The Other Side of Silence: Rachel Carson’s Views of Animals

While Carson wrote a lot about humans, she did not believe only we mattered.

Posted Feb 26, 2021

"The 'control of Nature' is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that Nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth." —Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (p. 297)

The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 is widely regarded as one of the major events that launched the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring is a compelling blend of stories, natural history, human values, and biological facts. 

In her introduction to the 40th-anniversary edition of Silent Springbiographer and historian Linda Lear, author of the acclaimed biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature notes, "Carson was passionate about animals but kept her views relatively private. She did not want to have critics use her advocacy for animals to belittle her science” (p. 371). In addition to her concerns about not being taken seriously because she was not a professional scientist, Carson was also accused of having communist sympathies (Waddell 2000, p. 157) and of being a woman who was overly sensitive and sentimental. Her critics were by and large members of a male-dominated technology."1

Here I summarize briefly Carson's views about our moral responsibilities to, and the moral standing of, other animals, to which little direct attention has been given despite the fact that she was raised to love nature and nonhuman animals (animals). A more detailed analysis can be found here.

My interest in revisiting Carson's view about what we owe to animals was rekindled a few weeks ago when I was talking with singer and artist, Joan Baez, and she mentioned to me that one of her major concerns about the current state of the planet is the loss of birdsong and their food. She also sent me a drawing that reflects her deep concerns. The moment I heard Joan say this and saw her sketch, my mind and heart went back to Silent Spring, and I thought it was as good a time as ever to revisit Carson's views of animals in her groundbreaking book. 

Joan Baez, with permission.
Source: Joan Baez, with permission.

Carson, who espoused a sense of wonder and favored responsible stewardship, was more of an animal welfarist and environmentalist who privileged ecosystems and species than an animal activist who privileged individuals, and she did not advocate an animal rights agenda. However, there is clear tension in Carson’s text. Often she seemed troubled by attempting to come across as a moderate and practical scientist and some of her words, when considered out of context, could lead one to label Carson as an animal rightist.

While some of Carson’s text favors human-centered interests, she did not believe that only humans mattered. Her warnings about silent springs—silent seasons—must be taken seriously, perhaps even more seriously than when they were penned almost six decades ago. 

Carson’s lyrical and passionate language often celebrates the lives of individual animals, but she also often defers to the “rights” of people, from bird-watchers to hunters, in justifying why we should protect ecosystems and thus the animals who live there, rather than deferring to the rights of the animals themselves.

Carson's prose ranges from that of a moderate animal welfarist to that of a more extreme animal rightist. Carson supports “reverence for all life”, an attitude similar to that espoused by Albert Schweitzer, a man she clearly revered, and she decried the slaughterhouses in the United Kingdom and advocated for animals yet she often describes animals—and ecosystems—not in terms of their intrinsic value, but in terms of their value to humans. 

Carson also was very concerned with our attempts “to mold Nature to our satisfaction” (p. 245). The words she chose might reflect one way in which Carson attempted to resolve tension in her views about humans’ proper relationship to nature. Some of her most moving and empathic prose refers to webs of nature and their disruption and devastation. Carson wrote of “chains of devastation” when she referred to the death of robins as a result of a program to spray elm trees with pesticides. About 90 species of birds, ground, treetop and bark feeders and predators, suffered heavy mortality in this program.

Not surprisingly, Carson emphasized that we're all interconnected. When she wrote about the effect of arsenic on water pollution and the widespread occurrence of cancer she noted, “Here again we are reminded that in Nature nothing exists alone” (p. 51). When she wrote about soil, Carson stressed that the soil community “consists of a web of interwoven lives, each in some way related to the other the living creatures depending on the soil, but the soil, in turn, a vital element of the earth only so long as this community within it flourishes” (p. 56). Carson also wrote: “For each of us, as for the robin in Michigan or the salmon in the Miramichi, this is a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence” (p. 189), and stressed, "The predator and the preyed upon exist not alone, but as part of a vast web of life, all of which needs to be taken into account” (p. 257).

