The Marriage of Science and Art Within Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring
by Neshma Mattu
As an environmentalist, living in the 21st Century, I have come across the idea of connectedness time and time again. I have come to understand how the universe is a whole, and made of countless components. Rachel Carson played a large role in the environmental movement, and she carried this out with the use of her poetic, yet scientifically accurate account of how humans have caused significant damage to their environment, specifically through the use of pesticides. She too understood how the world was interlinked and set out to demonstrate this in Silent Spring.
In this essay, I will accompany my reading of Silent Spring with the writings of Michelle Mart, Carol Gartner and Bonnie Foote, who have looked into the literary aspects of Carson’s text. Whilst my original essay centred around the use of the terminology of connectedness by Carson, and its impact on her readers, this essay will also focus on how she portrays the notion of connectedness through her way of writing. What struck me the most, after reading Silent Spring, was that it did not feel as if I noticed the notion of connectedness in an explicit way, but instead, I was convinced that it was inherent within her text. As a result of her literary style, it was not something that readers had to be reminded of so frequently, and this is because the idea is so deeply woven into her words.
To put it in context, DDT was considered, by the general public, to be good for our health and for our environment. In other words, people thought that spraying poisonous chemicals all over their homes and all over their food was good for them. DDT was thought to kill all evil creatures that did not support crop growth and in turn, economic growth. You weren’t considered a good person unless you used DDT, in fact, if you rejected the use of the product, you did not care about the health of your own family, or the health of those around you. For example, in 1957, the United States Department of Agriculture developed a desire to eliminate fire ants. Carson stated that “the fire ant became the target of a barrage of government releases, motion pictures, and government-inspired stories portraying it as a despoiler of southern agriculture and a killer of birds, livestock, and man (Carson, 162). With the added hysteria around communism and the Red Scare of the 1950s, you could be questioned as a rightful and loyal citizen as a result of not looking out for the best interests of your nation. Carson highlighted how these actions, that were thought to be beneficial, were actually incredibly harmful. She, therefore, makes a connection between DDT and its effects on humans, as well as animals.
It is definitely understood by Carson that people tended not to be completely aware of how intimately linked humans are to the earth, and therefore, we detach ourselves from our actions towards the earth as a result of not comprehending the fact that what we do to our soils can affect the quality of our food and the chemical composition in our water. These effects have negative consequences for our health, as Carson states, and long-term damage has been produced as a result of the use of short-term solutions, such as DDT. Carson illustrates this in the chapter named, “The Human Price”, in her statement that “we are accustomed to look for the gross and immediate effect and to ignore all else” (190). This still occurs today, and this is due to the fact that economic benefits are still seen to be more valuable than environmental benefits in the world. An example of this today is fracking that has recently been approved in Lancashire, England. The British government has seen the short-term, immediate economic benefits of natural gas and overlooked the health of those living in close proximity to the fracking site. These people risk serious chronic diseases as a result of possible water contamination and this case is not dissimilar to the case studies that Carson uses throughout her text (Szolucha, 29).
In linking the issue of DDT’s that were brought up by Carson, to the issue of fracking, this demonstrates how different issues are, in fact, incredibly similar, in their causes and their impacts. In addition, many people reading Silent Spring would have been able to recall an event in which they have known a place in close proximity to them, that has been undermined by the greed of humanity for a quick solution to their problems, with just one example being pest-free land. Carson has expressed her ability to relate to her readers and inspire them to use a fresh perspective to view the world. By merely stating the bad habits of humans, such as ignoring everything other than the greatest and the quickest product, the readers come to a point in which they consider their behaviour, and are made to think about their actions and the effect of their own actions. We are all connected, we are all dependant on each other, and we all have the same bad habits. It is only when these habits are stated outright, that we understand a perspective that is not our own. In this sense, Carson has been able to bring readers together and create a connection between them.
A way in which Carson does this particularly well is in the beginning of her text. She introduces environmental destruction in the way that we would usually begin a story:
There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings… Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death (1-2).
