Since Silent Spring: Reflecting on Rachel Carson’s Legacy

The follow-up to Carson’s work, Since Silent Spring, cemented its reputation as a classic. 

Mine was the book that Carson, who died in 1964, should have written to rebut the all-out attack on her work and person by a coalition of chemical companies, agribusiness spokesmen, and pest control workers. When I wrote the sequel to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1970 her book had struck me as a kind of manifesto, a mind-altering experience.

Most of the attacks in pamphlets, ads, and “fact-kits” began as a bow to her “graceful writing.”Then-BAM!  “A hoax,” “hogwash,” or “a serious threat,” were prominent among the charges leveled by her opponents. They went on to characterize Carson’s followers as “food-faddists,” “health quacks,”and, most scathing of all, “bird-watchers.” During a meeting of the Federal Pest Control Review Board (a puny, ineffectual predecessor of the Federal Committee on Pest Control), one of its members said of Carson in a belittling tone: “I thought she was a spinster. What is she so worried about genetics for?” General laughter ensued.

Why was I, a largely unknown conservation writer, chosen by Carson’s publisher to bring the story up to date?  True, I was a self-confessed part of that subversive cell of bird-watchers. More to the point, Silent Spring inspired me in the mid-sixties to write a book entitled Disaster by Default, describing the runaway pollution of our waterways.Though that work produced only an anemic rush on bookstores, it earned favorable reviews in Audubon and Natural History. It also led to an invitation from Audubon to write a couple of articles about the tumult following Silence Spring’s publication.

As a result, Houghton Mifflin’s Paul Brooks, who had edited Silent Spring, asked me to write a book that would expand on my articles. With the help of scientists from all over the United States and Great Britain, I wrote Since Silent Spring over the next couple of years. To my surprise (and, I suspect, to Houghton Mifflin’s too) the book became a modest success. Published shortly after the first Earth Day, it was reviewed on the first page of the New York Times’ Book Review. “This book should be read by all who believe that we hold the earth in trust for succeeding generations,” the reviewer enthused. Well, it wasn’t read by quite all of them, but it went into a paperback edition and a special edition published by the Consumers’ Union, became a Literary Guild Selection, and appeared in translations in Great Britain, West Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, and Japan.

There was no mystery about its success. Readers, reluctant to let Carson go, remained eager to see how her work and reputation had survived the assaults of the exploiters. Like them, the present author had responded to her in un-looked for ways. I had, from childhood, been open to “nature,” feeling at home in the woods and on the ocean. But I had never been able to see, as it were, the trees for the forest. My enthusiasm was a vague kind of nature worship, lacking in any detail.

Reading Carson’s earlier books about the sea stirred in me an awareness of some of those details, waking me to the individual lives of the organisms that dwelt there. Likewise, Silent Spring showed me there was something more than birds in the forest. The attacks on Carson by many entomologists had revealed their hatred of insects; their careers were simply crusades to kill them. Carson made plain the bright side of insect life, the ecology of life in the wild, the interactions among the myriad invertebrates around us. Some of my later writing has focused on varieties of wasps, flies, and spiders.

I think one of Carson’s legacies to the future is the recognition that it is better to come to conservation through love, rather than fear. Over the years, I have seen men and women rush to the environmental movement as a response to the threat of cancer from chemical misuse, or various other diseases through air and water pollution. But they lose interest when some other public crusade comes to the front. I have seen the strongest bonds forged when we bring to the fight, as Rachel Carson did, a determination to preserve what we love.