August 13, 2012

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

By North Cairn
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

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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

Her commitment to witnessing and protecting the natural world on its own terms was evident even in her early popular writing about the natural history of the sea and shore. It was a commitment with deep personal and spiritual underpinnings, brimming with a sense of protectiveness that one Maine environmental advocate, Nancy Oden of Jonesboro, has described as akin to the "ferocity of a mother bear."

It was the early lyrical, poetic writings about nature that arguably won her the vast audience that helped sell the message of "Silent Spring," hardly an easy read in comparison to her previous works. Her authority, expressed largely but not exclusively through her book, endured until her death in April 1964 -- two years after her incendiary call to consciousness in "Silent Spring."

By then, Carson had become one of the most influential -- and vilified -- women in the world, a fate that a half century later hovers over her name like a migrating bird, drifting off only to return with a new generation.

"She was the first to sound the alarm that we had to think about the environment and what we were doing to it," said Christine Baumann Feurt, an environmental studies instructor at the University of New England in Biddeford and coordinator of the Coastal Training Program at the Wells National Estuarine Research Reserve. "I don't think anyone has had the impact she had."

"She was in a way a reluctant Paul Revere," said Baumann Feurt. "Silent Spring" was not a book she wanted to write but one she felt compelled to complete.

She had been spurred to write the book by the grief and worry of a friend in Massachusetts whose property inadvertently had been covered by DDT from nearby aerial spraying for mosquitoes. The next day, after the air had cleared, she discovered dead songbirds in her yard. She wrote to Carson at the Fish and Wildlife Service, asking how she could stop further spraying.

In looking for an answer, Carson gathered information she found both unexpected and disturbing: The extent and potency of pesticide use had become widespread, almost ubiquitous. She spent the next four years researching and writing "Silent Spring."


Often characterized as a somewhat shy woman, Carson was anything but reticent when she found her environmentalist voice in "Silent Spring." She challenged the powerful interests of industry and government, documenting the deadly impact of excessive use of pesticides on the environment -- particularly on birds, fish and plant life.

The book was first serialized in The New Yorker magazine, which no doubt helped to launch it into the national limelight. But "for a nonfiction book at that time to become a best-seller" was almost unheard of, said Baumann Feurt. Equally telling about its influence was the fury of reaction from representatives of chemical companies and even government agencies.

"The book's legacy is mixed," writes Roger E. Meiners and Andrew P. Morriss, in "Silent Spring at 50: Reflections on an Environmental Classic," published by the Property and Environment Research Center. The center is an environmental think tank promoting "free-market environmentalism as opposed to government regulation," based in Bozeman, Mont. "It helped raise awareness about the costs of mass spraying operations, but it also provided justification against the use of DDT in malaria-control programs, which contributed to the deaths of millions in Africa and Asia."

The authors, both college professors, contend that "Silent Spring" served as an anti-technology tool, disparaging progress and discouraging innovation. " 'Silent Spring' presented an emotional argument against chemical pesticides ... Above all, (it) is a work of advocacy, weaving anecdotes and carefully selected bits of science into a compelling brief against uses of chemicals that had already saved millions of lives at the time Carson wrote."

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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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