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William Souder revisits ‘Silent Spring’ with a new Rachel Carson biography

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s influential best-seller, “Silent Spring.”

William Souder

Photo by Dani Werner
William Souder

In the late 1980s and early ’90s, William Souder was best known as the film critic at the Twin Cities Reader. But when he wasn’t at the movies, he worked as a stringer for the Washington Post, reporting on local stories of national interest. Although he considered himself very much a generalist, he was a fisherman and hunter and had a strong interest in outdoors topics.

In college, he worked as the science beat reporter for the Minnesota Daily at the University of Minnesota. So in the late 1990s, when he heard that deformed frogs were turning up in ponds across the state, he told his editors there could be a big story here. Schoolchildren on a field trip in Henderson, Minn., had discovered a large number of frogs with missing limbs and other mutations; soon after, deformed frogs were spotted elsewhere around the state. Souder’s investigation of the frog story ended up on the front page of the Post — and he’d just gotten started. His first book, “A Plague of Frogs,” came out in 2000, chronicling the investigation into the causes behind those deformities, which continue to be found today.

Since then, Souder’s become a bit of a specialist, focusing largely on environment topics. His next book, “Under a Wild Sky,” a biography of James Audubon, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

His new book, “On a Farther Shore, the Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson,” explores the conditions that led Carson to write her groundbreaking best-seller, “Silent Spring,” which examined the impact man-made chemicals have had on the environment. This year marks the 50th anniversary of “Silent Spring.”

The following is a condensed Q&A with Souder about the writing of “On a Farther Shore.”

MinnPost: The backlash to “Silent Spring” — which you write about beginning even before the book was released, spurred by the chemical companies — included the accusation that Rachel Carson was responsible for the deaths of millions of people in Africa due to the banning of DDT. Your book’s been out just one day, and that comment is already resurfacing. So let’s address that first.

William Souder: Carson explicitly said that she was not calling for an end to pesticide use and DDT. In fact, she said its use was important, effective and necessary in the eradication of human disease. She repeated this in every speech she made, she repeated it on TV, and she repeated it when she was called to testify in Congress. She very clearly said every time she was asked, “I do not want to end the use of pesticides.” What she did want was to end the reckless use, overuse and abuse of pesticides in agriculture and residential applications. The overuse is what she objected to, the heavy and widespread and indiscriminate use.

At the time “Silent Spring” came out [in 1962], DDT had been used effectively against malaria in developed areas of India, Southern Africa, the Southern U.S. and Southern Europe. But it had not been used in sub-Saharan Africa, because access was remote and the infrastructure didn’t exist to deploy those programs. [DDT was not banned in the U.S. until 1972; it continues to be used in several parts of the world.] Now in 2006, the World Health Organization restated its position on DDT use in the fight against malaria, and endorsed its use in sub-Saharan Africa. Virtually every environmental group has endorsed that policy and I’m sure Rachel Carson would too, if she was still alive. So the idea that “Silent Spring” directly led to the deaths of millions of people in Africa isn’t true, isn’t what she called for, and wasn’t even the result of the book.

So to reiterate, Rachel Carson was not urging the end of the use of pesticides. She was advocating careful and intelligent use of these agents. The thing she understood was that the total environment had been contaminated, and in effect everyone had been exposed to high amounts of chemicals, and she felt the public had a right to know.

MP: The impact of the book on the public consciousness was huge; everyone knew about it, and millions read it. Could a book with an environmental topic be a best-seller today?

WS: Well, Rachel Carson was already very famous. Her book, “The Sea Around Us,” sold millions of copies, and “Silent Spring” was serialized in the New Yorker. It was already controversial before it came out. But she did not expect it would be a big seller. It’s a hard book — there are chemical formulas in “Silent Spring” — and it’s an alarming, disturbing book. But the world of literature and print was more important back then and books were held in greater esteem than they are now. We live in a much noisier media landscape now, with such a smaller emphasis on the printed world. President Kennedy was asked a month before the book even came out if he was going to do anything about pesticide use, and he said yes, a commission had been set up to study it. It’s hard to imagine that happening today.

