Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 10 - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com/blog
10. As she neared the completion of the book, Rachel Carson read and reread it, looking at it critically and imagining the challenges that could be brought by pesticide-threat deniers. She ignored the decline of her body, which seemed to present the biggest challenge of all to finishing. She endured the side effects of continued radiation while also experiencing a severe case of iritis, which affected her eyesight. Then she felt pain in her armpit, which doctors said was cancer-related, and discomfort in her neck, which they said was not. Her back pain was most likely the onset of arthritis.
She smirked at that one, asking herself the rhetorical question, “You’re in your mid-fifties now, what do you expect?”
On the whole, Rachel felt as if the body she had trusted for so long could no longer be trusted. It was weakening on a variety of fronts. But her spirit remained strong, and even in the moments of doubt, she threw herself into completing the book and making it as whole and complete and solid as her body had once been.
Before the release of the book, she was able to attend a dinner for the trustees of the National Parks Association, where she ran into Justice William O. Douglas, who had written the dissenting opinion in the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the Long Island gypsy moth pesticide-spraying case, and actually referenced one of Rachel Carson’s articles in a footnote. Meeting Rachel at the dinner, he told her in person that he thought it was appropriate for the Supreme Court to hear cases dealing with the dangers to the public health caused by chemical pesticides.
That part of the dinner was gratifying, but another part was not. Rachel had the feeling that she was being scrutinized at the party. The pre-productive publicity had begun, so it would have been natural for people to gawk a little at the writer of an upcoming controversial book, not to mention three best-selling books on nature. Still, Rachel was self-conscious about her weight loss and sallow coloring, and she thought that the dinner guests were noticing it as well.
She had not gone public yet with her cancer diagnosis. In addition to being a private person, she did not want anyone to think that her own cancer behind her writing Silent Spring.
It was not.
Despite her weakness and desire to rest, Rachel also made a cross-country trip to deliver the commencement address at Scripps College, part of the Claremont Colleges outside Los Angeles. The administration there had been trying to convince her to speak for years
Dorothy asked why she had accepted, after the herculean effort to finish her book and the other demands on her time now that word was out about her new book.
“I feel the need to make a statement,” Rachel replied.
Dorothy raised her eyebrows.
“A statement?” she repeated. “I think your book will make enough of a statement to last a lifetime.”
While it was an innocent remark, Rachel felt the sting of a reminder that no one knows how long a lifetime is, especially when cancer was eating away at their body.
“I need to do it,” she said with a sigh. “Things have changed. Before, if I’d gone to Scripps, or anywhere else, to give a speech, it would have been about nature. It would have been about the sea, how much I love it and how rich and diverse and beautiful it is. It’s all so amazing to me, and I’ve wanted to convey that to everyone else in my books. Whatever success I’ve had, it’s because I’ve been able to share my love of the ocean.”
She paused and stared into space, as if reimagining the way things used to be.
“And now?” Dorothy encouraged.
“And now, I still love the ocean, but it’s different. Not just for me, but for all of us. Now, we’re on the brink of destroying all that’s beautiful in our lives. We explode bombs that send radiation across the nation, and probably around the world, and use chemicals that pollute the very water we drink and the food we eat. We threaten nature and life itself with these actions.”
She paused, then added, “I feel like we’re doing to the world what the cancer is doing to my body.”
Dorothy stared at her with a gentle, caring expression.
Watching her friend carefully, she asked, “Is that what you’re going to tell the graduating students at Scripps?”
Rachel gave a wry smile.
“That would be an uplifting commencement speech, wouldn’t it? No, I’m not planning to dwell on the negative.” She stopped, as if realizing what she’d just said. “Well, I have to dwell on it a little, but what I want to instill is hope.”
“Hope?” Dorothy echoed, as if not sure she’d heard right.
“Absolutely. I plan to talk about our new relationship with nature. The U.S. started a conservation effort back in the Teddy Roosevelt days, and it’s continued with more national parks and protected areas, and even with some of the measures taken by the Fish and Wildlife Service. But now we need to go beyond that. We need to protect nature, not from any sort of natural catastrophe like a huge meteor from outer space, but from ourselves. Conservation is still critically important, but we need to stop being so darn self-destructive and stand up for human beings and nature and life itself.”
Her voice had risen an octave. She took a deep breath and looked Dorothy in the eye.
“We need to take action to protect the environment, and we need to start today. All of us, every day. Nothing is more important. We need to be aware of what’s happening and take action to stop nuclear testing and limit the use of chemical pesticides because they threaten our very existence. That’s what I’m going to tell the graduating students at Scripps.”
And she did. It was an exhausting trip, but when she arrived back on Southport Island, she was pleased to have done it.
Beginning on June 16, 1962, three long excerpts from Silent Spring appeared in the New Yorker. The reaction was immediate, as it had been for her two previous books serialized there, but this time, many of the comments were negative. Some accused the author of either extremely poor judgment or downright anti-American tendencies. The substance of the book was criticized as inaccurate in many important areas and as a misrepresentation of the true nature of chemical pesticides. The portrayal of the companies that produced them was biased and unfair, and so was the portrayal of the government agencies that authorized the use of them.
A segment of the American public seemed to think that Silent Spring was written by an irresponsible scientist who had a one-sided view of the subject and absolutely no regard for the potentially devastating effects of not using chemical pesticides. They contended that America’s food production would be decimated and efforts to eradicate diseases like malaria would be stymied if Rachel Carson had her way.
And the book hadn’t even been released yet.
Rachel’s first thoughts were that the readers needed to see her exhaustive list of footnotes and references to understand the basis for her stories in the book. They also needed to understand that she never recommended an outright ban on chemical pesticides. She did describe cases where pesticides became extremely harmful to the environment. She also contended that a careful review of possible side effects should always be conducted before the use of chemical pesticides, and the minimum amount should always be applied when they were necessary, such as in malaria eradication.
(Even then, it was quite possible that mosquitoes would become immune to the effects of pesticides like DDT, so the argument that it was useful in this application might be short-sighted.)
Nonetheless, the fact was that Rachel Carson never stated that there should be an outright ban on chemical pesticides.
It didn’t matter.
The New Yorker excerpts included the Chapter One fable that established the emotional tone of the book. In it, Carson describes a town “in the heart of America” where life was good and wholesome. Open fields were replete with healthy trees and colorful flowers, farms were productive, and the wildlife thrived in the open areas. Bird life was vibrant, and fish nestled comfortably in the clean water of the streams.
Then a “strange blight” hit the town and the surrounding area. Sickness reigned amongst the farm animals, and the families living on those farms became ill as well. No one could figure out what had gone wrong, including the doctors. People began to die. Children began to die.
A stillness overtook the town. The birds had gone away, except for those too sick to fly away. Where once there was a symphony of bird songs, there was silence.
All life seemed to be affected: on the farms, in the houses, in the lakes and streams, and throughout the surrounding countryside. The only evidence of what had afflicted this once healthy area was a white powder that some weeks earlier had “fallen like snow” on the area and still remained encrusted on the roofs of houses.
At the end of her fable, Carson states that she knows of no community where all these misfortunes had occurred, but “every one of these disasters has actually happened somewhere.”