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Earth Angel

RACHEL CARSON: Witness for Nature. By Linda Lear . Henry Holt: 608 pp., $35

September 21, 1997|DAVID RAINS WALLACE | David Rains Wallace is the author of numerous books on natural history and conservation, including the forthcoming "The Monkey's Bridge: Evolutionary Mysteries of Central America" (Sierra Club). He is a winner of the John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing

Since her death in 1964, Rachel Carson has become environmentalism's patron saint. Although her books are no longer at the cutting edge of science and conservation, her life has become the ethical and practical model for environmentalists. Every environmental writer dreams of producing a book like "Silent Spring," and every activist dreams of changing societal attitudes toward nature as Carson did.

Yet surprisingly little has been written about Carson since her death. Even the best book about her, Paul Brooks' "The House of Life" (1972) is a soft-focus portrait, combining selected facts and anecdotes with excerpts from her books to create an effect that is as much romantic as biographical. This paucity of biography perpetuated a tendency to perceive her as not quite human, an elfin figure somehow beyond vanity, ambition and pettiness. Carson herself condoned this impression, partly from shyness, partly from an instinct for self-protection. Yet, as her saintly reputation grew, it was inevitable that a real biographer would come along and test it for clay feet. Linda Lear has done exactly that with her exhaustively researched, crisply written "Witness for Nature," and Carson has passed the test, although not without having her nature sprite mask firmly removed. The Rachel Carson that emerges from Lear's biography is a very human figure indeed: generous but egotistical, passionate but calculating, gentle but aggressive.

The nature sprite legend falls early. What, for example, was the subject of her first published writing, at age 11? The wildlife around her family's Pennsylvania farm, right? Wrong. Carson's first three stories, published in Saint Nicholas Magazine from 1918 to 1919, were about World War I combat. One of these, "A Young Hero," describes "a lone American soldier holding off a German patrol, killing several of the 'Huns.' . . ." And the year before she died, what did Carson buy to celebrate simultaneous honors from three prestigious organizations--the Audubon Society, the National Geographic Society and the American Academy of Arts and Letters? Always fashion-conscious, she treated herself to "a mink jacket with a large collar and full back that flattered her hair and coloring . . . something she had always wanted but never felt she could afford," as Lear puts it. A friend recalled that "Rachel was terribly pleased with it and 'looked like a little girl in a party dress.' "

War stories and furs don't detract from the public perception, as is amply confirmed in Lear's book. Carson was an extraordinarily compassionate, idealistic person, and these details show that she was also tough and shrewd. Carson's war stories were prize winners, demonstrating a will to use her talents for success at an early age. Writing on popular subjects and wearing pretty clothes may seem incongruous with an unselfish love of nature, but they served her career by pleasing audiences. (What if she had chosen to write about swamps instead of seashores?) Lear makes it clear that Carson's rise to eminence--first as a best-selling nature writer, then as an almost single-handed reformer of national environmental policy--was no accident.

Carson had a knack not only for finding audiences but also for finding people who could further her career--first science educators like Mary Scott Skinker, then government scientists like Elmer Higgins and then literary figures like agent Marie Rodell and Houghton Mifflin editor Paul Brooks. Far from being a passive beneficiary of such help, Carson knew how to apply pressure to further her interests. According to Lear, she became a scourge of book publicity departments, firing a barrage of promotional ideas at beleaguered staffs and never being satisfied with their performance, although she herself shrank from the drudgery of book signings.

Lear shows just as clearly that Carson had to be exceptionally tough and shrewd to surmount the obstacles she faced. "Witness for Nature" elaborates in daunting detail how much stood in Carson's way and how little help she got from institutions that are supposed to nurture genius.

Her family posed the earliest, longest-lasting and most damaging obstacles to Carson's achievements. A weak father failed to provide much example or support, while a strong mother provided what he could not, at the price of a lifelong dependence that increasingly stifled her daughter. Two older siblings provided little but trouble, and Carson was forced to adopt and raise not one but two generations of her sister's orphaned offspring at her own expense. She never was free of family problems, and they bled the joy from much of her success, as when her 1951 breakthrough into national fame with "The Sea Around Us" coincided with the discovery that an adopted niece was pregnant from an affair with a married man.

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