There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. (21).
So begins Rachel Carson’s influential book, Silent Spring. But something happens to this idyll and one spring the town wakes up to silence.
It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh. …
No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves. (22)
In 1962, with this dire warning, Rachel Carson launched into her attack on the unbridled use of chemical pesticides. We have reached the 1960s in the Decades Project featuring non-fiction by women from each decade of the 20thCentury.
Summary of Silent Spring
It took me a long time to read this book. At times I wondered that life on earth exists at all considering the scenario being built up by Rachel Carson about the use of chemical pesticides. She marshals her evidence. She had to in order to convince people for whom much of this was new. Science was expected to solve all problems, not create them.
Her argument is that nature is interconnected, that insects are part of a complex natural relationship affecting birds, soil, trees, and ultimately humans. Her fear was that we would alter natural life, including the birds, making for a silent spring.
She also reveals how unreliable the pesticides are, how often their use means that the pests return in force, and that scientists are disingenuous for not researching the unintended consequences of the uses of pesticides that they develop. She also blamed the big chemical companies. In her sights were DDT, but other chemicals as well.
The Impact of Silent Spring
This book is often credited with initiating environmental awareness. Certainly she wrote persuasively about the interrelation of all living things on this earth. The chapter on soil, for example is lyrical in its appreciation of the soil and its inhabitants, especially the humble earthworm.
The soil exists in a state of constant change, taking part in cycles that have no beginning and no end. New materials are constantly being contributed as rocks disintegrate, as organic matter decays, and as nitrogen and other gases are brought down from the skies. At the same time other materials are being taken away, borrowed for temporary use by living creatures. Subtle and vastly important chemical changes are constantly in progress, converting elements derived from air and water into forms suitable for use by plants. In all these changes living organisms are active agents. (62)
The idea of Gaia was not popularised until James Locklock used it in 1979. But the concept is evident in Rachel Carson’s work: a dynamic system involving organic and inorganic material that shapes the whole biosphere.
In 1957 the US Department of Agriculture launched an attack on fire ants across 20 million acres in nine southern states. Like many such programmes there were terrible consequences and the fire ant was not even a major pest.
Never has any pesticide programme been so thoroughly and deservedly damned by practically everyone except the beneficiaries of this ‘sales bonanza’. It is an outstanding example of an ill-conceived, badly executed, and thoroughly detrimental experiment in the mass control of insects, an experiment so expensive in dollars, in destruction of animal life, and in loss of public confidence in the Agriculture Department that it is incomprehensible that any funds should still be devoted to it. (148)
The description of this and many, many other pesticide attacks mount throughout the book. At the time, her evidence undermined the confidence in science and scientists as neutral and beneficial; in the Department of Agriculture who ran these chemical programmes; and the companies that manufactured and sold the pesticides.
Rachel Carson focused on chemical pesticides, noting that not only were they dangerous, but they were ineffective as they destroyed the balance in nature. She advocated more research into biological forms of pest control. Today she would no doubt include the manufacture of plastics and a broader picture of the damage we are doing including contributing to climate change.
It is not surprising that her work was attacked, especially by the chemical companies. This is a story familiar from battles against smoking and sugar consumption. And as I read her book I came across an article in the Guardian (10thJuly): Monsanto ‘bullied scientists’ and hid weedkiller risk, lawyer tells court. The weedkiller is Roundup.
She was denigrated for being a woman without children (what did she care for genetics?), not a formally qualified scientist (she gave up her doctoral studies to work to support her family) and for writing for the general reader. She was attacked for saying truth to power. She died of cancer in 1964.
And then …?
Joni Mitchell in Concert 1974 by Paul C Babin via Wikicommons
Things began to change. President Kennedy and others were impressed, and the US began enacting the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), The Natural Environment Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act (1972) and to set up the Environment Protection Agency in 1970. In 1970 Joni Mitchell composed Big Yellow Taxi, which also referenced the blight of pesticides.
Hey farmer farmer –
Put away the DDT
I don’t care about spots on my apples
Leave me the birds and the bees
Environmental campaigning continues. Chemical companies also continue to seek profits.
Here’s a link to Brain Picking’s Maria Popova’s appreciation of her life and work, especially her moving letters to her long-term friend Dorothy Freeman: The writing of ‘Silent Spring’.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carsonwas published in 1962. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition. 323pp
The Decades project on Bookword
In 2018 I am featuring non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.
Here are links to the previous three books in the 2018 Decades Project:
Testament of Youthby Vera Brittain (1933)
The Diary of a Young Girlby Anne Frank (1947)
Elizabeth David’s books in the Kitchen (1950s)
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