There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields. In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings.Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Chapter One: A Fable for Tomorrow
Thus begins Silent Spring, the momentous book that properly launched the ecology movement, written by Rachel Carson, published in 1962.
I tried reading it many years ago, but have no memory of finishing it. Her treatise on the ravages of pesticides and herbicides was relentless. She piled up example upon example of the reckless use of chemicals like DDT, Chlordane, Heptachlor and Dieldron and the damage they caused.
The misguided assumptions, the tragic mistakes and bullish righteousness of the chemical companies that promoted the use of these pesticides.
It was just too depressing. Her arguments about the disastrous blunders of widespread DDT use were unassailable. But who needed to know the multiple layers of tragedy? How a mass spraying of insecticides killed harmful pests, but also beneficial insects. Earthworms, birds, fish, indeed all forms of wild life suffered as well. Not to mention their penetration of water systems, above and below ground, and long-term accumulation on plants and trees.
I didn’t have the stomach for it. It was soon buried it beneath piles of other books, most of which were read cover to cover. Silent Spring was just too painful.
Carson’s abiding love of nature
But a recent podcast I listened to brought to mind why the book was so influential. It was informed by Rachel Carson’s deep and abiding love of nature in all its forms. It was also her superior writing, her ability to synthesize dense scientific concepts into simple ideas.
Her descriptions of nature were innocently scientific. They were long enumerations of the flora and fauna in the forests and meadow she lived near. But they were more than just lists, they were brushstrokes on a canvas showing their vibrant colours and teeming life!
Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, Chapter One: A Fable for Tomorrow
“If you don’t love a thing, you won’t save it”
On the 50th anniversary of Silent Spring, the Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood wrote that Carson knew “that if you don’t love a thing, you won’t save it, and her love for the natural world shines through everything she wrote.”1
The book becomes an elegy for the natural world and a bitter litany of all things that threaten it.
I found her appreciation of birds and the gradual quieting of morning birdsong to be particularly moving. Carson and many bird lovers were slowly overtaken with dread that in the late 1950s, after many years of DDT use, there was no birdsong!
There was a wealth of bird life
Carson quotes a letter from an Illinois housewife to an eminent ornithologist:
Here in our village the elm trees have been sprayed for several years [she wrote in 1958]. When we moved here six years ago, there was a wealth of bird life; I put up a feeder and had a steady stream of cardinals, chickadees, downies and nuthatches all winter, and the cardinals and chickadees brought their young ones in the summer.
After several years of DDT spray, the town is almost devoid of robins and starlings; chickadees have not been on my shelf for two years, and this year the cardinals are gone too; the nesting population in the neighborhood seems to consist of one dove pair and perhaps one catbird family.
It is hard to explain to the children that the birds have been killed off, when they have learned in school that a Federal law protects the birds from killing or capture. “Will they ever come back?” they ask, and I do not have the answer. The elms are still dying, and so are the birds. Is anything being done? Can anything be done? Can I do anything?
And no birds sing
Thus the book’s title, Silent Spring. The chapter on birds draws its title from the John Keats poem, “La Belle Dame sans Merci,” which contains the line, “The sedge is wither’d from the lake, And no birds sing.”
Scientists, politicians and great thinkers approved of Silent Spring. Carson, though, was ruthlessly attacked by the chemical industry and male chauvinists alike. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower reportedly said that because she was unmarried, despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a Communist”.
But the book led eventually to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and many other pieces of legislation.
Things labelled progress …
More broadly, it convinced people that the words of corporations and government agencies with vested interests should not be trusted. There were other solutions, Carson suggested, to control pest damage without causing widespread repercussions. Things labelled progress weren’t necessarily good.
The chemical pesticide industry would have us believe there was a split between humans and nature. That there was no real connection between the body and the world around you. The body, in fact, has its own ecology, and anything that enters it – whether eaten or breathed or drunk or absorbed through the skin – has a profound impact on you. This concept is so ingrained in our consciousness that it is hard to imagine it was never thus. But before Silent Spring, it was.
30 billion birds … Gone!
While most of the pesticides Carson focused on were effectively banned in the years following Silent Spring, many of the problems she saw still remain.
One of the most stunning news stories in 2019 was, to me, the revelation that there are nearly 30 billion fewer birds than there were in 1970. 30 BILLION, that spelling is correct.
Of the lost birds, 90% came from 12 bird families, including common species such as sparrows, swallows, warblers and finches.
Who’s pollinating the flowers?
I can hear Carson say that abundant species often play important roles like pollinating flowers, dispersing seeds, providing food for other animals and contributing to the natural beauty of an area that draws tourists who support local economies.
If there were more of these birds around, Carson might say, farmers might not use as much pesticide.
Silent Spring was Carson’s last work. She died in 1964 from complications arising from breast cancer. She was 56 years old.
If you’ve read Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, you may recall that the fictional cult, “God’s Gardeners,” had chosen Rachel Carson as their patron saint!↩