Film Review: PBS American Experience’s ‘Rachel Carson’


A PBS documentary offers an in-depth look at the life and work of “Silent Spring“ author Rachel Carson.

Marine biologist and author Rachel Carson is the subject of a new PBS documentary, which tells her story of ushering in the environmental movement in the 1960s. Image Credit: PBS

Growing up on a Pennsylvania farm, Rachel Carson’s first classroom was the natural world. In 1910, at eight years old, she wrote her first story. Two years later, she became a published author, and by 14 she began selling articles to magazines. Ultimately, she dedicated her life to communicating about nature and published four books including the seminal work “Silent Spring” – a book many believe launched the environmental movement. Rachel Carson is the subject of an inspiring new PBS American Experience documentary, directed by Michelle Ferrari, produced by Ferrari and Rafael de la Uz and executive produced by Mark Samels.

Featuring interviews with experts – including scientists, historians and people personally connected to Carson – the film details Carson’s life from her upbringing to her final days, providing thoughtful commentary on her legacy. As much as the documentary tells the story of a science communicator, it also delves into the tale of the advent of pesticides, particularly dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT), after World War II.

Carson saw a clear parallel between pesticides and the nuclear weapons being tested during the Cold War. Not only were the visuals of the two similar—nuclear fallout’s white ash and pesticide’s sticky, white powder—but so were the fears and anxieties fueling their development and use, as well as their abilities to make plants, animals and waterways toxic.

In the film, the desire to rid the Earth of insects, like fire ants and malaria-bearing mosquitoes, is characterized to parallel the tension between nations and their ideologies during the Cold War. Carson and “Silent Spring” sounded the alarm to the rampant use of pesticides without knowing the long-term toxicity and effects of the chemicals. The narrator notes that during World War II, “more soldiers had been sidelined by malaria than by gunshot wounds,” prompting the saturation of Pacific islands with DDT.

“It became obvious to us that atmospheric testing was much more than a convenient frame for Carson’s argument about pesticides––it was at once context and catalyst for a dramatic shift in her thinking about the natural world and the relation of human beings to it,” the film’s director Ferrari explained via email. “We wanted to track that shift.”

As a writer and marine biologist, Carson felt compelled to communicate about nature and give people reason to be mindful and protect it. “The sea taught her everything that she later came to want to understand and want the world to understand that everything was connected to everything else,” Linda Lear, author of several books about Carson, said in the documentary.

Rachel Carson on her porch in Southport, Maine, 1955. Image Credit: Martha Freeman

While working at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries, now known as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Carson wrote diligently during nights and weekends for her first book. In 1941, Simon & Schuster published “Under the Sea Wind.” Unfortunately, the book did not launch her into the career she dreamed of despite critical praise. In the documentary, William Souder, a biographer of Carson, said the attack on Pearl Harbor a few weeks later and the United States’ subsequent entry into World War II took the attention away from books. Her literary career would have to wait.

The sea was a great mystery, as it is today, with 95 percent of Earth’s ocean yet to be explored. Carson’s second book in 1951, “The Sea Around Us,” helped change that. She poured over research and translated inaccessible jargon into beautiful prose. “What she has done is to take a very complicated subject and distill it into its essence and bring the reader right there, so science which can be extraordinarily impersonal and dry has suddenly become immediate and very important,” Deborah Cramer, visiting scholar at MIT’s Environmental Solutions Initiative, said in the documentary.

The filmmakers cite Carson’s eloquence and ability to translate complex science for the general public as a major factor in the success of Carson’s books. The scholars note the deep connection she felt with the ocean, which fueled her ability and commitment to write about it so beautifully. President and CEO of the Rachel Carson Council Robert K. Musil said in the documentary, “She identifies with the creatures who live on the edge, this border land between the power of water that could also crush you and its ability to release life and create new life.”

Carson’s passion for writing and the environment was evident from the start. Her voice is brought to life by recordings and the voice of actress Mary-Louise Parker: “I can remember no time even in earliest childhood when I didn’t assume I was going to be a writer. Also, I can remember no time when I wasn’t interested in the out of doors and the whole world of nature.”

The filmmakers touch on the gender-based critiques Carson and her work endured, which resonates with recent emphasis on the obstacles many women encounter when working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. The narrator cites critics who called “Silent Spring” “a high-pitched, emotional, scientifically indefensible screed.” Chemical scientists were irked and threatened by a woman leading the movement to study the long-term impacts on nature when evaluating chemicals.

Rachel Carson at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 1950. Image Credit: Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives, Connecticut College.

Naomi Oreskes, history of science scholar from Harvard University, explains in the documentary: “The idea that this woman with what a master’s degree (thinks) that she knows something that we don’t know. You just see their condescension towards her in their dismissive approach and their misrepresentation of her work. They try to accuse her of rejecting modernity, of being unrealistic, of wanting to ban all pesticides. None of which are true, but it’s a way to try to discredit her and discredit the argument, and it’s a way to not even have the argument.”

As the winner of the U.S. National Book Award, a New York Times best-selling author, and a posthumous recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Carson’s story is an admirable one worth telling and discussing. While her work is timeless, it seems particularly relevant to today’s scientific and environmental issues.

In her lifetime, Rachel Carson published four influential books—three about the sea and one about the effects of pesticides. Image Credit: From left to right, Penguin Classics, Oxford University Press, Mariner Books, Houghton Mifflin Co.

“While I would never say that her message has gone unheeded––after all, there’s been a robust environmental movement for more than half a century now––it does seem to me that we’re not really any closer to finding the right balance than we were in 1962,” said Ferrari. To the filmmakers, Carson’s message bears repeating given the challenges we face today.

“It was pleasant to believe that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man,” Carson wrote in a letter to close friend Dorothy Freeman. “He might level the forests and damn the streams, but the clouds and the rain and the wind were gods. But I have now opened my eyes and my mind. I may not like what I see, but it does no good to ignore it, and it’s worse than useless to go on repeating the old ‘eternal verities’ that are no more eternal than the hills of the poets.”

Just as Carson’s work has helped people notice a connection between themselves and nature, the documentary also works to do so in its telling of Carson’s story. The film leaves a viewer reflecting on their roles with nature, perhaps inspiring a drive to understand it better, factor it more into consideration when using tools and technology and take caution in human’s abilities to affect the natural world.

A fitting film to mark the author’s 110th birthday and the 55th anniversary of the publication of “Silent Spring” in 2017, “Rachel Carson” airs Tuesday, Jan. 24, on PBS.

The author Dani Leviss is a writer based in New Jersey. She recently graduated from Drew University with a bachelor’s in chemistry and minors in writing and art.