Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 14 - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com/blog
14. Rachel Carson testified to the Senate Committee in early June 1963. Marie and Paul accompanied her and Roger to D.C., and they spent the day before her appearance walking through the Capital. It was inspirational to pass right by the White House, Washington Monument, Supreme Court building, and Capitol Hill. The sense of history and tradition was almost palpable. The Lincoln Memorial may have been the most impressive of all the landmarks as they approached the bigger-than-life Abraham Lincoln.
In a way, it was ironic that Rachel wanted Roger to sense the integrity and dignity of America’s capital, when she was there to testify that the government was behaving irresponsibly in its widespread application of chemical pesticides. But she took the time to explain to him that it was a credit to America’s democracy that she was being asked to testify to a Senate Committee, especially when so many powerhouses of the business world claimed she was an alarmist with the potential to do great harm to the country’s food production.
She was just an ordinary citizen, yet her voice would be heard. And, the next day, when the author of Silent Spring had her chance to address the august body, she did not hedge in her comments.
The chair of the committee was Abraham Ribicoff, and he did his best to make Rachel feel comfortable in this hallowed chamber as Senators in huge leather chairs stared at her and reporters and observers filled the room behind her. While comfort did not come easy in this setting, she was not intimidated. She had something important to say, and there was no one better than Rachel Carson to say it.
Beginning slowly, she picked up speed as she read from her prepared text in a steady, though scratchy, voice. She summarized the salient points from Silent Spring, sometimes reading directly from the text of the book, and cited the evidence that significant environmental damage had already been done through the indiscriminate and unregulated use of pesticides. These chemicals were often sprayed, or otherwise dispensed, by government agencies, but they were also used by a public that was largely uninformed about the potentially devastating effects of the chemicals they were pouring onto their farms and gardens.
In addition, Rachel warned against the unknown long-term impacts of chemical pesticides on living organisms, from the tiniest microbes in the soil to the human body. She referred several times to the likelihood that children were especially vulnerable to health effects from exposure to these toxins.
Specifically, she recommended extensive research on all chemical pesticides and herbicides before they were used. Asked her opinion, she agreed that the citizens who were potentially affected by these toxic substances should be given a voice in decisions regarding their use.
Asked whether or not she favored a total ban on these chemicals, Rachel said – for the umpteenth time, but this time for the Congressional record – that she had never been in favor of a ban. She was, however, supportive of creating a federal Department of Ecology to oversee environmental issues.
Rachel left D.C. exhausted but pleased that she had been allowed to testify. Marie and Paul were thrilled with the result and agreed that their author had earned a rest. Later that month, she and Roger headed to Southport and the little cottage on the beach.
Despite the beautiful setting and the low-stress environment, Rachel’s health remained shaky. She was still under observation for her heart condition, and she had suffered a compression fracture in her back. These ailments were, of course, in addition to the cancer, for which she had endured numerous infusions, treatments and procedures. All of it combined to exhaust her.
Eleven-year-old Roger went off to summer camp, and Dorothy was looking after Stan, whose health had also deteriorated. That left Rachel alone much of the day, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. In the writing of Silent Spring and her subsequent public appearances, occurring as she was fighting cancer, Rachel had spent most of her time indoors. Even when she was outside, it was hard to be fully engaged with nature when her mind was on so many other things.
Now, however, alone at Southport, she could take joy from walking along a deserted beach at sunrise, the waves splashing at her feet and the birds waking up with their summer songs. They woke up her spirit as well, and she felt the comfort and joy that came with communing with nature, feeling its beauty and strength. She felt as much a part of this scene as the ocean, the birds, and all the other sea life that surrounded her.
There was a oneness to being there, stepping slowly through the wet sand, knowing she was going to die. It would not be long now, she realized. The cancer had taken over, and her body was failing. She had never felt so weak and tired in her life.
But she knew it was natural. She knew everything died, from the smallest creature to the largest, from the weakest creature to the strongest. Everyone, everything died in its time.
She heaved a huge sigh.
Is it really my turn?
She had so much left to do. Maybe she could put the inevitable off for a while. Maybe a miracle cure for her cancer would come along in the next few months. That way, she could help Roger get through his teenage years. He was such a good kid, and so smart, but every child needs a parent going through those years. Rachel remembered how good her mother was to her, and how important it was to have a family.
And poor Dorothy. They had become so close, and now Stan was ill as well. They had gotten to know each other so late in life, it didn’t seem fair. They weren’t done with their adventures.
And then, of course, there was Silent Spring. She had only just begun making the rounds to represent the book, alerting people to the dangers of chemical pesticides. She felt the tide was beginning to turn on the public’s attitude, and the government was starting to listen as well. The big business interests were resistant, but that was to be expected. They had called her all sorts of names, some of which made her laugh – like “food faddist” and even “Communist” – to discredit her, but she would not be deterred.
The information in Silent Spring needed to be shared, and Rachel was in the best position, as an author with the reputation of someone who loved nature, to spread the word. She wanted to be part of the effort to clean up America’s rivers and streams, its farmland and gardens, and its toxic air. She wanted to help the government and the citizens of the United States make good choices about how to deal with harmful insects and unwanted plants, and how to protect and preserve a healthy environment.
She stopped on her walk and looked out over the vast ocean, the gathering breeze now creating wind waves in the distance. She turned back to the thick grouping of trees bordering the beach and smiled wanly, paraphrasing Robert Frost.
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep.”