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An Interview with William Souder
Part II

by Catherine Petruccione

#142 8 March 2010

A continuation of an interview with William Souder, journalist and author of Under A Wild Sky: John James Audubon and the Making of The Birds of America and A Plague of Frogs: The Horrifying True Story. His newest project is a biography about marine biologist, nature writer and ecologist Rachel Carson. Click here for Part I of this interview.

BOOKTHINK: I understand you are working on a new project. What is the anticipated publication date of your book on Rachel Carson?

SOUDER: Silent Spring was Rachel Carson's last book, which came out in 1962. The fifty-year anniversary is 2012, so that's the timing hook for this new book about Carson that I'm working on. It's scheduled for publication in 2012, which means that I'll finish writing hopefully sometime in early or mid-2011.

BOOKTHINK: I'm sure that's a big research project as well.

SOUDER: It's a huge research project. It's similar in some ways to the Audubon project, but very different also. Carson is much closer in time as an historical figure. And whereas Audubon's life was kind of a two-fisted swashbuckling adventure / artistic endeavor, Carson lived a much different kind of life. She was much more of a homebody. She certainly had scientific training that Audubon didn't; she was a very well-educated woman and a professional working person who was embedded in the worlds of science in publishing. Whereas Audubon's life itself, where he went and what he did, is terrific story telling material, Carson's life may be more eventful, more important and significant in some ways, but less momentous on a day to day basis. She lived with her mother and her cat. She worked in the library, she wrote every day. She certainly spent time by the ocean.

BOOKTHINK: She never married, did she?

SOUDER: No. There is some speculation about Carson. She had a very close intimate relationship with a woman named Dorothy Freeman who was her neighbor in Maine. The exact nature of that relationship is always speculated on, and the truth is nobody knows exactly what the physical dimensions of that relationship were.

BOOKTHINK: That's a difficulty with biographies. It's hard to know the truth.

SOUDER: Here's the thing. They had a lengthy correspondence that's been preserved, so we know a lot about this relationship. If you read their correspondence and look at the historical record, what's clear is that they were devoted to one another and in love with one another on a level that is so much deeper than the average heterosexual couple, whatever their relationship is, it doesn't seem to matter. These are two very interesting and independent women who found each other late in life and were really devoted and loyal to one another. Beyond that, there isn't that much you can speculate on. People are always kind of poking around trying to find out if Rachel Carson was a lesbian. In this case, it's not really the point. In any event, the circumstances under which they met, Carson was seriously ill most of the time.

BOOKTHINK: She died fairly young. What did she die of?

SOUDER: She died at 57 of breast cancer. This is an interesting and sad part of the story. She had several bouts of recurring breast cancer. Initially, even though she was sort of properly diagnosed, she wasn't completely informed as to what was going on. Believe it or not, in the 1940's and 50's, if a woman was diagnosed with breast cancer, a doctor would typically discuss that with the woman's husband. I'm sure this varied from doctor to doctor, but in Carson's case, she didn't really get a straight answer. This was unfortunate, because she was a biologist, and she understood cancer on the level that it was understood back then. She probably would have made different choices about her treatment. She eventually had a double mastectomy, but that didn't come until after a recurrence of the cancer, and so she didn't get the kind of aggressive treatment that she might have gotten early on had she been better informed. In that sense, she was kind of a victim of the times.

This was one of the great ironies of Carson's life - that when she was working on Silent Spring, which has two chapters on cancer and links between the environment and cancer, that she would have been ill with cancer. But that's how her life worked out. It took her a long time to write that book, and I think she understood that she was working against time. She was really sick by the time the book was done. Even though she lived for a couple more years, I think she felt pressure to finish it while she was still alive.

BOOKTHINK: She was really the one who brought to light the dangers of DDT and pesticides in general.

SOUDER: Carson had sort of a two-part career. The world is not a perfect meritocracy; you also have to be lucky. Carson's first book called Under the Sea Wind was published in December of 1941 and the initial reviews were terrific. It's about the sea and the creatures of the sea, and the initial notices for that book were great. But it was published a couple of weeks before Pearl Harbor was attacked. As soon as the war broke out, people forgot all about books, and it just kind of disappeared. It only sold a few thousand copies.

