Exhibition in Homage to Rachel Carson at Yale's Beinecke Library
A current exhibition on the pioneering environmental activist and author of “Silent Spring,” Rachel Carson, will be at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Wall and High streets, through June.
The publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962 marked the beginning of the ecology movement in the United States. In that book, Carson (1907–64) described the effects of widespread spraying of insecticides, in particular DDT, on the environment. If the practice were continued indiscriminately, she wrote, spring would be silent. There would be no birds to sing.
Titled “Rachel Carson: The World and All the Wonder,” the exhibition portrays the life and work of the woman who brought the world of conservation and ecology to wide public attention. Drawn from Carson’s archive at the library, the display includes her research and field notes, sketches, drafts, manuscripts, correspondence with writers and scientists and numerous photographs. All of her writings are shown, from her master’s thesis for Johns Hopkins University, to the manuscripts and illustrations for “Silent Spring” and her three books about the sea.
The exhibition begins with Carson’s childhood in Springdale, Pennsylvania. After receiving her master’s degree at Johns Hopkins, she found herself at the marine research center at Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Prevented by finances from pursuing a doctoral degree, she became a marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. There she advanced to the position of editor-in-chief and wrote her first book, “Under the Sea Wind” (1941), a portrait of the eastern coast of America. Carson’s second book, “The Sea Around Us,” won the National Book Award for 1951. “The Edge of the Sea” (1955) concentrated on life found at the seashore.
“Silent Spring,” her best-known book, took Carson into a new realm of science, which grew out of her concern for the welfare of oceans. Alerted to the decrease of songbirds due to aerial pesticide spraying in 1958, she took up the challenge of the dangers of indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides. On its publication in 1962, the book caused a firestorm of controversy, which is documented in the exhibition. The President’s Science Advisory Committee report, “The Use of Pesticides,” supported Carson’s research and criticized the chemical corporations that produced synthetic hydrocarbon pesticides and the government agencies that promoted their use.
Carson the scientist and Carson the writer are equally evident in the Beinecke exhibition. While the display includes a rich selection of scientific materials (such as her field notes, with snapshots and seaweed samples attached), it also traces Carson’s roots as a writer. As a child, she loved the animal characters of Beatrix Potter. In college, she was attracted to literature about the sea—books and poems by Melville, Conrad, Robert Louis Stevenson and Tennyson. Thoreau inspired her, as did nature writers like John Muir and Henry Beston. Books by these and many other authors make up the second section of the exhibition. Included are a manuscript page from Thoreau’s “Walden,” nails and studs from his cabin by the pond and pencils manufactured by his father. In turn, Carson the writer and scientist inspired a new generation of authors, among them Annie Dillard, Peter Mattheissen, Hal Borland and Al Gore, whose books are also displayed.
The title of the Beinecke exhibition is taken from Carson’s posthumously published nature-study book, “A Sense of Wonder” (1965), first published in the Woman’s Home Companion in 1956. Carson’s papers were placed in the Yale Collection of American Literature shortly after her death by her literary agent, Marie Rodell.
In conjunction with the Rachel Carson exhibition, the Beinecke Library will sponsor a lecture by writer, naturalist and environmental activist Terry Tempest Williams on May 5. The lecture, which is free and open to the public, will take place at 4:30 p.m. in Battell Chapel at the corner of College and Elm streets. Willliams is the author of eight books, including “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place” (1991) and most recently “The Open Space of Democracy” (2004). She has also written two children’s books.