in tandem across three continents, through O'Hare, Heathrow, and Johannesburg's Oliver Tambo airports, on to a wintry, mist-shrouded Cape Town, by which stage her life—and her life's work—were almost complete. Naïvely, I'd thought I'd be rereading Carson, forgetting that "rereading" is invariably a misnomer. When we return to an author after a long absence, that return is colored by who we have become. I grew up beside—and inside—the Indian Ocean, so when I first encountered Carson's marine trilogy, my connection was visceral and unfiltered. In memory, she is the great ocean lyricist, an upbeat writer who can summon wonderment from the deepest ocean trench and shallowest tide pool. The movement of her imagination and the rhythm of her voice are right there in the first youthful essay I crack open: "Between the water and the flotsam and jetsam of the high-tide mark, land and sea wage a never-ending conflict for possession."

I revisit Carson's sea writings with some apprehension. Will her 1950s ocean plenitude feel impossibly pastoral when measured against the environmental anxieties that permeate our thinking about oceans today? Fifty years on, I do find myself—unfairly, anachronistically—yearning for a more persistent premonitory stance from Carson toward the finitude of sea life, more evident alarm. Yet I am also startled to find that she foreshadowed, even if episodically, many 21st-century concerns about the unsustainable practices that have left us with acidifying oceans, dying coral reefs, melting sea ice, collapsing fish populations, moribund fishing villages, and the blight of factory ships and gargantuan trawlers that scour the ocean bottom.

In 1953, was any other writer sounding the alarm over the links between a changing climate, warming oceans, and plummeting fish stocks? Carson also warned against the myopic hubris of dumping atomic waste at sea. Back then, who could have imagined the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the world's largest dump, a vast vortex of plastic shards that is by some estimates twice the size of the continental United States? Yet even here we find Carson looking in the right places for signs of things to come. An inveterate beachcomber, she notes how, along the Cape Cod shoreline, the jetsam was changing character: "There is so much plastic, which breaks and breaks yet never vanishes. Which doesn't last, yet does. Now the seaweed is full of plastic—quart oil bottles, surgical gloves, broken Styrofoam."

High above the Sahara, on a plane filling up with garbage, I turn to reread Silent Spring for the umpteenth time. But this rereading is like no other, as I feel the full force of Carson's vocal and imaginative makeover. She casts off her native lyricism for the tones of elegy, tragedy, apocalypse, and suburban Gothic. Through her, we enter a tenebrous world of "death by indirection," a planet imperiled by insidious, creeping threats. How startling that change seems after the openhearted astonishment that suffuses her sea trilogy.

Carson's swerve in Silent Spring demands that she radically recast concerns that had defined her as a writer, above all, an attentiveness to wonder and the unseen. The wide-eyed amazement that colored her oceanographic writings gives way to a more fearful questioning of "what if," as exponentially increasing, unregulated chemical compounds threaten ecological integrity, food security, and public health with a slow-acting, amorphous lethality.

Her devotion to the unseen also assumes more sinister hues. The ocean trilogy invites readers to look again—to see the vivid variety of life forms that have passed unnoticed in a tide pool or unimagined in the ocean depths. But when the unseen resurfaces in Silent Spring, it is transformed utterly: At our peril do we overlook the invisible poisons that permeate our cells and our planet, poisons that travel unpoliced and undetected along the migratory paths of invisible death.

As Carson struggled forward with the writing of Silent Spring, her body became besieged with afflictions: breast cancer, angina, duodenal ulcers, and rheumatoid arthritis. Her public survival depended on keeping her precarious health private. The chemical giants (Monsanto, Dow, Velsicol) vilified her as an emotional, hysterical, anti-American writer, a childless "spinster" who had "no business being interested in genetics" and who was "probably a communist." What extra hoops of fire would Carson have confronted had her enemies discovered that, while campaigning against toxic risk, she suffered from breast cancer (even though she was deep inside the writing before she learned of that affliction)?

At the Cape Town forum I argued this: We can seldom expect outright environmental victories, just indispensable, heroic holding actions, in which writers of conscience—as interpreters and witnesses—have a vital role to play. Sure, Carson didn't live to see the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 that her writings helped inspire. But she also didn't live to see U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, a former Halliburton chief executive, chair the energy task force that resulted in the 2005 bill exempting high-risk hydraulic fracturing (fracking) from the requirements of those same two acts.

I quoted Carson's insistence that "if the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problems."

After the forum, a local scholar approaches me. He is active in efforts to stop Shell fracking South Africa's arid hinterland and endangering aquifers. He asks if I've read the text of a new Pennsylvania act that sets a dangerous precedent worldwide. I know the law by repute but have not read the exact wording. He hands me a copy:

If the specific identity of a chemical, the concentration of a chemical, or both the specific identity and concentration of a chemical are claimed to be a trade secret or confidential proprietary information, the vendor, service provider, or operator may withhold the specific identity, the concentration, or both the specific identity and concentration of the chemical from the information provided ...

In other words, a corporation's right to secrecy trumps public health and the citizen's right to know. What we do know is that fracking fluids contain hundreds of chemical compounds, including proven carcinogens like benzene (which, as Carson noted in 1962, was already recognized by the medical literature as a cause of leukemia). Beyond that, we're in the dark.

I'm aware here of a double irony. The governor of Carson's native Pennsylvania signed that act into law in 2012, the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring. Even the prescient Carson could not have imagined this: an America where corporations are now legally people, replete with human rights, thereby endangering the rights of us noncorporate humans—ordinary, mortal citizens whose right to an unpoisoned future Carson rose up to defend.

Rob Nixon is the Rachel Carson professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. His most recent book is Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011).