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Remembering Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson in Southport, Maine, in 1962. Rachel Carson in Southport, Maine, in 1962. (Erich Hartmann/Magnum Photos)

STUDIOUS AND solitary, the marine biologist Rachel Carson didn't compare well to Carrie Nation, the hatchet-wielding temperance firebrand of the 19th century. But in the early 1960s, American popular culture had a dearth of recognizable models for women who challenged powerful industries. Carson, who crusaded against the use of chemical pesticides in her seminal book "Silent Spring," was dubbed -- and not always favorably -- "the Carrie Nation of ecology."

The centennial of Carson's birth is being commemorated with observances around the country today. Her place in the American imagination is enduring: "Silent Spring," published in 1962, led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and to banning the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. State and federal office buildings, bridges, greenways, natural refuges, all sorts of awards, and at least four public schools are named after her, from Virginia to California.

But revisionists are busy besmirching Carson's legacy. In Washington, Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, has placed a stop on an innocuous resolution praising Carson on the centennial occasion. The resolution notes her "legacy of scientific rigor coupled with poetic sensibility."

Coburn and other opponents of environmental regulation claim more people die from malaria and other insect-borne diseases, especially in the developing world, than were ever saved by eliminating DDT from the environment. The scientist who introduced DDT in 1943 -- just as a typhus epidemic was threatening Allied troops in Italy in World War II -- received the Nobel Prize, after all. But any fair cost-benefit analysis must take all costs into account, and it is hard to measure the value of the illnesses, species decimation, and toxic pollution that did not happen because DDT was banned.

Most people remember Carson's work to limit the use of broad-spectrum pesticides, which had become ubiquitous -- indiscriminate, Carson said -- in the United States by the 1950s. But what made her arguments so compelling were her pioneering questions about the relationship between nature and man. On a CBS program in 1963, she said: "We still talk in terms of conquest. We still haven't become mature enough to think of ourselves as only a tiny part of a vast and incredible universe." This is the very theme echoed by Al Gore in his 1992 book "Earth in the Balance" -- that man's role is to be a steward of the earth, not to seek its dominion.

Carson's life and times were dominated by the atomic age, and its threats were never far from her mind. "Man's attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we have now acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature," Carson went on in that 1963 interview. "But man is a part of nature, and his war against nature is inevitably a war against himself."

Carson was born in Springdale, Pa. , and taught in Maryland for much of her adult life. But New England also has a large claim on Carson's heart. She studied for her doctoral degree at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, and spent 11 summers on Southport Island in Maine, where she raised an orphaned step nephew and wrote of instilling in children a reverence for the natural world. She founded the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, and her papers are collected at the Beinecke Library at Yale.

Even "Silent Spring" had a New England catalyst: it was inspired by a letter she received in 1958 from old school friends who owned a private bird sanctuary in Duxbury. The letter described the devastation of local bird species, which the owners attributed to the use of pesticides in nearby farms.

Carson was possessed of a remarkable native wisdom. She understood the irony inherent in her cause; that one kind of health peril had developed in the effort to eradicate another. "Only yesterday mankind lived in fear of the scourges of smallpox, cholera, and plague that once swept nations before them," she writes in "Silent Spring." "Today we are concerned with a different kind of hazard that lurks in our environment -- a hazard we ourselves have introduced into our world as our modern way of life has evolved."

Despite the claims of her critics, Carson never wanted to ban all pesticides or return to some dystopian Eden where insects controlled the earth. Carson's beef was with the indiscriminant use of pesticides, because scientists were only beginning to understand how the chemicals persisted in the soil and water and accumulated in human and animal tissue. She advocated for controlled and targeted use of chemicals in the environment, combined with less invasive methods where feasible, a strategy that today goes by the name "integrated pest management," and has been mandated on federal property since 1996.

More than 40 years after "Silent Spring," public vigilance is still required to keep chemical abuse in check. More than 1 billion pounds of pesticides are still used each year in the United States alone, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (worth $6 billion a year in retail sales). Most are perfectly legal: insect repellants, weed killers, disinfectants, and swimming pool chemicals all contribute to the perilous mix in the environment.

Rachel Carson's popular demonization of what she called the "elixirs of death" remains controversial. But the peregrine falcons, bald eagles, osprey, and brown pelicans saved from the brink of extinction know better.