Rachel Carson's sea books gave a prescient warning about the fragility of oceans, and command attention along with her celebrated "Silent Spring," New Yorker writer and Harvard history professor Jill Lepore says in last week's issue of the magazine.
After an uncharacteristically muddled lead paragraph, Lepore presents a vivid portrait of Carson. In heartbreaking contrast with today's anti-science Congress and proliferation of frivolous, self-absorbed books, Carson's "Silent Spring" led to the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. It also resulted in the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency. It's hard to imagine a book bringing such beneficial change today.
While "Silent Spring" remains a classic, Lepore calls for renewed attention to Carson's earlier books, "Under the Sea Wind," and "The Sea Around Us." As with "Silent Spring," the latter was published as a multipart series in William Shawn's New Yorker.
Lepore mourns that Carson's sea writings are not included in a new Library of America collection, "Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment," edited by Sandra Steingraber.
Blasting Steingraber for rejecting the sea books because they, unlike "Silent Spring's" campaign against the pesticide DDT, "call for no particular action," Lepore says, "political persuasion is a strange measure of the worth of a piece of writing whose force lies in knowledge and wonder."
As 87,000 pounds of plastic waste float in the Pacific, consumed by fish and sea turtles, Carson's words about the oceans' beauty give their own effective protest. Lepore says that Carson, before she died of cancer after battling the chemical industry over its devastation of nature with DDT, planned to explore climate change and rising sea levels.
Here are some of Carson's words about her wonder at the sea, as cited by Lepore.
"The shore is an ancient world."
"Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earthbound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon; and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere."
"The lobster feels his way with nimble wariness through the perpetual twilight."