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‘Silent Spring’ at 60

A masterpiece of science and wonder, Rachel Carson’s book is a moral call to action. Would it have had the same impact if it were published today?

Sixty years ago this month, The New Yorker began serializing what would become Rachel Carson's book "Silent Spring." Carson said she "wanted to bring to public attention" her charges that pesticides destroy wildlife and endanger the environment.Associated Press

Before all that she gave us in “Silent Spring,” before she demonstrated that one person and a book can change the world, Rachel Carson gave us the sea.

A marine zoologist, Carson wrote a trilogy of books about ocean life and ecology. For research on the third, “The Edge of the Sea,” she used to visit a tide pool on Maine’s midcoast, to think among the periwinkles and barnacles, the herring gulls and knotted wrack. Sixty-seven years later, I have come to the very same pool, now the Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve, so that I might sit where she sat, see what she saw, and consider a question that has bothered me for years.

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Rachel Carson so loved the sea that she transported us there with the forces of science, passion, and prose that reads like poetry. Then, so alarmed about the chemical industry’s poisons, she wrote “Silent Spring,” first published 60 years ago, which helped inspire our modern era of environmental awareness and action.

One person, one book: Together they made the world safer for its wildlife and wild places — and for us.

What if “Silent Spring” were published today? Could one person still have the same kind of impact?

I timed my visit to the salt pond for lofty inspiration: low tide. That’s when the ocean, having advanced earlier in the day to flood an oval basin in the shoreline, has left behind a shallow pool with life from depths most of us will never visit. To a terrestrial biologist like me, whelks and seaweeds and urchins are born of some foreign kingdom. I nonetheless had a teacher and her book.

Carson was a public scholar and nature guide. Weaving science and wonder into lyrical prose, she gave us not only a way of seeking and knowing but also a way of being in nature. In “The Edge of the Sea” she writes:

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“To understand the shore, it is not enough to catalog its life. Understanding comes only when, standing on a beach, we can sense the long rhythms of earth and sea that sculptured its land-forms and produced the rock and sand of which it is composed; when we can sense with the eye and ear of the mind the surge of life beating always at its shores — blindly, inexorably pressing for a foothold.”

So rather than merely cataloging the sea life at my feet, I took Carson’s admonitions beyond the pool, beyond the sea’s gently curving horizon, and into the storms beating at the shores of contemporary public discourse.

Carson was unequivocal: The misuse of pesticides, particularly DDT, harmed living things. Drawing on scientific research and bolstered by the immense popularity of her sea trilogy, Carson brought to shore, and into American neighborhoods, an eloquent and unapologetic devotion to nature and environmental protection. A masterpiece of scholarship and passion, “Silent Spring” is a moral call to action.

The chemical industry’s predictable assault on the book ranged from threats of lawsuits to fables of insects decimating the world’s crops. The personal attacks on Carson ranged from sexism to red-baiting.

But looking back on the industry’s reaction to “Silent Spring,” I am struck not so much that it happened but more by the reception and ultimate vindication of Carson by institutions: academia, the media, Congress, the White House. Sixty years ago, acrimony was not yet a convention of public policy. No Fox News, no Twitter, no algorithms. Congress quartered fewer overt liars and demagogues.

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Were “Silent Spring” published today, it would no doubt draw a more ruthless fusillade of abuse. Pundits, having never bothered to read the book, would offer baseless claims to feed the beast of outrage media. Vitriol toward Carson would find refuge online and among members of Congress.

Yet in the 1960s, a woman and a book prevailed. Government, reason, and informed citizens carried the day. Carson warned us about the perils of unchecked chemical technology. In so eloquently linking human and environmental health, “Silent Spring” inspired bans on harmful pesticides, including DDT, and laws protecting air, water, and vulnerable plants and wildlife. I can name no other author and book since to have had such impact.

I am under no illusion, however, that the triumph of “Silent Spring” was unqualified. Pesticides continue to poison our food and cause collateral damage to wildlife. Glowing screens and other online distractions take us further from nature. Billionaires and celebrities now seem to have more influence than scientists to change the world.

Reflecting on all this beside the tide pool, more than anything I felt wistful. Carson endured the assault of the chemical industry as breast cancer and debilitating pain were spreading through her body. Two years after the publication of “Silent Spring,” at age 56, she died before her victories.

She is canonized in large part because her book helped launch contemporary environmentalism. At the edge of the sea, however, I instead found solace in Carson herself — her confidence, her strength, her sense of purpose, and more than anything her reverence for nature.

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“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts,” she wrote. “There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.”

Bryan Pfeiffer is a semi-retired field biologist and lecturer at the University of Vermont. He lives in Montpelier.