Interview with William Souder
October 3, 2012
Mr. Madison: Hello. Today is October 3rd, 2012. My name is Mark Madison. I’m the historian at the National Conservation Training Center and we’re doing another in our series of podcasts with conservationists in action and today we have an author and journalist William Souder who has written three books. He’s written A Plague of Frogs about amphibian malformations. He’s written Under a Wild Sky, a biography of John James Audubon and his most recent book, his book that just came out a month or so ago is called On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson. So Bill, welcome to NCTC. It’s nice to have you here.
Mr. Souder: Hi Mark. It’s always great to be here.
Mr. Madison: And the first question is what compelled you to write the book about Rachel Carson?
Mr. Souder: Well, this always comes up and sometimes I have to search my memory bank to recall how I got embarked on this because it’s a book I worked on for several years. Rachel Carson really embodies a lot of the things that interests me as a writer. She was a scientist. She was a writer. She lived in a very interesting historical period; a period of great transition and turmoil in certain respects, but, you know, my interests are nature and science and history and biography because biographies are good stories and so all of that combined with the fact that when I would talk to people about Rachel Carson I often got kind of a blank stare back. She’s not nearly as well known today as she was in the 1950s and 1960s when she was one of the most famous authors in America and when her books were consequential both as books and in matters of public policy and so it’s surprising to me that a lot of people don’t remember her, don’t know who she is, don’t know her work. So for all those reasons I thought there was an opportunity to revisit Rachel Carson and specifically the story of Silent Spring which has had such a long legacy again in terms of public policy but also in terms of public thought and how we address environmental issues. So much of that was defined by Silent Spring and by the reaction to Silent Spring.
Mr. Madison: Great. Why is Silent Spring important as a book?
Mr. Souder: Well, Silent Spring is the fault line between two distinct phases of our relationship with the natural world. In the first half of the 20th century the conservation movement really blossomed and matured. It started out with game laws and an attempt to preserve stocks of fish and birds and mammals and forests and it evolved to the midpoint of the century where we’re beginning to talk about ecology and about the idea that all living things are embedded in ecosystems and that their lives are interrelated and that it is a mistake to look species by species to see what needs to be preserved but we have to look instead at the total environment and the total environment was a concept that interested Rachel Carson a great deal.
Now she had been instrumental in advancing ideas about conservationism when she worked for the Fish and Wildlife Service when she was an information specialist and eventually the editor in chief for the service so she knew a lot about conservation and was one of its primary proponents along with her contemporary Aldo Leopold and together in the mid to late 1940s they wrote some of the really seminal treatises on the natural environment and how we ought to address it. Silent Spring is a departure from that idea of conservationism or at least a dramatic evolution of it. With Silent Spring Carson shifts the conversation away from this non-controversial, non-confrontational idea that we are shepherds to the natural environment and instead initiates a new dialogue in which we are much more the villains of the peace where we are now the species of concern, and where our own well-being is suddenly linked to the natural world in a way that it hadn’t been before.
So with Silent Spring Carson shows human kind is imbedded in the global ecosystem and she looks at this idea which is novel at the time that pesticides which is really what Silent Spring is about are contaminating what she calls again this total environment and in doing so they are very much like the nuclear fallout that is also contaminating the total environment at the very same time because the 1950s and 1960s are a time when a number of nations, but principally the United States and the Soviet Union, are aggressively engaged in a nuclear arms race and testing on a regular basis these weapons in the atmosphere, sending up clouds of radioactive material into the stratosphere where it travels the world embedded and entrained in high level winds and then it rains back down again contaminating the total environment with this ubiquitous, unseen, a toxic substance and Carson saw a precise parallel between pesticides which again are the focus of Silent Spring and fallout and she was speaking to people who got that, particularly to baby boomers who’d come of age in the 1950s and 1960s and who were sensitive to the idea of the concept of nuclear war, who understood what fallout was, who had gotten use to hiding under their desks during periodic drills in case of a nuclear war. It was a very receptive audience so she changed the conversation very dramatically in 1962.
Mr. Madison. Great! In addition to being a history of ideas and environmentalism, it’s also a biography, a very thorough biography of Carson. What was she like as a person?
Mr. Souder: Rachel Carson was a shy person, a very private person. Shy is a word that sometimes is hard to attach to an author who achieves the kind of success that she did. She was a very, very famous person. She was well-known. She did make public appearances occasionally; didn’t really care for it, but she was perfectly capable of doing it. She lived a quiet life. She never married. She lived most of her life with her mother. She liked cats. She liked bird watching. She liked collecting marine specimens from the tidal pools that were at the base of a cottage she owned in Maine.
We should say that she trained in college as a zoologist. She went to work for the Bureau of Fisheries during the Depression because the Government was a good place to go to work. During the Depression it was an opportunity for her and her interest in marine science really animated her first three books which were all about the ocean and were quite different from Silent Spring in character and in tone. These are happy books. These are pleasant books and Silent Spring is a disturbing book. But she was an intellectual. She was someone who appreciated music and art and literature particularly who considered writing to be a high calling, who had a long list of favorite authors and favorite composers, but who led basically a quiet, very private life.
Mr. Madison: Why do you think people should read Carson today or read about her I mean?
Mr. Souder: Well you should read early Carson particularly a book called the Sea Around Us because it’s just a great book. It’s an American classic. It’s a very, very important book in American history and even though a lot of the marine science that’s in it has been superseded since 1951 when it was published, it’s still a great read, very, very entertaining.
Silent Spring I think is worth reading today because it again initiated this discussion which we continue to have today and the reaction to Silent Spring and the criticisms of Silent Spring help to set the terms of the environmental debate that we have today. So I think anybody reading Silent Spring in 2012 will see that the arguments have not evolved very much over the last 50 years, that the discussion we have, for example, about climate change is consistent with the discussion we had about pesticides five decades ago and I think it is unfortunate that even though people have sort of chosen sides in the environmental debate either for political reasons or ideological reasons or reasons of their own, that many people really don’t understand the origins of this dialectic that goes on between the right and the left, progressive and conservative over environmental matters and Silent Spring sheds a lot of light on that as does Carson’s life.
Mr. Madison: Well, thank you Bill. I appreciate you doing this podcast. I think a good starting point for folks that want to know more about Carson, more about her cultural, her scientific context and her biography would be your recent book, On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson by William Souder, S-O-U-D-E-R. Also, I guess one last question I should have asked. Bill, if they want to find more information about the book online is there a website?
Mr. Souder: The book is available everywhere. You can certainly get it online, or at any good bookseller. If you want to read the latest about the book and what’s happening with it, you can go to my facebook page which is facebook.com/williamsouderauthor and if you go there you’ll find some videos, some pictures and lots of links to articles about Rachel Carson and about the book.
Mr. Madison: Great! Well, thank you Bill and thanks to all of you for listening.
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