She spent a number of years anguishing over that and trying to figure out what to do next. She eventually started working on what became The Sea Around Us. She acquired an agent, and her agent sent one of the sample chapters from The Sea Around Us all over New York looking for a magazine that would publish the chapter, as that's how it was done back then. The New Yorker took an interest in this and asked if they could see a few more chapters. They ended up publishing, not the entire book, but the bulk of it in three installments, prior to the book itself being published. And of course, this made Carson a tremendous success. The book was an immediate best seller and stayed on the best-seller list for many weeks. Her first book, Under the Sea Winds was re-issued, and that went onto the best-seller list, so she had two books on the New York Times best seller list for a number of weeks.

It was good fortune for a junior editor at The New Yorker to see this manuscript sort of coming in over the transom and reading it and thinking it was pretty interesting. The other thing that The New Yorker did that was brilliant is that they published these excerpts from The Sea Around Us as a profile. They called it a "Profile of the Sea." It was the first time a magazine had published a profile that wasn't about a person. And so the novelty of the subject, the way the magazine presented it, really came out of the blue. It struck a chord with readers. There are hundreds and hundred of fan letters in the record to the magazine and directly to Carson about these profiles.

She eventually subscribed to a clipping service that would track all these things for her. People don't realize this now, but in the mid-1950s Rachel Carson was certainly one of the most famous and beloved authors in America. Like Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose books were on the best seller list at the same time.

BOOKTHINK: I love Anne Morrow Lindbergh's books - she was also a very talented writer.

SOUDER: Here's the interesting thing. There's a huge generational gap here. Rachel Carson died when I was in junior high. I remember knowing that Rachel Carson was this wonderful author who wrote books about the sea, that she died of cancer; I remember all that. I was too young to have read her books, but I knew who Rachel Carson was. If you talk to someone now who is under 40, they have no idea who Rachel Carson is ... unless they are between 18 and 22 and they are taking Environmental Studies. There's a whole generation out there who doesn't know who she is. Once you start to explain it a little bit, it rings a bell for some people. Not only was she a famous and beloved author, but with Silent Spring, she became this very prominent person.

In some ways, she was the first environmental person to be seriously targeted by an industry attempting to discredit her in her work. The agrochemical industry, the insecticide makers took a very dim view of Carson and went after her. She is regarded by a lot of people these days as the Godmother of the environmental movement, and I think there is a lot of truth to that. I see her as more of the fault line of the conservation ethic that had developed and grown from the turn of 19th century into the 20th through Roosevelt and through the twenties and thirties, recognizing that natural resources were finite and deserved some protection and some monitoring and conservation. Carson is sort of the fault line between that and the environmental movement, which is different. Even though it shares a lot in common with the conservation movement, with environmentalism you have this growing feeling that humankind has been a poor steward to the planet, and not only that, has put itself and all the other species that share the planet at some risk. The idea behind conservation was sort of an optimistic idea that it's a wonderful, beautiful world; let's preserve it for our kids. Environmentalism is more pessimistic, more apocalyptic; I think Carson is sort of the dividing point between those two points of view. They are very similar in many ways, but there's a very important shift that goes on.

One of the things that I'll be exploring in the book that I think is relevant here is that in the same year that Silent Spring was published, in 1962 when Carson was documenting the unseen hidden exposures that human beings were having to insecticides and other environmental poisons, was also the peak year for atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. I can remember this: If you bought milk in 1962, it was equally likely to be contaminated with DDT or radioactive isotopes from atmospheric testing.

BOOKTHINK: Isn't that nice to think about. And who didn't buy milk?

SOUDER: When we think about a nuclear weapon being detonated now, it's the ultimate nightmare. But during the fifties and sixties, the United States alone tested hundreds of bombs. There is a parallel between this emerging idea that Carson was the first to explore in a very rigorous way that there are unseen toxic substances that might influence our health, that are being manufactured and put into our environment all the time in a very unregulated way. A parallel between that and exposure to radioactive fallout, which was poorly understood, but certainly known to be risky. She is the first person who, for the first time, marries these two concepts together. That has been a determining influence in the environmental movement that followed.

