Tag Archives: Joni Mitchell

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

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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Filed under Books, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

What is the Prime Minister reading?

In the spring of 2007 on study leave in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan in Canada I attended a large international social sciences conference hosted by the University. One morning I found myself at a talk by Yann Martel the prize winning author of The Life of Pi (not yet a major motion picture but still prize winning and much discussed.) What, I wondered, would the author of this rather quirky novel have to say.

218 Life of Pi coverYann Martel blew me away, not by talking about tigers in boats and shipwrecks or the meaning of life, but instead he told us about a recent incident, which had left him very offended and not a little steamed up. And he was doing something about it.

The inciting incident

The incident concerned casual, even impolite behaviour by the Conservative Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, in the House of Commons in Ottawa. 50 Canadian artists from all disciplines had been invited to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Canada Council for the Arts in March 2007. In the visitors gallery the 50 artists stood up, were acknowledged by the relevant minister and in 5 minutes the celebrations of Canadian arts was finished and the MPs turned to other business.

From the shadow into which I had been cast, I focused on one man. The Prime Minister did not speak during our brief tribute. He didn’t even look up. By all appearances, he didn’t even know we were there. (5)

The Prime Minister, Yann Martel told us, was shuffling through his papers preparing for the next business.

The action

Yann Martel, relating this story (it’s retold with slightly less vehemence in the book, which I’ll come to), revealed his complete commitment to reading and books. He began a project that lasted nearly four years, writing to Stephen Harper and enclosing a short book to illustrate why reading is so important. The first book was The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy.

In reading about fictional others we end up reading about ourselves. Sometimes this unwitting self-examination provokes smiles of recognition, while other times, as in the case of this book, it provokes shudders of worry and denial. Either way we are the wiser, we are existentially thicker. (16)

He received a short letter of acknowledgement in reply from the Prime Minister’s office.

He continued to send a book every two weeks, with a covering letter. It was usually shorter than 200 pages, and where possible in a paperback edition, sometimes second hand. He also set up a website so other people could see his choices, the letters that explained them and the responses of Mr Harper. People would be able to make recommendations. And they did.

The outcomes

In the event the Prime Minister’s office only acknowledged two of the 55 books that were sent between April 2007 and February 2011.

For a while Yann Martel’s small-scale pro-book campaign gathered momentum and followers. He compiled a book, What is Stephen Harper Reading? explaining the project, his book club of two people, and including the letters he sent with the books. Later he included the original in 101 Letters to a Prime Minister. Both books are currently out of print.

218 St Harper

In October 2015 Stephen Harper’s Conservative government was defeated by the Canadian Liberals, led by Justin Trudeau. I was reminded, by news of his defeat, of Yann Martel’s project and got hold of a copy of What is Stephen Harper Reading? The book club had finished by then.

Yann Martel said as he ended his project,

I’m tired of using books as political bullets and grenades. Books are too wonderful to be used long for such a function. (Toronto Star 2.2.11)

What is Stephen Harper Reading?

218 What you reading? coverIt’s a book about books, and it’s a book about why reading is so important for individuals, including politicians. He describes it as a small book club but it’s actually a course in reading. He goes through 55 books, which he sent Stephen Harper April 2007 and May 2009. Answering the question why it’s his or anyone’s business what Stephen Harper is reading he writes this.

But once someone has power over me, then, yes, their reading does matter to me, because in what they choose to read will be found what they think and what they will do. As I wrote in one of my letters to the man, if Stephen Harper hasn’t read The Death of Ivan Ilych or any other Russian novel, if he hasn’t read Miss Julia or any other Scandinavian play, if he hasn’t read Metamorphosis or any other German-language novel, or if he hasn’t read Waiting for Godot or To the Lighthouse or any other experimental play or novel, if he hasn’t read the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius or The Educated Imagination or any other philosophical inquiry, if he hasn’t read … then what is his mind made of? (10)

218 obama2-large

The choice of books is wide ranging: novels, plays, poems, meditations, short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, crime novels, in English and French, in translation and from the last 400 years.

It does the work of good fiction: it transports you to a situation that might be alien to you, makes it familiar, and so brings understanding. (From the letter on The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway.) (95)

The making of art, as I may have mentioned to you before, involves a lot of work. Because of that it is implicitly constructive. One doesn’t work so hard merely to destroy. No matter how much cruelty and sadness a story may hold, its effect is always the opposite. … Art then is implicitly liberal; it encourages us towards openness and generosity, it seeks to unlock doors. (From the letter on The Bluest Eyes by Toni Morrison.) (145)

Of course, it is a little disingenuous of Yann Martel to reproach Mr Harper in this way for he cannot respond. But then he should have paid attention when Canadian arts were being honoured and acknowledged the gifts he was sent. Martel is occasionally preachy and portentous. But I can forgive him that for the intent at the heart of his action (connecting books and politics), and by providing such an interesting book about books and their importance. And I’d love to be existentially thicker.

A few notes on Saskatoon

People were very rude about Saskatoon, not a large city right in the middle of Canada. They told me it’s so flat you can sit on your porch and watch your dog run away for two days.

While I was in the University Bookshop the assistant said, ‘Gee I love your accent. Are you from London?’ At that time I was. ‘Have you ever met Madonna?’ I laughed. ‘That would be like me asking you if you have ever met Joni Mitchell.’ ‘But I have. She used to visit her grandmother in the old people’s home where my aunt was.’ That’s Saskatoon for you.

It turns out that Yann Martel and Alice Knipers live in Saskatoon. Joni Mitchell (get well soon) also claims it as her home town. Not bad for Saskatoon. Not bad for Canada.

What is Stephen Harper Reading? By Yann Martel, published in 2009 by Vintage Canada. 230pp

Over to you

You can find the complete list of books recommended by Yann Martell on the University of Montana Library site.

Characters from a famous soap opera?

Characters from a famous soap opera?

What is David Cameron reading? Do we know? Do we care? Is he conscious of British writers and artists and their achievements? What would you recommend to him if you had the chance, or to any other politician?


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Filed under Books, Reading