I always knew Rachel Carson’s name through her writing about pesticide use in her most famous book, Silent Spring, but I had no idea how prolific a writer she was until I read Sounder’s biography of her. On a Farther Shore offers a much more comprehensive look at Carson as a scientist, a writer, and an activist (or at least an advocate for the environment). Though she never viewed herself as much of an activist, it’s pretty clear from our perspective today that she was. Willing to go up against agribusiness and their lobbyists, she was at times a lone voice in the world of environmental protection. And because of her work and her tireless efforts to protect the natural world and to make people aware of toxins, we have the EPA today. Prior to her, there was no such thing, and likely we’d have far more toxicity in our lives than we currently have (which is already WAY more than we need or should be exposed to). On a radio program featuring Carson responding to the government’s pesticide program and the chemical industry’s investment in synthetic pesticide, the moderator said the real difference between Rachel Carson and her critics wasn’t so much an argument over pesticides as a duel between competing views of nature and our place in it. Fifty years later, we’re still having that argument: regulation vs. jobs; pro-environment vs. “progress.” I fear that Carson would look at where we are today and feel that we haven’t come very far. Yes, we have the EPA, and yes, we have the FDA, but we also have so little power over lobbyists for industries that care little about the environment and far more about their bottom line. Carson did not ignore the fact that the use of DDT made huge strides in wiping out malaria; but when it became an everyday product, pumped out of big trucks that sprayed it throughout neighborhoods, streets, backyards, etc. she wanted people to understand that it was not just affecting “pests” but everything living, including the people inhaling it.
This book is at times tedious in its details as Sounder attempts to capture so much about Carson’s earlier writing (books about the ocean and its shores as well as other aspects of the natural world) as well as her later, more activist work. He also gives us great details about her personal life, including her “friendship” with Dorothy Freeman, and Carson’s own struggle with breast cancer which ultimately killed her as it metastasized to multiple organs. And in the middle of all this, we learn that so much of her drive to educate people about the toxic effects of DDT stems from her earlier concerns about radiation poisoning from nuclear fallout that rained down on our country—and much of the world–during the 50’s when nuclear testing was at times an everyday occurrence. The milk that we drank came from the cows that were happily grazing on open fields laced with radioactive particles that covered the entire midwest as bombs exploded high over the desert and winds spread the fallout across the country.
I think it’s time to retreat to a book that doesn’t make me wonder how anyone in our country will escape cancer.