Carson was one of a number of people who were lobbying to have some kind of a federal agency created that would be charged directly with environmental protection. The Environmental Protection Agency, which comes into existence six years after her death, really is directly attributable to Carson's influence. And one of the first things that Agency did was to ban the use of DDT in the United States.

BOOKTHINK: That was a big move, and I'm sure not easily accomplished.

SOUDER: It was easier then than it would be now. The EPA in its early days was this very aggressive crusading federal agency. It was full of, not bureaucrats, but scientists and lawyers who thought their mission in life was to go out and cancel as many pesticides as they could. And they did; they cancelled a bunch!

One of the things that's really shocking when you go back and read the record of the compounds that we were using to kill bugs - all these chemicals which are a laundry list of poisons - it's unthinkable that these things would ever have been in use anywhere. A lot of them were for sale in the grocery store. The widespread use of pesticide wasn't given a second thought until Carson laid all this bare. The EPA really went to work on getting a lot of these things off the market. Then the chemical manufacturers eventually learned how to kind of game the system. The EPA now is drowning in too much science. Every time a new compound is put on the market and tested for safety, this is an opportunity for a manufacturer to overwhelm the agency with studies, experiments and data. It's very time-consuming to evaluate all of this stuff. It takes a very long time now for the EPA to decide that anything is too dangerous to use. That wasn't the case thirty years ago.

My method of operation for this book is the same as it was with Audubon. I'm not going to try to retell Rachel Carson's story from cradle to grave. It was done very well by Linda Lear, who wrote just a terrific full length biography of Carson several years ago, and that's still in print. Linda is a great researcher and a great author. She has really paved the way for everybody who will come afterwards to write about Carson. So I won't be doing that. But I do want to look at the context, the times and the places that Carson lived and worked, and secondarily, I'm very interested in how Carson's work helped to kind of set the table for this really partisan, divisive, ongoing argument we have over environmental matters these days because these are issues, for the most part, that should be scientifically addressed. Questions about the climate, environmental contaminants, chemical contaminants; these all should be matters that we can agree on, and we don't. We have sharp political arguments over all these things and how we got to this point is really interesting to me, and where Carson fits into that story is going to be a big part of this book.

BOOKTHINK: It really struck me when you said that there was a conservation movement that turned into an environmental movement, and the difference between the two, the optimism and the pessimism - that's very stark and true.

SOUDER: I do think that in the first half of the twentieth century that people thought we had the time and the will to preserve the earth in the way it was meant to be preserved. In the second half of the twentieth century we began to feel the sand was running out of the hourglass. Like we'd gone off some sort of cliff, and it's too late to turn back the tide of change.

BOOKTHINK: I interviewed Tim Flannerys a couple of years ago, who was terrific. He is a very wise, calm and thoughtful scientist. But the urgency behind some of his thoughts on climate change me made me think we are standing on a cliff. The earth is a finite place, and we have to get a handle on taking care of what's left here.

SOUDER: Tim wrote a really nice review of my book Under a Wild Sky. I love his work. The people who are studying climate change, and who are writing and reporting on climate change, understand that there are certain tipping points that have already been passed. It's going to be difficult to impossible to prevent all the effects of climate change that we can foresee from actually occurring. It's a difficult problem. There's a lot of science that remains to be done. What role science is going to have to play in this as opposed to the role that politics and business concerns play, that remains to be seen.

BOOKTHINK: Nobody wants to give up anything. There's an excuse to be made for every change that might make things better.

SOUDER: It's going to take new ways of looking at things, and that may emerge. There's a wonderful economist, Frank Ackerman, he's at Tufts. He wrote a book that is a little bit heavy going, it's not technical, but it's hard material. It's called Priceless: On Knowing the Cost of Everything and the Value of Nothing. He's a very interesting guy, and an economist who is very interested in environmental issues. It's hard to summarize his work, but I've met him a few times and talked to him about it. He basically argues that cost/benefit analysis gets you nowhere. You can't look at things in terms of trade-offs, but you need to look at things in terms of absolute cost of acting. He has calculated what it would actually cost in terms of GDP to hold carbon emissions at a certain level. He says "I can give you that number, and then it's just a decision. Do you want to do it, or not want to do it?" You can't look at things in terms of cost/benefits, which always stymies progress. You can't do anything for nothing.

