August 13, 2012

Carson still a force of nature 50 years after 'Silent Spring'

By North Cairn
Staff Writer

First in an occasional series on Rachel Carson a half-century after the publication of "Silent Spring." On Monday, women inspired by Carson become environmental activists.

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Rachel Carson, whose book “Silent Spring” led to scrutiny of pesticides, testifies before a Senate subcommittee in Washington, D.C., on June 4, 1963. She urged Congress to curb aerial spraying and the sale of chemical pesticides.

1963 Associated Press file

Brown Moore Jones Carson
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National Book Award winners are, from left, Marianne Moore, James Jones and Rachel Carson, author of “The Sea Around Us.” At right is John Mason Brown, author and toastmaster at the ceremonies held in the Hotel Commodore in New York City in 1952.

The Associated Press

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The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in Wells was established in 1966 by the U.S. Interior Department's Fish and Wildlife Service, working in cooperation with the state of Maine.

It was known as the Maine Coastal National Wildlife Refuge until 1970, when it was renamed for the Carson, who had written "Silent Spring" in the early 1960s.

The book reflected her love of and concern for the future of bird species, including bald eagles and ospreys, which had been severely affected by DDT. Renaming the refuge in her honor seemed an appropriate -- virtually imperative -- foundation for the ongoing conservation and preservation work embodied by the 5,600-acre refuge.

"She is pretty much a constant presence here," said refuge manager Ward Feurt.

One symbol of Carson's legacy is a mile-long trail along an upland edge of salt marsh. Fragile and dynamic ecosystems, salt marshes have natural vegetation along their edges and enable dense meadows of grasses and other plants to flourish. The Carson trail winds gently and easily through woods and along wetlands and offers panoramic views of marshland and the sea beyond.

Because the refuge lies along the coast and between eastern deciduous forest and boreal forest, it is host to a range and variety of plants and animals not found anywhere else in Maine. Visitors may see species of salt-marsh sharp-tailed sparrows, loons, terns, gulls -- more than 25 species of waterfowl and, during migration, thousands of shorebirds.

The refuge preserves 10 important estuaries that are key staging points along the migration routes of birds. During harsh winters, its marshes provide food and cover for birds when inland waters are frozen.

The refuge also supports piping plovers, least terns, peregrine falcons, bald eagles and other state- and federally protected species. Nesting success of plovers and terns has improved through the increased habitat protection.

Scattered along the coastline for 50 miles in York and Cumberland counties, the refuge has 10 divisions between Kittery and Cape Elizabeth and has continued to grow through land acquisitions, as they become available. Feurt estimated the total acreage will reach nearly 14,700 when it is complete.

-- North Cairn

VIDEO: Meet Rachel Carson

VIDEO DISCUSSION: Rachel Carson's influence in conservation

Some hailed her as a prophet of the environmental movement; others disparaged her work as alarmist and lacking scientific rigor.

But there is no doubt that Rachel Carson and her writings were virtually a force of nature in the 1950s and '60s.

And still are today.

Fifty years after the publication of "Silent Spring," Carson's groundbreaking book questioning the excessive use of pesticides still evokes strong feelings on all sides. Carson became the grand dame of the modern environmental movement, as "Silent Spring" awakened ordinary Americans to the potential problems from unrestrained pesticide use. The book captured the attention of President John F. Kennedy and was pivotal in the banning of the commonly used pesticide dichlorodiphenyl-trichloroethane, or DDT, in 1972. It led to a grassroots movement questioning the safety of pesticide use and public calls for greater governmental control of the industry.

Even now, both the book and the author herself remain icons of how a single individual can change the course of a nation's history. And the debate Carson opened with the volley of "Silent Spring" remains highly charged and unresolved, namely, whether -- and how -- farmers, foresters and ordinary citizens can use chemical pesticides responsibly.


A writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Carson had deep and lasting ties to Maine, where she spent many summers and sought sanctuary on Southport Island at the tip of the Boothbay peninsula, at the mouth of the Sheepscot River. Her experiences and observations from the edge of this quarter-acre salt pond provided much of the research for her popular writings about the sea.

A lifelong conservationist by temperament and teaching, she was living on Southport in 1956 when she became a founding member and the first chairwoman of the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy. Her influence is still felt there today through the Rachel Carson Salt Pond Preserve, maintained at the site by the conservancy, and with a continuing endowment sustained by royalties on her books.

Carson was "the most renowned person who ever worked for Fish and Wildlife," said Ward Feurt, manager of the 5,600-acre wildlife refuge in Wells that was renamed in Carson's honor in 1970. "Hands down No one else is even close."

Her name appears on "every single list" naming 20th century women who accomplished "something significant" in environmental, societal, scientific and literary arenas, he added.

Numerous environmental, educational and cultural organizations, from the Fish and Wildlife Service to local colleges and libraries, are hosting events throughout the year in celebration of Carson and her achievements.

Carson was born on May 27, 1907, the youngest of three children. Raised in a rustic farmhouse just outside the Allegheny River town of Springdale, Pa., she had ample opportunity to experience the natural world. She credited her mother with instilling in her the lasting love of nature that flows through her writing like a rising tide.

That passion matured during her years studying biology in college, probing genetics while earning a master's at Johns Hopkins and through studies at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole in Massachusetts, where she first experienced the sea. This turn toward the life sciences was to some degree a change, or at least an interruption of Carson's plans: Since childhood, she had intended to become a writer -- the work she ultimately performed for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, earning $32 a week.

But both endeavors -- writing and biological investigation -- remained at the center of her life and culminated in the tone of urgency in "Silent Spring." That fervor had always been there, a current which elevated her books beyond the genre of nature writing and made her a best-selling author whom the public trusted and heeded.

(Continued on page 2)

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Rachel Carson
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Rachel Carson pauses in the woods near her home in 1962. She became the grand dame of the environmental movement with the publication of her book that year, which questioned the unrestrained use of pesticides and became pivotal in the banning of DDT 10 years later. She died of breast cancer in 1964.

Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

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Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer


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