A Naturalist's Evolution

On A Farther Shoreby William Souder

Crown. 512p $30

The most crucial swing vote in the 2012 presidential election may well have been cast by the late Rachel Carson. Much was made, back in November, of the boost New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie may have given President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Less noticed, however, was the endorsement by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, motivated by what the billionaire mayor described as a looming global warming crisis.

Last year was the 50th anniversary of Carson’s landmark book Silent Spring, which famously chronicled the ecological havoc wrought by pesticides like DDT. But as William Souder notes in his insightful new biography, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, the acclaimed nature writer had also “been concerned...for years” about “a pattern of warmer temperatures and rising sea levels.”

In short, Carson was not only way ahead of her time; she may well have been ahead of our time as well. Rachel Carson was born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, “a hardscrabble town on the Allegheny River.” Neither of Carson’s parents finished high school, and the family’s financial situation was “always precarious,” Souder writes. Carson was initially an English major at Pennsylvania College for Women, which she had chosen “because it was a Christian college.” In an otherwise thorough and informative work, religion is a subject Souder could have pursued further. As Linda Lear noted in her 1997 biography, Carson’s grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. On a Farther Shore could have more deeply explored how religion may (or may not have) shaped Carson’s views of life and nature.

Souder is on firmer ground when he traces the evolution of the pre-Rachel Carson conservation movement, exploring such figures as John James Audubon (of whom Souder has written a biography) and Teddy Roosevelt. Souder also convincingly argues that Carson’s views were profoundly shaped by the cold war and the deadly impact of merely testing nuclear weapons, much less deploying them. Another key figure in Carson’s life was Professor Mary Scott Skinker, a mentor who set Carson’s mind afire. Their fruitful intellectual collaboration is all the more impressive since it took place less than a decade after women received the vote.

As early as the 1930s, while Carson was working at a marine lab in Massachusetts, the “great variety of life in the sea impressed upon her that every living thing belonged to a larger diverse community of life that was sustained by interdependence.” Ulti-mately, Souder makes it clear that Silent Spring was the product of Carson’s diligent work over several decades, the book she had been preparing her whole life to write. It is fascinating, then, that she initially had no interest in doing so, instead suggesting that—of all people—E. B. White of The New Yorker tackle the project.

Souder also reminds us that even if Carson had never written Silent Spring, she would still be remembered as an important writer. In June 1951 The New Yorker ran excerpts of her ocean book, The Sea Around Us. The book was a sensation, eventually winning a National Book Award. That Carson could do all of this as she was supporting her mother and several other family members is astonishing and enlightening, especially these days, as we continue to debate fiercely when, if and how women can “have it all.” Through judicious use of Carson’s correspondence, Souder paints a portrait of a fiercely determined woman, one who certainly defies stereotypes about hippy-dippy nature lovers.

Yes, Carson was poetic about the natural world. But she was also a shrewd businesswoman who “loathed compromise” and very much knew the value of a dollar. As for Carson’s relationship with Dorothy Freeman, her married best friend, it is perhaps inevitable that readers will come away from this book with more questions than answers. Souder describes this as “a transcendent, romantic friendship that existed in a realm above ordinary physical love and desire.” Still, it is never quite clear why Carson did not (even when younger) enter into a romantic relationship with anyone.

In the end, On a Farther Shore is at its best outlining Carson’s far-reaching legacy. Just as Abraham Lincoln is said to have referred once to Harriet Beecher Stowe as the “little woman” whose explosive book started the Civil War, so John F. Kennedy could not ignore “Miss Carson’s book” when Silent Spring was released in 1962. She was dismissed as a “peacenik” and Commie, and naturally the Federal Bureau of Investigation “launched an investigation of Carson.” Within a decade, however, we had Earth Day, the Environmental Protection Agency and a broad environmental movement, developments Carson unfortunately was not around to see. In one of history’s cruel ironies, Carson was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1960. She died in 1964, just two years after Silent Spring was published, at the age of 57.

Protests in certain circles notwithstanding, recent extreme weather events seem to have forced mainstream politicians to finally acknowledge climate change. But is Rachel Carson’s legacy really so secure? In the summer of 2012, Mayor Bloomberg himself announced that trucks would roll through the upper West Side of Manhattan spewing pesticides designed to kill mosquitoes bearing West Nile virus. Yet Carson, Souder writes, “had made it clear in Silent Spring that there was room for the intelligent application of pesticides in some situations.” Though fierce and determined, Carson was no ideologue. She remains ahead of her time—and ours.

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