A half-century after her groundbreaking expose, Rachel Carson’s legacy lives on in Shepherdstown
SHEPHERDSTOWN – For Mark Madison, it’s not the antique mounted polar bears, elephant tusks, stuffed tigers, birds or other eye-catching items stored in the archives at the National Conservation Training Center that hold the most appeal.
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Madison, the historian in charge of the collection house outside of Shepherdstown at the unofficial home of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is particularly fond of some very unassuming objects: a magnifying glass, a book, a collection of illustrations, even a typewriter. “It’s my favorite part of the archives,” Madison said. “I always pull it out.”
Madison is fond of these relics because they all belonged to the late Rachel Carson, the groundbreaking biologist and author of “Silent Spring,” the landmark 1962 book credited with launching the modern environmental movement.
Carson was the first female biologist to work for the predecessor of the Fish and Wildlife Service, starting during the Great Depression when she was fresh out of college.
She spent 16 years there as writer and editor before turning her attention to writing books. Her first three books focus on marine biology while “Silent Spring” awakened the public to the dangers of DDT and other pesticides.
“Silent Spring” – and the ferocious backlash from the pesticide industry – quickly made Carson a household name – and a role model, both for young girls mulling careers in science and for everyday folks concerned about the environment. She encouraged the creation of “citizen brigades” to demand the truth about manmade chemicals being introducing into the natural world.
“She really opened up the world to the idea of what we broadly call toxins today,” Madison said.
Carson’s book put together for readers the full story behind others’ research and clearly spelled out how DDT and other pesticides were not only killing mosquitoes and other pests as intended but upon making their way up the food chain were hurting birds and fish – and could eventually sicken children, Carson contended.
“Our heedless and destructive acts enter into the vast cycles of the earth and in time return to bring hazard to ourselves,” she told a Congressional subcommittee in 1963.
The book also made Carson the FWS’s most famous alum. For the Fish and Wildlife Service, an agency charged with the mission of conserving, protecting and enhancing fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats, embracing Carson’s work is completely, well, natural.
In the NCTC display, a larger-than-life reproduction of a New Yorker cartoon gives a voice to the impact pact of “Silent Spring,” with a character saying: “Don’t give me anything Rachel Carson wouldn’t buy.”
Search for Carson or her book online and even today it’s plain to see that her work hasn’t been forgotten. Most recently, on the anniversary of Carson’s birth in 2007 and the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication last year, museum exhibits, special publications and magazines all featured Carson and her accomplishments.
She’s also consistently described as a powerful writer.
In re-reading Carson, Joshua Rothman noted in a 2007 New Yorker article “what stands out is how beautiful the writing is. Carson combined a scientist’s ability to see with a novelist’s ability to imagine. She excelled at describing the very large and the very small; she found ways to reveal the drama inherent in nature, while at the same time allowing the natural world to retain its fundamental strangeness.”
Madison points out that landmark legislation from the 1970s including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act – even the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency – all can be linked to the impact of “Silent Spring,” Carson’s final work before her death of breast cancer in the spring of 1964.
“She did a lot with one book,” Madison said.
Modern woes such as bee die-offs, intersexed fish and water pollution summon to mind Carson’s predictions. “She called it 50 years ago,” Madison said.
In a special edition of the Fish & Wildlife News published several years ago, employees from different sectors of the organization contributed essays outlining the importance of Carson’s work in their lives and careers.
In his, Madison observed: “There may be no better role model for federal conservationists than Rachel Carson.”
With another 50th anniversary looming next spring – the Pennsylvania native passed away at age 56 on April 14, 1964 – Madison, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the NCTC will continue to carry on her legacy.
“We try to remember her today,” Madison said, “both in our mission and in our buildings.”