May 27 marked the 100th birthday of Rachel Carson, who died at a young 56. And soon enough, the August week will arrive to mark the passing of Elvis Presley who died 30 years ago and at an even younger age, 42.
Granted, on the surface there’s not much to connect these two characters.
Elvis, with his open hips, made teen girls think about biology. Rachel, with her award-winning writing on the environment, made the whole chemistry industry hopping mad.
At the same time Rachel was putting the final touches on Silent Spring, Elvis was in Florida shooting a movie in Yankeetown, north of Tampa, where he paid a visit to one of Florida’s most famous springs, Weeki Wachee.
Under the surface is where the spring waters join Rachel, Elvis and us.
In 1941, Rachel Carson published her first book, Under the Sea, establishing her reputation as a prescient writer able to connect for a popular audience how we are connected, ourselves, to nature that shapes us. Elvis was just a child.
Twenty years later, Weeki Wachee, on U.S. Highway 19, was one of Florida’s premier tourist attractions. Elvis was at the height of his career and television had just started casting its net wide into the world of color.
Weeki Wachee was one of the most magical sights nature had to offer within easy distance of a broadcast station. A few years before Elvis’ visit, ABC Broadcasting purchased the spring and its attractions. Not too long after, Disney would make U.S. 19 and its attractions obsolete. (In the 1990s, Disney purchased ABC.)
Today Weeki Wachee lives on, in memories as splendid and youthful as the young Elvis. But in 1961, nothing could have been further from the mass culture fermenting at Weeki Wachee than Rachel Carson’s dire warnings.
Carson had already won a National Book Award for The Sea Around Us. Were she alive today, she would have been equally captivated by what has happened to Weeki Wachee.
The spring and its waters are murky with algae, a symbol of both Florida’s past and present: the entire peninsula of Florida is swimming in a sea of nitrogen pollution, measured in parts per billion.
In Time magazine’s portrait of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century, Peter Mathiessen (a writer who brilliantly chronicled Florida’s natural past) wrote about the hostility Carson faced with the publication of Silent Spring: “A huge counterattack was organized and led by Monsanto, Velsicol, American Cyanamid — indeed the whole chemical industry — duly supported by the Agricultural Department as well as the more cautious in the media (Time’s reviewer deplored Carson’s ‘oversimplifications and downright errors’.)”
Elvis lives on, at Graceland and in the hearts of millions of aging baby boomers, and also in “sightings” that may have more to do with recapturing what we have lost in ourselves than Elvis, himself.
Today we can look back from Elvis, Rachel and Weeki Wachee and understand that the nature of commerce that pollutes the environment is grounded in changeable ownership.
The same motivation that compelled bitter hostility against Rachel Carson, despite her broad popular appeal, is just as evident in the corporations organized to oppose mandatory measures to combat global warming.
And that is no different than our own state’s failure to impose measures to stop nitrogen pollution — from lawn fertilizers, from dairies and farms, from cesspits and stormwater runoff from roadways.
The publication of Silent Spring was a turning point in public awareness and demand for change in federal laws protecting the environment.
Today, the Bush White House is attempting damage control in advance of a summit of world leaders on climate change. Some of our allies, Germany in particular, have a big head start on adapting energy policies to a new economy.
Is it any wonder that much of the world views America as a nation that is king, mostly, in its own imagination?
We still love Elvis for what he was, but Rachel Carson gave us a glimpse of what we must become: caretakers for what our careless touch can ruin.
In Congress, a Republican senator from Oklahoma has effectively blocked a measure to honor Rachel Carson, on the 100th anniversary of her birth.
If Congress won’t, then there would be nothing more timely than for the chemical industry to reverse course and acknowledge the contribution Rachel Carson made when it was youthful and filled with promise.