BOOK: On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson

I really enjoyed reading this new biography of Rachel Carson earlier this year. Souder touches on Carson’s evolutionary themes in some of her writing, as well as describing her work on an article in 1956, “Help Your Child to Wonder,” which later became the book, The Sense of Wonder which can be seen as a decades-prior-to-Last Child in the Woods effort to reconnect children to nature. I highly recommend Souder’s biography to anyone interested in nature and the environment, the history of science, or a well-told story about a significant figure of the twentieth century.

William Souder, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 2012), 512 pp.

She loved the ocean and wrote three books about its mysteries, including the international bestseller The Sea Around Us. But it was with her fourth book, Silent Spring, that this unassuming biologist transformed our relationship with the natural world.

Rachel Carson began work on Silent Spring in the late 1950s, when a dizzying array of synthetic pesticides had come into use. Leading this chemical onslaught was the insecticide DDT, whose inventor had won a Nobel Prize for its discovery. Effective against crop pests as well as insects that transmitted human diseases such as typhus and malaria, DDT had at first appeared safe. But as its use expanded, alarming reports surfaced of collateral damage to fish, birds, and other wildlife. Silent Spring was a chilling indictment of DDT and its effects, which were lasting, widespread, and lethal.

Published in 1962, Silent Spring shocked the public and forced the government to take action-despite a withering attack on Carson from the chemicals industry. The book awakened the world to the heedless contamination of the environment and eventually led to the establishment of the EPA and to the banning of DDT and a host of related pesticides. By drawing frightening parallels between dangerous chemicals and the then-pervasive fallout from nuclear testing, Carson opened a fault line between the gentle ideal of conservation and the more urgent new concept of environmentalism.

Elegantly written and meticulously researched, On a Farther Shore reveals a shy yet passionate woman more at home in the natural world than in the literary one that embraced her. William Souder also writes sensitively of Carson’s romantic friendship with Dorothy Freeman, and of her death from cancer in 1964. This extraordinary new biography captures the essence of one of the great reformers of the twentieth century.

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L I N K S

When was the last time I put up a photo of the whole family?

Links:

History of geology: Darwin’s rat: a first geological view on mammalian evolutionGeology History in Caricatures: Exploring and Educating Geohistory

Panda’s Thumb: Don’t Make a Monkey out of Me

Why Evolution Is True: The late Ernst Mayr speaks

BBC: Botanist Sandy Knapp considers 19th-century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s surprisingly radical views about our relationship with nature (audio)

The Renaissance Mathematicus: Where the pictures came from

Smithsonian: America’s True History of Religious Tolerance

Philadelphia Inquirer: Uncovering Edgar Allan Poe – the science buff

The Quackometer: The Curious Case of Oxford University Press, Homeopathy and Charles Darwin

Whewell’s Ghost: Representing astronomers: absent-minded or drunk?

Skulls in the Stars: Benjamin Franklin shocks the world! (1752)

A thought…

Man has grown fond of late of contemplating almost with submerged pride his ancestral descent from what he regards as a savage, carnivorous ape; this his later history would imply a grain, if not several grains, of truth. What is less flattering and less appetizing perhaps is his more genuine resemblance to that group of miniute organisms known as slime molds. They can be seen devouring spoiled bread or moving in unsightly blotches over spoiled oranges – fruit that in distant eye-narrowed perspective might be mistaken for diseased planets – rotten fruit circling in the plague -infected winds of the cosmic orchard.

Loren Eiseley, c. 1970, in The Lost Notebooks of Loren Eiseley, edited by Kenneth Heuer (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1987), p. 200

Darwin & Yellowstone

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Historian Paul Schullery‘s talk at a November 2009 science agenda workshop in Yellowstone National Park focused on climate change, land use change, and invasive species. As I scrolled through the PDF of the talk transcript online (in the latest issue of Yellowstone Science, where I published a piece on religious language and YNP in 2008), to my surprise I saw an image of Darwin. Here’s where Schullery relates Darwin to Yellowstone history:

Those of you who saw Ken Burns’ big film on the national parks in September must have noticed the unusual extent to which scientists were even cast as heroes. My own favorite example of such scientific advocacy made it into the film. It was National Park Service biologist George Melendez Wright’s eloquent recommendation, in 1933, “that the rare predators shall be considered special charges of the national parks in proportion that they are persecuted everywhere else.” And only a few years later, Aldo Leopold himself recommended the restoration of wolves to Yellowstone. Anyone who knows much about the history of land management in the American West will agree that science, at least wildlife science, has rarely gotten more socially subversive than these statements by Wright and Leopold.

But rather than quoting a bunch more historic scientists, I think you only need to hear from one—one that you may have never heard of, a geologist named Theodore Comstock. Comstock visited and studied the park at its beginning, in 1873, with the Jones Expedition, and published several foresightful papers that reached far beyond his specialty. We ought to name a mountain or a microbrewery or something for this guy.

Remember that Comstock worked and wrote in the fierce propwash of the Darwinian revolution. We can barely imagine the mood of his times. The publication of both On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man were current events to him, and his awareness of their sudden impact on science and society is reflected in this plea for the preservation of Yellowstone’s authentic wildness—a plea so modern that one of us might say it at this meeting.

Momentous questions are now agitating the scientific world, calling for experiment and observation which are daily becoming less possible, owing in a great measure to the obliterating influence of modern civilization. Thus it would almost seem that the present difficulties in the way of the solution of many questions, bearing upon the process of natural selection, will soon become insurmountable if some means are not employed to render more practicable the study of animals in a state of nature.

Of course Yellowstone provided those means, and Comstock, perhaps more fully than Hayden or any of the other early scientific pioneers of the region, articulated the case for the park as an unparallelled and perpetual opportunity to learn about wild nature.

Too bad I hadn’t come across this connection while I was an intern there. You can read the rest of Schullery’s talk here, and why not peruse more of Yellowstone Science (index), it’s freely accessible!

ARTICLE: Introducing Students to Darwin via the Voyage of HMS Beagle

From the most recent The American Biology Teacher [ 72, 5 (2010): 281-286]:

Introducing Students to Darwin via the Voyage of HMS Beagle

Janice C. Swab

ABSTRACT I use the diary that Darwin wrote during the voyage of HMS Beagle and recent images of a few of the places he visited to illustrate some comparisons between Darwin’s world and ours. For today’s students, increasingly committed to environmental issues, this may be an especially promising way to introduce Darwin.

A thought for Earth Day

A thought for Earth Day:

When we behold a wide, turf-covered expanse, we should remember that its smoothness, on which so much of its beauty depends, is mainly due to all the inequalities having been slowly levelled by worms. It is a marvellous reflection that the whole of the superficial mould over any such expanse has passed, and will again pass, every few years through the bodies of worms. The plough is one of the most ancient and most valuable of mans inventions; but long before he existed the land was in fact regularly ploughed, and still continues to be thus ploughed by earth-worms.



Charles Darwin, The formation of vegetable mould, through the action of worms, with observations on their habits (1881)

I wrote before about my son:

He will learn about evolution and how humans are not the epitomy of creation but just one (and yes we are unique, but so are all other organisms) animal in the tree of life. This is not indoctrinating a young mind, as some might suggest. Rather, it is teaching a young mind about his place in a world that could get along just fine without him. Earth is not ours for the taking, but ours for the caring.

Patrick in May 2008:

Patrick_worm

Worms, which to Darwin "have played a more important part in the history of the world than most persons would at first suppose"