All in all, Carson was a courageous activist with a practical bent. She exhorts us to reconsider the choices we make concerning our fundamental relationship to nature, an alliance that should be teeming with appreciation, awe, humility, connection, harmony, and reverence rather than with dismissal, arrogance, control, distance, discord, and irreverence. Education is critical. Carson not only issued a wake-up call for us to do something about how we destroy and desecrate nature but also demanded that we wake up our senses and our sensitivity—that we keep our senses alive.

Before I end this brief piece, it's worth noting that Carson was, at times, concerned with the lives of individual animals. She celebrated individual lives (and also species and ecosystems) with beautiful empathic prose. For example, when Carson observed other animals, she tried to imagine what it was like to be those animals: “I was successively a sandpiper, a crab, a mackerel, an eel, and half a dozen other animals” (p. 56).

As an example of her sensitivity to an individual animal, consider a letter Carson wrote to her friends Dorothy and Stanley Freeman (Carson 1998, pp. 169-170). She had taken a midnight hike with her niece and grandnephew when they saw a firefly who was flying low over the water at risk of getting caught by a wave. At first, Carson was puzzled by his strange behavior but then she realized what he was doing. She wrote, "... he was flying so low over the water that his light cast a long surface reflection, like a little headlight. Then the truth dawned on me. He 'thought' the flashes in the water were other fireflies, signaling to him in the age-old manner of fireflies! (Carson 1998, p, 170) The firefly wound up mired in wet sand. Carson goes on to write: “You can guess the rest: I waded in and rescued him ... and put him in Roger’s bucket to dry his wing” (Carson 1998, p. 170).

This passage is significant because Carson refers to a firefly as an individual (a “he”) rather than an object (an “it”). She attributes cognitive abilities to the firefly by noting that he “thought,” although she qualifies this statement by putting the word thought in quotation marks. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Carson considers it worthwhile to save the life of this firefly.

The other side of silence asks for activism on behalf of our magnificent planet and all of its residents.

On the other side of silence awaits magic, awe, and Nature’s cacophony of sounds—along with a panoply of innumerable other sensory (visual and olfactory) experiences that help us to feel at one with all of Nature. We must be careful never to allow nature to be silenced. She also was extremely concerned with what could people do about the dire situation surrounding the use of pesticides and also about scientists (and others) “on the take,” scientists and government officials with competing interests who were working for pesticide companies. 

Silent springs, along with silent summers, falls, and winters, brought about by silencing animals, are not good for us or for other animals. But it is the animals to whom we owe our utmost unwavering respect and concern for their well-being, independent of our own.

There is no doubt that if there were a world of Rachel Carson’s in charge of our global environmental policies, we and our fellow animals would surely be in much better shape than we currently are.

We all must be extremely careful in how we interact with our magnificent planet by treading and intruding very lightly if at all because it could well ensue that individuals in future generations will one day wake up and ask, “Where have all the animals gone?” How tragic this would be. And many thanks to Rachel Carson for warning us about this many years ago. 

References

Note

1) Lear also writes, "In the few months between the New Yorker's serialization of Silent Spring in June and its publication in  book form that September, Rachel Carson's alarm touched off a national debate on the use of chemical pesticides, the responsibility of science, and the limits of technological progress. When Carson died barely eighteen months later...she had set in motion a course of events that would result in a ban on the domestic production of DDT and the creation of a grass-roots movement demanding protection of the environment through state and federal regulation. Carson's writing initiated a transformation in the relationship between humans and the natural world and stirred an awakening of public environmental consciousness." Lear's entire introduction is well-worth reading. 

Arndt, Karin. The Sense of Wonder. Psychology Today, July 14, 2017.

Bergland, Christopher. Arousing Curiosity May Help Take the Politics Out of Science. Psychology Today, February 1, 2017. (Contains a discussion of Rachel Carson's approach to science.)

Carson, Rachel. In Linda Lear (ed.), Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson. Beacon Press, 1998. 

Waddell, Craig. "The reception of Silent Spring: An introduction". In C. Waddell (ed.), And No Birds Sing: Rhetorical Analyses of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale, 2000, pp. 1-16.