Chapter Twenty-Two - Rachel Carson’s Alarm


Strange to think that Walt Disney—who had done so much to help protect wildlife with Bambi, Seal Island, and White Wilderness—gave popular credence to the romantic thrust of what William O. Douglas and Jack Kerouac were arguing in the 1950s about ramblers’ rights. Among the most popular movie shorts of the late 1940s had been Disney’s film about Johnny Appleseed (starring Dennis Day). Suddenly Appleseed’s grave in Fort Wayne, Indiana, became a pilgrimage site for environmentalists. Everything about the historical Johnny Appleseed spoke of forest protection in an era of logging. Historical texts, often infused with folklore, reported that the footloose and fancy-free Appleseed always dressed in ragged clothes, wore ill-fitting shoes without socks, and willingly ate table scraps. In 1871 Harper’s New Monthly Magazine had portrayed Appleseed as a wandering mystic. A ninety-nine-year-old friend of Appleseed in Wells County, Indiana, remembered Johnny’s tramps along the Maumee River of Ohio-Indiana. Appleseed, he said, was “crazy as a loon,” always with “an apple in his hands, turning it over and over, wiping it off, and then picking out the seeds, and putting them in his pocket.”1

Disney also promoted the tramping tradition in the 1955 film Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier. The movie’s theme song—“The Ballad of Davy Crockett”—was known to virtually every kid in America. The words began: “Born on a mountaintop in Tennessee/Greenest state in the land of the free.” Kerouac, Whalen, Snyder, and Douglas also knew something about mountaintops—and wilderness lovers like themselves were suddenly in vogue among adolescents along with Disney’s Davy Crockett. When the film’s star, Fess Parker, went to Washington, D.C., he was mobbed by 18,000 to 20,000 fans at the National Airport. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and senators Estes Kefauver of Tennessee and Lyndon Johnson of Texas took Parker to lunch and were overwhelmed by joyful cries of “We love you, Davy.”2

When it came to the promotion of Arctic Alaska, the last frontier, Disney also delivered for the wilderness movement. In 1956 Lois Crisler had published her popular memoir, Arctic Wild, about spending the winter and spring photographing wolves and caribou in the Brooks Range. Now it was time for the movie.3 “Disney’s focus on the ‘timeless’ frontier region of the Pacific Northwest, and particularly Alaska, as the setting for many True-Life Adventures coincided with public campaign efforts to preserve wilderness areas in the far north led by such organizations as the Conservation Foundation and The Wilderness Society,” Gregg Mitman writes in Reel Nature. “The completion of the Alaska Highway in 1948 threatened what many conservationists like Robert Marshall, founder of The Wilderness Society, had hoped in 1938 would become a permanent place to relive ‘pioneer conditions’ and the ‘emotional value of the frontier.’ ”4

To promote the forthcoming Disney documentary White Wilderness—a groundbreaking precursor of today’s Deadliest Catch and Man vs. Wild, Alaskan adventures on the Discovery Channel—photographs were circulated of Herb and Lois Crisler eating roast frog in Oregon and hand-feeding wolves in Alaska. At a time when the cold war pervaded American life and newspapers were filled with grim reports about Khrushchev, Mao, and the hydrogen bomb, the back-to-nature movement found a place in pop culture and was a huge success at the box office. When Disney releasedWhite Wilderness, about the Crislers, in 1958, the critics praised the wildlife photography. Never before had the migration of caribou, the howls of wolf packs, and the antics of grizzly bears been experienced by so many people. Disney’s nine cameramen caught all the inherent drama of Alaska’s spring thaw and winter freeze. Moviegoers’ hearts raced as lemmings “committed suicide” by jumping off cliffs, a wolverine attacked a fleeing rabbit, and polar bears swam in the Arctic Ocean in search of seals. For use in schools Disney had White Wilderness cut into fifteen-minute capsule specialty films such as “Large Animals of the Arctic” and “The Lemmings and Arctic Birdlife.”

In the 1980s the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation newsmagazine The Fifth Estate (a counterpart of CBS’s 60 Minutes) attacked White Wilderness as nature faking and as having involved cruelty to animals. Disney’s cameramen were accused of forcing lemmings off a cliff into the Arctic Sea. And the cute scene of a polar bear cub tumbling down a snowy embankment had been shot, allegedly, in a film studio in Calgary.5 These were serious charges, but in 1958, when White Wilderness won an Academy Award for best documentary, they didn’t seem to matter to the “Save Arctic Alaska” movement.

