[Marxism] New Rachel Carsons biography

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Sep 16 10:49:46 MDT 2012

NY Times Sunday Book Review September 14, 2012
The Poisoned Earth

The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson
By William Souder
Illustrated. 496 pp. Crown Publishers. $30.

On the bookshelves of many a contemporary environmental journalist looms 
at least one canonical text she’s hesitant to read. For this reviewer, 
it was Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” among the gloomiest books ever 
written, an unrelenting catalog of crimes committed by man against 
nature. But after reading William Souder’s engrossing new biography of 
Carson, “On a Farther Shore,” I returned to the book and discovered its 
central message to be — depressingly — timeless. Substitute organic 
pesticides and herbicides with the endocrine-­disrupting compounds found 
in everyday household items or the creep of chemicals used in 
hydrof­racking, and you may experience the same hair-prickling alarm 
felt by Carson’s readers 50 years ago.

“Silent Spring” was a clarion call that helped pave the way toward 
establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, tighter controls 
on the use of chemicals and other regulatory achievements. But success 
for its unassuming and enigmatic middle-aged author was no fluke, as 
Souder makes abundantly clear. By the time Carson signed her contract 
for this book, she had written scores of magazine and newspaper articles 
and three best-selling books about the sea, one of which, the lyrical 
“Sea Around Us,” had been serialized in The New Yorker. She was 
considered the nation’s pre-eminent nature writer. Her great themes, 
novel to many Americans at the time, were the biological forces that 
link all life through the ages, the interdependence of living organisms 
and the continual cycling of nutrients and genetic material through 
species and over time.

Before Carson became a superstar of narrative nonfiction — showered with 
awards, honorary degrees and speaking offers — she was a mild-mannered 
government drone who spent 16 years writing press releases and pamphlets 
for what eventually became the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. 
It was a perfect job for a biophiliac (Carson was an avid bird-watcher) 
who excelled at doing homework and massaging experts for information. 
(Though Carson had a master’s in zoology, she never worked as a 
scientist. And while she felt drawn to the sea and specialized in 
matters oceanic, she spent little time on the water, rarely ventured 
deeper than her ankles and never corrected the media’s presumption that 
she was a frequent diver.)

But even as Carson churned out propaganda, she was reading and 
collecting government reports on the unintended consequences of 
pesticide use. By 1946, she had serious doubts not only about 
pesticides’ safety but about government’s ability — or will — to protect 
environmental health over economic interests. By the summer of 1962, 
when The New Yorker excerpted three chapters of “Silent Spring,” her 
audience was primed for science-and-technology-related anxiety. 
Americans knew about birth defects caused by thalidomide, a supposedly 
safe drug; they’d weathered a “cranberry scare,” in which 
pesticide-contaminated fruit was pulled from the market just days before 
Thanksgiving; and they’d learned to “duck and cover” in anticipation of 
a nuclear attack.

Carson artfully linked radioactive fallout with the indiscriminate use 
of pesticides; they were, Souder writes, the “twin fears of the modern 
age.” The parallels between the chemicals were, to Carson, exact and 
inescapable: both were invisible, acutely toxic, mutagenic and had 
effects that could last for generations. Such negative impacts, Carson 
believed, were the consequence of the “impetuous and heedless pace of 
man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.”

Carson had a knack for encapsulating big ideas and for saying exactly 
what she meant. Her voice could be clear and plain (“The problem that 
concerns us here . . . ”) or poetical (she feared “a sterile world 
ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight”). But none of this 
came easily. Souder paints Carson as an obsessive reviser and a 
meticulous researcher who was often blocked, she said, by her uneasiness 
that human beings had acquired the power to reshape the world so profoundly.

Souder is at his best when he places Carson’s intellectual development 
in context with the nascent environmental movement. The storm over 
“Silent Spring,” he notes, was a “cleaving point” in history when the 
“gentle, optimistic proposition called ‘conservation’ began its 
transformation into the bitterly divisive idea that would come to be 
known as ‘environmentalism.’” (Souder isn’t shy about expressing his own 
disappointment with what he views as a permanent wall between partisans, 
with nature and science pitted against an “unbreakable coalition of 
government and industry, the massed might of the establishment.”)

As Carson and her publisher expected, the chemical industry pounced on 
“Silent Spring” — even as it climbed best-seller lists — for overstating 
the downside and ignoring the upsides of pesticides. (Souder quotes 
Carson directly defending herself only once. California, one of the few 
states with accurate records, she said, was reporting “as many as 1,000 
accidental poisonings a year.” That might be good enough for Souder, but 
we never learn if the victims were crickets, catbirds or campesinos.) 
More significant, because they linger to this day, were the attacks that 
cast ecology as a subversive subject and Carson as a Communist. To love 
nature, in this absolutist paradigm, is to abhor business, to reject 
capitalism and by extension America itself. One chemical company claimed 
that by condemning pesticides (in fact, the book argued only for limits 
and restraint in their use), Carson hoped to reduce our food supply to 
“East-curtain parity.”

Souder writes vividly and with great empathy for his subject and her 
cause. But steeped in Carsoniana, he occasionally slips into her 
old-fashioned locutions (“And so you see that . . . ”), or even into 
grandiosity (Carson has “the voice of someone standing above this 
elemental environment and feeling within it the slow pulse of geologic 
time and the mighty force of evolution that lies inside and beyond the 
surging waters”). One wishes, also, that the author had paid more 
attention to gender politics: he doesn’t explain how Carson managed to 
write four intensely researched books while running a household, 
managing the financial affairs of her family and, later, raising her 
orphaned grandnephew. Nor does he fully explore Carson’s unconventional 
romantic arrangement. He sketches the outlines of her 11-year intimate 
relationship with a married woman named Dorothy Freeman but fails to 
explain how or if Freeman’s husband, Stanley, dealt with it.

But these points detract little from an absorbing narrative. In Souder’s 
telling, almost every aspect of Carson’s life and times becomes 
captivating: her difficult personal circumstances (she grew up in rural 
poverty, was the sole breadwinner in her family and battled breast 
cancer while writing and then defending “Silent Spring”); the publishing 
milieu; and the continuing friction between those who would preserve 
nature versus those who would bend it to provide utility for man.

Souder warms up slowly, presenting Carson as a mild and mousy girl who 
fell into her career thanks to a charismatic mentor. As she matured, 
however, Carson quietly simmered with attitude, indignation and, once 
she became more successful, a righteous ego. Released from government 
service and financial peril, she roared at the forces she believed were 
destroying nature, her greatest source of pleasure and the thing without 
which, to pervert the classic advertising slogan of the agricultural 
chemical manufacturer Monsanto, life itself would be impossible.

Elizabeth Royte is the author of “Garbage Land” and “Bottlemania.”

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