Rachel Carson

By Gary Suttle

Rachel Carson alerted the world to the dangers of chemical pesticides in her bestselling book Silent Spring. Her tocsin on toxins remains as fresh as the latest newspaper headlines linking synthetic poisons with hormonal changes, reproductive problems, and other ailments in both humans and wildlife. But her contribution to the environmental movement extended far beyond waving red flags. She combined her scientific mind and poetic sensibilities to write lyrical prose celebrating the wonder, joy and mystery of Nature. A recent biography relates that Carson held a deeply spiritual love of the natural world. Although she didn't call herself a pantheist, her writings illuminate pantheistic ideas and evoke sacred feelings for the Earth.

Born in 1907, Carson grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Her parents were poor and their dwelling had no indoor plumbing. But her caring mother diligently home schooled her daughter and infused her with a lifelong love of Nature. While she struggled to pay for college and graduate school, Carson became an outstanding scientist trained in marine biology. She worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service and later gained fame as a writer and conservationist. Carson never married, but had many friendships. She was 56 years old when cancer cut short her life in 1964.

Carson attended a Presbyterian church in her youth, but her orthodox views subsided as she grew older. She seldom spoke about religion, although late in her life Carson related that she had difficulty "...finding anything definite I can really feel is true. But I am sure, there is a great and mysterious force that we don't, and perhaps can never understand." She saw the mysterious creative force manifesting itself in the process of evolution. To Carson, significant meaning underlay the beauty and diversity of evolving life: "It is the elusiveness of that meaning that haunts us, that sends us again and again into the natural world where the key to the riddle is hidden."

In an early piece, "Undersea", Carson found meaning by elucidating ecological reality. She described how the death of some creatures contributed to the life of other creatures, "all, in the end, to be redissolved into their component substances, only to reappear again and again in different incarnations in a kind of material immortality....Against this cosmic background the life span of a particular plant or animal appears, not as a drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change." In later books, Under the Sea-Wind (1949), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955), she elaborated on the timeless grandeur of the ocean, from the seas' primal beginnings and the miraculous appearance of life, to the workings of tides and the impact of shifting currents on world climate. Carson deplored the despoliation of the seas, notably the dumping of radioactive wastes.

In Silent Spring (1962), she amassed a mountain of evidence to detail the hazards of pesticide. Chemical manufacturers and other special interests vilified Carson and called her book "more poisonous than the pesticides she condemned," yet she courageously held her ground. Objective scientists have since vindicated her findings many times over.

Carson decried anthropocentrism. "We still talk in terms of 'conquest,'" she stated, "whether it be of the insect world or of the mysterious world of space. We still have not become mature enough to see ourselves as a very tiny part of a vast and incredible universe, a universe that is distinguished above all else by mysterious and wonderful unity that we flout at our peril."

She realized that man's activities threatened psychological as well as physical harm. "I believe," said Carson, "that whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man's spiritual growth." To reduce physical harm Carson advocated working with nature, for example, using crop rotation and biological controls to stymie insect infestations thus avoiding chemical contamination. To restore spiritual wholeness she encouraged joyful immersion in the natural world.

In a magazine article entitled "Help Your Child to Wonder" (subsequently published in book form as The Sense of Wonder ), Carson observed "A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood." Carson longed to endow every child with "...a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength."

Carson invited us to rediscover the fun excitement and mystery of wild nature, to become receptive to the world around us, to use our eyes, ears, nostrils, and fingertips, "...opening up the disused channels of sensory impression." One way to open our eyes to unnoticed beauty, she suggested, is to ask, 'What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?' Another way is to listen carefully to detect new sounds, as Carson did in introducing us to an insect called the fairy bell ringer: "I have never found him. I'm not sure I want to. His voice--and surely he himself--are so ethereal, so delicate, so otherworldly, that he should remain invisible, as he has through all the nights I have searched for him. It is exactly the sound that should come from a bell held in the hand of the tiniest elf, inexpressibly clear and silvery, so faint, so barely-to-be-heard that you hold your breath as you bend closer to the green glades from which the fairy chiming comes."

Carson believed that it's "...not half so important to know as to feel. Once the emotions have been aroused--a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love--then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response." For example, the voices of migrant birds can stir feelings for small creatures traveling long distances and trigger a desire to learn where they go and why they fly so far away.

To enhance our sense of wonder and to expand our communion with Nature brings untold rewards. "Those who dwell...among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life," wrote Carson. "Whatever the vexations or concerns of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts...there is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature--the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter. The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world...are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life."

For her eloquent writings and extraordinary efforts on behalf of the natural world, for her sense of the oneness and sacredness of life, and for her understanding of the spiritual and intrinsic values of wildness, Rachel Carson stands as an inspiration to us all.


Brooks, Paul. The House of Life: Rachel Carson At Work. Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

Carson, Rachel. The Sense of Wonder (Introduction by Linda Lear, Photographs by Nick Kelsh) Harper Collins, 1998.

Lear, Linda. Rachel Carson:Witness for Nature. Henry Holt & Co., 1997.

Rachel Carson Homestead Association. www.rachelcarson.org/

Strong, Douglas H. Dreamers & Defenders, American Conservationists. University of Nebraska Press, 1988.

Click here if you don't see a navigation bar on the left side of the screen.

Photo Courtesy of Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos

Copyright © 2003 Gary Suttle