Have you ever planned something, only to have things turn out completely different in real life? Sometimes, you spend hours, days, or even weeks planning something– maybe a birthday party, a Halloween costume, or a trip– only to have things change at the last minute. Sometimes, this change is disappointing and frustrating. Other times, you realize there’s an even better way of doing things. Either way, we all have to make changes to our plans sometimes, and no one knew this better than the subject of today’s podcast: Rachel Carson. Rachel made many plans in her life, and many of them changed unexpectedly, for better and for worse. But she learned how to make the best of these changes, staying true to herself and, in the end, making the world a better place too.
Rachel’s parents had moved to their land near the Allegheny River, in Springdale Pennsylvania with the intention of selling it off piece by piece. This was one of the first plans Rachel witnessed unraveling. Her father, Robert, wasn’t able to sell many plots, and the family struggled to make ends meet on his salary as an insurance salesman. But, it did leave the land open for other uses–some of which would have a bigger, more important impact than money ever could have.
The Allegheny River valley was a perfect place for a child to go exploring: rolling hills and lush forests turn from vibrant green in the summer to yellow, orange, and red in the fall, cut through with the wide, winding Allegheny River. And Rachel, Robert’s youngest child by far, was just the child to discover its natural wonders. Being the youngest in her family came with its advantages though. While her older brother, Robert, and sister, Marian, were at school, Rachel’s mother, Maria, took her on walks around the property.
Maria was curious and intelligent. As a young woman, she had been a schoolteacher and taught piano lessons. Like many women in the late 1800s, she gave up her job when she got married, but she kept her sense of wonder about nature. She and Rachel would ramble around their land for hours. Maria would teach Rachel about the different kinds of birds. Naturally enough, Rachel caught her mother’s love of nature. She felt connected to every bird, animal, and bug, and would give each one she spotted its own special name.
Rachel also loved books, especially stories about the sea. Even though she’d never seen it, she was drawn to the descriptions of its power, wildness, and majesty. She decided she wanted to be a writer when she grew up, and she didn’t wait to get started! She began to write, sending her stories to magazines when she was ten years old. Two of her stories won prizes, and were printed in a magazine!
But as Rachel grew up, she started to notice changes in her town and the surrounding area. And to Rachel’s way of looking at things, these were not good changes. A glue factory opened nearby, and the air was filled with the terrible fumes it let off. Two power stations were built in town. The water in the Allegheny river became polluted. Rachel mourned the loss of the pristine natural beauty she had explored from childhood.
But Rachel didn’t want to stay in Springdale forever. She wanted to go to college. Her parents supported her, but they didn’t have the money to pay for it. Fortunately, she was a good student and the Pennsylvania College for Women, in Pittsburg, offered her a scholarship. Rachel launched herself into her studies head first, grateful that this was one plan she could keep. She wrote for the school’s student newspaper and magazine – stories inspired by World War I battles and the oceans she had still never seen. Even though she’d still never seen it, her story gave such detailed descriptions of the ocean that readers felt like they were there, the rushing sound of the waves and salty air all around them!
It seemed that Rachel was well on her way to becoming a writer, just like she’d planned. But, once more, things didn’t go according to plan. In order to graduate from college, Rachel had to take one science class. Rachel chose to take biology – the study of living things. For someone who loved nature and animals, this made sense, but Rachel had no idea that the decision would change her life forever.
Rachel’s teacher, Mary Scott Skinker, was inspiring and energetic–excited to share her passion for science. Rachel soon learned that there was so much more to nature than she had even realized: that animals and plants and their environment were all connected and worked together in a delicate, complex system. Because of that one class–with that one teacher–she decided to get her degree in Biology instead of English.
After she graduated, Rachel finally had the chance to see the ocean…Not just see it, but work with it! Her teacher, Mary Scott Skinker, helped her get a summer job at the Marine Biological Institute at Woods Hole in Maryland, part of Johns Hopkins University. Rachel spent the summer studying ocean creatures. Most days she was on a boat or at the beach, collecting specimens to study. Rachel loved this time. Her coworkers were a group of smart and welcoming scientists, and she called it “a delightful place to biologize.”