The Crislers had done an impressive job of promoting the enduring beauty of Alaska in both Arctic Wild and White Wilderness, and, building on the status established with their cult work A True-Life Adventure: The Olympic Elk in 1952, they became television celebrities and were sought for speaking engagements from Los Angeles to New York. Somehow, in the era of the cold war and containment, Disney’s Arctic was therapeutic, a reminder that parts of America were still wild. Retreating to Crag Cabin, their home near Lake George, Colorado (forty miles from Colorado Springs), the Crislers started raising wolves and dog-wolves in their fenced-in backyard. Nature appeared to have been domesticated, with Disney’s help. After having brought public attention to the Olympic Mountains, they now made Americans aware that the United States owned part of the Arctic. The Naval Petroleum Reserve had been claimed for oil in 1923; now some adjacent acres were up for grabs. The Crislers’ love of wolves far outdistanced Gary Snyder’s humorous affection for coyotes or Peter Matthiessen’s calm appreciation of musk oxen. “Sometimes [the female] ululated, drawing her tongue up and down her mouth like a trombone slide,” Lois Crisler wrote. “Sometimes in a long note she held the tip of her tongue curled against the roof of her mouth. She shaped her notes with her cheeks, retracing them for plangency, or holding the sound within them for horn notes. She must have had pleasure and sensitiveness about her song for if I entered on her note she instantly shifted by a note or two: wolves avoid unison singing; they like chords.”6

The New York Times extolled Lois Crisler for contributing to our “knowledge of animal behavior.” While the untamable Ginsberg was reading “Howl” at the Six Gallery, Lois Crisler was giving slide presentations of wolves actually howling all over Alaska. While Matthiessen was studying sandhill cranes that breed in the wetlands of western, northern, and interior Alaska (and also catching up with them near Corpus Christi, Texas), Crisler was having Colorado schoolchildren pat wolves as if these animals were poodles. The field biologist David Mech—author of The Wolf: The Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species—later credited the Crislers with giving the wolf a makeover from a rangeland menace to a beguiling trickster with the heart of a dog. Without Arctic Wild and White Wilderness, in which wolves were the dignified heroes, the reintroduction of the species to former ranges such as Yellowstone National Park, Idaho, and New Mexico would have been hugely unlikely.7

While Justice Douglas fumed about Disney’s nature faking, Olaus Murie knew that True-Life Adventures would attract a new, young audience to the cause of wildlife protection. By trying to capture the quirks of animals in his documentaries, Disney aroused sympathy for them. Disney, in fact, told Olaus Murie that he loved to watch squirrels playing games outside his window; they seemed to have “personalities just as distinct and varied as humans.”8 Murie knew that Disney was overly romantic and given to anthropomorphism—Disney saw human qualities in animals—but he was an important ally of conservation, and Murie did not want to be rude to him. “All nature,” Murie once wrote to Disney, “has much in common among its various forms; certain general laws, certain general reactions, and much that can be predicted under many circumstances. But, and I hope this is not too paradoxical, there are many distinct facets that have individuality.”9

With Douglas being the only dissenter, The Wilderness Society rallied behind Disney’s True-Life Adventures filmed in Alaska. In an article in Living Wilderness, Murie marveled at Disney’s unique ability to capture “the simple beauty of untouched woodlands and their wild inhabitants” (although Murie later criticized Disney’s film The Living Desert as overemphasizing “tooth and claw” and as being exploitative).10 And that was the most controlled praise for White Wilderness. Another reviewer for Living Wildernesssaid that Disney was the best friend conservationists had, “a sun ripening the grain for wilderness advocates to harvest!” The National Audubon Society bestowed on Disney its prestigious Audubon Medal.11


