“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings … then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change …”
Fifty years ago, these opening lines of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring transformed how Americans viewed their relationship with nature. Her poetic story of the harm that pesticides can wreak came as a shock to people who spent the halcyon summer nights of their post-war childhood running behind the DDT truck.
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Yet within a few months of its publication in September 1962, the book was an international best seller and had sparked a national debate that still echoes in our political discourse. Soon, Carson brought that debate into every living room in every small town, with a groundbreaking hour-long CBS News documentary.
“I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, and I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery not of nature but of ourselves,” she told CBS.
Carson was “from away,” but she adopted Maine as her summer and spiritual home. Her years spent on Southport Island shaped both her views of nature and her first three marine-themed books. And it was Carson’s suggestion that a group of conservation-minded Mainers seeking to make a difference form the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy in 1956.
“It is the only group I know which is doing something practical about actually preserving areas,” Carson said before becoming the founding chairwoman of the nation’s fourth Nature Conservancy chapter.
Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, just 18 months after her seminal book was published. She did not live to see the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, or its 1972 ban on DDT. She never saw bald eagles and peregrine falcons again soar over the Maine saltmarshes that she so loved, their eggs no longer weakened by indiscriminate pesticide use.
But her ideals live on in the work of The Nature Conservancy chapter that she founded, and in the lives of the men and women who follow in her footsteps, “fighting the thousands of small battles that in the end will bring victory for sanity and common sense.”