What we're talking about right now, this kind of hyper-partisan, divisive, angry debate about matters that are rooted in science, but where science is constantly ignored, I think this all has its origins back in that conversion from conservation mindedness to environmentalism. I'm not pinning this on Rachel Carson, but she is the pivot point, where history takes this detour. It's subtle because conservation isn't really different from environmentalism, but there is a different mindset and different politics, a different money equation associated with these two things. So she's a really important figure; she stands at one of those places in history that's a turning point.

BOOKTHINK: Maybe it was the first time it was a threat to the money machines of the pesticide makers, the chemical companies ...

SOUDER: There are antecedents for this. If you saw the Ken Burns PBS series on the National Parks, you'll recall there were always fights between the railroads and others ... all kinds of disputes over resources. And once somebody can lay claim to them, what are you going to do with them? The forest is one thing to me, another thing to Burlington Northern Railroad, and yet another to Weyerhouser Lumber Company. There have always been those kinds of disputes.

So Carson didn't experience something completely new; but I think she's the first example we would recognize as consistent with the times we live in, as someone who spoke out about an environmental problem and immediately got hit by a concerted attempt by an industry to discredit her and to convince people that science was different than what was claimed. And with Carson, they picked on the wrong person. Even though she was sort of a shy person, she was not someone who was looking to be in the middle of a controversy or start an argument. She was uniquely prepared to ignore this attack that was launched against her, and to respond in a calm, collected way with the facts. And she did a beautiful job of it.

BOOKTHINK: I'd really like to cover a little bit about your book, A Plague of Frogs (Hyperion Press, 2000). You were responsible for breaking the story about these deformed frogs that were turning up in Minnesota, weren't you?

SOUDER: There had been a few local stories done about these frogs turning up in Minnesota back in 1995-96, and I saw those. I had been doing some stringing work for the Washington Post. So I wrote that story, and sent it in, and it ran on the front page of the Washington Post on September 30, 1996. I can remember that date because I went and picked up a copy of the paper that morning and was delighted to see that they put it on the front page. And later that evening I turned on the news and there was Dan Rather showing pictures of students in a wetland in Minnesota collecting frogs and talking about the story. From the day I started working on that story I thought it was going to be a big one, an important one, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

BOOKTHINK: And the question of the cause for these deformed frogs isn't totally resolved; there's still research being done on it, am I correct?

SOUDER: Well, that's right; it's not totally resolved. Environmental mysteries or conundrums often have an array of answers. Sometimes you get to a point where people are sort of satisfied that they know what's going on even though they know they don't know completely what's going on. As so often the case with developmental problems, there are a host of different things that can cause these deformities. I think I sent you an article from the which kind of updated the situation.

BOOKTHINK: Parasites were thought to be the most probable cause.

SOUDER: We certainly know now that parasites can infect tadpoles, and that they can influence the development of their legs and there are certain species of tadpoles that do this on purpose, because it's important to their life cycle to cripple the frog so that it will be eaten by a bird which is the primary host for the parasites. It's a very interesting example of what's called co-evolution. These parasites learn, if you will, over time and by evolving, to cause problems for frogs that will allow the parasite to complete its life cycle, which involves getting from one host to another.

The other sort of natural factor that has now been shown to be occurring in a number of places is aquatic predators that chew the legs off of tadpoles as they are developing. These include some nymph stage of dragon flies and certain minnows, little fish, nibbling away at these legs as they are developing. These are both naturally occurring explanations that most scientists who worked on frogs really had never recognized before. Nobody really understood that this happened on a regular basis. Even though there were some accounts of deformed frogs for hundreds of years, no one had ever thought to rigorously explore and explain how this happened.

The other thing that's true is that in both cases, with parasites and aquatic predators, their behavior and their prevalence and their ability to attack tadpoles may be influenced by chemical contaminants into the wetlands where frogs live. So you have this intersection between natural and manmade causes that hasn't been completely teased out. We also know, because there is abundant experimental evidence for it, that chemical contaminants are sufficient to cause some of these deformities. And there are places where these frogs have been found that don't seem to involve either parasites or aquatic parasites where the explanation for the deformities remains unknown.

