March 12, 2007

Comments by Moderator Linda Lear

"Rachel Who?"

I think it is time to ask a big question of our on-line readers. As Carson's biographer, I have been on the road now for nearly a decade, (Witness for Nature was published in 1997) and I have traveled extensively both in the U.S. and in the U.K. where it was also published.

In spite of the increasing interest in global warming and in the greening of our culture, and in spite of more and more people recognizing that something must be done, I am invariably confronted with the "Rachel Who?" question.

Granted, ours is no longer a print generation, and granted that Carson's life is as far away as the Franco-Prussian Wars to most people under 50, I am still stunned that her name is so unrecognized. I have my own multiple theories about this sad fact, but I'd be very interested in hearing what readers think; why it is, and what can be done about it, or maybe it's not important any more that a name be attached to a philosophy which is widely embraced as "good public policy."
To access a comment by Linda Lear on this topic click here and scroll down to end of page.


K. Talken said...

First, thank you for the opportunity to reengage on a person/topic that has so informed my life.

As for the "Who" question, my experience leads me to believe it revolves around our schooling. It was from a public school teacher in the late '70s - early 1980's that I learned of RC and her writings. When I, as a teenager, when to volunteer at a local state park, I read "The Edge of the Sea" as part of preparing to give interpretive programs. Later I read "Silent Spring" and was blown away.

The introduction in school with a chance to apply her writings in a job solidified RC in my psyche.

So, why don't more folks know of RC and/or her writings? Perhaps our teachers are not as familiar with her work.

On another line, perhaps her strong writing is harder for us to take today. It does seem that we like our news and views sugared a bit. And if not Saccharinized, then western society needs news sensationalized to capture our attention. From that sense, perhaps a vehicle to help carry her message to the younger generations is needed.

Bill Fisk said...

I'm not sure that even sensationalized is the proper term. It seems to me that most people do not want news that they have to do something about. They want something on Pop diva's who shave their heads or are having a baby by their other lover. Education is following the same line by not asking any hard questions and heaven forbid asking for independent thinking. Their religious guru will tell them what to think.

Kay McLeod said...

I, too, have been appalled to have the response to mentioning Rachel Carson, "Who is that?" One time I thought the person was kidding me and it took a few seconds to realize that they really had never heard of her.

I have gathered heroes my entire life and Rachel Carson has been one for a long, long time.

I host a 'Rachel Carson Day' each semester in my high school Earth/Environmental classes, so that reaches about 180 students each year. When I worked at an Earth Science Museum, I did programs on Earth Day and incorporated Rachel Carson into that. So, I suppose that individually we do what we can.

Ideally, PBS or some other national entity could produce a documentary highlighting her life and contributions and how they relate to our present day environmental crises.

Distribution of the video that I use in my classroom, the PBS video: The American Experience, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, might be one action that would help. There is an organization, NOT THE NSTA(who refused to do it) that IS distributing "Inconvenient Truth" to high school teachers all over the United those types of organizations with big messages AND follow through action do exist.... So, perhaps linking it to that movement or through those types of environmental groups might be the best route.

Ellie Goldberg for Healthy Kids said...

Good morning, Linda! For the past couple of years, I have been wearing a button that says "Rachel Carson Was Right." It is distributed by the Women's Community Cancer Project, Cambridge, MA. It surprises and saddens me that nine out of ten people ask me, Who is Rachel Carson? And that question even comes from the environmental activists and legislators that I encounter in my environmental advocacy work. I believe that publicizing all the events and activities going on this year will introduce Rachel and her values to a new generation, and inspire everyone to learn more. I've started a webblog and 'universal' calendar to highlight Carson's milestones, environmental resources and milestones, and to keep track of Carson-related events and celebrations going on around the country. I hope it will spur others to create many more.

M. Montserrat said...

My experience has been a little different. I seem to find that most people have heard of Rachel Carson but don’t know much about her. These people might know that she wrote Silent Spring, and that she had something to do with banning DDT, but few have read any of her books. I would say many people are aware that she’s considered somewhat of a “celebrity” in the science field and that there is a controversy associated with her book “Silent Spring” which “stirred things up” when it came out.

I remember hearing about “Silent Spring” in 1962, when it first came out. Literally everyone was talking about it. The buzz around it was stunning – it was as if the whole country gasped. And though all the talk made me curious, I wasn’t curious enough to read the book myself. I contented myself with hearing what others who had read the book had to say about it. As a mother with five young children then, the subject was too far removed from my daily concerns to grasp.

Now, 45 years later, at a very different stage in my life, the subject matter of Silent Spring has come to encompass not only my daily concerns but my activities as well. The path I traveled through life has led me to a career in environmental conservation, and the name of Rachel Carson has come up many times along the way, first as an influence, then as an inspiration, and finally as a role model.

Which brings me to one of your questions, Linda: Is it important for a name to be attached to a philosophy… my answer is yes, because it is the -person- with whom we can identify; and it is through the -person- that we can connect the components of the philosophy to our own lives. We need real-life heroes, not just ideas.

pmcg said...
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pmcg said...


It's not too surprising to me that Rachel Carson's work is not as known these days as it was in her day. She wrote in a different era and while important and astounding for the time, her work doesn't have the 'now' context that would make her as relevant as she could be if she were still writing about the issues of our times.

Perhaps it is because we have reached such a critical stage in the problems that Rachel so prophetically discussed that people such as Rachel Carson aren't paid attention to.