Rachel continued on to study at Johns Hopkins and got a Master’s degree. But soon after, she had to change her plans yet again–and not because she wanted to this time. She had hoped to continue studying and get a Ph.D., but her family was having trouble with money. Her family–brother and sister included–had come to live with her in Maryland while she was in school, and they were very close-knit. Rachel decided she had to find a job so she could help them out.
She eventually found a job at the US Fisheries Bureau, writing radio shows about different types of fish. A radio show about fish might sound a little dry, but Rachel was just the right person to make a splash with it (get it?). She had studied fish for her Master’s degree and had the writing skills to make her subject vibrant and entertaining. She also started writing articles about nature and the environment for newspapers. She exposed problems with overfishing in the Chesapeake Bay and chronicled efforts to conserve nature.
Even though it wasn’t what she had planned, Rachel suddenly found herself in a position to combine her talents as a writer and a scientist. Eventually, she wrote a book about the ocean that became very popular, allowing her to quit her job and move to a cottage on the coast of Maine. But even though Rachel didn’t like fame and attention, she wasn’t going to fade into a quiet, unbothered retirement. She cared too much about the world and its creatures to ignore the problems humans created for it.
Starting during World War II, Rachel became concerned about a new pesticide that the government was using. I won’t make you listen to me trying to pronounce the full name, but it’s usually called DDT. DDT was first used to kill mosquitos, which spread diseases like malaria, during the war. But after the war, the government started spraying it all over the eastern United States to kill moths, and people began to notice things in the sprayed areas. Bad things.
Fish and birds were dying at an alarming rate, and bigger animals, like dogs, cats, and even humans, were getting sick. Rachel wanted to write about the problems caused by spraying, but almost no magazine wanted to print such a story. In fact, most were printing stories about how great DDT was! The companies that made the insecticide had a lot of money and power, and they made sure their perspective was heard.
Rachel didn’t give up though. She decided to write a book instead. She scoured government reports and academic papers related to pesticides. She found out that the substance didn’t just kill birds, it also made their eggshells weaker, so fewer baby birds were born. She found out it was linked to cancer in humans. These were hard years for Rachel. Her favorite niece, then her mother passed away, and then she had her own cancer diagnosis a few years later. She kept researching and writing through it all though. She had to make sure people knew the truth.
Finally, in 1962, the book, Silent Spring, was ready. Instead of publishing it all at once, the magazine the New Yorker printed it as a series of four articles. Rachel’s research was solid and her writing was persuasive and eloquent. The companies that made the pesticides were furious and tried to convince people that Rachel was wrong. But many scientists read the book and wrote reviews saying she had gotten it right. Rachel went on television to be interviewed about her work. The government began paying attention and even released a report that backed up much of what Rachel had written. President Kennedy’s administration said they would change the government’s policy on spraying pesticides. By 1980, DDT had been banned in the United States.
Sadly though, Rachel didn’t live to see the full impact of her work. She died of a heart attack in 1964, before much had really changed. In the 10 years after Silent Spring came out, the government passed laws that would protect people from dangerous pesticides like DDT. One law said that companies had to prove chemicals in pesticides were safe to use around people. The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, was set up and began testing for traces of dangerous chemicals in the environment – air, water, and land.
But more than changing how people thought about pesticides, Rachel Carson and Silent Spring changed how people thought about everything in the environment. Through her writing, Rachel helped people see that everything in nature – trees, fish, birds, even humans – is connected to everything else. Pesticides on plants or in water make animals sick when they eat the plants or drink the water. People could get sick from eating animals exposed to toxins like DDT, or breathing it in as it wafted through the air after being sprayed. Nothing in nature just stays put where you leave it — it becomes part of a system. People began to realize that they needed to take care of this planet. Today, Rachel’s legacy lives on with climate change activists and other environmentalists. When everything is connected, you can’t pretend that your actions don’t make a difference. You have to pay attention to how things affect each other in that web of people, animals, and the planet. And sometimes, like Rachel Carson, you have to change your plans in order to make the difference you want to see in the world.
Hile, Lori. (2015) Rachel Carson: Environmental Pioneer. Heineman Library, Chicago.
Shea, George. (2006) Rachel Carson: Founder of the Environmental Movement. Blackbirch Press, Farmington Hills, MI.