The sedge has withered from the lake,
And no birds sing.
John Keats (La Belle Dame Sans Merci, 1819)
Imagine a world where the birds no longer sing from the treetops; imagine a world where the trees no longer tower above our heads; imagine a world where life is death. That’s the world Rachel Carson imagined as she delved into the research for her revelatory book, Silent Spring.
In the first chapter “A Fable for Tomorrow,” Ms. Carson paints a bleak canvas for what happens in a town where the stillness in the air and sky and ground is caused by man’s attempt to unsuccessfully control nature.
“No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves,” she wrote.
Although the town’s silence was a fictional account imagined by Ms. Carson for what could happen in a future world where man continued the folly of attempting to get rid of nature’s unappealing and destructive side by destroying all things in nature, she was discovering that her vision was not far off the mark in certain parts of the country.
When a friend wrote her about the death of birds in her bird sanctuary in Massachusetts, Ms. Carson was in the process of beginning her fourth book about children and nature. The friend was certain that aerial spraying over the bird sanctuary to kill mosquitoes also destroyed her bird population. The friend never wanted her sanctuary sprayed in the first place. She wrote Ms. Carson, wondering how she could stop the next spraying planned by the state of Massachusetts. The question gave Ms. Carson pause as she wondered what kind of rights any of us to prevent the government from spraying poisons over us.
She began researching and discovered the public had no say over the decision. And even though mosquitoes were the target of the spraying in Massachusetts, grasshoppers and visiting bees were the victims. The mosquitoes survived while the birds and insects died.
At first, Ms. Carson thought it would be a good article, but when she approached the magazines, they didn’t want to touch it. Their biggest advertisers were the corporations benefitting the most from the sale of the pesticides.
She then decided it should be a book, but she didn’t want to write it. She wanted to write about life, not poisons and death. None of her respected writer friends, including E.B. White, wanted to broach the topic. But the more she learned, the more she knew the topic must be put out for the public to understand about the nonselective poisons that had previously only been used during wartime and never tested. Within 12 years of World War II ending, the use of these poisons to control agricultural and domestic pests became common place.
One overriding question guided her writing and research: “Is it possible to lay down a barrage of poisons on earth without threatening all life?”
The answer still echoes today with a resounding “No.”
The documentary on Ms. Carson’s final interviews, A Sense of Wonder, shows the shock waves she felt when her research went beyond Massachusetts to Michigan to Florida to California to Wisconsin and beyond.
In Florida, efforts to control the sandfly resulted in the death of millions of fish and crabs. In Michigan, the fight to eradicate Dutch elm disease resulted in the death of robins through a chain reaction. Earthworms ate the residue of poisons left on the leaves of the diseased trees and within the year the robins that ate the earthworms were dead or infertile. She discovered the destruction of watersheds, the contamination of milk supplies, and evidence of children falling sick and some dying after playing with empty bags that once contained these poisons we were pouring over our land.
The book had to be written despite the backlash that might be heaped on the author. Fortunately, the Kennedy administration decided to come public with a report that criticized the industry and government several months after the publication of Silent Spring. That report silenced the critics and vindicated Ms. Carson. Eventually Congressional hearings began which concluded with the decision to create a federal policy to safeguard the environment.
Ms. Carson knew of this decision before her death, but she never saw what reverberating actions came in its wake. Silent Spring remains as a warning, but not yet a manifestation.