The Education of Rachel Carson

The Rachel Carson that’s come down to most Americans — mostly through biographers, since she didn’t discuss her childhood much — is a girl who grows up on a hilltop in an unspoiled natural world.

At the beginning of her classic, “Silent Spring,” she describes “a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.” We might assume that’s her childhood home: Springdale, Pennsylvania. And in this scenario, Carson goes east, becomes a writer and a scientist, and there discovers what she calls “the central problem of our age … the contamination of man’s total environment.”

But that Rachel Carson is more fable than truth. The fable undercuts the history and hard facts of the environmental movement she helped found.

For one thing, Springdale in the beginning of the 20th century was a town on the go. Local real estate agents advertised it as a “Big Money Making Development” about to happen: “Only 38 minutes by train to the heart of Pittsburgh, and just a few minutes to New Kensington.” All around, landowners were eager to turn their woods into suburbia.

And Rachel’s father was one of them. He’d bought the Carsons’ 64-acre hilltop in order to divide it into lots and sell it off. It was the sort of wholesale development that Rachel, years later, would call “the destruction of beauty and the suppression of human individuality.”

And then there was the industrial pollution that was part and parcel of Rachel’s growing up. There’s a picture of the Carson clan out for a swim when Rachel was around 7. She and her teenage brother and sister are sitting on a boulder on the shore of what appears to be the Allegheny River. It’s an idyllic image of a rural childhood: her muddy feet, cows grazing in the background. Which probably means they’d walked a ways out of town. Because by then, Springdale’s shoreline was already studded with industry.

The Franklin Glue Works was one of the largest factories of its kind in the nation. In its big brick buildings, a hundred employees helped boil down animal parts — ears, tails, hides, bones — into a gelatinous mass. The resulting stink was the first impression many visitors had of Springdale. Also on the shore was the Heidenkamp Plate Glass Co., where ground silica was melted at some 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit. River water was used as coolant and to carry off wastes.

As Rachel passed through elementary school, Springdale’s shoreline hosted more and more industries. Soon, it was calling itself “Power City.” During World War I, West Penn Power Co. built a giant plant, housing 25,000-kilowatt generators. Not long afterwards, Duquesne Light had erected its own plant to help supply electricity to Pittsburgh: its red and white stack rose directly into the view from Carson’s hilltop.

It wasn’t just Springdale. The same story was being told all up and down the Allegheny Valley. There was the 6,000-employee Pittsburgh Plate Glass in the next town of Creighton. Around the bend was Natrona, the birthplace of America’s oil industry. Three miles upriver was the Alcoa aluminum works in New Kensington. Massive coal mines were all around.

Almost everywhere Rachel looked, the landscape was being turned inside out: the underground pulled to the surface, transported and burned.

By the time the Carsons sat for their family photograph down by the river, a report had already appeared describing the discharges into the Allegheny as “simply amazing.” For 30 miles, it went on, there was “not a mussel, not a crawfish, nor a fish able to live.” By 1909, the region contained “possibly the greatest variety of pollution of any of the streams in the state.” Or, the report might have added, the nation.

This adds up to a different portrait of how Rachel Carson learned to love nature: the environmentalist-to-be growing up in the midst of industry and destruction.

And it wasn’t just the river. At age 15, Rachel published an article in a national magazine describing a May walk and her “discovery” of the “deeper woodland” of a pine forest: “the sort of place that awes you by its majestic silence, interrupted only by the rustling breeze and the distant tinkle of water.” From her description, it sounds like she’s discovered a stand of old-growth forest, probably Eastern hemlock.

If so, it was one of the few remaining pockets in the valley. By this May day in 1921, clear-cut lumbering was so widespread that locals had taken to calling their forest the “Allegheny Brush-patch.” In the words of the U.S. Forest Service, wood chemical plants had reduced “once vast forests” to “barren hillsides as far as the eye could see.”

Still, Rachel’s description of the woods’ “majestic silence” wasn’t a lie, nor was that idyllic photo of the Carsons by the river. Rachel could find a way to get closer to nature, but it was a deliberate act.

To discover what she called the “joy, excitement and mystery” of the natural world, she had to avoid the industrial future that Springdale and the nation were building.

It involved a careful kind of editing: focusing on the hemlocks, cropping out the power plant stacks.

As well as walks and swimming, one of her ways of entering nature was through books.

As an adult, in a letter to a friend, Rachel mentions that she grew up on Beatrix Potter. Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter Rabbit first appeared in print five years before she was born; a year later came “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin”; and “The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck” was published when Rachel was a year old. The stories featured animals dressed up like people, going to the baker’s shop and playing in the finely drawn British countryside. Beatrix Potter’s books encouraged children to observe nature and suggested there was a hidden, secret drama going on right outside.

Rachel also got monthly infusions of nature writing through her mother’s subscription to St. Nicholas children magazine. Its editor, Mary Mapes Dodge, solicited works from leading writers of the day. St. Nicholas championed the idea that childhood was a time to “get closer to the heart of nature.” This couldn’t happen, it argued, by “book study alone” but only through a “direct friendship with the woods and fields.”

The key word is “friendship.” The stories St. Nicholas published tended to treat nature like Beatrix Potter did: the woods were full of little animal friends. Or, going back to an older tradition, they were inhabited by tiny spirits, hiding in the ferns, playing on toadstools.

