May 27, 2007

Rachel Carson Turns 100 Today

Larry Schweiger, president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, attended and made remarks at the Rachel Carson birthday celebration at the Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania on May 27. He later sent the following special essay entitled "Rachel Carson Turns 100 Today." See also Larry's blog at

Greetings from Springdale, Pennsylvania

Please join us to celebrate Rachel Carson's 100th birthday as we report from these green green hills of Pennsylvania. We are LIVE at her birthplace today to collect thoughts and remembrances from celebration attendees and guest speakers as the program continues from 12:30-5:00 PM EDT.

As folks at this event sit down to pay tribute with short comments and homilies you too can post comments. Click comments below to join the list of celebrants as we honor a life that continues to have a huge impact on environmental health, outreach, and education and whose exquisite poetic language deepens our understanding both of our responsibilities and also our appreciation of beauty for its own sake. Thank you Rachel!

May 24, 2007

Comments by Moderator Deanne Urmy

Thanks to John Elder and to Bob Pyle for their lively moderators' comments, and to everyone else for a really engaged conversation in recent weeks. I've spent some time, during the past month or so, with Rachel Carson much on my mind, looking through Houghton Mifflin's Rachel Carson archives. [Editor's Note: Deanne is Senior Executive Editor at Houghton Mifflin] The typed memoranda from publicists and hand-picked lists of newspaper writers for "luncheons" for "Miss Carson" in the publicity files for Silent Spring are a reminder that Rachel Carson fomented her entire revolution during a very--very--different era.

But some things don't change.

In the Houghton Mifflin publicity archives I found the infamous 9/28/62 Time magazine review of Silent Spring: "Scientists, physicians, and other technically informed people will also be shocked by Silent Spring. . . . They will recognize Miss Carson's skill in building her frightening case; but they consider that case unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic. Many of the scary generalizations--and there are lots of them--are patently unsound. 'It is not possible,' says Miss Carson, 'to add pesticides to water anywhere without threatening the purity of water everywhere.' It takes only a moment of reflection to show that this is nonsense. Again she says: 'Each insecticide is used for the simple reason that it is a deadly poison. It therefore poisons all life with which it comes in contact.' Any housewife who has sprayed flies with a bug bomb and managed to survive without poisoning should spot at least part of the error in that statement."

My question: Why is passion, and/or passionate prose, when it comes to making an environmental argument, so often grounds for attack?

Go to May Reading Schedule

Stay tuned! Sunday, May 27 LIVE Birthday Blogging from the Rachel Carson Homestead in Springdale, Pennsylvania

May 21, 2007

Remarks by Guest Moderator Robert Michael Pyle

John, I thought yours was the strongest, most interesting essay in the book, Courage for the Earth. I am proud to be in there with it.

I am currently at the National Conservation Training Center (NCTC) in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, to address the 9th annual reunion of Fish & Wildlife Service retirees. There was a ceremony today in honor of Rachel at the Patuxent Research Refuge, and it is just a week until her 100th birthday on May 27.

I am staying in the Rachel Carson Lodge at NCTC, and this afternoon I got to handle and peer through Rachel's magnifying glass, in the archive, thanks to FWS historian Mark Madison. That gave me chills and tingles. I have recently come from the banquet. I sat on the floor of the museum upstairs and watched the film about Rachel Carson that plays continuously in the display about her, drinking Beringer Merlot that I swiped from the banquet hall. Tomorrow I will bird around the voluptuous NCTC grounds all day, enveloping myself among the wood thrushes, cardinals, and others that, thanks to Rachel, make this anything but a silent spring.

