07/23/2013 04:55 pm ET Updated Sep 22, 2013

Rachel Carson and Rudolf Steiner -- An Unknown Debt

Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of the publication in 1962 of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring. Rightly acknowledged as one of the all-time great pieces of science writing, detailing the horrendous damage being done by human-applied chemicals to the environment and its denizens including us, the book had a huge impact and led to awareness and legislation at least in part controlling the damage we do to our home, Mother Earth.

No one would describe the book or its author as particularly religious. Indeed, as was pointed out a few years later by the historian Lynn White Junior, in respects Christianity and environmentalism have been opposed, with those whose faith is grounded in a fairly literal reading of the bible believing that the Earth is given to us by God to use as we will and that if problems occur He will intervene to solve them. Be this as it may, what we can truly say is that Silent Spring is a deeply spiritual book, with every page attesting to the author's conviction that nature is far more than simply molecules in motion. Life is everywhere and it is more than something reducible to the material.

There is no great secret about the origins of Carson's world picture. She was absolutely and completely a child of American Transcendentalism, especially of the greatest nature lover of them all, Henry David Thoreau. She referred to him repeatedly in her correspondence and kept a copy of Walden Pond by her bedside. What is much less known but has now been revealed is her debt to the movement founded by the Croatian-born (but German-culture-immersed) seer and polymath Rudolf Steiner. In particular, thanks to the detective work of one of Steiner's followers, John Paull, we now know that Carson drew heavily on the movement's thinking, and that especially the centerpiece of her attack on the chemical industry, the grave danger being done by the pesticide DDT, was basically presented to her wholesale.

Today, Rudolf Steiner is best known as the founder of the so-called "Waldorf School" system, one that is child-centered and incorporates much art and dance and more. This however is but part of his overall philosophy, if we might thus describe it. Steiner's system, known as "anthroposophy," owed much to the theosophical musings of the late nineteenth-century mystic (some would say "fraud") Madame Helen Blavatsky, founder of "theosophy," who saw a whole spiritual world influencing and controlling the existence of which we are aware. Combining this (which owed much to Hindu thinking) with many Germanic elements, most particularly a commitment to the art and science of Goethe, Steiner argued that there is a spirit dimension to life, one in some strange way mixed up with evolution (he was much taken with Ernst Haeckel) and Christianity (he believed in two Christ figures that come together as one, rather like the Skeksis and Mystics who come together to make the urSkeks in the movie the Dark Crystal).

For Steiner, this world picture has implications for all dimensions of human experience - education, medicine (he was a great enthusiast for homeopathy), architecture, dance (a form of modern dance known as "eurythmy"), and importantly agriculture. He argued for a kind of organic farming, "biodynamic" agriculture, mixed with spiritual elements, including the need to use special preparations of fertilizer and to plant only when the heavens are in certain conjunctions. It is no secret that Charles, the Prince of Wales, is an enthusiast.

One of Rudolf Steiner's most fervent American supporters was Marjorie Spock, a younger sister of Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician. With her female companion, she grew vegetables on her land on Long Island. It was sprayed with DDT by the government. She took the matter to court (her companion was very sensitive to food contamination) and although she lost this only spurred her to greater effort to preach the dangers of indiscriminate use of pesticides. Learning of Carson's interests -- by the time she started Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was already one of the best-known and admired science writers in America -- Spock contacted the author and was soon feeding Carson huge amounts of information (mainly in the form of press clippings) about the evils of human-made chemicals as used in agriculture.

Included in the material that Spock sent to Carson was a pamphlet by America's leading expert on biodynamic agriculture, Ehrenfried E. Pfeiffer, that detailed the great dangers of indiscriminate use of DDT, and that gave many references for further reading. There is no reason to think that Rachel Carson in any sense embraced the principles of anthroposophy, although in her final illness she may have been tempted a little. She did however seize with appreciation on the work of Steiner's followers and the path of her argument and writing was set.

But it was all done in secret! Whatever the merits of Rudolf Steiner's thinking, it was (and still is), shall we say, "unorthodox," although one can imagine many would use much stronger terms. Carson knew only too well from the experience of others that, as soon as she published, she was going to be criticized and hounded by the chemical industry -- and quite probably by the government, since it was very supportive of the industry. She could not afford the risk of being labeled a "flake," a supporter of pseudo-science, because of her debt to Steiner and his followers.

So in the introduction to Silent Spring, no mention was made of Marjorie Spock or the efforts she had made. And so successful was the concealment that, although present-day writers about Carson recognize the debt to Marjorie Spock, even though the commitment to anthroposophy is noted, its significance is unappreciated. Surely such a crazy world view could not have had a direct and important influence on the bible of environmentalism! But it did, and the time has come to appreciate this. Rachel Carson owed a huge debt to Rudolf Steiner.