Silent Spring author Rachel Carson knew little about Maine when she saved up a month of vacation from her government job and rented a tiny cottage just west of Boothbay Harbor.
She planned to study lobster culture at the nearby fishery.
In June 1946, Rachel Carson was not yet a world-renowned author and environmentalist. A marine biologist, she’d spent 10 years working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
She was 39 years old, a Pennsylvania farm girl born on May 27, 1907. As part of her job she wrote booklets on Atlantic Coast wildlife refuges. She also supplemented her income by writing natural history articles for the Baltimore Sun and The Atlantic.
During her month-long vacation with her widowed mother she fell completely in love with Maine.
The three things she loved best about Maine were ‘star shine on the water, northern lights and dark water shot through with needles of light as fish disturb its surface and catch reflections of the sky.’
She decided she needed to buy a place of her own in Maine, but she didn’t have enough money.
So Rachel Carson entered an essay contest sponsored by Outdoor Life magazine. She won second prize for her four-page essay on habitat pollution: overfishing, unregulated hunting of waterfowl and damming of rivers where fish spawn.
With her prize came $1,000 – nice, but not enough to buy a Maine cottage.
It was the publication of her book, The Sea Around Us, that allowed her to move to Maine.. The book, translated into 32 languages, stayed on The New York Times bestseller list for 81 weeks.
In 1952, she bought a piece of waterfront property on Southport Island near Boothbay. She had a simple summer cottage built on the island and moved to it in 1953. Three years later she founded the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, the fourth field office in the country. She called it the ‘one group which encourages practical action.’
Carson spent summers at her cottage on Southport Island studying the beach and tide pools for her next book, The Edge of the Sea. She wouldn’t publish her most famous book, Silent Spring, until 1962. Silent Spring documented the damage caused by pesticides and the lies the chemical industry told about it.
Silent Spring also launched the modern environmental movement, but by then Rachel Carson was battling breast cancer.
She also battled the chemical industry. Knowing her radiation therapy would weaken her, Rachel Carson marshaled scientists to vet the book before publication, and enlisted the support of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas.
Sure enough, chemical companies threatened to sue her publisher and magazines that serialized Silent Spring. They also published articles and brochures attacking her. However they failed to turn back the tide of outrage that resulted in a ban on DDT in 1972.
She died of a heart attack on April 14, 1964. In 1966, the State of Maine in cooperation with the federal government established the Coastal Maine National Wildlife Refuge.
Three years later, in perhaps the most fitting possible tribute, the refuge was renamed the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge now stretches from Kittery to Cape Elizabeth, encompassing 1,167 acres of salt marsh and uplands.
It was what she would have wanted.
With thanks to Rachel Carson, Witness for Nature by Linda Lear. Photo of Carson with Udall, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo of tidal salt marsh at Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge By Captain-tucker – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5532492.
This story was updated in 2022.