We are so concerned (and rightfully so imo) with what is happening now that we don't have the time to explore how we got here. The pressure is on. Many of us feel it is already too late. "We could have saved [the Earth] but we were too damned cheap," Kurt Vonnegut has said.

Never the less, it is encouraging that people like Al Gore are addressing some of the issues that need to be discussed. And people ARE listening and responding. But there is a broader political context (that of the current administration) that makes it hard to accomplish anything. Our political system is now so corrupt and dollar/power-oriented that we need someone today as informed and talented as Rachel Carson was and who is oriented to our present culture and technologies to make a difference.

Any takers?

Peter McGovern

julie dunlap said...

I'm intrigued by Peter McGovern's comment, which I take to be asking if there are any heirs to Rachel Carson writing now. Bill McKibben comes to mind as an early voice alerting us to climate change (The End of Nature). His book was even originally serialized, like Silent Spring, in the New Yorker.

But to me, McKibben's writing doesn't have the scientific weight of Silent Spring. He often speaks from a personal perspective, even heart-on-his-sleeve, and never claims to be a scientist.

Jared Diamond is another candidate, especially through his book Collapse. Millions have read it, learning about the many past civilizations that have collapsed essentiallly due to hubris similar to that which we're displaying. But still. Collapse hasn't seemed to generate much buzz, at least not for very long.

I'd like to hear about other books or writers that could carry forward Carson's legacy of scientifically-backed social change.

s.w. said...

Apparently this is a very timely topic. I just read a review in amNewYork titled “A Rare Female of the Species.” The reviewer begins by asking this question: Who is the next Rachel Carson?

While I think it's a good question to ask ourselves, it's the kind of question that might not lead us to its intended answer. It’s almost as if comparing other writers to Rachel Carson leads to revealing more about Rachel Carson’s exceptional talent than it goes toward identifying her “successor.” From another perspective, it may be that the existing potential “heirs” have not yet fully revealed themselves. It may require an element of retrospect to be able to tell who they really are in relation to their times. One of the things that makes Rachel Carson great is that she was true to her own person and had the courage to let the world see what she believed in.

If you’d like to read the review, it’s at:,0,5111984.story?coll=ny-bookreview-headlines

Anonymous said...

We as a society tend to have a short memory span. One must remember that Rachel Carson was a very private person. She felt that her writings would speak for themselves. Many of her colleagues were reluctant to divulge information about Carson for fear of breaching her wish for privacy. History will remember Carson as the author of Silent Spring. It was not until Linda Lear's superb biography of Carson that we learned of the details, both ordinary and extraordinary, of Carson's remarkable life. Previous works treat Carson as a brief, tragic figure. Perhaps the Carson centennial will be the opportunity to educate and enlight the general public of the timelessness of Carson's writings, as well as her other passions: her reverence for life, her respect for the dynamic interrelationships of life, and her advocacy of wilderness areas.
We should devote time to read Witness for Nature. I would be interested to read other's comments on the many facets of Carson's life that Dr. Lear addresses in this definitive biography. Thank you, Linda, for writing such a stellar book!

stephen williams said...

Re the "Who" question, I heard on public radio last week the idea of establishing as a national holiday for Rachel Carson.

It is probably no accident that when Al Gore was VP of USA, he had a picute of Rachel Carson in his office.

julie dunlap said...

One of many centennial events in honor of Carson will be this Thursday, March 22, 7:00 pm at the National Archives. As part of the DC Environmental Film Festival, there will be a showing of a 1963 documentary, The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson. The film will be introduced by Carson's great-nephew, Roger Christie.

For more information about that film and many others, check the website, Film Festival . Maybe I'll see you there!

NCTC Librarian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Linda Lear said...

I spent a good hour trying to post something that addressed these good responses to my "Rachel Who?" question. Somehow my technological illiteracy got the better of it all, and it was lost to eternity. But let me try to resonstruct a thought becasue these postings are so special.
We do live in a different time. We live in a time of celebrity and Carson was anything but a celebrity in the sense we recognize that identity now, as one commentator correctly put it.
I don't think it matters if there is a "rachel carson" for the first half of the 21st century because her body of work stands, and she would be the first to say that her message was not dependant upon one person's articulation, but on the hundred's of thousands of activists who took up the cause and became, just that, activists for nature. I would hope that the question of who is the next "RC" would disappear in favour of the question she would prefer, "how many of us care to insist that before we put something out in nature that we know the consequences."

There may be a national holiday, there already are gov't buildings and bridges and colleges, and all manner of paths, trails and markers named after Rachel Carson. These are wonderful testimonials and memorials to her work and to her beautiful writing that has so inspired us.

But I believe that after Al Gore's 'Inconvenient Truth" has ceased to be "in the news" and after the next environmental debacle is upon our planet, that it is the citizen activism that was her hope and is her true legacy. It will not go away, and it will grow, after celebrity, after the news commentators, and when each of us continues to care about our planet and our children's children.
Linda Lear (who hopes this comment won't vanish)

Anonymous said...

In my experience as a student I have come to recognize a sad paradox: english teachers are afraid of science and science teachers are afraid of literature. In an age where everything comes down to the almighty standardized test, I'm not surprised that my mother read "Silent Spring" in her english class in the 60's while I was forced to read some of the most appalling examples of American literature imaginable. The justification was covering the books most likely to appear on an AP test. I neither read about nature in an english class nor read beyond a textbook in a science class until late in my undergraduate coursework simply because the appreciative audience for books like "Silent Spring" and "Sand County Almanac" are devoted but confined. Getting the message and value of these works out to a broader range of students (and teachers) is the only way to combat this.

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