There are many wonderful stories about the friendship that developed between Lois Crisler and Rachel Carson following Disney’s release of White Wilderness. Crisler spent time at Silver Spring with Carson, at exactly the time when America’s gifted marine biologist was tormented by the problem of how to make her controversial scientific findings public and was marshaling damning evidence that DDT was poisoning animals and making humans sick. Carson’s correspondence with Crisler between 1956 and 1960 shows her promoting the “wonderful book” Arctic Wild. Together Carson and Crisler formed a sort of iron sisterhood that eventually included Beverly Knecht, Dorothy Algire, Irston Barnes, and a few others. When Carson had radiation treatments for breast cancer, she confided in Crisler her fears and her determination to become a survivor. Furiously, Carson worked on Silent Spring (the title came from a poem by John Keats), struggling with her own ill health, determined to ring an alarm bell about the lethal effects of pesticides, DDT, and other toxic chemicals. Carson and Crisler were planning to hike trails together in the Colorado Rockies once Carson finished Silent Spring. They wanted to brainstorm on how to stop poisoned bait being dropped from planes by U.S. Fish and Wildlife agents all over Arctic Alaska; the agents were trying to exterminate only wolves, but the chemicals were also killing polar bears and grizzlies.12 “I feel really over the hump now—there remain only two new chapters to do, plus of course a lot of final revision,” Carson wrote to Crisler in August 1961 from Maine. “There has been good solid progress this summer and at last it moves with its own momentum.”13

Equally worried about contaminants invading water, air, soil, and vegetation in the late 1950s was Justice Douglas. From his imposing office at the Supreme Court he sought cutting-edge data on radioactive waste, fallout from nuclear explosions, detergents used in homes, and chemical wastes from factories. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was spraying public lands, Douglas believed, with toxins. Couldn’t people understand that when cattle ate grass sprayed with DDT, the milk would be contaminated? Didn’t BLM comprehend that, say, spraying DDT on sagebrush killed the willows, too? At his small ranch in Goose Prairie, Washington, Douglas—after horseback riding in the Snoqualmie National Forest, which adjoined his eight-acre spread—would write flawless prose about the degradation of the planet by big corporations.14 Nobody, in fact, cheered Carson on in her writing of Silent Spring with more fervor than Douglas. She reciprocated by quoting, in Silent Spring, from Douglas’s dissent in Murphy v. Butler (1960)—a landmark environmental case involving people on Long Island who wanted to ban the use of DDT to arrest Dutch elm disease.15 “The Great God the Dollar has sent us recklessly into chemical controls that have upset the biotic community,” Douglas scolded. “Some controls of insects are necessary, but they must be carefully designed and applied.”16


Peter Matthiessen called Silent Spring the “cornerstone of the new environmentalism.” The main, stunning thrust of Carson’s book was that Americans were poisoning themselves by misusing synthetic pesticides. Every farmer or outdoors worker was affected. Bringing into her narrative the ecological history of the world, plus her own bona fides as a longtime marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and as the acclaimed author of The Sea Around Us, which was published in 1952 and won a National Book Award, Carson was a scientist with an abiding social conscience. Over the years she had accumulated powerful allies, had become a highly respected science writer, and had become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Known for her fierce spirit, and for her abruptness, Carson had shrugged off admonishments from her peers who accused her of courting popularity. Somehow she intuited that during the cold war the reading public needed trustworthy voices to speak about the natural world. The Sea Around Us was on the New York Times list of best sellers for eighty-six weeks. By writing complex marine biology in such an accomplished way, with integrity shining forth from every line, Carson had a kind of power that transcended Lois Crisler’s livelier Arctic exploits. At the Atlantic Monthly, New Yorker, New York Review of Books, and New York Times, Carson could do no wrong.

Chemical corruption of earth was a big topic for many marine biologists to get their hands around. Carson had learned about DDT—the insect bomb—shortly after World War II. Although she didn’t write about DDT until Silent Spring, she was accumulating disturbing scientific information about its deleterious effects throughout the 1950s. Success tends to breed intense jealousy in America, particularly for a woman in what was then the male-influenced world of laboratory science. There was gossip that the mild-mannered Carson was the lesbian lover of Dorothy Freeman of Maine, that she was merely a stalking horse for the Audubon Society, and that her name was mud at the USDA. Perhaps it was all true. But who cared? The U.S. government’s reckless spraying of fire ants with toxic pesticides and its poisoning of rivers and lakes needed a whistle-blower; Carson stepped into the role with true courage. Boldly, she claimed that the pesticides were biocides and caused cancer in humans. With the stakes so high, Carson’s personal life was irrelevant. But to set the record straight, in the late 1950s Carson was taking care of her sick mother, helping to raise an orphaned five-year-old nephew, and combating a duodenal ulcer. It was the support supplied by her woman friends, Lois Crisler among them, that helped Carson persevere in writing the “galvanic jolt,” as the naturalist E. O. Wilson of Harvard called Silent Spring, when the entire U.S. chemical industry maligned her character.17

