Choose the character you will play. *Starred characters have large speaking roles.
Our thought-provoking play follows scientist and nature writer Rachel Carson in her battle to expose the truth about the pesticide DDT.
Learning Objective: Students will identify the theme of a biographical play about environmental writer and activist Rachel Carson.
Choose the character you will play. *Starred characters have large speaking roles.
*Narrators 1, 2 (N1, N2)
*Olga Huckins, a bird lover
Stuart Huckins, Olga’s husband
*Rachel Carson, a science writer
Miss Benson, a rancher
Mr. Murphy, a farmer
Actors 1, 2
Paul Brooks, Rachel’s editor
Executives 1, 2, 3 (E1, E2, E3)
N1: Olga and Stuart Huckins sit on their front porch, sipping iced tea.
N2: A thick green forest surrounds their house.
N1: Birds chirp as a warm breeze blows through the trees.
N2: Suddenly, there is a loud whirring noise.
Olga: What is that?
Stuart (pointing): Look there.
N1: They watch a plane fly over their land. It releases a spray that settles over the woods.
Olga: That plane is spraying pesticide again!
Stuart: It’s just killing the mosquitoes.
N2: Olga and Stuart take a walk through the woods.
N1: All of a sudden, Olga gasps.
N2: Five songbirds lie on the ground—dead.
Olga: Something is terribly wrong.
N1: There is a thud.
N2: A robin drops from a tree branch above.
N1: Its beak hangs open. Its claws are twisted in pain.
Olga: What a horrible death.
Stuart: What can we do?
Olga: I’m going to write to my friend Rachel Carson.
Stuart: The nature writer?
Olga: Yes. She knows people in government. Maybe she can help us.
Rachel Carson’s home in Maryland
N2: Rachel sits at a small desk covered with open letters.
N1: She picks one up and reads it.
Olga (voice): Dear Rachel, I do not know what to do. The state of Massachusetts is spraying poison on our woods—without asking us. The birds are dying.
Rachel Carson (to herself): I bet it’s that pesticide DDT.
N2: She reads another letter.
Miss Benson (voice): My horse drank water after DDT was sprayed on our farm. She died hours later.
N1: Rachel picks up a third letter, frowning.
Mr. Murphy (voice): My ducklings are hatching with strange illnesses. Many do not hatch at all. And my piglets . . .
N2: Rachel dials the phone.
Rachel: Mr. Murphy, this is Rachel Carson. I’d like to come visit your farm.
Mr. Murphy’s farm in Pennsylvania
N1: Rachel stands outside a pigpen with Mr. Murphy.
Mr. Murphy: Thank you for coming, Miss Carson. I’ve read your magazine articles, and I thought you could help.
Rachel: I’m glad you wrote.
Mr. Murphy: What you are about to see will upset you.
N2: Mr. Murphy leads Rachel inside his pigpen.
N1: Seven newborn piglets lie still next to their mother.
Mr. Murphy: The entire litter was born dead.
Rachel: How long has this been happening?
Mr. Murphy: Nine months ago, our farm was sprayed with DDT. Since then, not one pig has been born alive.
N2: Rachel shakes her head sadly.
Rachel: I am going to do something about this.
Rachel’s hotel room, that night
N1: Rachel listens to the radio. A commercial comes on.
Actor 1: Are insects destroying your crops?
Actor 2: Are your farm animals bothered by flies?
Actor 1: Are your children being bitten by mosquitoes?
Actor 2: Now you can enjoy the insect-killing powers of DDT.
Actor 1: It’s healthy and safe!
Actor 2: Bigger vegetables, juicier fruits—all free from ugly worms.
Actor 1: Your cows will produce 20 percent more milk.
Actor 2: And your kids will be safe from disease when you get rid of pests with . . .
Actors 1 and 2: . . . DDT!
N2: Rachel turns off the radio.
Rachel: DDT is not safe. People need to know the truth.
Rachel’s home, 1960
N1: Three years later, Rachel sits at her desk with a tall stack of notes.
N2: The phone rings. It is Rachel’s editor.
Paul Brooks: Rachel, how is the book coming?
Rachel: I need more time.
Brooks: But you’ve already spent years talking to farmers, scientists, and doctors.
Rachel: Yes, but the story of pesticides is much worse than we thought. DDT is meant to kill pests, but it affects every living thing.
Brooks: How so?
Rachel: The chemicals contaminate our soil and our streams. They end up in the food we eat and the water we drink.
Brooks: You’ve always said that all of nature is connected.
Rachel: Paul, I had such a haunting nightmare last night.
Brooks: What was it?
Rachel: Picture an ordinary American town on the first day of spring— except there are no chirping birds, no flowers or bushes or trees.
N1: Rachel shivers.
Rachel: There are no people and no children. Nothing lives. The stores and playgrounds are empty. The streams and rivers have no fish. Everything is deadly quiet. A silent spring.
