La Belle Dame Sans Merci (1962)
“And no birds sing.” This was the closing line of the British poet, John Keats,’ 19th century
poem, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.” The reason for the silence of the skies was nature’s
empathy for a knight, victim of a femme fatale. In post-war America, the skies were also
ominously quiet-for a far different reason.
The sea held allure to Rachel Louise Carson from landlocked Springdale, outside of Pittsburg, in the boom of the Industrial Age. Despite the positive connotation of Springdale, from her log cabin window smoke billowed from the stacks of the American Glue Factory that slaughtered horses, much like the one where Boxer from Animal Farm met his end. The stench was so rank that, along with the mosquitoes that bred in the Bottoms, the nearby swamp, prevented residents from sitting on their porches. Her father, Robert, was a ne’er-do-well and her elder sister, Marian, was obliged to work in the town’s power plant. Rachel’s mother, Maria, daughter of a Presbyterian minister, prayed her daughter would have better. The passport out was a $100 scholarship that enabled Rachel to attend Pennsylvania College for Women. There Rachel went on her first and seemingly only date with a fellow student, Bob Frye, who took her to the annual PCW prom. He did not rate a mention in a letter Carson wrote her friend about the event. However, she had plenty to say about her biology professor, Mary Skinker, who Carson described as “a perfect knockout.” Carson was distraught when Skinker left PCW to complete her doctoral studies at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Missing her mentor, Rachel happened to read Lord Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall” in which one line resonated, “For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.” Although of a scientific bent, Carson took the line as a sign, and she followed Mary until she left her unrequited love for graduate work at John Hopkins University. Rachel helped support her family as the Carsons fared even worse during the Depression.
Rachel became a science editor for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency founded under the New Deal, and she freelanced for the Reader’s Digest. Driven by her love of the ocean, she wrote on everything from where to go on summer vacation, to the catch-of-the-day to the life cycle of marine life. She believed people would protect what they loved, so she worked to establish a “sense of wonder” about nature. Carson had once remarked to a friend that she always wanted to write, “but I don’t have much imagination. Biology has given me something to write about.” Although the sea was the magnet that beckoned, she spent little time on the water, rarely venturing deeper than her ankles.
Carson garnered literary laurels with Under the Sea and The Sea Around Us, which received the National Book Award. By 1952 she was the author of two best-selling nonfiction books in America. Miss Carson, shy and reserved, was taken aback by the fame. It took great courage for her to accept a luncheon speaking engagement at the Astor Hotel with 1,500 guests in attendance. As part of her lecture, she played a recording of the sounds of the sea, including the clicking of shrimp and the squeaks of dolphins and whales.
The financial success altered her lifestyle; before she had lived with her mother under the ever-present worry about money. She used her royalties to purchase a property on Southport Island, Maine, a remote hideaway with only 250 residents. She delighted in her garden, filled with flowers and birds. One of these neighbors, Dorothy Freeman, played a romantic role in Carson’s life. However, as Dorothy was married and the two women were extremely private, like the creatures below the surface of the sea, their relationship remains enigmatic. After all, the term ‘lovers’ is one of infinite possibility. Carson would address envelopes to “Mrs. Stanley Freeman,” but in the letter referred to Dorothy as “Darling.” Both worried that the “craziness” between them might be revealed and so they penned two different kinds of correspondence: one impersonal, one anything but.
Late 50s America was the era of Walt Disney and Fred Astaire; of Norman Rockwell covers on the Saturday Evening Post; of rock’n’roll; of the Beat poets and the Kennedy campaign; a decade of contentment. However, what fractured the smooth waters was the havoc blighting the environment. No one had a definitive theory-with the exception of the biologist Rachel Carson. For most of 1961, she locked herself in her cottage to complete her book that dealt with the identification of the killer: DDT. She forged ahead, cognizant she was taking on some of the most powerful industrial forces in the world. This battle would have been a daunting task for anyone, let alone a shy single woman of her generation. Her fortitude was even morre remarkable as during this time Rachel’s health deteriorated from breast cancer, and she underwent a mastectomy and radiation. In addition, she was caring for Roger Christie, her orphaned, seven-year-old grandnephew. Despite her clandestine romance with Dorothy, her parenting role, and her illness, Carson felt she never had any choice but to finish Silent Spring. In a letter to Dorothy, she quoted President Lincoln, “to sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” In lyrical prose she encapsulated scientific truth that insecticides, “still the song of the birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on the soil-all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects.” Carson said the synthetic killer should not be called ‘insecticides’ but ‘biocides.’ Silent Spring was also an exposé of capitalism in its claim the chemical companies cared only about balance sheets rather than the balance of the ecosystem. Rachel settled on the title Man Against the Earth; however, at the urging of publisher Paul Brooks, she changed it to Silent Spring with its echo of a perpetual winter if man did not cease his chemical assault. Previous authors had suggested the same, but none wrote with the eloquence of Carson.
Silent Spring became a Book-of-the-Month Club title, earned Carson a posthumous Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Jimmy Carter, and put her face on a 17 cent United States postage stamp. Proof positive of its impact was that President Kennedy, beset by weighty matters such as increased Soviet shipping to Cuba, at a press conference asked whether the government was investigating pesticide replied, “Yes, and I know that they already are. I think, particularly, of course, since Miss Carson’s book.” A few weeks later, as the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded, Silent Spring began its ascent to the top of The New York Times best-seller list. Supporters compared the book to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in that both works reflected the mainstream Protestant thinking of their eras, which demanded personal action to right societal wrongs. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an ardent naturalist, declared, “We need a Bill of Rights against the 20th century poisoners of the human race.” The two social movements-Greenpeace and Earth Day- are by-products of Carson’s seminal work.
Silent Spring hit the affluent chemical industry with the effect of a Biblical plague of locusts, one the corporations wished they could eradicate with a spray of their deadly product. In retaliation they not only targeted her professionally but also claimed she was probably - in her attack against business - a communist; in a McCarthy world, the remark was the ultimate in character assassination. She was duly investigated by the FBI; the intimidation was a warning not to mess with the boys and their business. The industrialists tried to sue her, the New Yorker, (that had serialized her book prior to publication), and her publisher, Houghton Mifflin. When this tactic failed, they ignited a $4,250,000 publicity campaign to tarnish her professionalism. They even tried to cast aspersion by painting her as a spinster with an affinity for cats and another unpardonable offense was “she had overstepped her place as a woman.” Her invariable response was to reiterate her fears that man was recklessly gambling with the fate of the earth, and “the obligation to endure gives us the right to know.”
A year after the release of her environmental classic, Carson testified before a Senate subcommittee on pesticides. She was 56 and dying from cancer, an illness she kept private. Her pelvis was so riddled with fractures it was nearly impossible for her to walk to her seat at the wooden table before the Congressional panel. To hide her baldness, she wore a dark brown wig. Friends feared she would not live to see the show broadcast.
Silent Spring has sold more than two million copies, made a powerful case for the idea that if humankind poisoned nature, nature in turn would poison humankind. If anything, environmental issues have grown larger-and more urgent-since Carson’s era. Al Gore also sounded the ecological alarm bell with An Inconvenient Truth and was awarded the Nobel Prize. It shaped our contemporary view of global warning, yet it did not galvanize the nation, as did “the nun of nature.” The final words of Keats’ poem could serve as a metaphor for Carson’s detractors: La Belle Dame Sans Merci.