Last week I attended a meeting of my local Grange in my little village of Gray's River, Washington. Much of the talk was about an effort to encourage small, organic farmers to grow local foods and sell them at the Wahkiakum County Farmers' Market. Another subject was our effort to reduce or eliminate the spraying of herbicides along the roadsides of our county. And then I learned that one member had prevailed (in my absence) to have the Grange Hall bug-bombed for flies that in any case were about to disperse after their hibernal period.The irony seemed lost on some members. (This brought to mind my battle to prevent the insecticidal extermination of box elder bugs in the English Dept. at Utah State University when I was teaching environmental writing there in 2002, in the spring, just before their dispersal; two members of that department died of pancreatic cancer last year.) Then last week I watched as helicopters coursed back and forth over a clear-cut across the valley from my SW Washington home, spraying aerial herbicides to prevent regrowth of shrubs that might compete with the short-rotation pulp plantation of conifers; meanwhile obliterating the understory and herbal diversity of the forest floor. The eagles, peregrines, pelicans, and song thrushes are back, thanks largely to Saint Rachel. But how far have we actually come, in terms of egregious and cavalier broadcast of biocides in our environs? Backwards, I fear. Where are you today, Rachel?

Bob Pyle

See another Pyle comment: click here

May 9, 2007

Moderator John Elder's Comment for Week of May 8

Carson as Writer--Inspiration and Influence

Thanks to everyone for last week's thoughtful comments about the relationship between Rachel Carson's historical moment and ours. There was a general sense that certain basic cultural and political conflicts remain the same today as in her lifetime. But some contributors also suggest that, in the debate over contemporary challenges like climate change, many people now are in fact less deferential toward the insights of science. Erroneous, and ideologically based, "facts" can certainly take on a life of their own in the era of the world-wide web and the Internet. One conclusion to draw might be that Carson's example of extreme clarity, careful documentation, and almost infinite patience will be more important than ever as we seek to educate policy-makers and the public about pressing scientific realities.

We are now starting a second set of readings from Courage for the Earth, in which our emphasis is on the literary context and influence of Rachel Carson's writing. Jim Lynch's excerpt comes from his acclaimed novel in which the young protagonist is inspired by her work; it is complemented by Lynch's commentary on his own writing. Sandra Steingraber responds to Carson in the form of a moving memoir about her father. My piece in this little cluster is an attempt to explore the relationship between Carson's scientific insights and the legacy of Romantic poetry which so inspired her. How, and to what effect, do you find literature and science to be interwoven in Rachel Carson's writing? When looking at our own environmental challenges, do you find literature an important part of the public dialogue that will guide our choices? How do other arts like painting, film, and television contribute?

When first talking with Anne Roy about helping to moderate this week I let her know that I would be traveling abroad to a conference next week. So Deanne Urmy and Anne will be helping to frame the following topics. But I will plan to rejoin this dialogue at the end of the present week and, if possible, to check in while traveling in the latter part of May.

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May 1, 2007

John Elder's Invitation for Week of May 1

Discussions of the controversy surrounding Silent Spring invariably describe the scathing, and often startlingly personal, criticism leveled at Carson. Taking the various quotations, accounts, and personal experiences related in this week's readings as our examples, it's worth speculating about why the response to her book was often so fiery. To what extent did it constitute a backlash by special interests? What do you make of the participation of academic researchers in the attacks on her book? Beyond such individual and defensive reactions, do you believe that Carson's ecological perspective also threatened prevailing scientific and economic worldviews in a more general way? Have our cultural values changed significantly since that time, or are the same conflicting values still being fought over?

Delving into the negative and positive reactions to Silent Spring also presents us with an opportunity to reconstruct the psychology of the first two decades following World War II. Why did that era give rise to the particular, reckless applications of science which she denounced? Have we moved beyond such carelessness today or does it just take different forms? If we incline toward the latter judgment it may also be good to ask what we can learn from Carson's argument, tone, and strategies as we engage with the debates of our own time.

The participants in this blog represent an unusually wide range of scientific, governmental, and academic expertise. Deanne and I look forward to your take on the importance and reception of Silent Spring. Please feel free to be anecdotal and speculative in your own responses. Sometimes a "half-idea" is the most useful prompt for a lively discussion.

Go to May Reading Schedule

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