This poetic description is written in a way that is relatable to most readers. We have all seen destruction at some point in our lives. We know of towns that have, or once had, “prosperous farms” (1), “countless birds” (2), and tree-abundant roadsides. Carson seeks to emphasise this by creating an underlying motive of relatability that lingers in her writing. Moreover, Carson makes use of intricate descriptions to describe places. A context is created and an image is placed into the mind of the reader. In creating a somewhat vivid image for the reader, they become more emotionally linked to the image, and to that place. This linkage is vital to keeping the idea of connectivity in the readers’ minds, and it is also an incredibly effective persuasive technique.
Carson ensures that her writing is understood by people of any background, and in doing so, her sentences are crafted in a way that is coherent and almost rhythmical. In chapter 6, “Earth’s Green Mantle”, she states that “The earth’s vegetation is a part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and the earth, between plants and other plants, between plants and animals” (Carson, 64). Not only is this a factual statement that there are inherent networks within the earth, but it has been constructed so that a reader of any background would be able comprehend it. In her essay, When Science Writing Becomes Literary Art, Gartner states that “frequent changes of pace and levels of difficulty help to keep the reader’s attention” (113), and this was critical to the great response that Carson received on her work. Therefore, the accessibility of this book allows for anyone to know what pollutants, such as DDT, are, and as a result, Carson is exposing the truth to the readers, which is a valuable truth concerning interdependence.
Carson also admits that human involvement in nature and, in this case, the killing of weeds with herbicides, hasn’t prompted us to ask the important question, “What is the relation between the weed and the soil?” (78). As a result of this, she reiterates the significance of “interdependence and mutual benefit” (78). Carson tends to do this with the use of scientific evidence so as not to detract from the fact that this is a real issue. In this instance, Carson provides the example of parks in Holland, mentioning the chemistry within the soil samples. Therefore, with the help of the addition of scientific credibility in Carson’s text, readers are more likely to acknowledge and respond to why the connection between humans and the environment are crucial to the issues that DDT can bring about.
Carson’s use of objective, scientific evidence for the destruction that results from the use of DDTs contrasts significantly with the use of poetic and emotive language that makes use of certain literary devices aimed more at persuasion and creating a personal relationship between the reader and the issues discussed. Here, there is an interesting collaboration between the arts and science, where Carson has made use of both scientific and literary skills to create a text that brings readers together and draws more attention to issues that will come to affect all of humanity if not acted upon accordingly. This infusion of the arts into science is particularly important in demonstrating connectedness further. In getting across scientific information in a way that is accessible to readers of all backgrounds and specializations, by utilising a form of rhetoric, Carson is creating an inherent link between science and arts, and therefore asserting the notion of connectedness without even mentioning the word.
Another example of Carson emphasising connectedness, without actually mentioning it outright, is at the beginning of chapter 12: “as the tide of chemicals born of the Industrial Age has arisen to engulf our environment, a drastic change has come about in the nature of the most serious public health problems” (187). The two components of this sentence appear to have no connection. However, the readers are able to make sense of the underlying threat present in this statement. A possible reason for this is the fact that Carson has made such an emphasis on the importance of why pesticides and insecticides are inflicting harm on our land and our bodies throughout earlier parts of this text. Carson makes a statement concerning connections, without actually needing to make it obvious that she intends to promote the notion of connectedness. It is just inherent within her writing of Silent Spring that she seamlessly implies connectedness in the underlying structure of the sentence.
In addition, to involve the effects of DDT on humans draws the readers’ attention of the issue to us, making it more personal, and triggering a more emotional response. This is done well by Carson, especially when studying the balance of nature. For instance, she declared that “a complex, precise, and highly integrated system of relationships between living things which cannot safely be ignored any more than the law of gravity can be defied with impunity by a man perched on the edge of a cliff” (Carson, 246). Whilst this statement is subtle in talking about the power that has nature over humans, it makes a hint towards humans causing damage to themselves in the statement, “a man perched on the edge of a cliff” (246). Here, Carson can be seen to be writing persuasively with the use of emotional language so that the message is clearly passed on to the reader. Thus, Carson’s emphasis on how every component on earth is interlinked can reveal, to the reader, that without well considered solutions to the issues of crop failure due to pests, the actions that are taken by us will ultimately harm us. In other words, as a result of not recognising what we are realistically doing to the earth, rather than what we initially think we are doing, or want to do, she identifies that there needs to be more awareness of why there is such a crucial link between people and chemicals used on the soil, which seeps into the water, and eventually into our bodies.
