Silent Spring: Chemical, Biological and Technological Visions of the Post-1945 Environment

Silent Spring: Chemical, Biological and Technological Visions of the Post-1945 Environment

An AHRC collaborative skills project hosted by Birkbeck, University of London

June 7th 2013
School of Arts, Birkbeck, University of London

‘In this now universal contamination of the environment, chemicals are the sinister and little-recognised partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world – the very nature of its life.’ – Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, 1962.

Rachel Carson’s classic polemic Silent Spring celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2012: it still stands as one of the most influential texts on the damage caused to the natural environment by chemicals and nuclear fallout in the twentieth century. Taking Carson’s book as its starting point, this interdisciplinary postgraduate workshop aims to explore how a growing awareness of the biological, chemical and technological changes to the environment has shaped cultural explorations of nature and landscape in the post-1945 period, through visual art, literature and film.

Each participant will have the chance to join a specialised focus group during the afternoon session before reuniting for the final part of the day. When registering, please rank these groups in order of preference (1=first choice, 3=third choice). We will try to match you with your first choice.

Group 1: Researching Silent Spring
Led by John Wills, School of History, University of Kent

This workshop explores Rachel Carson’s research for Silent Spring. Drawing from examples held at the Beinecke Library (Rachel Carson Papers), Yale, the workshop looks at how Carson initially planned her expose of the chemical industry. In particular, it reflects on how she balanced the roles of scientist and popular writer in her research. How did this negotiation affect her ideas and early drafts for the book, her hope to win over a mass audience, her sense of unfolding environmental disaster, and specifically, how did it filter into her opening chapter ‘A Fable for Tomorrow’. The workshop also considers our own challenges in researching Silent Spring, and how we might navigate the science/humanities ‘divide’ through the lens of Carson.

Group 2: The Importance of Fieldwork for Writers
Led by George Ttoouli, Warwick Writing Programme, University of Warwick

Exploring strategies for taking writing out of the garret and into the world, one could go further and explore parallels between writing and scientific research. Discussion will centre around ‘scientific’ techniques – transects, gardening, field observation, permaculture and culture – in the context of writing techniques. Writing ‘in the field’ is as much about writing outside of entrenched disciplinary and ideological habits, from damaging environmentalist stances to isolationism in academic subjects.

Group 3: Agency, Animation and Nature
Led by Amanda Rees, Department of Sociology, University of York

This workshop will consider the issue of agency in relation to environmental history and the extent to which including animals would enable one to conceptualise power relationships in the context of human interactions with natural systems.

Other confirmed speakers include Jessica Rapson, Amy Cutler and Emily Candela. The workshop will be followed by poetry readings and a wine reception. Registration also includes lunch and coffee.

To register for the workshop, please email listing your institution (if any) and a sentence or two about your research, as well as ranking your focus group preferences.

For further details and the full schedule, please visit