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for people who care about the West

Sounding the alarm for nature


This year marks the 45th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson's landmark book, Silent Spring. Twenty-seven years after her death, Carson - who would have been 100 this year - continues to influence Americans' daily lives. Her legacy is reflected all the way from the Environmental Protection Agency's restrictions on pesticide use down to the organic sections of our mainstream grocery stores. 

A dozen contributing writers and scientists honor Carson's legacy in a new anthology, edited by Peter Matthiessen. Four Westerners contribute essays chronicling how a woman they never met changed their lives. They relate special moments of insight: A flock of brown pelicans flying in formation, the migration flight of monarch butterflies, a child's grief at the thought of awakening to a future morning without birdsong. 

Californian Freeman House realized that his retreat from society would save neither brown pelicans nor salmon. After reading Carson's vivid books on the sea, Jim Lynch of Washington knew he could make his readers feel Puget Sound's mud squish between their toes in his own novel, The Highest Tide. Terry Tempest Williams of Utah respects Carson's moral courage and "her willingness to align science with the sacred, to admit that her bond toward nature is a spiritual one." Colorado native Robert Michael Pyle reminds us that seeing Carson only as a warrior against DDT means missing the depth of her scientific knowledge and her dedication to an intimate relationship with nature. 

In the 1960s, Carson's message was timely, but her insight into the tensions between industry and government institutions and nature make her perspective timeless. As a college student, Pyle believed simple activism and education could save the Earth. Today, in the midst of what he describes as the "current environmental dark ages," he sees it's not so simple: The same chemical industry that may have caused his wife's ovarian cancer contributed to her recovery. 

Still, Pyle feels inspired by Carson's message of nature's power to sustain and heal us: "At its heart is Carson's wish that every child in the world have 'a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.' " 

Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson

Edited by Peter Matthiessen

208 pages, softcover: $14.95.

Houghton Mifflin, 2007.