“St. Nicholas League” was a section of the magazine devoted to young writers age 5 to 18. During Rachel’s childhood, the league included the childhood work of e.e. cummings, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Samuel Elliot Morrison. Many followed the magazine’s style, describing nature in terms of an invisible spirit world.

So, the year after Rachel was born, St. Nicholas carried a piece by a 16-year-old Edna St. Vincent Millay that conjured up a “fairy wind.” When Rachel was 4, it published 13-year-old Stephen Vincent Benet’s “A Song of the Woods” with a “tricksy sprite” dancing around a fairy ring. And when Rachel was 7, the summer issue included a poem called “The Fairy Steeple” with an illustration of a little winged girl riding a bumblebee. “Up the Fairy Steeple/ The Fairy Ringers climbed,/ And out o’er all the country,/ The Bluebell Music chimed.”

Mrs. Carson was a former schoolteacher, but especially when Rachel was young, her mother seems to have encouraged this dreamy, non-academic take on the world. Whether Maria Carson thought the Springdale schools didn’t measure up, or simply liked having her youngest home, she let Rachel skip school. Often.

In the first three months of second grade, Rachel only made it a total of about three weeks. Sometimes she was sick; sometimes there was the chance she might get sick; sometimes it was just more fun to stay home. The absences continued through third and fourth grade.

Her alternative education was up on the subdivided hilltop that her father still couldn’t sell. She played outside, read, took walks with her mother, avoided the industrial build-up of downtown Springdale — and wrote little stories.

In third grade, she composed a St. Nicholas-style tale called “The Little Brown House,” where Mr. and Mrs. Wren search for and finally find a “dear little brown house.” In fourth grade, “The Sleeping Rabbit” was her version of Beatrix Potter: Rachel’s bunny snoozes besides a copy of Peter Rabbit.

As she got older, she not only spent more time in school, but used it to get out of town. She went through Springdale’s required eight grades, voluntarily finished ninth and tenth, then commuted to New Kensington to get a high school degree that let her enter college and the larger world beyond.

But her alternative, hilltop education stayed with her. In fact, Carson took aspects of this perspective and writing style on into adulthood. Forty-five years after “The Fairy Steeple” appeared in St. Nicholas, when Carson was an acclaimed scientific author, she would write in a book called “Sense of Wonder” that she’d always loved lichens “because they have a quality of fairyland.” And she’d describe an unseen insect as “the fairy bell ringer,” its call “exactly the sound that should come from a bell held in the hand of the tiniest elf.”

As an adult author and naturalist, her main subject became the ocean. That might seem an unlikely match given her landlocked childhood. But in this same dreamy way, she’d been studying the subject for years. “Even as a child,” Carson wrote, “long before I had ever seen it, I used to imagine what it would look like, and what the surf sounded like.”

She had read poetry about the ocean, studied photographs, sat on the hill in Springdale writing fiction set on the shore. She hadn’t actually experienced the sea, but she’d hardly ever experienced the “majestic silence” of a wilderness, either. She studied them both the same way: extrapolating from what she could see, relying on her sense of wonder, believing in the mystery as much as the science.

Even after she finally got there, parts of the ocean remained an unseen and unseeable world. Describing the deep sea floor, for example, she writes: “Mysterious and eerie are the immense areas, especially in the north Pacific, carpeted with a soft, red sediment in which there are no organic remains except sharks’ teeth and the ear bones of whales.”

It’s a landscape she hadn’t witnessed and never would: an imagined landscape, almost a fairy tale.

As Carson defined it, nature offered the human race “inner contentment” and “reserves of strength”; there was “something infinitely healing” about it. She’d come to see it that way not from a childhood amid pure, unspoiled beauty but in contrast to the stink of town, the gash of the coal mine.

After a childhood in one of the most industrially polluted regions of the country, as she was dying of breast cancer, Carson asked in her last book, “Silent Spring,” “whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”

It’s the beginning of the modern environmental movement. And it’s a rhetorical question. She’d learned the answer in Springdale, long ago.

As Rachel Carson defined it, nature offered the human race “inner contentment” and “reserves of strength”; there was “something infinitely healing” about it. She’d come to see it that way not from a childhood amid pure, unspoiled beauty but in contrast to the stink of town, the gash of the coal mine.

This essay is adapted from Wolff’s new book How Lincoln Learned to Read: Twelve Great Americans and the Educations That Made Them.

Wolff is on book tour in the Pacific Northwest:

Tuesday, May 05, 2009 7:00 PM
Powell’s Books at Cedar Hills Crossing, Beaverton, OR

Wednesday, May 06, 7 PM
University Bookstore, Seattle, Washington

Thursday, May 07, 7PM
Orcas Bookstore, Olympia, Washington

DANIEL WOLFF lives in Nyack, N.Y. His other books include “4th of July/Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land.” He is a co-producer of the forthcoming Jonathan Demme documentary about New Orleans, “Right to Return.” He can be reached at:





Daniel Wolff’s most recent books are Grown-Up Anger: The Connected Mysteries of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and the Calumet Massacre of 1913 and How to Become an American: a History of Immigration, Assimilation and Loneliness.