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Steve Hinnefeld
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Book co-edited by IU professor examines legacy of author Rachel Carson

June 17, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Rachel Carson is best known for Silent Spring, her 1962 book that changed Americans' thinking about the dangers of chemicals and inspired the environmental movement. But Carson had a long a varied career as a writer of books and articles that celebrated nature and science.

Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge, co-edited by Lisa H. Sideris, assistant professor of religious studies at Indiana University Bloomington, examines the contested influence of Silent Spring along with Carson's earlier work, such as The Sea Around Us and her posthumously published The Sense of Wonder.

"Rachel Carson's life work shows us how a sense of wonder can be a virtue, perhaps a keystone virtue in our time of reckless destruction, a source of decency, hope and restraint," write Sideris and co-editor Kathleen Dean Moore, distinguished professor of philosophy at Oregon State University.

Published by SUNY Press, Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge incorporates a range of perspectives, in keeping with Carson's own multidisciplinary approach. Contributors include a poet, a philosopher, an entomologist and scholars of ethics, history and gender. There are chapters by activists Terry Tempest Williams and Sandra Steingraber, leading voices on the dangers of nuclear waste and toxic chemicals.

The idea for the book grew out of a series of lectures at Oregon State in 2002 celebrating the 40th anniversary of the publication of Silent Spring. It appears shortly after the centennial of Carson's birth; she was born in 1907 and died from breast cancer in 1964.

Sideris said Carson was a multi-faceted figure whose work combined an understanding of and appreciation for science with a spiritual and ethical appreciation for nature.

"I think what's revolutionary about her was that she was really the first person to make the argument that humans have a moral obligation to nature. That's something we take for granted now," she said.

The book is divided into five parts, titled A Legacy of Activism and Advocacy, Ethics on Land and at Sea, Reflections on Gender and Science, An Ongoing Toxic Discourse and A Legacy of Wonder. One chapter addresses the continuing symbolic power of DDT. (Some critics accuse Carson of "genocide" for inspiring a ban on a pesticide that killed malaria-carrying mosquitoes). Another looks at the gender bias that Carson faced writing in the "man's world" of science; it is titled "Silence, Miss Carson!", the headline on a review of Silent Spring in Chemical and Engineering News.

Sideris contributes essays on the relationship between Carson's breast cancer and her understanding of the environment and on the religious aspects of her work. While Carson wasn't a regular churchgoer, the influence of her Presbyterian upbringing shows up in her criticism of humans as "puffed up with pride" in their attempts to control nature, Sideris said.

Carson's outrage over the destruction of nature, the book makes clear, grew directly from her appreciation of the beauty, complexity and mystery of the natural world. In 1956, six years before Silent Spring, Carson wrote an article, "Help Your Child to Wonder," for the magazine Woman's Home Companion. Published after Carson's death as The Sense of Wonder, that celebration of the healing power of nature and the moral significance of wonder "is really her last word," Sideris said.

The introductory chapter of Rachel Carson: Legacy and Challenge can be read online at the SUNY Press Web site, For review copies, contact Susan Petrie at 518-472-5008 or

To speak to Lisa Sideris, contact Steve Hinnefeld at University Communications, 812-856-3488 or