Now what's happened, and this is often the case with environmental science, these frogs when they first appeared got a lot of attention from people like me and others reporting on it, and I wrote a book about it, but when that level of attention fades, science sometimes goes on to another topic. There are fads in science just as there are in fashion, art and literature. I think it's safe to say that the question about these deformed frogs, while not fully answered, is being explored by fewer and fewer people all the time. Not because the case is closed, but just because people working on that problem have moved on to some other things.

What hasn't changed is that there is a huge problem with amphibian conservation all over the world, and what we do know for sure is that frogs and other amphibians are disappearing at an alarming rate everywhere in the world, in many cases for reasons that are not entirely clear. This is a class of animals that has been on the earth since before there were dinosaurs. Two-thirds of the frog species of the world are either under duress or their status is undetermined at this point, and that is a cause for concern. And that is undoubtedly a signal of lots of environmental changes going on, certainly climate change; there's good evidence for climate effects in frog populations already and other manmade environmental influences that are affecting habitat and ecosystems. These frogs are pretty good indicators of changes occurring on the planet that we should pay close attention to.

BOOKTHINK: The frog that had an eye inside its mouth on a little appendage, and the frog with the extra set of legs ... that really got to me.

SOUDER: That was a big part of what got people interested in this story. There are certain aspects of biology that everyone can immediately grasp. And one is that when you see any kind of organism that is deformed or built in the wrong way, you intuitively know that something is wrong.

BOOKTHINK: Yes. And I'm sure it's panic that sets people on the course of investigation, and once the panic passes, as you say, investigation falls off.

SOUDER: Not only were these frogs themselves a concern, but there was an assumption that because frogs are vertebrates and human beings are vertebrates, and we share a lot of the same biological properties, if this was happening because the frogs were being exposed to some environmental factor that humans might also come into contact with, there might be some risk to human populations in the same area. This was a big immediate concern. I have to say we are at the point where that question has not entirely gone away, but it's certainly greatly diminished. People are not walking around Minnesota these days collecting frogs to see if it's safe to swim in a lake. But we do know there continues to be growing scientific evidence that exposures to agrichemicals, pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, insecticides, fertilizers have unintended consequences. The evidence for that continues to mount. So even if none of that had much direct influence on those frogs, it's still out there. The fact that frogs and amphibians, as I said before, are signals of changes to the environment, they are important to keep track of.

BOOKTHINK: It's an eye-opening book, and I'm glad you wrote it. The average person doesn't even think about frogs. But I think I see less numbers of them than I used to see.

SOUDER: Lots of people report the same thing. One of the subtexts to that story, that people don't think about frogs much - that's true even in science. The science of biology these days is really consumed by the study of molecules like DNA and proteins. Biology has moved to the cellular and sub-cellular realm because that's where all the action is. The scientists who study whole organisms are getting to be rare. There are ecologists now who look at systems. But a hundred years ago, any biologist in Minnesota would readily be able to identify any of the fourteen frog species here. As I say in the book, when these deformed frogs turned up, there were more biologists in Minnesota who could splice DNA of a frog than there were scientists who could identify the species of the frog.

Science always goes where the frontier is - which is at the molecular level. We understand so much more about cells and the mechanics of cells and DNA, and that's where the science of biology has gone; it's where the future is for biology and medicine and probably even ecology. Going out to look at the animals is getting to be very secondary.

BOOKTHINK: It must have been so refreshing to do the Audubon biography, about a time so rich with mostly unspoiled nature and a man who lived closely with it. I can tell that you must really enjoy nature.

SOUDER: I did enjoy it. I'm fascinated by both ends of science and biology. When I was working on the frog book, I spent a lot of time in swamps catching frogs and helping people sort them out - it was great, I loved that. But I also liked learning about the cell biology involved in development of the vertebrate limb, which gets to be very technical and involves all kinds of wispy molecules and growth factors and hormones and genetic influences. That stuff is all fascinating.

BOOKTHINK: It's been fascinating talking with you. I've enjoyed it so much.

SOUDER: It's always gratifying to do an interview like this, and I enjoyed talking with you as well.

BOOKTHINK: We'll be looking forward to the release of your book on Rachel Carson in 2012.

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