Rachel Carson always wanted to be a writer. In 1918, at the age of 11, Carson published her first story—a single paragraph about a World War I pilot who survived a dogfight only to die later in a training exercise. The piece appeared in St. Nicholas, a magazine for boys and girls. Forty-four years later, Carson published what is widely regarded as one of the most important books of the 20th century: Silent Spring.

A polemic against the overuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT, Silent Spring was at the center of a fierce controversy even before it came out in September of 1962. In June of that year, The New Yorker magazine previewed the book in three long excerpts. The chemicals industry—and its allies in government—pushed back, mounting a well-financed publicity campaign to convince the public of the safety and economic necessity of pesticides.

One major pesticide maker threatened Carson's publisher with a lawsuit if it published Silent Spring. The book came out anyway. Nobody sued.

Silent Spring became a bestseller, raising an outcry over the dangers pesticides posed to wildlife and to human health. President Kennedy set up a scientific commission to investigate the claims Carson had made in Silent Spring. Half a year later, the commission concluded that Carson was right, though what to do about the pesticide problem went unanswered in the report.

Reviews of Silent Spring, meanwhile, were mostly favorable. The New York Times said it "tingles with anger, outrage, and protest" and likened the book's rallying cry against pesticides to Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic attack on slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. But the dissenting critics were harsh. Time magazine called the book "unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic."

What kind of writer could ignite such a contradictory and far-reaching firestorm? In this case, it was just about the last writer anyone would have expected.

Early Days

Rachel Carson was born in 1907, in an upstairs bedroom of a modest, clapboard-sided, four-room house overlooking the Allegheny River in Springdale, Penn. The Carsons had little means. Their house did not have electricity or central heat or indoor plumbing, but it stood on a pretty hillside by an orchard. From early childhood onward, young Rachel enjoyed watching the birds and animals that shared her small world.

Carson in 1925 entered Pennsylvania College for Women as an English major, planning to become a writer, a profession for which she had the highest regard. But halfway through college, Carson fell in love with science and switched her major to biology. Studying at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., in summers, she narrowed her focus to the ocean. Carson eventually earned a master's degree in zoology at Johns Hopkins University.

Forced by the Great Depression to abandon further graduate studies and find a job, she discovered a way to combine her two passions of science and writing. In 1936 she went to work full time for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. Her title was junior aquatic biologist, but she did little actual scientific work. Instead, Carson's job mainly involved writing official pamphlets and press releases and editing technical papers authored by the bureau's scientific staff. In 1940 the Bureau of Fisheries became part of a new agency called the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Carson, rising steadily, would become its editor in chief.

From the beginning of her career in government, Carson's writing talent set her apart. In 1937 the Atlantic Monthly published "Undersea," an essay Carson had originally composed as a work assignment. Her supervisor had rejected it for being "too good" for a government publication, insisting she submit it to a popular magazine with a large readership. Here's Carson in "Undersea," describing how the open ocean differs from the near-shore waters:

Between the Chesapeake Capes and the elbow of Cape Cod the place where the continent ends and the true sea begins lies from fifty to one hundred miles from the tide lines. It is not the distance from shore, but the depth, that marks the transition to the true sea; for wherever the gently sloping sea bottom feels the weight of a hundred fathoms of water above it, suddenly it begins to fall away in escarpments and steep palisades, descending abruptly from twilight into darkness.

In the late 1940s, Carson worked on a remarkable series of pamphlets called Conservation in Action, which she devised as a way of explaining the goals of the National Wildlife Refuge system and its role in conservation. The idea of "conserving" America's natural resources had been rooted in the concerns of sportsmen about dwindling fish and game. In the Conservation in Action series, Carson—writing with her customary grace—explained two problems central to conservation. The first was to overcome the long-held but mistaken idea that fish and game were inexhaustible resources. In fact, Carson wrote, the story of American wildlife was a kind of serial tragedy, in which one formerly robust species after another had declined alarmingly because of overhunting and habitat loss.

The second difficulty Carson examined was the tendency to evaluate wildlife species by species, in isolation from one another. It was instead necessary, Carson wrote, to begin to see the interrelationships among different species and their collective environments. This "ecological" perspective was coming to prominence at midcentury. The perspective was important not only to Carson's work, but also to that of her fellow wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold, who in A Sand County Almanac proposed his famous land ethic. "A thing is right," Leopold wrote, "when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise."

Work in Progress

In 1950 Carson's agent began circulating chapters of a work in progress to magazine editors, hoping to place one or two excerpts while Carson continued to work on a book tentatively titled Return to the Sea. There were many rejections, but to Carson's delight The New Yorker was enthusiastic about a chapter on waves—and asked to see more. In the end, The New Yorker published three long excerpts from what became The Sea Around Us, Carson's breakthrough book. The Sea Around Us stood atop the New York Times bestseller list for 39 weeks, was translated into 18 languages, and won the National Book Award. It caused the reissue of Carson's first book, Under the Sea-Wind, which, despite some nice notices, had vanished without a trace a decade earlier.

What so captivated readers of The Sea Around Us were Carson's lovely turns of phrase—prose invariably described as "poetic"—and the smooth translation of science into ordinary language, as in this deceptively simple description of the Earth before life appeared on it:

Imagine a whole continent of naked rock, across which no covering mantle of green had been drawn—a continent without soil, for there were no land plants to aid in its formation and bind it to the rocks with their roots. Imagine a land of stone, a silent land, except for the sound of the rains and winds that swept across it. For there was no living voice, and no living thing moved over the surface of the rocks.

Carson followed The Sea Around Us four years later with The Edge of the Sea, also excerpted in The New Yorker and an instant bestseller. Carson, who stood 5 feet, 4 inches tall, and whose elfin figure and shy demeanor gave her what friends described as a "wistful" look, admitted that she was a disappointment to people who pictured her as an Amazonian figure striding beside a raging ocean. Carson said she wasn't much of a swimmer, didn't really care for seafood, and would never dream of keeping an aquarium.

Shock of Silent Spring

Carson's celebrity and her reputation as a writer besotted with the majesty and wonder of the living world no doubt contributed to the shock that greeted Silent Spring. The book seemed a complete departure for one of America's most beloved authors. Grim and insistent as it was, Silent Spring was grounded in the same ecological perspective that had animated Carson's early work on conservation. And the book helped launch a new concept: environmentalism, that controversial close cousin of conservationism, in which the primary species of concern would become us.

As Silent Spring turned 50 this past fall, there was renewed interest in Carson, and many people wondered if we'll ever see a writer like her again. And, more fancifully, some wondered what Carson might write about if she were alive today. It's a safe bet that climate change would be high on her list of concerns, as it was a subject she was already keeping files on a half century ago. Carson would be dismayed by our lack of progress on such a monumental problem. And she'd likely appreciate her own words from five decades ago.

"I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature," Carson said, "and I think we're challenged as mankind has never been challenged before to prove our maturity and our mastery not of nature, but of ourselves."

Minnesota writer William Souder is the author of On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson.