August 13, 2012

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

By North Cairn
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 2)

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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

The attempt, then and now, to discredit her work as "emotional" and unscientific goes to the heart of attacks on Carson as a woman working out of her depth, a writer masquerading as a scientist. That kind of innuendo began surfacing almost before the ink was dry on the published page.

She was dismissed at the time as "a spinster who (didn't) know what she's talking about," said Baumann Feurt. But while "Silent Spring" "wasn't a peer-reviewed article, it was based on peer-reviewed articles." The list of her sources alone -- gleaned from a wide range of scientific disciplines -- runs 55 pages.

By the time the first installments of the book were published, Carson already knew she was dying of breast cancer, said Feurt. But in spite of her deteriorating health, she continued to deliver public lectures on the threats posed by pesticides and even appeared twice before Congress to present the material she had gleaned from years of research and writing.

"It is hard to remember the cultural climate that greeted 'Silent Spring,' and to understand the fury that was launched against its quietly determined author," writes Linda Lear, editor of "Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson," in an introduction to the 2002 reprint of "Silent Spring." "Carson's thesis that we were subjecting ourselves to slow poisoning by the misuse of chemical pesticides that polluted the environment may seem like common currency now, but in 1962 'Silent Spring' contained the kernel of social revolution.

"Carson was an outsider who had never been part of the scientific establishment, first because she was a woman but also because her chosen field, biology, was held in low esteem in the nuclear age. Her career path was nontraditional; she had no academic affiliation, no institutional voice." But "as the science establishment would discover, it was impossible to dismiss her."


From the seeds of "Silent Spring" and other examinations of how human beings were fraying the fabric of their interwoven relationship with the natural world, whole new areas of scientific investigation and analysis have emerged. Ecology and environmental studies programs abound in colleges and universities across the country, and current scientific studies probe issues such as how chemicals might be affecting the genetic inheritance of humans and animals.

In the past half-century, numerous environmental, conservation and agricultural developments have been linked to Carson and the consciousness change she generated with the issues raised in "Silent Spring":

These include:

the establishment in 1970 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which serves as the regulatory body for the chemical and pesticide industry;

key environmental legislation, including the Environmental Protection Act of 1970, the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973;

a popular and growing modern environmental movement including at least 12,000 grass-roots groups, some 150 major nationwide organizations, a total estimated budget of $600 million a year and the membership or participation of about 14 million Americans;

significant political voice and clout at all levels of government, from local to national;

a more rigorous registration and re-registration process for all pesticide products, including more than 120 safety, environmental and health tests to determine possible effects on consumers, wildlife and the environment;

a greater and increasing emphasis on local food production and organic methods of farming;

required training of pesticide applicators and the development of more precision application systems;

increased emphasis on integrated pest management, a multifaceted form of pest control that uses a range of techniques to reduce pesticide use, energy consumption and potential environmental impact, while maintaining quality and quantity of food production.

With such transformations in science and culture, regulatory action and government monitoring, Carson's legacy still looms large. As for whether her concerns were "hysterical and alarmist" -- as her detractors have consistently claimed -- or a sobering warning about the impact of human ingenuity, there can be little question whether the past 50 years have vindicated her concerns.

"Yeah, of course," says Baumann Feurt. "And then some."

Staff Writer North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

Correction: This story was revised at 10:35 a.m., Aug. 13, 2012, to state that Southport Island is at the tip of the Boothbay peninsula, at the mouth of the Sheepscot River.

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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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