Rachel Carson Joins the Literary Canon: A Conversation with Sandra Steingraber
For forty years, the Library of America has published distinctive cloth-bound volumes of the towering figures in American letters. Endeavoring “to celebrate the words that have shaped America,” the publisher considers the more than 300 volumes in its catalog as “America’s literary canon.” In April, Rachel Carson rose to these esteemed ranks with the publication of the latest Library of America title, Rachel Carson: Silent Spring and Other Writings on the Environment, edited by Sandra Steingraber. Carson does not want for fame as a historical figure, often mentioned alongside Harriet Beecher Stowe and Upton Sinclair as an author of a book that catalyzed dramatic social and political change. But now she is being recognized as a prose stylist. It’s long overdue.
Sandra Steingraber is an inspired choice to assemble this collection. She might be called our Carson. The two women share many experiences: academic training in the sciences, battles with cancer, reluctant entries in the realm of activism, and a gift for rendering dry data into rich, startling narratives. I had the privilege of speaking by phone with Sandra Steingraber on March 30. We discussed the new Library of America collection, Carson’s literary talents, how researching and communicating environmental health has changed since Carson’s day, criticisms of Silent Spring, the gender politics of environmental science, and the new documentary Unfractured, which chronicles Steingraber’s successful battles against fracking at home and abroad.
Stream or download our conversation here. Interview highlights follow.
This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Patrice Kohl: How did Rachel Carson move from academically focused research to public-facing work?
Sandra Steingraber: I argue for a reciprocal relationship between activism and science in the leadup to Silent Spring. Carson was already a bestselling nature writer but her popular books on the ocean didn’t called for any serious social change. I think she would have gone happily on like that if not for a couple of things.
She was greatly alarmed when all of these very toxic poisons that had been designed as weapons of war (like DDT) were, without any advance safety testing, deployed on our food crops, our backyard gardens, even on baby blankets. She started gathering data but was hoping somebody else would write about it. Then a group of activists in Long Island and Massachusetts organized themselves as Citizens Against Mass Poisoning (a phrase I really love). Their lawsuit against DDT spraying went all the way to the Supreme Court and, through the process of discovery, they compiled all the best science and offered it to Carson.
One of these women, Marjorie Spock (the sister of the very famous pediatrician Dr. Spock) befriended Carson and the group groomed her. They saw her as their Rosa Parks. They thought she could take their story and show it to the world and make change happen. And Carson realized, if not me then who? As she says, she saw herself as the defense attorney for the Earth. And she invented a new way of writing to suit the book. She was going to make her case, which required a very different kind of rhetorical strategy than her earlier work, with its lyricism and ecstatic, wondering tone.
PK: Both you and Carson worked extensively with data to explore environmental links to cancer. How did the methods of that research look different between her time and yours?
SS: I’m amazed at Carson’s ability to look at data and see across the data gap to see patterns and make predictions. Her ability to extrapolate is extraordinary. A lot of people think she’s prophetic. I don’t think so. I just think she’s a really good scientist.
She developed a wide ring of colleagues across many disciplines. Once she made enough money to retire from government service, she had the luxury of time to communicate with all of these scientists and find out what kind of data were in the pipeline, read deeply in the literature, and pull it all together across disciplines. This allowed her to make really important discoveries, even though she didn’t have the databases available to her that I have now.
For example, she looked at records of crop duster pilots and was able to figure out, correctly, that there was a link between exposure to DDT and diabetes. That’s something that we didn’t demonstrate with absolute proof for 40 more years.
I do similar things, but I have available to me cancer registry data, which didn’t exist when Carson wrote. Most cancer registries in most states got their start the 1980s and 1990s, so I can take a look at the rise of cancer over time. I also can look at the Toxics Release Inventory to see what the cancer rates are around places with lots of toxins in the environment. But Carson was doing this work before all that and was amazingly able to take data points which no one thought were related to each other and make conclusions—and mostly she was right. It’s astonishing.
PK: As soon as Silent Spring began to appear in The New Yorker, Carson faced sexist criticism. She surely also faced less-public abuse and resistance as a woman in both scientific and literary circles. In light of the #MeToo Movement, how would you assess today’s landscape for women in environmental science and activism?
SS: It was little different in Carson’s day. She was called a spinster openly by a federal employee, who wondered why a woman without children would care about future generations. I don’t think that would happen today.
On the other hand, women are underrepresented in the sciences. Climate and atmospheric science, especially, is a male-dominated profession. And yet, who believes the data? It turns out that women more than men believe the findings of climate science. I’m interested in that and how men and women see risk differently. Risk can be seen as courageous. But risks to our health from toxic exposure can also be seen as a human rights violation, which is how Carson framed it. In my experience, women are out front making that argument. They’re saying that reproductive rights refers to more than choosing not to carry a pregnancy forward. For those who remain pregnant, reproductive rights mean that other people’s chemicals shouldn’t enter the mother’s body without her permission. That’s an act of toxic trespass.