In creating a relationship between the people and the chemicals, Carson is evoking a personal response. Indeed, Carson had linked herself to the book in an intricate way. Chapter 14, “One in Every Four”, looked closely at cancer as an impact of the use of DDTs. This chapter was deeply personal to Carson, and her battle with breast cancer. This intimacy that we experience with the book, is not only between the book and the readers, but between the author and the book, as well as the readers and the author. Carson was that ‘one’ amongst four, who came into contact with cancer. We all know someone who has experienced a similar struggle to Carson, and this connects us all. Carson demonstrates that have all seen or experienced the effects of deadly chemicals contaminating our drinking water, and manifesting within our food, our air and our homes. This significance of the title of chapter 14, “One in Every Four”, was well thought-out by Carson. She intended to be objective, yet intimate. This is a factual statement, but also, a statement that we can all relate to and a statement that represents something very specific to us. In a similar way, chapter 3 is titled, “Elixirs of Death”. Here, rather than being factual and scientific, Carson used a statement with less rationale, and much more evident emotion. Carol B. Gartner observed that “she creates an ironic and angry oxymoron, “Elixirs of Death”,…paradoxically linking elixir, meaning ‘life-giving potion’ or ‘cure-all’, with death” (116).
The way in which the chapters are arranged is also noteworthy. Something I found of particular interest when reading Michelle Mart’s Rhetoric and Response: The Cultural Impact of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’, was how Mart noticed a “thematic progression” of the chapter titles. “The introduction of pesticides and their properties (“Elixirs of Death”) was contrasted with the majesty of nature (“Earth’s Green Mantle”) under attack from human arrogance (“Needless Havoc” and “Indiscriminately from the Skies”) and their deadly poisons (“Beyond the Dreams of the Borgias”)” (Mart, 12). Carson used language in a very particular way to create a principal idea of destruction having a progression that happens in stages. The first chapter, “A Fable for Tomorrow”, has a positive beginning but the ending becomes dark and paves the way for the rest of the book. The book progresses, through the chapters, from life before pesticides, to the effects of pesticides and what this means for nature and animals. As Carson goes on, she relates the effects more to humans and the health of humanity, rather than just animals. She reflects the progression of the history of pesticides in a very conscious way, and emphasises connection through the way she makes references to chapter titles in other chapters. One example of this is in chapter 5, when she makes a reference to “earth’s green mantle” (Carson, 53), which is the title for the following chapter.
In portraying the notion of connectedness in her writing, Carson is careful not to invoke guilt within the readers. She is not aggressive, nor passive, but her argument is described as “moderate” and “sober” (Mart, 37). Carson actively engages with her readers in a profound way and in shaping her argument so that readers are more likely to receive it in a certain way, that is non-damaging, she sets the argument out for them to ponder over and feel inspired to create change, rather than forcing change out of her readers. Carson’s argument is pragmatic. She does not express her views in a way that is particularly controversial. Her viewpoints were controversial enough, for her time. Furthermore, Gartner’s reference to “meliorist philosophy” (103) demonstrates Carson’s writing well. Her ability to present information in a way that readers of any specializations are able to understand is key to persuading the readers to take action. Gartner stated Carson’s philosophy to “show people how we are destroying our earth”, which would move people “to curb the destruction” (103). If people are not aware of the details of an issue, they are less likely to feel encouraged to take action against such issues than if they understood. An example of this may be if people are not aware of hunger within their community. As long as they are unaware of the issues, they are unable to act upon it. However, if they do understand the issue more comprehensively, they are able to do something about it.
Carson is also cautious with her words, and she ensures that her ideas do not come across as too negative. There is no point within her text where she implies that pesticides should be banned outright. It is quite the contrary, as Carson understands that pesticides are a permanent part of society in stating “it is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used” (12). However, she calls for them to be used more responsibly, less rashly, and with the knowledge of their destructive effects. In addition, she does not undermine our ability to advance positively in terms of technology. She also does not undermine how modernization has improved the lives of many, in relation to health, lifestyle and financially. However, Carson does point out that we do not consider the effects of such modernity because we tend to see the many benefits of new products, which can cloud our perception on the consequences of using them.
