A Sense of Wonder: Rachel Carson


— Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

A sense of wonder held the young child entranced as she explored the woods near her family’s Pennsylvania home. She never tired of spending time in the out of doors, studying backyard biology, learning the words that described the relationships between herself and the plants and the animals around her. Rachel Carson never outgrew that sense of wonder. Rather, she cultivated it, learned to reveal it through the written word, and shared it with the world.

She was born on May 27, 1907 to Robert Warden and Maria (McLean) Carson in the rural community of Springdale, Pennsylvania, near Pittsburgh. Though young Rachel had two siblings, Marian and Robert, she was comfortable in solitude, quietly learning her mother’s love for nature, books, music, and a reverence for life.

When she was ten years old, Rachel published a story in St. Nicholas magazine, a popular periodical for children. This first entry in her bibliography placed her in a literary circle that includes E. E. Cummings, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and E. B. White, who also had articles published in St. Nicholas when they were young.

She went on to enroll in the Pennsylvania College for Women, now known as Chatham College, where she majored in English, intent on a writing career. She took a biology class that fascinated her and immediately switched majors saying, “Biology has given me something to write about.” She graduated magna cum laude in 1929 and received a scholarship to Johns Hopkins University, where she took a Master of Science degree in zoology, completing her graduate work in 1932.

Life became very tough for Carson at that point. She was a young woman who had chosen to work in a field dominated by men, and the nation was deep in the throes of the Great Depression. To make matters worse, she had to support her parents on what she could earn teaching and working as a lab assistant at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland. Her father died in 1935. Her sister died a year later, leaving Carson’s two young nieces in the care of Carson and her mother.

Her situation improved when she was hired by the Bureau of Fisheries, now known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The Bureau hired her on a temporary basis in 1935 to write a series of radio spots on sea life, called “Romance Under the Waters.” She soon won a post as junior aquatic biologist, becoming one of the Bureau’s first women ever hired for a non-clerical position. Over her 16 years with the government, Carson was promoted to biologist, then editor-in-chief of Fish and Wildlife Service publications.

In 1937 she wrote a piece called “Undersea,” intending it as an introduction to the Bureau’s published version of the radio series for which she had been originally hired. Her boss, Elmer Higgins, felt the piece was too literary for his purposes and suggested she submit it to a literary magazine. She did, and the Atlantic Monthly published her submarine voyage into the deep waters of the sea in September 1937. It caught the attention of naturalists and writers alike, who encouraged her to develop the article into a book-length piece. Carson would later say that from “Undersea” “everything else followed.”

What followed next was Under the Sea Wind, first published in 1941. Where “Undersea” took the reader on a poetic journey through the portals of a submarine, Under the Sea Wind inserts the reader into the environment — becoming one with the marine birds, fishes, and other animal life followed over the course of a year on the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately Under the Sea Wind was published just one month before Pearl Harbor. It did not sell well as America entered World War II, and had to wait another ten years before it would gain popularity on the heels of its author’s runaway bestseller, The Sea Around Us.

Carson continued honing her skills, writing and editing government publications on biological topics. She decided to write her magnum opus, again taking the reader on a journey into the sea, but this time from the perspective of the scientist. The result was The Sea Around Us, published in 1950. Where previously the author had kept her own personality out of her writing, she now unabashedly proclaimed her enthusiasm for science and the sea as a tour guide through the then-current state of knowledge on all things oceanic. Her reverence for science and scientists is readily apparent and inspires the reader to learn more about both. The book sold very well, and enabled her to leave her position with Fish and Wildlife Service to pursue writing full-time.

Carson’s logical sequel to The Sea Around Us was The Edge of the Sea, published in 1955. This book, too, earned her critical acclaim, and was on the New York Times best-sellers list for 23 weeks. The woman for whom, “biology gave me something to write about” had settled her reputation.

She intended to continue writing in this vein, but became increasingly aware of damage to the environment through the indiscriminate and unregulated use of chemical pesticides. In her status as one of America’s prominent writers of scientific literature, Carson was kept in the loop on all things biological. Additionally, readers and fans would write to her telling of biological die-offs in their communities that seemed to be related to the spraying of insecticides. Carson became convinced that the war on bugs was killing birds as well. She began to research the literature and concluded that not only wildlife was endangered by pesticides but also the health and well-being of mankind. She learned of the carcinogenic effects of powerful organic chemicals, and felt someone needed to say something to draw attention to the dangers in which innocent and unknowing lives had been placed. She published Silent Spring in 1962, guaranteeing her a place among the most influential environmental writers of the 20th Century.

Silent Spring created such an uproar that Carson was now much in demand as a public speaker and an expert witness before Congress, testifying to the detrimental effects of indiscriminate use of pesticides. Her own health was failing—she had been diagnosed with cancer several years earlier—yet she continued to bear the torch, marching against the tide of opposition lobbied against her by the well financed chemical industry, which saw her book as a direct threat to its economic well-being. She would not live to see the full fruits of her labors.

She published an article in the July 1956 issue of Woman’s Home Companion called “Help Your Child to Wonder.” She had hoped to expand the article into a book that parents could use to help them instill scientific curiosity in their children. She was unable to complete the project, but others completed it for her, publishing picture-book treatments of the article in 1965 and again in 1998. The most recent version of The Sense of Wonder is a beautifully photographed interpretation of Carson’s essay, shot along the north Atlantic coast of which she writes. In addition, numerous books have been written about Rachel Carson, including Paul Brooks’, The House of Life: Rachel Carson at Work, published in 1972, and Carol Gartner’s biography, Rachel Carson, published in 1983.

Rachel Carson died of breast cancer and heart failure on April 14, 1964. She was 56 years old. Her funeral, held at National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., was attended by such environmental notables as Stewart Udall, then Secretary of the Interior. But her work did not end with her life. As we shall see in her legacy, she continued the fight against pesticides long after her death. Over the next two decades the newly created Environmental Protection Agency would fund the Rachel Carson Award for scientific merit, and President Jimmy Carter would posthumously bestow upon her the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Her avowed mission was to “shock the complacency” out of the public. She did. But she did something more: Rachel Carson taught us to explore our own place within the environment. She encouraged every one of us to understand the science that affects our daily lives, instilling a sense of wonder in an entire generation. Rachel Carson asked, “Who has known the ocean?”

As we explore Under the Sea Wind, we know it was she.


Categories: This Land -- Abbey, Carson, and Leopold

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