In 1935, after earning a Master’s degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University, Rachel Carson began working at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (known then as the Bureau of Fisheries). Her duties in the publication department — creating informational materials — required both scientific and writing skills. From 1949 to 1952, she was editor-in-chief, holding an uncommon position of responsibility for a woman of that time.
Her first book, Under the Sea-Wind, was published in 1941 and described sea creatures, birds, and ecosystems. Her second work, The Sea Around Us, published ten years later, won the National Book Award and became a bestseller. It established Carson as a beloved nature writer. Her lyrical prose had the ability to make her readers care for her subject as much as she did. The success of The Sea Around Us gave Carson the financial stability to leave the Fish and Wildlife Service and focus on writing full-time. Her next book, The Edge of the Sea, came out in 1955. It also sold well and won awards, making Carson a nationally recognized expert.
When she was contacted by a friend in Massachusetts to investigate a decline in the bird population, Carson began her influential work, Silent Spring. The book begins with “A Fable for Tomorrow,” describing a world absent of birds and other wildlife due to pesticide poisoning. With careful research and persuasive language, Carson explained the dangers of using DDT and other pesticides. Chemical companies were outraged by Carson’s criticism, but the public, including President Kennedy, immediately responded to her warnings. A congressional committee on environmental hazards was formed in 1963, at which Carson testified.
Carson died of breast cancer in 1964. She did not live to see the banning of DDT, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972, or other policy changes inspired by her passionate call to protect rather than dominate nature. But the legacy of her book, Silent Spring, lived on long after her death. It made Americans aware of the need to protect nature and helped start the environmental movement.
Fable of a Silent Spring
A single bird
can fill a backyard or a bedroom
with somersaulting trills,
serenade an awestruck ear at dawn.
Imagine the month of April,
absent of sound, a spring without
nests or newborns mewing.
It was a fable for tomorrow,
Rachel Carson warned
when she wrote Silent Spring—
years before the EPA
or Clean Water Act—
before we gave much thought
to poisons sprayed from airplanes,
spewed from trucks.
Just a fable . . . .
But far more frightening
than the evil queen in Sleeping Beauty
or Red Riding Hood’s wolf.