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Bald eagles, bugs, and a Gentle Subversive

July 1, 2007

Well, I’ve had a brief hiatus from my notes and posts here on Web of Life. Returning, I’m reveling that the bald eagle has been de-listed off the endangered and threatened species lists. And that’s a timely hallmark to continue celebrating Rachel Carson’s life.

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Photo by Steve Hillebrand/USFWS

I’m in the middle of reading The Gentle Subversive: Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, and the Rise of the Environmental Movement, a wonderful and fascinating biography written by Mark Hamilton Lytle. It’s the kind of biography that tells someone’s story, rather than delving into documenting every little detail of scholarly research about the person and the historical context of her life. Lytle is nevertheless thorough in his documentation, but it doesn’t intrude at all in the flow of the story.

This bio focuses in particular on Rachel’s development as a writer (something of special interest to me professionally) and a most careful environmentalist… although that wasn’t a term she’d have used to describe herself in her time.

Lytle builds a few elements of character development into his account, so I often feel as if I’m getting to know Rachel personally over a period of many years. There are some poignant situations she had to deal with in her family life that make her persistence in writing about the natural world she cared about so deeply that much more rewarding with each subsequent publishing landmark.

So often her arguments in Silent Spring met with resistance from the chemical industry, yet her critics generally neglected the reality of her perspective, i.e., that chemical-based pesticides weren’t by definition bad, only that their improper use was what caused irreparable damage.

“Faced with a malaria epidemic in Africa, Carson would have accepted the need for limited DDT spraying, though she would have preferred a biological remedy,” Lytle writes in the blog for Oxford University Press.

And speaking of bugs, conservation biologist Edward O. Wilson is quoted in yesterday’s Washington Post, “we may have discovered at a crude guess 10 percent of the life forms on Earth… We are flying blind in many aspects of preserving the environment, and that’s why we are so surprised when a species like the honeybee starts to crash, or an insect we don’t want, the Asian tiger mosquito or the fire ant, appears in our midst.”

Rachel Carson no doubt would see the connection.

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