Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring at 50 years of age is on my short list of things to mention at Thanksgiving dinner this year. Her creative genius lay in wedding her passion for biology with her desire to write. While she is remembered most vividly for sparking the modern environmental movement, Carson did not live to see that movement celebrated in the first Earth Day in 1970, the same year that President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), or in the passage of landmark environmental bills—Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act, to name a few—with bipartisan support in Washington and broad public support around the country. In 1963, the year before she died, Carson had a chance to testify—to reinforce key themes from her work—before the US Senate Committee on Commerce on the environmental impacts of pesticides. Fifty years later, her words continue to strike notes of concern, for example, in pointing to the fact that we must not assume that if contact with a chemical causes “no immediate ill effects [then] the chemical must certainly be innocent of harm,” an assumption that ignores what Carson saw clearly: damage from carcinogens can lag years or decades behind exposure. [Eidtor’s note: thanks go to Geoffrey Giller for this historial research and documentation of ongoing relevance of Carson’s work.]
Gray-Greens all around the country have now spent decades as part of the movement to control our chemical environments, holding children and grandchildren in mind, while the research that might support or deny the safety of chemicals—individually or in combination—lie on time horizons beyond view.
We are also all too familiar with the disease that took Carson’s life in 1964 at the age of 56. The non-profit Silent Spring Institute focuses on breast cancer prevention research, responding to the need to know more about the disease that took Carson’s life. The Institute holds up its Muse as “a courageous and outspoken woman, an extraordinary scientist, and a naturalist with a gift for lyricism about the mundane habits of insects, shellfish, and birds,” with her classic words:
The few birds seen anywhere were moribund.
They trembled violently and could not fly.
It was a spring without voices.
On the mornings that had once throbbed
with the dawn chorus of scores of bird voices
there was now no sound; only silence
lay over the fields and woods and marsh.
Yet the Institute notes the now apparent irony in Carson’s handling of her disease as “this courageous, history-transforming woman was afraid to let anyone know she had breast cancer. When she testified before Congress soon after publication of her book, she wore a wig to hide the effects of radiation treatment. Less than two years after the appearance of Silent Spring, she died of metastatic disease…. What her story does provide us with…is inspiration and hope. Carson taught us that what we can recognize, we can change.” —Silent Spring Intitute
Science and policy join philosophy and art for a fully formed appreciation of Carson’s genius in the Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder Contest. This is an annual event that invites teams of two or more persons, which must include a young person and an older person, to submit poetry, essay, photography and dance video pieces to an intergenerational panel of judges. Led by the U.S. EPA Aging Initiative in partnership with diverse co-sponsors—Rachel Carson Council, Inc.; Generations United; Dance Exchange; National Center for Creative Aging—this year’s event was billed as the “2012 Sense of Water Contest” in recognition of 40 years of the Clean Water Act.
Below is an excerpt from the 2012 winner in poetry for 2012 written by Hari, age 10, and his grandmother Sujatha, with this description: “When Hari visited India in December 2011, my family including my children, grandchildren and I visited the rock temples at the Heritage site of Mamallapuram on the seashore. It was an overcast morning, and we suddenly received warning of an approaching hurricane. There was a heavy downpour and the stormy ocean waves crashed on the millennium-old rock monuments around us, creating a magical setting that neither my grandson nor I will ever forget.”
Peaceful Water, Crashing Water
[Text in regular font is by Hari, text in italics is by Sujatha]
Water, water, friendly water,
Water, water, crashing water,
You look immortal ’til you crash,
on rocks, and die like smoking ash.
Crashing on man-made barrier of boulders
Wave after wave rose to assault
The temple hewn out of a rock
Standing firm more than a thousand years
Submerged by the tsunami and emerged again
To command over the crashing waves.
Capturing the lyrical power of Rachel Carson is also the goal of “Celebrating Silent Spring at 50” a project of the The Borderbend Arts Collective, where they are recognizing this landmark year by gathering creative responses to Silent Spring and celebrations of Rachel Carson’s life and legacy from people and organizations in all 50 states. Email submissions—with Subject: Silent Spring at 50—are welcome through December 15, 2012, at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Rachel Carson, long may you inspire!