Long before Carson and Crisler, women had been important in the U.S. conservation movement. There was the indomitable Isabella Bird, whose explorations of the Rocky Mountains in 1873 had a distinctly feminist goal: “simply to experience the place the same as any male nature lover.”18Her memoir A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, based on the letters she sent from Colorado to her sister, remains a classic evocation of the Rockies’ wilderness as a “place of freedom from civilization.”19 Even more significantly, Mary Hunter Austin came onto the literary scene in 1903, writing Land of Little Rain, an elegiac memoir promoting conservation of the American Southwest. Every page had the feel of hand-polished turquoise. Death Valley and the Mojave Desert were, finally, not dismissed as wastelands but celebrated as bountiful ecosystems. Bird and Austin are taught in courses in environmental history, but other activists haven’t been given their due. Whether it was saving the Palisades along the Hudson River or the ancient ruins at Mesa Verde or stopping saw gangs from clear-cutting California’s sequoias, women’s organizations were often in the front ranks of the preservation movement. Pick your state and you’ll find heroines. In Minnesota there was Lydia Phillips Williams, who protected the Chippewa National Forest from becoming board feet. In Calaveras County, California, Harriet West Jackson prevented timber barons from devastating Calaveras Groves. By 1915, more than 50 percent of the members of the National Audubon Society were women. By the late 1920s, when Herbert Hoover was in the White House, the same was true of the National Parks Association.20

The novelist Edna Ferber, author of So Big, Show Boat, Cimarron, and Giant, also entered the “wild Alaska” movement in the 1950s. To gather material for her 1957 novel, Ice Palace, Ferber made five trips to Alaska. There is a wonderful photograph of Ferber bundled up in winter clothes, hood covering her ears, hands deep in coat pockets, taken in the Arctic village of Kotzebue. Ferber thought Alaska was pure magic. A love letter to Alaska, Ice Palace was sometimes called the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the movement for statehood. With an unerring eye for detail, Ferber wrote about parkas, salmon fisheries, and mining-camp prostitutes; her portrait of Alaska as it was transformed from a territory to a state remains timeless. “Alaska,” she said, “is two times the size of that little bitty Texas they’re always yawping about.”21

In Arctic Alaska, Rachel Carson, Lois Crisler, and Mardy Murie were at the forefront of the conservation movement. They were in 1960 what Roosevelt, Muir, and Burroughs had been in the first decade of the twentieth century. Carson’s Edge of the Sea offered essential scientific arguments for protecting Alaska’s unparalleled marine life. Crisler’s Arctic Wild brought wolves and caribou into the category of spectacular North American animals worthy of federal protection. And in 1960 Murie, disseminating her detailed diaries of the Sheenjek River Expedition of 1956 among friends in The Wilderness Society, helped persuade the Eisenhower administration to protect more than 8.9 million acres (increased to more than 19 million acres in 1980) of the Arctic Range. Murie’s filmLetters from the Brooks Range shows her washing clothes in Arctic waters, a modern-day embodiment of the pioneer woman.22 All three women were effective conservationist crusaders in 1959, for they placed the ideas of ecology within the broader context of the cold war and frowned on nuclear testing in far-flung ecosystems such as the Aleutians.

While schoolchildren were watching Disney’s White Wilderness in biology classes and theaters in 1959, Carson sent a letter to the Washington Post warning that the pesticides had arrived and were destroying birdlife. This letter awoke Americans to the toxic perils in their own backyards. Some of Carson’s biological research had been reinforced by Christine Stevens of the Animal Welfare Institute.23 The National Audubon Society gave further credence to Carson’s brave research, documenting the declining populations of bald eagles as a result of DDT.24 In Alaska, as Matthiessen noted in Wildlife in America, there was a chance to save the last great wilderness. “To many of us this sudden silencing of the song of birds,” Carson wrote, “this obliteration of the color and beauty and interest of birdlife, is sufficient cause for sharp regret.”25 To Mardy Murie, the combination of Project Chariot and DDT was too much to bear. With Alaska’s statehood looming, a quid pro quo to save the Arctic Range had to be worked out quickly. The “save the Arctic” movement needed to quickly gather a head of steam.

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