I see those arguments made most often by women, but that doesn’t mean men don’t also have unique vulnerabilities. Baby boys are very vulnerable to certain chemicals. We see an epidemic now of testicular dysgenesis syndrome—problems ranging from undescended testicles to hypospadias, a birth defect where the urethra opens on the shaft of the penis instead of at the tip. And we have a big epidemic of testicular cancer. Yet there’s no public conversation because we don’t have a public language to talk about male genitals, whereas we can more openly talk about toxic chemicals in breast milk and increased risks of breast cancer and so on.
PK: We know Silent Spring is very important in American history. But what is its importance to American literature? What makes Carson such a good writer?
SS: I’m so glad you asked. Silent Spring is underappreciated as a piece of literature. My great hope for this new collection is that it can find its way into more humanities classes. There is a birth now of environmental humanities. The original text of Silent Spring is the centerpiece of the collection, but then many of her letters, speeches, and essays are also included so you can see the development of her thought—not just her scientific thought, but her literary thought.
A lot of people think she’s prophetic. I don’t think so. I just think she’s a really good scientist.
You see her try out certain metaphors and images. She openly played with meter. I loved discovering that because I do it myself and thought I was the only science writer nuts enough to do it. My background is in poetry, and when I want to create a sense of suspense or speed, I’ll play with the metrical patterns, like Shakespearean iambic pentameter, and then use enjambment to stop the action for a moment. Carson has all of these amazing chase scenes in her writing, with animals running after one another. Or she’ll rise up and look from an aerial point of view at the whole ecosystem and then suddenly plunge down the roots of a single plant.
She used to read her work out loud—to her mother, when her mother was alive, and to herself—and would change a two-syllable word to a one-syllable word. She plays with imagery, symbolism, literary allusions. On the back of the book jacket, we quote her alluding to Robert Frost: “We stand now where two roads diverge” into the woods, one road the “superhighway” and synthetic pesticide use, the other “one less traveled by” represents the more biological approach to pest problems. Those kinds of images are what makes the book so memorable.
PK: You are the subject of a brand-new documentary, Unfractured, directed by Chanda Chevannes. Could you tell us a little bit about it?
SS: The film braids together three stories, and they all have happy endings. One is about how New York beat the natural gas industry and attained a ban on fracking at a time when no one thought that was possible. I was biologist-in-residence to this movement, and we won the fight on the basis of good science carried into the political arena.
The film also follows me when I went to Romania, where people were fighting against an American fracking company, Chevron, and were being threatened by their own military police. They were beaten, sometime in their own homes. I went to share the science with them, and my 12-year-old son and I were both sprayed with pepper spray and saw firsthand the surveillance and brutality. But they also won.
The third story takes place in my backyard, in between two of New York’s Finger Lakes. Along Seneca Lake there are lots of old, abandoned salt mines. Not so long ago, a Houston-based energy company bought five miles of prime lakefront property, and they wanted to store gas in these crumbly salt caverns, putting at risk the drinking water for 100,000 people. The more I learned about storing compressed gas in shale caverns, the more concerned I became. In this case, the science didn’t prevail. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission simply said they weren’t going to look at the data. So we followed the model of the Romanians and used our bodies in peaceful protest. The film follows my arrest and 15-day jail sentence. But we also won. After 650 people were arrested over two years, the company decided not to expand its gas storage operation. That wasn’t just because of our civil disobedience. Winemakers, renewable energy companies, and local officials joined the fight. It was a people’s uprising.
I’m a fairly shy person who would most love to stay home with the data. So I’ve cast myself against type—both in the film and in real life. I’m becoming less and less like Rachel Carson. She’s kind of soft-spoken and eloquent and stands on the data. I try to be that way, too. But sometimes, when that doesn’t work, we need to be a different way. So you see me become the person I think is required, as uncomfortable as that is.
Featured image: Rachel Carson at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Photo by Edwin Bray, 1951.
Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.
Sandra Steingraber is a biologist, writer, activist, and widely recognized expert on environmental health. She is the editor of Rachel Carson: Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment, just published by the Library of America. She is also the subject of two documentaries, Unfractured (currently screening at film festivals around the world) and Living Downstream (The People’s Picture Company, 2010), both directed by Chanda Chevannes. She has written three works of nonfiction: Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (Da Capo Press, 2011), Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment (Da Capo Press, 2010), and Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey into Motherhood (Perseus Publishing, 2001). Steingraber earned a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the University of Michigan. She also holds an M.S. in English and Creative Writing from Illinois State University and is the author of the poetry collection Post-Diagnosis (Firebrand Books, 1995). She is a contributor to Orion and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Ithaca College. Website. Twitter. Contact.
Patrice Kohl is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her most recent contribution to Edge Effects was “Rewilding the Badger Army Ammunition Plant” (December 2015). Twitter. Contact.