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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The American Experience's life of Rachel Carson is the most important thing you can see for a long time to come. I am posting this to tell you why.

Two weeks ago in this space, we remembered Bernard DeVoto, the historian and defender of western public lands who died in 1955. He was 58 years old and was worn out by a decade of being attacked by extraction industries and ranchers who wanted all of the west to be open for grazing, planting, irrigation, mining, drilling, and timber falling. He was endlessly harassed and spied upon by the FBI at the personal direction of Director J. Edgar Hoover.

DeVoto was the most powerful and influence voice for land conservation in the days before the environmental movement sprouted large, powerful membership organizations, and he died too soon. But in the time he had, he laid the groundwork for a movement that has held the despoilers at bay for decades.

Tonight PBS' American Experience series remembered another American taken too young: Rachel Carson, a marine biologist who died in 1964, at the age of 56. 

My mother brought me Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring from the library in early 1970. I was in bed with my annual bout of the flu. The book changed my view of the world, and environmental preservation has been one of the animating forces of my life for nearly fifty years.

That story, on the off chance anyone wants to know it, I retell here.

Carson spent the last two years of her life defending her book's premise that the promise of better living through chemistry had asked and answered some questions very well, but had completely overlooked what were, in the long run, the vastly greater questions. That myopia had unleashed devastating consequences which, though evident to anyone who looked around them, were not visible to the godlike men of science who spent their time among their alembics and retorts in the labs of government agencies and their clients in private business.

But, like DeVoto, Carson laid the groundwork for the environmental movement that brought America cleaner water and air, and safer foods, and an understanding of the interrelatedness of life that people of the preindustrial age knew in their bones but could not articulate in learned treatises or ad campaigns.

Carson's work came from reading piles of seemingly unrelated scientific studies and reports from the Department of Agriculture and private industry. Those reports noted anomalies in the natural world: species die-offs, the diminishing effects of pesticides, the accumulation of nuclear test waste in water and the food chain.

She connected the dots no one noticed in their individual intellectual silos.

Her work irked the hell out of the powers of the world, and just as DeVoto's enemies have never given up undermining his work and the protective walls his words built, so other forces have spent half a century chewing away like termites at her legacy. What did she know? She was a minor bureaucrat. She had a master's degree. She was a woman. She was hysterical. She was a Communist.

If you are under fifty, friend, take two hours and watch the Carson show on PBS. It will run a few more times on your local PBS station this next week. You can even watch it online.

The reason is in your Facebook newsfeed. This week the new President has ordered all the scientists and researchers of the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior to be muzzled. They are not to talk about their work or release their findings. They are not to fund any more private or academic studies.

The powerful learned have learned the lessons of six decades past. They are determined not to let things out this time. If they can suppress the openness Carson exploited, first out of curiosity, then out of a growing sense of calling, that there was a story needing telling that she had to tell before she died, there will not be another Carson, nor another Bennie DeVoto.

Here are the first three chapters of Silent Spring. Kindly read, if nothing else, the first. That is what we fought off, and now beckons again.

In short, the walls have fallen. The fight must begin again. I know history repeats itself, but I didn't think it would happen so soon.

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