A new book from William Souder — who writes from his home near Stillwater — examines the pivotal life and work of Rachel Carson, the author of the 1962 book Silent Spring. Souder will be the featured speaker at the St. Croix River Association’s annual gathering on May 14.
Carson was a “fault line” between the conservation and environmental movements, says Souder. Her writing career bridged those two important eras, and she was at the center of a fundamental shift in how Americans relate to their natural resources.
While the first half of the nineteenth century saw the growth of a stewardship ethic defined by a feeling of collective duty to be good shepherds of the land, Souder says that Carson’s exposé of how chemicals like DDT were decimating bird populations marked the beginning of the environmental movement, which saw humans as one component in the complex systems of our planet.
Souder’s own role on planet Earth has included his first book, about the search for answers about deformed frogs, and his second, a biography of John James Audubon that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
It also includes duck hunting on the St. Croix River, near Scandia. “What I love about hunting there is the scenery, which because of the heavily wooded shorelines and the many islands laced together with backwaters and sloughs, presents a lot of fall color early in the season,” Souder says. “I also always enjoy the challenge of finding my way home on the river in the dark, a skill worth having.”
Conservationists, like President Theodore Roosevelt and Wisconsin writer Aldo Leopold, had an optimistic vision, seeing their work as a “pleasant duty,” Souder told me recently at a Stillwater coffee shop a snowball’s throw away from the St. Croix. Their efforts were largely focused on reforming game laws, forestry practices, establishing parks and wildlife refuges, and other efforts which were often important to hunters and anglers.
“Species of concern”
But Carson’s book, which sold millions and eventually led to the ban of DDT use in America, sounded an alarm. Humans were no longer the protector of the planet, but had become the “species of concern” ourselves. Between radiation raining from the sky during the peak of Cold War nuclear arms testing, and the advent of countless new chemicals being used broadly on American soil, Carson represented a growing point-of-view that the “greatest threat to human perpetuity is our own activity,” Souder says.
Silent Spring had a message for all of humanity, but the book was a catalyst for the polarization of America on environmental issues.
The chemical industry and its powerful allies in government set out to destroy Carson, often insinuating that she was a Communist. Her book, published as Soviet ships sailed toward Cuba with ballistic cargo, sought to weaken American productivity, they said. The nightmare might be Americans waiting in bread lines like the Soviets.
Carson’s concern was not Cold War politics, though, but the very real threat to human health and wildlife that wanton use of chemicals was causing. DDT was created in 1939 and widely used by the military during World War II to combat lice, and then to control mosquitos and other insects. Its inventor won a Nobel Prize for the discovery. Scientists were quite certain that it only affected insects.
They were wrong.
Research being conducted in the 1940s revealed that the chemical was anything but benign. When sprayed on a water body, dead fish would float to the surface within minutes.
Carson was already beloved by Americans for her lyrical scientific works about the Atlantic ocean, including The Sea Around Us, which stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for 86 weeks.
A marine biologist by training, she resisted writing about DDT and its effects on birds, trying to get other writers to take on the project. In the end though, she couldn’t ignore the issue, and wrote the book which launched a thousand environmentalists.
Springtime for environmentalism
Carson passed away in 1964, just two years after the publication of Silent Spring, and before seeing the ban of DDT or the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, which she and others had said was needed to protect America and Americans.
When I asked Souder what he thought Carson might say about today’s threats and the activism which seeks to address it, he chuckled like he had been asked the question before. “So, what would Rachel do?”
Carson would be appalled at the lack of respect for science, he said. She might also be dismayed that simply publishing a book about an environmental issue isn’t enough to capture the attention of a nation and drive change anymore.
The major environmental laws of the 1960s and 1970s — the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, the Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Acts, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency — were all the result of a broad public movement, which Carson was partly responsible for inspiring.
One of Carson’s contemporaries in the natural writing world was Aldo Leopold. Leopold’s Sand County Almanac is often mentioned in the same breath as Silent Spring for its similar profound effect on America’s stewardship ethic.
Souder referred to Leopold when describing what makes the St. Croix River a special part of the planet. “Aldo Leopold defined ‘wilderness’ as ‘a continuous stretch of country preserved in its natural state, open to lawful hunting and fishing, big enough to absorb a two-week’s pack trip, and kept devoid of roads, artificial trails, cottages, or other works of man.’
“It’s hard to find such unspoiled expanses close to civilization these days, but there are parts of this exquisite river not far from where I live that feel very much like what Leopold described.”
More information and registration for the St. Croix River Association’s May 14 spring gathering, featuring William Souder, is available here.
Read an excerpt from On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.