Silent Spring: A Legacy

“We can never forget the power of impassioned, informed voices sharing their stories of place, bearing witness, speaking out on behalf of the land they call home.”
– Terry Tempest Williams on Rachel Carson

Whilst I feel that Rachel Carson should be remembered for her lyrical writing on the sea, there can be no doubt that her book Silent Spring has had a huge impact on how we see, and treat, nature.

The Power of One Voice, which I mentioned in my first post about Carson (and got to see because of a kind stranger), looks at Carson’s life, her sea books and the legacy of Silent Spring. She is described in the film as a scholar, a storyteller and a voice of mother nature.

In writing Silent Spring, Carson essentially kicked the hornets nest. At a time when science was god, to question the use of chemicals was revolutionary. She did not call for a complete ban on pesticides and chemicals in agriculture, instead she asked questions about the misuse and abuse of them. She asked about the impact they were having and urged the country to er on the side of caution. There was no knowledge about the dangers of products like DDT and other pest controls, and no one had researched the impacts they could have on plants, animals and humans.

But what was becoming clear is that there was a huge impact. Wildlife and livestock were suffering, bird populations were being decimated and insects, crucial for agriculture, were being destroyed.

Despite the severity of the environmental impact, it was with the introduction of human health that Carson really drew attention. The idea that what we do to nature, we do to humans by extension was a radical concept at the time. By introducing the general public to the interconnectedness of life, she made people sit up and look closer.

“We poison the gnats in a lake and the poison travels from link to link of the food chain and soon the birds of the lake margins become its victims. We spray our elms and the following springs are silent of robin song, not because we sprayed the robins directly but because the poison traveled, step by step, through the now familiar elm-leaf-earthworm cycle. These are matters of record, observable, part of the visible world around us. They reflect the web of life—or death—that scientists know as ecology.”

Carson advocated the use of biological controls instead of chemical controls or at least the use of specific and tested pesticides. And it’s important to note that most pesticides don’t work. Mutations occur making the pests resistant to the toxins and you have to wipe out the entirety of a population which is nearly impossible. You may have a short term gain but long term, pesticides will fail you.

If we look to the impact of Silent Spring, we find that it revitalised the environmental movement and led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in the US in 1970. But we do not seem to have fully absorbed the messages. We have not adopted caution and we are still using vast amounts of chemicals which build up in the ecosystem. We are just using different chemicals…

If we look at the book in terms of literary skills, we see that Carson has taken on a huge challenge. She has set out to explain complex and scientific issues to a general readership and needs to do so with enough emotion and passion that it raises reactions but not so much that she compromises her reputation as a truthteller.

“There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings… Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change… There was a strange stillness… The few birds seen anywhere were moribund: they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus… of scores of bird voices there was no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.”

By using birds as messengers, Carson has skilfully brought messages from the insects and river life to human ears. She has chosen an environmental indicator that we are all familiar with, and which has an audible and visible presence in our lives, whether we are in the city or the countryside. Birds are universally recognised and bring home, literally, the impact that pesticides were having. Additionally, there is a large population of bird watchers who had noticed changes in bird life and who could add weight to the voice of Carson’s message.

Like her books on the sea, Carson has created, in Silent Spring, a powerful account of a complicated issue and yet manages to present it in a poetic and inspiring way. Not content to only be a writer or only a scientist, Carson had a foot firmly in each world and synthesised the two beautifully.

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