Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring emerged from suburbia

Rachel Carson’s influential Silent Spring may have emphasized nature but according to Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in the Twentieth Century, the suburbs played an important role:

As global a vision as one might concoct, Silent Spring nevertheless had its firmest roots in suburban locales. The letter sparking Carsons’s commitment to write the book came from a woman in suburban Boston who had watched a DDT spraying decimate the birds in her own and her neighbors’ yards. Carson also drew heavily on the 1957 anti-DDT lawsuit on Long Island. Her research began with the trial transcript, and Marjorie Spock, leader of the lawsuit, then became Carson’s “chief clipping service.” The web of experts Spock had brought in to testify at the trial served as Carson’s own. They and others on whom Carson most relied lived and worked in suburbs, including Dr. Morton Biskind of Westport, Connecticut, and Wilhelm Hueper, at the National Institutes of Health headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. Even Carson herself was, arguable, a suburbanite: though she loved her spot on the Maine coast, she spent most of the year in Silver Spring, Maryland, on the edge of Washington, D.C.

Silent Spring reached out to suburban readers in a host of ways, both subtle and overt. Ignoring cities, limiting her invocations of the urban to “a small town in the heart of America,” Carson flattered the conceit of the suburban better-off that their homes were not in any “suburbia,” that they led essentially nonurban lives. Factories also feel into the shadowy backdrop: quick-striking maladies and death among workers appeared only briefly and in passing. Dwelling at much great length on cancer and other chronic ailments, more likely to trouble a suburban readership, she studiously avoided mention of infectious diseases, whose absence suburb dwellers of this period, at least in metropolitan New York and Los Angeles tended to take for granted. On shifting from dangers to human health to threats to wildlife, Carson explicitly summoned the self-interest of the “suburbanite.” For the “suburbanite who derives pleasure from birds in his garden,” she wrote, “anything that destroys the wildlife of an area for even a single year has deprived him of a pleasure to which he has a legitimate right.” (256-257)

These two paragraphs remind me of several aspects of American suburbs:

  1. Given that more Americans lived in suburbs than cities by the early 1960s, does this simply reflect the movement of Americans in large numbers to suburbs?
  2. Could the wealth of suburbia – the ability to own a home, have a middle-class or higher lifestyle – provide more resources to pursue causes like environmentalism compared to being concerned with subsistence in other settings?
  3. From the beginning of American suburbs, they were touted as spaces close to nature. This argument was primarily made in comparison to cities which by the late 1800s were viewed as dirty and overcrowded. (Of course, the nature of suburbia has always been carefully shaped by humans rather than being untamed nature.)

More broadly, nature and the environment likely looks different from the suburbs than from urban or rural settings. If Sellers is correct in his argument about Silent Spring‘s suburban roots, perhaps it should be more widely read with the suburban context in mind.

2 thoughts on “Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring emerged from suburbia

  1. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs: An introduction and seven parts | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Why Americans love suburbs #7: closer to nature | Legally Sociable

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