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On a Farther Shore

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Silent Spring," William Souder offers a compelling portrait of Rachel Carson and the birth of the environmental controversies we know today.

By Emily Cataneo / September 11, 2012

On a Farther Shore By William Souder Crown 512 pp.

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In the mid-20th century, the idea called conservation died and rose again in a pessimistic, partisan incarnation known as environmentalism, which hinged on a central idea: mankind must be saved from itself. The writer who precipitated that transformation was Rachel Carson, author of "Silent Spring," a book that indicted the overuse of pesticides in the 1940s and 1950s. William Souder’s On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, published on the 50th anniversary of "Silent Spring," is both a biography of the woman behind this seminal work and a history of humanity's relationship with nature in the mid-20th century.

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That relationship had become tenuous in the years leading up to "Silent Spring." In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, prevailing wisdom held that humanity should conserve nature by creating natural reserves and protecting endangered species. But by the mid-20th century, the game had changed. New discoveries allowed scientists to manipulate nature with disconcerting results. A barrage of nuclear tests in the South Pacific, the American Southwest, and the Soviet Union caused radioactive ash to fall like snow in parts of the United States. Intensive pesticide spraying resulted in food contamination and deaths of workers brought into prolonged contact with pesticides. Souder brings these environmental disasters to light with harrowing details, such as his description of a Japanese fishing ship whose crew developed horrifying symptoms after sailing too close to a hydrogen bomb test.

By exposing the dangers of tampering with nature, Carson precipitated the invention of environmentalism, a movement that acknowledged that protecting the natural world also means protecting humanity from its own excesses. Carson’s book also created a paradigm for the environmental debates we know today. When 'Silent Spring" came out, Carson’s supporters compared the book to "Uncle Tom’s Cabin," her detractors called her a fraud and a communist, and government officials wrung their hands as they tried to decide what to do about pesticides. As Souder points out, these conversations surrounding pesticides in the 1960s were not so different from the conversations about global warming in the 2000s.

Souder describes the uproar surrounding Carson's book at the start and conclusion of "On a Farther Shore," but the middle of the book is devoted to a comprehensive biography of Carson, from the development of her interest in biology as an undergrad at Pennsylvania College for Women, to her government job at the Bureau of Fisheries, to her first forays into science writing, to her blossoming love for the Atlantic coast. Souder eloquently captures Carson's enduring passion for the ocean, from the peninsulas of Southport Island in Maine, where she bought a summer home and fell in love with her neighbor Dorothy, to the Florida coast, where she took a helmet-diving trip to research her book "The Sea Around Us," one of the three bestselling ocean science books she wrote before "Silent Spring."

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