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Talk about good timing: As stinging, dolphin-killing mutant microbes rampage off the Florida and California coasts and Pfiesteria piscicida turns thousands of local fish belly-up, George Washington University professor Linda Lear has just published Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, the first major biography of the groundbreaking environmentalist. Washingtonians ought to take special interest in the book, since it reminds us that much of Carson’s journey to world fame took place here.
Carson started work at 28 as an aquatic biologist for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in 1936. She lived in Silver Spring and settled into a familiar work-centered Washington life: She was an early and avid member of the D.C. Audubon Society and often met friends (like naturalist Roger Tory Peterson of field-guide fame) for birding walks along the C&O Canal. Rock Creek Park was another favorite haunt, says Lear, “since it was a natural habitat of the veery, her favorite bird.”
Carson also cannily drew on work research for a successful sideline in free-lance writing. She revised her preface to a government brochure for her first nationally published piece, “Undersea,” in the Atlantic. In May 1945, something more ominous crossed her desk: a draft of early test results on the pesticide DDT. Carson quickly sent a letter to Reader’s Digest proposing an article examining how pesticides like DDT might “upset the whole delicate balance of nature,” but the Digest, says Lear, found the subject “too alarming.”
It was 15 years later that another D.C. connection got Carson back on track: Old friend Irston Barnes, the local Audubon Society head, alerted her to the Department of Agriculture’s “total war” on the fire ant. The ant wasn’t a serious threat, and pesticides often made the problem worse, but government (and industry) scientists were determined to eradicate it chemically. Says Lear, “After [World War II], there were a lot of similarities between what scientists were doing with the atomic bomb and what they were doing with pesticides.” The attitude was, she says, “You just bomb the heck out of things you don’t want.” Carson grew passionate as she researched and wrote the story, and a single New Yorker article grew into a three-part series, and finally into the book Silent Spring.
Today, says Lear, Carson “certainly wouldn’t be surprised about what’s happening,” with Pfiesteria in her old back yard. “She was among the first to describe the seas as a great mixing bowl,” she says. “She wrote early on, ‘To dispose first and investigate later is an invitation to disaster.’”John DeVault