Biologist Rachel Carson / When Silent Spring, biologist Rachel Carson’s revolutionary book about pesticides, was published in l962, it created a sensation in the U.S. and incited a well-financed storm of criticism from the petrochemical industries over its pioneering findings (later vindicated by government investigations and studies). The film A Sense of Wonder, told in Carson’s own words from her Maine cottage, details the history of her evolution as writer and researcher, attacks by pesticide interests, and in the final year of her life in 1963, her struggle against cancer.
Looking out at us from her desk, the best-selling writer, calmly and with great restraint, offers moving details about her becoming a biologist (in l926 when women did not study biology,) her earlier book The Sea Around Us, her sense of anger (and sense of humor) about the travails and triumphs of Silent Spring. “I was called a hysterical woman, “ she tell us. “Well-heeled campaigns were designed to prove me an emotional woman. It was not until editor William Shawn of the New Yorker agreed to publish large portions of Spring that the non-technical public was effectively alerted. The eventual results—the Clean Air and Water acts, to name just two laws directly credited to the influence of Carson’s book—helped begin to address the problem, though of course it still exists, as the film’s epilogue points out.
Photographed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler (The Secret of Roan Inish) this intimate portrait of Carson, a visionary by all definitions, the beautifully shot film explores the terrain where the writer produced some of her work and the surrounding areas (woods, sea, gardens) where she sought solace.
The film’s approach greatly humanizes the subject, which can be inundated by facts and statistics. Carson’s words explain plainly: “Our pesticides were developed in wartime for extreme conditions and then, after the war, were moved into giant industries without one legitimate study.” The film is based on Kaiulani Lee’s one-woman touring play, which she developed over a period of nearly twenty years. The result is a documentary far outside the conventional and all the better for it. Finished earlier this year, the film will soon be released on DVD, with extras featuring updated material by such environmental luminaries as David Suzuki and former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.
A film well worth seeing, A Sense of Wonder, neither heavy-handed nor morose, has a theme as relevant today as ever. Vested interests die hard, so it is especially appropriate that we end this review with a quote from Carson: “Now I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature, 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.”