Science Frictions

Ode to (Silent) Spring

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Rachel Carson, who died 49 years ago this month, made a difference

Rachel Carson doing field work in Florida, 1955 (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

By Priscilla Long

April 17, 2013


 

She wanted to be a writer when she grew up. Make that author. She published her first story in St. Nicholas magazine when she was 11 years old. She grew up in a blue-collar town near Pittsburgh. The family’s small house was set in a wood not far from the Allegheny River. The rooms were heated by coal burned in coal-grate fireplaces and two outhouses graced the back yard. Every morning before school her mother would wake her up early so they could listen to the birds. Her name was Rachel Carson.

In On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson, biographer William Souder writes that Carson is today “unknown to almost anyone under the age of fifty.” Yet in 1962, Silent Spring—Carson’s book opposing the prodigious and flagrantly careless spraying of DDT and other chemical pesticides—sold 65,000 copies in its first two weeks. Her previous book, The Sea Around Us, had won the 1952 National Book Award and sold more than a million copies. Fifty years ago, there was hardly a soul in America who had not heard of Rachel Carson.

I read Silent Spring shortly after it came out. Home on a break from college, I denounced DDT to my father—a skilled farm manager. Response: negative. (Why do 19-year-olds feel compelled to instruct their parents?) My father, like most American farmers, followed the guidance of the county extension agent office, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But over time his views shifted. Now age 91, he has for decades opposed the routine use of DDT in farming.

Rachel Carson was a pioneer of the environmental movement (as distinguished from the earlier conservation movement). She was a lyrical writer who was steeped in science. She was an early proponent of ecology, of the notion of a web of life, including ourselves, in which all living things are interdependent and interrelated.

She had a master’s degree in zoology and in 1935 began working for the United States Bureau of Fisheries (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). She was small and soft-spoken, and her outfits included stockings and heels. She edited the bureau’s scientific papers and wrote its news releases, reports, and radio scripts. After work she went home (now in Baltimore, where she supported her semidestitute parents and other family members) and wrote some more, selling pieces to the Baltimore Sun, and eventually to The Atlantic Monthly. In 1941 she published her first book, Under the Sea Wind, which, in her opinion, bombed. (It sold 1,700 copies.)

After World War II the pesticides industry flourished. DDT (Dichloro-Diphenyl-Trichloroethane) had been effective against typhus-carrying lice, and it was successful against the mosquito that carries malaria. There were downsides, but these were not yet understood. In the United States, chemical pesticides became as common as milk on the table (and they became common in milk on the table). The new way to combat mosquitoes or beetles or gypsy moths or ants was to soak their environment—by trucks, airplanes, or by aerosol spray cans—with a chemical pesticide, and to do it repeatedly.

Beginning in 1945, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began testing DDT on a woods bordering the Patuxent River in Maryland. The agency sprayed the woods and river with DDT in standard concentrations and then counted the dead insects (both target insects and other insects), dead fish, dead birds, and dead frogs and tadpoles. Carson knew this science cold. The agency continued testing, both in the lab and outdoors. Bad news followed bad news. For example, earthworms could live with DDT stored in their bodies. Come spring, when earthworm-eating robins returned, the robins died. The book’s title, Silent Spring, refers to the silence of a springtime without birds.

The Fish and Wildlife Service issued warnings and advice on correct dosages, but they were ignored. In contrast, the Department of Agriculture—which was married to the chemical industry—praised and promoted the efficacy and safety of the miracle pesticide DDT.

Souder writes that by 1959 the Fish and Wildlife Service, increasingly appalled by the results of its tests, reduced its recommended concentration of DDT used in aerial spraying to one pound per acre. More typical practice was the one-and-a-half pounds per tree used in Princeton, New Jersey’s (unsuccessful) attempt to eradicate the beetle that carried the fungus that caused Dutch elm disease.

DDT, if applied conservatively and judiciously, did have valid uses, for example to combat malarial mosquitoes. On the subject of malaria, Carson continues to be maligned, although she never advocated a total ban of DDT. Her exact words in Silent Spring: “It is not my contention that chemical insecticides must never be used. I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potentials for harm.”

Carson was a slow, methodical, assiduous writer who read hundreds of scientific papers and documents, who kept voluminous files on the topics she covered, corresponded endlessly with specialists, wrote slowly, revised incessantly, and routinely turned in chapters long after the (often-revised) deadline. She took mountains of information, digested it, distilled it, and put poetry into its expression. In Silent Spring we read of insects evolving insecticide-resistant strains, of global warming and rising seas, of ecological problems—infestations—involving monocrops (such as those Dutch elm trees that once lined the streets of America). These concerns, so familiar to us today, were largely introduced into public discourse by Rachel Carson.

On April 14, 1964, Carson died of metastasized breast cancer. She was 56 years old.

In 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established, largely due to the influence of Silent Spring. In 1972 the Environmental Protection Agency banned the use of DDT for most purposes within the United States. In 1973 the Endangered Species Act was passed.

Silent Spring, writes Souder, “was many things—plea and polemic and prayer—but most important it was right.”

It is also a very good read.


Priscilla Long is the author of Crossing Over: Poems. Her two new books, both published in 2016, are a collection of essays, Fire and Stone: Where Do We Come From? Who Are We? Where Are We Going? and Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators. Her essay “Genome Tome,” which appeared in our Summer 2005 issue, won the National Magazine Award for Feature Writing.


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