Indeed, there were many who criticized Carson, regardless of her way with words. One of the reasons for this was her gender. Women in science were particularly rare in the late 1950s and 60s. Even though Carson had established herself as a credible female scientist, there were still those who didn’t trust her opinion on the basis that she was female. Her legitimacy as a writer and a biologist were questioned, often by those in the chemical industry. The poetic and emotional quality of her writing also didn’t help her cause. She was accused of not being objective enough to be discussing science. Michelle Mart stated that “Carson was painted as an emotional woman, romanticizing nature, not truly understanding the reality of the insect threat” (36). In being moral and philosophical in her argument, this detracted from her scientific credit. Nevertheless, she was able to attract the interests of a variety of people in accompanying her scientific explanations with articulate descriptions that were more creative and considered emotions and morality. Her text was also praised by scientists, calling her a “realist, and a “trained biologist” (Mart, 34). Regardless, readers of all backgrounds and interests were brought together as a result of scientific explanations being enriched with vivid descriptions of places and rhythmical language.
This text is still undeniably relevant in today’s society, even if DDT has been banned in most countries, due to the fact that there are countless improvements that need to be made to how we treat the earth. Carson’s passion for sustainability and for our planet is, therefore, inextricably vital today. In this respect, there is no doubt the theme of connectedness in Silent Spring is timeless. Mart seeks to convey that this text was not written in a different time, where pollution was rampant, and seen to be very different from pollution today. The environmental degradation is still happening, and very much an issue that we face today, and will face for many years to come. However, Carson set the wheels in motion half a century ago and those who have read her words in Silent Spring, along with other environmentalists are still working to create a better future for ourselves and for the earth. Bonnie Foote also demonstrates that Carson’s ideology is durable in describing “its galvanising effect” on her students, which is a testimonial to how alive Silent Spring is in society today (745). This, Foote states, is “because of its continuing power as a text, as an elegantly structured and almost flawlessly targeted conveyor of both emotion and analysis” (745).
The beauty of Carson’s writing in Silent Spring is that it flows so coherently, and in a way that doesn’t suppress the factual evidence needed to educate and persuade the readers on the subject of environmental degradation. She makes the subject appealing in the way that she lays out all of the issues that we have faced and that we need to face, and she ends the text with a positive impression that allows her readers to feel empowered rather than hopeless. The connectedness that Carson portrays in Silent Spring is so seamlessly introduced and carried through the text, but it is simultaneously incredibly impactful. Carson brings about knowledge in a way that does not feel as if you are being taught, but rather in a way that allows the information to flow through your mind. It seems as if Carson is feeding crucial ideas, such as connectedness, to her reader in an effortless manner. She makes use of her excellent literary skills to demonstrate scientific ideas explaining why DDT’s are not reducing insect numbers effectively. Her well-balanced explanations of science, with the use of creative writing, reflect the balance of nature that is often sought for by environmentalists today, and throughout the past. Although the science that Carson brings forward in Silent Spring was not necessarily new information, Carson put the science into a format that would be understood by the general public and used this as a way to inspire her readers to act upon cultural norms and work for a healthier and more sustainable future.
Carson, Rachel L. Silent Spring. First Mariner Books, 1962.
Waddell, Craig. And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’. Southern Illinois University Press. 2000.
Foote, Bonnie. “The Narrative Interactions of Silent Spring: Bridging Literary Criticism and Ecocriticism.” New Literary History, vol. 38, no. 4, 2007, pp. 739–753. doi:10.1353/nlh.2008.0002.
Mart, Michelle. “Rhetoric and Response: The Cultural Impact of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.” Left History, vol. 14, no. 2, 2010, pp. 31. http://lh.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/lh.
Szolucha, Anna. The human dimension of shale gas developments in Lancashire, UK: Towards a social impact assessment, pp. 29. http://appgshalegas.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/The-Human-Dimension-of-Shale-Gas-Developments-in-Lancashire-pdf.pdf