In 1858, the Victorian poet and critic Edmund Gosse was a 9-year-old child. That spring and summer, he and his father spent their days collecting marine specimens in the tidal pools on the Cornwall seashore. Of this time and place, Gosse later wrote:
The rocks between tide and tide were submarine gardens of a beauty that seemed often to be fabulous, and was positively delusive, since, if we delicately lifted the weed-curtains of a windless pool, though we might for a moment see its sides and floor paved with living blossoms, ivory-white, rosy-red, orange and amethyst, yet all that panoply would melt away, furled into the hollow rock, if we so much as dropped a pebble in to disturb the magic dream….
All this is long over, and done with. The ring of living beauty drawn about our shores was a very thin and fragile one. It had existed all those centuries solely in consequence of the indifference, the blissful ignorance of man. These rock-basins…filled with still water almost as pellucid as the upper air itself, thronged with beautiful sensitive forms of life,—they exist no longer…. An army of “collectors” has passed over them, and ravaged every corner of them. The fairy paradise has been violated, the exquisite product of centuries of natural selection has been crushed…. No one will see again on the shore of England what I saw in my early childhood.
These words were written in 1907. Half a century later, the American marine biologist and nature writer Rachel Carson was saying much the same thing about the even further desecration of nature, for which she too held the human race (in the twentieth century, more than in any other) responsible. Now, another half-century on, we read the fiftieth-anniversary edition of Silent Spring, Carson’s great brief for nature’s prosecution of the human species, and are sobered anew. Thinking about what has and has not been done in recognition of her plea that human beings realize that all species on earth are dependent on one another to preserve the environment in which they will either live or perish together, it still seems to me that our fate will be the latter.
What Carson saw in the late 1950s was that on a planet threatened by the reckless use of pesticides, and equally imperiled by the radioactive fallout from recurrent nuclear bomb tests, the natural world was literally under siege—and we along with it. As William Souder, her latest biographer, tells us, Carson intuited that “pesticides and radiation [were] capable of damaging the genetic material that guides the machinery of living cells and provides the blueprint for each succeeding generation.” These were “the inevitable and potentially lethal developments of the modern age, each one a consequence, as she put it bluntly in Silent Spring, of ‘the impetuous and heedless pace of man rather than the deliberate pace of nature.’”
A dramatic world debate erupted upon the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, with many in government and industry shaking a collective fist at Carson, the melodramatic alarmist, and many more among the press and general public lionizing Carson, the selfless whistleblower. From that day to this, her name arouses anger and frustration alike among those who still oppose her insistence that we pull back severely on the use of pesticides, as well as those who insist, If we don’t do as she says, the earth is doomed. Whatever one’s position, there is no denying that Silent Spring has become—and will remain—one of the most influential books of the twentieth century.