20 women writing about the outdoors

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7. Rachel Carson

Everyone who has even a passing interest in ecological literature knows about Rachel Carson. Even if you don’t, chances are pretty high that you’ve read excerpts from Silent Spring. And if you’ve somehow managed to skip even that, you at least know that Silent Spring was a landmark piece of conservation literature that caused a nationwide reversal in pesticide use.

We’ll talk more about Silent Spring in a minute, but it’s worth remembering that Carson is more than a single book. She was also a marine biologist who started her scientific work with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Carson became a full-time writer in the 1950s, thanks largely to The Sea Around Us, a poetic exploration of the ocean environment. It was so successful that Carson won the 1952 National Book Award for Nonfiction as well as a Burroughs Medal in nature writing.

Carson’s first book, Under the Sea Wind, was reissued thanks to this attention. Those two volumes, along with The Edge of the Sea, firmly established Carson as a serious and talented science writer.

Silent Spring

During the last few years of the 1950s, Carson became more and more focused on conservation. She became involved with organizations like The Nature Conservancy. Carson also thought about buying land in Maine, which she called the “Lost Woods,” in order to preserve it from development.

As her interests grew deeper, Carson started to follow federal plans for pesticide use. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) wanted to eliminate fire ants using widespread pesticide spraying. However, compounds in the pesticides like chlorinated hydrocarbons and organophosphates were cause for concern.

An organochlorine compound known as DDT (a blessedly shortened acronym for dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) piqued Carson’s interest. The Audubon Naturalist Society asked Carson to look into the federal government’s pesticide program and its effect on the natural environment. Silent Spring, published in 1962, was the result. The book covers the effects of pesticide on the natural environment, including birds (whose absent songs and calls inspired the title) and humans.