Excerpt
One
Miss Carson's BookLate in the summer of 1962, extreme weather visited
both ends of the United States. In the West it was so hot that women
wore swimsuits on the streets of San Francisco, and the smog levels in
that city were the highest ever recorded. On the East Coast, Hurricane
Alma churned northward, interrupting a pleasant spell as it neared the
tip of Long Island. On August 28 the edge of the storm ended play at
Yankee Stadium one inning after Mickey Mantle blasted what proved to
be the game-winning home run to right centerfield through a driving
rain. The next morning it was sunny and warm in the nation's
capital, where the Washington Post's weather section reported
daily radiation levels of just three micromicrocuries per cubic meter
of air--unchanged from the day before and not bad given the recent pace
of atmospheric nuclear weapons tests by both the United States and the
Soviet Union.That same day, President John F. Kennedy appeared at the
State Department at four in the afternoon for the forty-second press
conference of his year and a half in office. The president began by
announcing Felix Frankfurter's retirement from the U.S. Supreme
Court. He then fielded questions about farm policy, tensions in Berlin,
and whether he would meet with Nikita Khrushchev during the Soviet
premier's upcoming visit to the United Nations. Kennedy also
answered several vaguely portentous queries about an apparent increase
in Soviet shipping traffic to Cuba. Near the end, Kennedy took an unusual
question. "Mr. President, there appears to be a growing concern among
scientists as to the possibility of dangerous long-range side effects
from the widespread use of DDT and other pesticides. Have you considered
asking the Department of Agriculture or the Public Health Service to take
a closer look at this?"If he was surprised, Kennedy did not miss a
beat. "Yes," he said quickly, "and I know that they already
are. I think, particularly, of course, since Miss Carson's book,
but they are examining the issue."In this brief exchange something
new came into the world, for this was a cleaving point--the moment
when the gentle, optimistic proposition called "conservation"
began its transformation into the bitterly divisive idea that would come
to be known as "environmentalism." Kennedy's promise of
a government investigation into the contamination of the environment
by a widely used and economically important class of products had no
precedent. And because the government itself used pesticides extensively,
any such inquiry necessarily had to look in the mirror. Compared with the
other matters Kennedy had discussed that day--policies that would evolve,
situations that would change and fade away--a problem with the health
of the environment became by definition a problem with the totality
of human existence. At issue was humanity's place in the natural
order of a world increasingly subservient to the human species. Who
but us could devise so perfect a way to contend with ourselves?The
president's reference to "Miss Carson's book" would
now be opaque to the several generations of Americans who have come of
age in the intervening years--Rachel Carson is unknown to almost anyone
under the age of fifty. But in 1962 no elaboration was needed. Carson
was the bestselling author of three books about the oceans and by any
measure one of America's most respected and beloved writers. Or so
she had been. The new book to which Kennedy referred, Silent Spring, was
a bristling polemic about the indiscriminate use of pesticides. It was
unlike anything Carson had previously written. Although not yet actually
a book--it wouldn't be published for another month--in June three
long excerpts from Silent Spring had appeared in consecutive issues of
the New Yorker. By the time of Kennedy's press conference, the New
Yorker articles had raised public alarm in the United States and abroad
and prompted the chemicals industry to launch an angry and concerted
effort to discredit Silent Spring and destroy its author.The woman at
the center of this firestorm scarcely seemed capable of becoming such a
polarizing figure. Now fifty-five years old, Rachel Carson had spent most
of her adult life in the company of her mother--writing, bird-watching,
and visiting the seashore. Petite, soft-spoken, and nearly apolitical,
she lived quietly in a leafy suburb of Silver Spring, Maryland, with
a cat and her orphaned ten-year-old grandnephew, Roger Christie, whom
she had adopted. Carson had earned a master's degree in zoology
at Johns Hopkins University but had never worked as a scientist. In the
gloom of the Great Depression, she instead found a job as an information
specialist with the federal government's Bureau of Fisheries, an
agency later merged with the Biological Survey to form the U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service.In 1951 her book The Sea Around Us made Carson's
literary reputation--it stood atop the New York Times bestseller list for
thirty-nine weeks and won the National Book Award--and she left government
service. Every spring Carson and Roger drove north to Southport Island on
the Maine coast, where she owned a cottage on a rocky bluff overlooking
Sheepscot Bay. Here Carson passed her summers in reflection, gazing at the
ebb and flow of the sea, collecting marine specimens in the tidal pools
along the shore, and visiting, often deep into the fog-shrouded nights,
with her neighbors Dorothy and Stanley Freeman. In the fall, she went
home.Carson's writings about the sea were characterized--solemnly
and without fail--as "poetic," a term invoked by reviewers as
a way of saying that she wrote with a grace that was unexpected given her
subject. The living, evolving nature of the open ocean and the intertidal
zones on its threshold were unfamiliar to most readers--as were the
lessons in geology and physics and biology that Carson poured into her
narratives. Her knack for gentle explanation beguiled critics and readers
alike, even those who could have never imagined caring about science or
the strange water world that so fascinated Carson.Critics remarked, time
and again, that there was something bracing and surprising in the fact
that a woman should have such a profound understanding of the physical
environment. They also believed her to be a heroic correspondent regularly
at sea on research vessels hurtling through storms, or swimming among the
fish teeming on the coral reefs of the tropics--a false impression that
she never bothered to correct. A friend who once drew a caricature of
Carson's public persona had depicted her as an Amazon towering at
the edge of a stormy sea, a harpoon in one hand and a writhing octopus
in the other. Carson, who would have been more accurately shown hunched
over a microscope or in the library surrounded by piles of books, thought
the drawing hilarious.A slow writer who revised endlessly, Carson had
worked on Silent Spring for almost four years--though she had worried for
much longer than that over the new pesticides developed at the outset of
World War II and in the years immediately after it. One of the best known
and most widely used of these compounds was a molecule of chlorinated
hydrocarbon called dichloro-diphenyl-trichloroethane--DDT. Although
it had been first synthesized in 1874, nobody found a practical
application for DDT until 1939, when a forty-year-old chemist named
Paul Muller, who worked for the J. R. Geigy Company in Basel,
Switzerland, discovered that it killed insects. DDT was immediately
deployed against an outbreak of potato beetles in Switzerland, where it
proved astonishingly effective. DDT's long-lasting fatal properties
lingered on anything it touched. And because doses that killed insects
appeared to be harmless to warm-blooded animals, including humans,
DDT became the overnight weapon of choice in fighting lice, ticks,
and mosquitoes that transmitted human
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