[4 May 2007]
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Walk a paved trail through the Burr Oak Woods with Lynn Youngblood, the nature preserve’s manager, and you’re likely to learn a few things:
How the mayapple plant, which sends a colony of low-lying umbrellas out of the ground from a single horizontal root, is mostly poisonous except for the ripe berries that appear in the fall.
If you’re lucky, she’ll spot a broad-headed skink as it skitters through the crunchy dry leaves on the forest floor.
“It’s a male,” she says, after noticing the telltale, early-season orange head as the little lizard dives for cover.
Youngblood has worked as a naturalist for more than two decades, and it’s quite possible that she would not have chosen her career path on this wooded trail in Blue Springs, Mo., had it not been for a brave American woman with a typewriter.
Her avowed hero is Rachel Carson, who combined writing and biology on the way to changing the course of American culture.
“She was the first true environmentalist,” Youngblood said recently at the Missouri Conservation Department’s nature center, which she has managed for 17 years.
Carson would have turned 100 on May 27. Instead she died at age 56 of breast cancer just two years after alerting the nation to a hidden environmental crisis. Her fourth book, “Silent Spring,” published in 1962, exposed the danger of toxic chemicals on wildlife and, by extension, on humans, who, she argued quite successfully, could not be separated from the chain of life that surrounds us.
“She recognized that our natural resources were not being wisely used,” Youngblood said, “and that we the people were destroying them by our practices. And we had to do something immediately.”
As “green” becomes not only the color of money, but the color of a major change in public attitudes, many people say we have Carson, more than most, to thank. Without her, we’d not likely be spending time with this month’s “Green Issue” of Vanity Fair, which documents water crises and South American oil debates alongside its celebration of celebrity environmentalists.
Nor would we have a new book, “Courage for the Earth,” in which a lineup of writers, natural historians and others toast Carson’s accomplishment and her legacy.
Even Al Gore, who often is cited as a catalyst for new awareness about global warming, by way of the Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” appears in that book to say, wait a minute folks, it’s not about me, it’s about her.
Without “Silent Spring,” Gore writes, “the environmental movement might have been long delayed or never have developed at all.”
Carson was born May 27, 1907, in the western Pennsylvania town of Springdale. She began writing as an adolescent, successfully publishing short stories in her teens. Her path into science started at Pennsylvania Women’s College (now Chatham College) and Johns Hopkins University in Maryland.
She wrote three elegant, closely observed books about oceans and shorelines and their resident creatures. A couple of them, “The Sea Around Us” and “The Edge of the Sea,” were best-sellers in the 1950s.
Then one day she got a letter from a friend who expressed concern about the pesticide DDT, which had been sprayed widely in her community to eradicate mosquitoes. The letter prompted Carson, who’d worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to investigate. She spent nearly five years exploring the previously untold consequences of toxic chemicals in the environment.
“Silent Spring” became a sensation and was followed quickly by trade industry outrage, congressional hearings and eventually by the banning of DDT, which was blamed, among other things, for endangering the existence of the nation’s majestic symbol, the bald eagle.
“We must all have a great sense of responsibility,” she told an interviewer in 1962, “and not let things happen because everyone takes the comfortable view that someone else is looking after it. Someone else isn’t looking after it.”
Reuse. Repair. Recycle. Reduce.
Paul Hilpman adopted those four R’s years ago in his teaching and as a philosophy of living in the world. The retired geologist and professor at both the University of Kansas and UMKC recognizes Carson as a catalyst in his field of environmental science.
Sitting in a basement rec room that he built, it becomes clear that Hilpman lives the motto.
He cut and rewelded metal bed rails to frame the windows. A lavatory, someone else’s construction mistake, comes from Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore.
“It cost $5,” he said.
Prop open the end of the old, coal-fired boiler—voila!—there’s a wine rack.
The point, Hilpman said, is that consumerism and status consciousness might make us feel good, but it’s hugely wasteful. You’ve got to make a choice.
Although industry tried to vilify Carson’s position after the publication of “Silent Spring,” Carson’s real legacy, Hilpman said, was to spark a feverish round of science in the 1960s.
By the end of that decade a corporate-supported committee of the American Chemical Society developed a significant report, titled “Cleaning Our Environment: The Chemical Basis for Action,” which essentially buttressed what Carson had shown.
Carson highlighted the notion of interconnectedness, an idea that has become virtually embedded in the cultural and scientific consciousness.
Garrett Hardin, author of a landmark essay about overpopulation, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” raised the related notion that “you can’t do only one thing,” Hilpman said, meaning that everything you do affects something else. And you can’t do nothing, Hardin wrote, because that’s an action, too.
Hilpman’s own relationship to environmental science dates to the 1950s, when he began working for the Kansas Geological Survey. Among the projects he was involved with was a study of Kansas salt mines as a potential depository for nuclear waste.
The hugely divisive issue illustrates the enormous effort it takes to deal with the consequences of modern society on a planetary scale.
“It took us a half century to make a decision on a way to get rid of the stuff,” Hilpman said, referring to the establishment in recent years of the Yucca Mountain repository project in Nevada.
“I don’t hold out a lot of hope.”
To Lynn Youngblood, hope may lie only in education.
Her biology teacher at St. Teresa’s Academy introduced her to “Silent Spring” in the 1970s.
And now, the 47-year-old says Carson’s greatest legacy is in the work that occurs at Burr Oak Woods Conservation Nature Center. With 1,100 acres of glades and forests, Burr Oak was the state conservation department’s first nature preserve. Later this year it will mark its 25th anniversary.
What’s most important, Youngblood says, is how she and her colleagues at Burr Oak Woods reach children and make them and their elders conscious of and comfortable with nature.
“You feel a lot closer to the Earth when you’re working with kids,” she says, “when you get in the dirt with them and help them see what it’s all about.”
RACHEL CARSON IN PRINT AND ON THE WEB
“Courage for the Earth: Writers, Scientists, and Activists Celebrate the Life and Writing of Rachel Carson.” Edited by Peter Matthiessen, one of the deans of American writers on natural history. This new book captures the spirit that drives the likes of Al Gore and Terry Tempest Williams. (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95 paperback)
“Silent Spring” has never gone out of print and was reissued in a 40th anniversary edition in 2002. Carson’s other books include “Under the Sea-Wind” (1941), “The Sea Around Us” (1951) and “The Edge of the Sea” (1955).
rachelcarson.org—Established by Linda Lear, author of a 1997 biography of Carson.
www.fws.gov/rachelcarson—Until she began writing full time, Carson worked in the 1940s and ‘50s for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has this Web site devoted to her.