Brooks (quietly): Silent spring . . . I think you’ve got your book title.
A meeting room, 1962
N2: Executives from chemical companies sit at a big table.
N1: Sunlight streams through the windows, but the mood in the room is dark.
N2: A book lies on the table. Executive 1 jabs his finger at it.
Executive 1: Did you read Rachel Carson’s book? She says we are poisoning Americans.
Executive 2: She’s not even a scientist.
Executive 3: Actually, she’s a marine biologist.
E1: She’s a nature-loving nut who wants to ban ALL pesticides.
E3: No she doesn’t. She says we should study the effects of pesticides more carefully before using them.
E2: Pesticides have saved the world.
E1: Without them, insects would eat all our crops.
E2: People would have no food.
E1: Bugs and disease would rule the Earth.
E3: But what if she’s right? What if our chemicals are harmful?
E2: Whose side are you on?
E3: I just . . .
E1: People will stop buying pesticides if they think the chemicals are dangerous.
E2: Our business will be ruined.
N1: Executive 1 pounds his fist on the table.
E1: We’ve got to convince the public not to trust her.
Rachel’s home, 1963
N2: The chemical companies say Rachel’s book Silent Spring is a hoax.
N1: But it becomes a best-seller.
N2: A television reporter comes to her house.
Reporter: Miss Carson, the chemical companies say their products are safe.
Rachel: These companies aren’t here to protect the public. They want to make money.
Reporter: About 900 million pounds of pesticides were used last year. Are they all dangerous?
Rachel: The problem is that pesticides don’t just kill bad insects.
Reporter: Please explain.
Rachel: Say bark beetles are spreading disease in elm trees. DDT is sprayed on these trees to kill the beetles.
Reporter: That’s good, right?
Rachel: But the leaves of these trees are now coated in poison. The leaves fall to the ground. Then earthworms eat them.
Reporter: I see.
Rachel: Birds eat the earthworms. Now the birds are poisoned.
Reporter: And how might DDT harm humans?
Rachel: Cows eat hay that has been sprayed with DDT.
N1: The reporter nods.
Rachel: DDT ends up in the milk and meat we get from those cows. This can make people sick—it may even cause cancer.
Reporter: Why did you write this book, Miss Carson?
Rachel: I hope it will inspire people to think differently about nature.
Reporter: What do you mean?
Rachel: Humans are a part of nature, so a war against nature is a war against ourselves.
N2: Characters speak directly to the audience.
Rachel: Chemical companies called me a liar.
E1: That only made Silent Spring more popular.
Stuart: Americans began making sure pesticides were used more carefully in their communities.
Olga: President John F. Kennedy read the book.
Miss Benson: Then he ordered a committee to investigate Rachel Carson’s claims.
Mr. Murphy: And in 1972, DDT was banned in the U.S.
N1: Around the same time, the Environmental Protection Agency—the EPA—was formed.
N2: Its mission is to protect human health . . .
N1: . . . and to keep our air, water, and land safe.
Rachel: To make sure that no spring is ever silent.
This play was originally published in the May / June 2018 issue.
More About the Story
theme, fluency, vocabulary, mood, inference, character’s motivation, character, problem and solution, main idea, critical thinking, explanatory writing, theme
Levels of Meaning
The play tells the true story of how environmental writer Rachel Carson exposed the dangers of the pesticide DDT. It illustrates an important idea: One determined person can make a big difference.
The play is written in chronological order and broken into seven scenes and an epilogue.
The play generally uses short sentences and simple words, but includes some challenging domain-specific vocabulary (pesticide, contaminate, marine biologist) and figurative language.
The text refers to former President John F. Kennedy, and to bugs as carriers of disease. Some familiarity with the science of ecosystems will be helpful.
1. Preparing to Read
Preview Text Features and Vocabulary (20 minutes, activity sheet online)
2. Reading the Play
Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes, activity sheet online)
Close-Reading Questions (20 minutes, activity sheet online)
Critical-Thinking Questionss (activity sheet online)
3. Skill Building
Featured Skill: Theme
Have students read the play again in pairs. As they read, they should underline the actions Rachel took to help protect nature in America. They can then use their underlines to write a thank-you letter to Rachel Carson for her work.
Ask students to read our article “How America Beat Malaria” (the pairing for “The Deadliest Animal on Earth”) from January 2016. Then have them write a short essay on the history of DDT use in America, using details from both the article and the play.
ELLs might not recognize the names of the various creatures mentioned in the play (e.g., mosquito, songbird, duckling). Have them go online to determine the meaning of each one, then create an illustrated animal picture dictionary in a medium of their choice.
Read this play with your guided reading groups, using our close-reading and critical-thinking questions to discuss the main theme of the play. Then have these students work independently on the theme activity sheet while you work with other groups.