Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

This teaching resource was contributed by Christina Katopodis, Ph.D.

Core Text

Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

Summary

The cover of Carson’s Silent Spring announces that this is “The classic that launched the environmental movement.” In many ways, it is. The back cover explains that this book, “alerted a large audience to the environmental and human dangers of indiscriminate use of pesticides, spurring revolutionary changes in the laws affecting our air, land, and water.” Carson wrote for a wide audience, drawing from sciences and making the message clear and universally applicable: if we keep spreading DDT and other toxins, the birds will stop singing and come springtime all we will hear is silence. The book is not fiction but fact, so a short excerpt works well as a compliment to any literature class or a longer excerpt would be well worth the time reading in a course in the environmental humanities. Carson narrativizes the process of DDT concentration in worms and fish that birds then consume and the DDT accumulates in their systems, killing them or rendering them severely disfigured and infertile. This is not light reading, and it doesn’t take more than a chapter to drive the point home for students.

Teaching Resources

  • Maria Popova, “The Writing of “Silent Spring”: Rachel Carson and the Culture-Shifting Courage to Speak Inconvenient Truth to Power,” Brain Pickings, January 27, 2017, https://www.brainpickings.org/2017/01/27/rachel-carson-silent-spring-dorothy-freeman/. This summary of Carson’s life and contribution to society is helpful for students and also helpful for lesson prep.
  • Mark Monroe, Sonic Sea, April 2016. Written by Mark Monroe and directed by Michelle Dougherty and Daniel Hinerfeld, this documentary is about the impact of industrial and military noise on ocean creatures, especially focusing on whales and porpoises.
  • Maria Popova, “The Wonders of Possibility: Lewis Thomas on Our Human Potential and Our Cosmic Responsibility to the Planet and to Ourselves,” January 4, 2018, https://www.brainpickings.org/2018/01/04/lewis-thomas-seven-wonders/.

Writing Assignments and Discussion Board Questions

  • Carson reported on the detrimental effects that DDT and other toxic substances, sprays, and pesticides have on the environment. We often think of nature as always regenerating itself, that the circle of life will go on uninterrupted, or that nature always “wins.” But Carson writes, “not even the return of the birds may be taken for granted” (105) when we spray our crops and towns with insecticide (which, when it concentrates in the worms and insects birds eat, then concentrates in the birds and kills them or renders them disabled and infertile). With signs of climate change we can’t ignore (tropical storms, droughts, fires, rising sea temperatures, etc.), Carson’s warning of a “silent spring” in the 1960s seems more important than ever. In a short reading reflection, respond to the reading (you pick the topic/sentence/part you want to respond to). Then, do a little research on threatened animal populations today and share what you find (include links).
  • Step 1: Go for an hour-long “nature” walk — you define “nature” for yourself (e.g., a walk outside with your dog; a trip to the beach; a ride on the ferry) — with all technology turned off or set to airplane mode. [Optional: take a photo somewhere along the way on your journey.] Spend time disconnecting from technology to reduce stress, expand your perception of nature to be a more informed writer grounded in your own experiences. Step 2: Write a short reflection about the experience and share it with your instructor for feedback.
  • Write a short paper integrating your nature walk and reading reflections on what you read from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Tell the story of your local landscape and soundscape, your human and nonhuman neighborhood — what’s its history and what is it like now? (Purpose: Familiarize yourself with these terms, “landscape,” “soundscape,” “human” and “nonhuman.” Begin writing about issues related to these terms.)

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