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Environmentalism’s Birth Mother, Virgin Martyr, and Beacon Saint

Reviewed by David Walton

Linda Lear’s very thorough and readable biography of author and naturalist Rachel Carson is sure to be the definitive book on Carson’s life. Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature is factual, unslanted, neither speculative nor prying—everything that a biography should be, and then some. With 485 pages of text and about 150 of notes and bibliography, Lear doesn’t swamp her reader, but she does lose some of that sense of proportion so crucial to understanding Rachel Carson’s accomplishment—the way in which one person can make an enormous difference in the world.

Rachel Carson lived an exemplary life, exemplary in the sense that she lived moderately, virtuously, with dedicated and determined craft, but also exemplary in the medieval sense that her story has a lesson to impart. It is, however, a lesson easy to misread, and easy to misrepresent. I confess that at first I rebelled at the detail Lear included: a synopsis of every college composition Rachel Carson wrote, every teacher and mentor who encouraged her, every editor who responded favorably or not to one of her articles. But slowly, over many pages, a picture emerges of the life of a gifted, dedicated woman of the American 30s, 40s, and 50s, a time when women were excluded, routinely passed over, only nominally represented on faculties and in government agencies. Lear tells a fascinating story about American professional women in the first half of this century, and of the network of female alliances that promoted and sustained a young woman of talent. Separate from the interest of Carson’s own life, which is considerable, Lear’s biography is a rich cultural history, crossing, as Carson herself did, the realms of science, government service, academic life, publishing, and literary celebrity.

But does Rachel Carson’s own particular life merit a 500-page biography? Or, put a little differently, is Rachel Carson’s particular life best served by a meticulous, step-by-step catalogue biography?

Working in two of literature’s most perishable forms, nature writing and social action, Carson’s niche is probably secure. As a science writer, she is unparalleled in her clarity and expressiveness, her marvelous precision of language and sense of cadence preserved in that favorite bestseller, The Sea Around Us.

But it is as the author of Silent Spring, a crusader classic still potent today, that Rachel Carson has become a figure of historic as well as literary consequence, earning comparisons to Thomas Paine and Harriet Beecher Stowe. That 1962 exposé of the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide spraying led to a ban on DDT, to the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency, and, some would say, to the entire environmentalist movement.

Silent Spring is a model of persuasive writing, eloquent and grimly effective, most persuasive in its unembellished devotion to nature, most eloquent in its strict reliance on fact and reasoned argument. Its brevity is part of its impact, and the audio abridgment read by Ellen Burstyn (Durkin Hayes, $16.99) captures vividly its powers of rhetoric, its unassailable logic, and its ability to touch both feeling and reason, and is an excellent accompaniment to Lear’s biography.

Carson’s death of cancer in 1964 at age 56, just two years after its publication, transformed her into an icon—the birth mother, beacon saint, and virgin martyr for the environmentalist movement. Hers is a life, like Gandhi’s or Albert Schweitzer’s, best displayed in its simplest form, and for that I’d recommend John Henricksson’s Rachel Carson: The Environmental Movement (Millbrook, 1991), 96 pages with index and bibliography, its dual title suggesting the ways Carson’s life has become linked to her subject; or, better still, since it can be combined with a walk in nature, Ginger Wadsworth’s 1992 audio biography Rachel Carson: Voice for the Earth (Audio Bookshelf, $17.95), read by Melissa Hughes in just over two hours, designed for family listening ages 10 and up.

But a glance across the shelf of books that have accrued about Rachel Carson and the controversies she stirred up quickly illustrates the risks of simplification, and the importance of having one book like Lear’s that puts all available facts about Carson’s life on the record. Lear’s story is never dull, and one comes away, as we rarely do from these catalogue biographies, liking the subject better, and admiring her more.

One particularly interesting feature is how much Rachel Carson reflected the Pittsburgh region (she grew up in Springdale, near New Kensington, and graduated from the Pennsylvania College for Women, now Chatham College), at a time when Pittsburgh was the most polluted city in America; and how much she reflected that segment of Pittsburgh society devoted to culture and the arts, to academic and professional attainment, over the prevailing industrial norm. Rachel Carson is one of a string of remarkable women that includes Gertrude Stein, Martha Graham, Willa Cather, and Gladys Schmitt, whose careers developed and took shape from, often in flight from, the things they experienced here—and for that, too, Lear’s is a valuable and rewarding biography.

David Walton is a short-story writer and freelance book critic.

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