Dr. Sandra Steingraber will be speaking at Maine Audubon in Falmouth this Thursday in celebration of environmental giant Rachel Carson. We called the New York state-based environmentalist and author to talk about the new book she edited for the Library of America, “Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment,” a compilation that includes a reissue of Carson’s 1962 book, many of her letters, including love letters to Dorothy Freeman and an introduction by Steingraber about how that seminal book came to be. Steingraber told us why she doesn’t like to use the word “prescient” to describe Carson and how “Silent Spring” made an impression on her when she was just 3 years old.

MAINER BY CHOICE: Rachel Carson had close ties to Maine. In her obituary, the New York Times described her as having “few materialistic leanings” but cited two indulgences she made after the unexpected best-selling success of her book “The Sea Around Us”: “a fine binocular-microscope” and her summer cottage in Southport. (The Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, based in Wells, was created two years after her death.) While a Maine resident, the marine biologist and author helped found the state chapter of The Nature Conservancy, making Maine the fourth state to have its own chapter.

A THING OF BEAUTY: The new book from the Library of America is “a thing of beauty,” Steingraber said, and an honor Carson was due for. “It is a little bit like watching an actor receive their Hollywood star. They will keep this book in print forever.” One of her joys as editor was in writing an introduction that traces Carson’s path of discovery in creating “Silent Spring,” including her “long years of gathering string.” As a marine biologist with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, Carson became aware of the impacts pesticides were having on birds and began to worry about what they might be doing to people.

PARALLEL LIVES: There are many parallels between Steingraber and Carson that made her a logical choice to edit the Library of America’s Carson book. Like Carson, Steingraber is a biologist and for the last 15 years has been a distinguished scholar at Ithaca College in the Department of Environmental Studies and Science. Her second of her five books, “Living Downstream: An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment,” published in 1997, investigated a cancer cluster in her hometown of Pekin, Illinois, on the shores of the polluted Illinois River. Steingraber linked the cluster to synthetic chemicals in the environment, and of course, Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” raised huge questions about pesticides. Unfortunately, they have something else in common: cancer. Now 58, Steingraber was diagnosed with bladder cancer when she was 20; “I am one of the data points.” That book was inspired by an encounter at a refugee camp in East Africa five years after that diagnosis, when she was on a fellowship working on her first book, “The Spoils of Famine: Ethiopian Famine Policy and Peasant Agriculture,” about the relationship among famine, war and the refugee movement in Africa.

TURNING THE TABLES: How were the two things connected? She had a conversation with a farmer in the refugee camp about how siltation in the Nile River had destroyed the fish, contributing to famine. “And he wanted a chance to interview me and to ask me about the fish in my American river, and how they tasted to me.” That river was the Illinois, and she told him she had never eaten those fish because the river was so polluted.” He told her if she loved the place where she was born, she needed to go home and “take up arms against the men who were poisoning my river.” She had just finished five years of cancer treatments. “I was finally untethered from the medical system.” And she listened to the farmer: “It was one of those epiphany moments.”

MAKING WAVES: Bladder cancer frequently reoccurs, Steingraber said, so she’s lived most of her life as a cancer patient. She’s had so many invasive procedures (close to 100 cystoscopies to check her bladder, and colonoscopies every one to two years) that she no longer has anesthesia for the colonoscopies. “You lose two days of time.” When Carson died in 1964 she had been fighting breast cancer. It was less than two years after the September 1962 publication of “Silent Spring” and as Steingraber describes it, Carson had spent those months standing up to criticism from the chemical industry. Her industry foes disputed her findings about the toxic impact on human beings from pesticides, which she said should be called biocides rather than insecticides.

WHAT WOULD RACHEL TWEET? Steingraber said Carson dubbed her critics “the Masters of Invective.” And she took them on, fearlessly, speaking out against them as she toured the country (accepting numerous awards for “Silent Spring”). “She wasn’t afraid. If she needed to, she would be very sarcastic. She would have been great on Twitter.”

EARLY WARMING WARNING: Steingraber reveres Carson as a serious scientist. “In one of her ocean books, she correctly identified climate change, in the 1950s. She noted that the polar oceans were warming and that the ice caps were disappearing. She wasn’t able to determine the cause of it, but she had all this data on glacial melting. That’s why I don’t use the word prescient, which is often used to describe her. I think that underserves her. She didn’t have some uncanny ESP about all this. She had a scientist’s ability to extract from the data. She was absolutely unrelenting about seeking out all the data from every area.” Some of Carson’s letters to other scientists are included in the volume. So are her letters to Dorothy Freeman, which Steingraber delighted in including. “Her love letters are kind of silly, and they have a whole different tone.”

THE GREEN BOOK: Steingraber said she doesn’t remember when she first read “Silent Spring.” But it was instantly a presence in her childhood. Her father was a high school teacher, and “that green book would come home every night with him.” He was a lifelong Republican, Steingraber said, and a World War II veteran who suffered from PTSD. Gardening was his therapy. After reading “Silent Spring,” her father became an organic gardener. “The spray guns disappeared. It was notable to my sister and me. And then boxes with holes in them, with lady bugs and praying mantis inside, began arriving in the mail. He didn’t want to deploy the weapons of war in his garden.”

TIMELY TOME: From Steingraber’s perspective, “Rachel Carson is having a moment for sure,” and it is an important one for a new generation facing enormous environmental threats Carson “had to push hard against her enemies in the chemical industry. They ran this whole campaign of disinformation. It is so much a mirror for our times, of what we are living in now under this administration, which is not only trying to discredit climate change, but science itself as a way of knowing the world.”

Correction: This article was updated at 11:18 a.m. on May 21, 2018 to correct the number to call for more information.

Mary Pols can be contacted at 791-6456 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MaryPols


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