MP: You spend a good deal of time setting up the context in which this discussion happens. People were already thinking about radiation and nuclear testing, and thalidomide.

WS: Yes, that’s so important. The entire atmosphere of the planet was contaminated by radiation as a byproduct of nuclear testing. [Minnesota dairy cows, Souder writes, had very high radiation levels.] The baby boomers actually understood the dangers of fallout and had grown up with that fear. No one had grown up with the fear of chemicals, but the baby boomers got it, because they already lived in a world that was affected by radiation. They were ready to understand what she was trying to explain. They could see the impacts of Thalidomide with their own eyes, people who don’t even have arms or legs. How do you deny that? It was another event that fit into the story she was telling.

MP: Is there a book you’d want to write that would have this kind of impact?

WS: Climate change is the story of the century. It is being written about, but it’s being ignored in terms of policy. If I could think of an interesting way to write about climate change, I’d certainbly make that the subject of my next book. But with climate change, you are looking at something that is unfolding over a much greater period of time. The immediate, direct effects aren’t as accessible as pesticide use. We knew going back to the 1940s that DDT and other pesticides caused all kinds of collateral damage. They were toxic to just about every species of wildlife ever tested. It was known as a probable carcinogen. There was no getting away from the effects that could be seen. But climate change shows up in so many different ways, it’s not as accessible.

MP: There are other biographies of Rachel Carson. Why did you want to revisit her?

WS: There’s a very good standard biography of her that came out in 1996, “Witness for Nature,” by Linda Lear. Linda did a cradle-to-grave definitive bio. But I wanted to write about her literary influences, and the larger picture of how environmental thinking fit into the Cold War era. Nuclear testing was so central to “Silent Spring” and the deployment of pesticides, and the roots of environmentalism came in part from the Cold War.

MP: You clearly spent a lot of time in libraries, but you also got to visit people who knew her, and places she lived. What was it like being in her cottage?

WS: It was great! You really feel like you’re on the ocean; it’s right there on this rocky shoreline. The great thing about her cottage is that it’s still owned by her adopted great-nephew Roger, and he left it pretty much the way it looked the last time she was in it. The feeling I was able to get there, in a place that she not only inhabited, but designed to suit her, was really cool. I commuted to the library every day to research, but I spent evenings at Carson’s and I actually wrote a chapter of my book at her desk. I opened up the window and listed to the ocean and wrote.

MP: I could tell that you identified with her as a writer.

WS: That was some of the most fascinating stuff. There were hundreds of letters between her and her publishers, publicists, critics, other writers and her agent. That correspondence is really revealing about the life of a writer. So much of that stuff was so familiar to me, so comprehensible. I found it really amazing. Writers work by themselves at their own pace and it’s rare to get insight into how other writers work at that level of detail. I do a lot of things really differently from the way she did them, but there are universal aspects about being a writer that really came across.

MP: When did you know you were done?

WS: I started writing way before I was done researching. I started writing the first chapter right away, because I knew how I wanted to start. It was more of a matter of how I wanted to start the book, with the press conference that JFK held in 1963, and I wanted to know everything about it. One of the great discoveries was when I looked at the weather report for that day in the Post, I saw they actually printed the daily radiation report too. That said a lot to me about where the public mindset was in 1962. I kind of noodled away at the first chapter for many months, then got into a daily routine and discipline, and it took about four years from start to finish. I had a blast doing it.

MP: On this 50th anniversary, do you think revisiting Carson’s legacy will bring us to any understanding or change?

WS: You can always hope, can’t you? It’s probably too much to hope that some policy might change. Depending on how the elections go, maybe we’ll back away from this really virulent anti-environment talk we’ve had to endure lately to maybe discuss some rational ways to correct some environmental problems. It would be good to bring Carson back to the discussion, because there’s a lot to learn from her.