Rachel Carson

What Came From One Silent Bird

Rachel Carson was an individual who went against all odds. Carson was a successful female scientist in a male dominated profession during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Carson uncovered the dishonesty of the chemical companies because of their indiscriminant use of toxic pesticides. Carson was able to write as a layperson about her findings even though she was well respected in the scientific community. With a style of beauty and simplicity, her writing was able to break down the distinction between science and literature, creating a piece of work that everyone could respond to. She overcame her shy personality in order to confront the public on the devastating effects of toxic pesticides they were to face. Carson stood up to defend her research against some of the most powerful chemical companies in the world. Carson found, within herself, the power to create change. She alone with her book Silent Spring started the modern environmental movement. The movement, whose philosophy would create, as she saw, places “where the relations of sea and wind and shore—of living things and their physical world—remain as they have been over the long vistas of time in which man did not exist”(Cafaro Encyclopedia of Earth). Carson’s legacy is the definition of an environmentalist. Her legacy should also be the definition of a human. As apart of nature, Carson taught us, that we must live in harmony with nature. She was able to live in harmony, as well as promote a greater harmony between humans and nature worldwide.

            Rachel Carson was a writer and a biologist who documented the intricacies of natural science in a poetic and humanistic style. Born in Springdale Pennsylvania, from a young age she had the ability to begin exploring her natural surroundings. A shy recluse, Carson stayed to herself and wrote of her findings in poetry throughout her adolescence. When Carson attended Pennsylvania College for Women, she declared an English major until she re-visited her passion for biology in her junior year. Soon Carson had switched to a major in Zoology. After graduating from John Hopkins University with a Masters in Zoology her focus narrowed still. Carson worked as Chief Editor of Publications at the Bureau of Fisheries, which was soon to become The Fish and Wildlife Service. Carson was a quiet and respected researcher; work, it seemed, was her hobby. Carson’s love for Marine Biology gave her the initiative to write Under the Sea-Wind in 1941. This was Carson’s first published book, about the behavior of seabirds and ocean fish, and their relationship with the sea itself. Her next book in 1951, The Sea Around Us, was met with more success. This book brought Carson into the public eye, for she received the National Book Award in 1952, and even more significant for the legitimacy of her next book, Silent Spring, The Sea Around Us received the Burroughs Medal. The Burroughs Medal is an award for excellence in nature writing, named after John Burroughs, a naturalist and writer who contributed to the literary genre started by Henry David Thoreau.  The immense success that followed The Sea Around Us, gave Carson the opportunity to retire from her position at the Fish and Wildlife Service. Carson moved to West Southport, Maine where she was now able to write full time, and be close to nature.

            While in Maine, Carson research for six years the chemical referred to as DDT. DDT was initially used in World War Two as a pesticide to control mosquitoes and lice that spread Malaria and Typhus. After the War, the United States Government began to use what was seen as a highly effective pesticide, DDT as well as dieldrin, heptachlor and parathion as insecticides for commercial use. Carson’s research documented the unknown and unspoken threats to agriculture, wildlife, and human health the use of these chemicals caused. Carson completed all of her research alone. Carson’s research on DDT and its effects was extensive, she researched for six years and her sources fill the last seventy pages of Silent Spring. In her research she found that DDT was highly absorbable in soils, dissolvable in water, and easily stored in the body fat of living. Agricultures used DDT by spraying or dusting it onto crops grown for consumers in order to kill the insects that lived and fed off the crop. Though the initial effect of DDT as an insecticide was successful, Carson’s research showed that the chemical caused more problems than solutions. Its chain effect began after the first spray onto the plants, creating many negative environmental impacts.

The first scenario shows DDT unique impact on water and the reactions that come after. Once DDT fell to the earth it was absorbed into the soil and a rain would come, washing the DDT, now dissolved into the rainwater off of the farm where it was purposefully sprayed. On some occasions the water flowed into neighboring land, a home, or an adjacent farm. If DDT came into contact with a grazing farm animal, it could cause a “loss of hair and thickening of the skin…abnormal pigment spots…cancerous lesion[s]…arsenical enteritis, gastric ulcers and cirrhosis of the liver”(Carson 223). Even “unsprayed crops” could absorb enough dissolved DDT from the water in soil that it would “render them unfit for market”(Carson 59). These two instances negatively affect farmers innocent of DDT use. Still considering the effect of DDT on water, if that water ran into a neighboring home, contaminating the grass, it could come into contact with a pet or a human. Upon coming into contact with the chemical they could expect the same results as the farm animal, if not experience “seizures…convulsions”(Carson 26) or death. Contaminated water could also sink into the aquifer, an underground layer of water used for drinking, cooking, showering, watering by access of a well. In this circumstance, a spraying of DDT could easily affect a family living a hundred miles away whose well water is contaminated.  

To return back to the initial spraying of DDT on a farm comes a different scenario. After the DDT absorbs into the ground, any good insect life scurrying about would be contaminated. Birds would continue to eat the contaminated worms or bugs, for there was no way for them to tell if the insects were poisoned. Within a few days the initial spraying, there were “a great many dead birds”, those who were “picked up in a dying condition showed the typical symptoms of insecticide poisoning—tremoring, loss of ability to fly, paralysis, convulsions”(Carson 90). If a bird was not directly affected in the ways above, there was a high chance that their young would be affected.  DDT affected the decline in population of many bird species including the bald eagle. DDT disrupts the female bird’s reproductive system by thinning the eggshells, which greatly lowers the survival rate of chicks.

During Carson’s research, she found that, “the more [she] learned about the pesticides, the more appalled [she] became”(Matthiessen Time Magazine). Carson completed six solid years of research on DDT, but she also waited six solid years for a colleague or fellow scientist to write the book she dreaded to. Even through all the time and passion Carson put into researching the book, she feared its results, knowing the uproar it would cause. Carson knew she was not the personality to defend her scientific credibility nor create immense change. Carson, who all her life “prefer[red] to listen rather than to talk”(The New York Times), gathered her “anger at the senseless, brutish things that were being done” in order to write Silent Spring. She gathered her passion and courage, knowing she was “bound by a solemn obligation to do what [she] could – if [she] didn’t at least try [she] could never be happy again in nature”(Matthiessen Time Magazine). And so, Silent Spring was written.

            Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring uses three different elements of style that make the book as a call to arms, a successful one. Carson’s combination of poetic narratives, humanistic accounts of complex sciences, and strong opinions, creates a book that is factual and easy to comprehend.  Carson begins her call to arms with a short chapter, titled “A Fable for Tomorrow”. This chapter is Carson’s prediction for the future if the use of DDT is continued. She saw a bleak future where “everywhere was a shadow of death”(Carson 2). She describes the beauty that nature once possessed when “all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings”(Carson 1). Carson describes the deer that “silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings”(Carson 1), and the fish streams that “flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay”(Carson 2). The beautifully poetic way that Carson accurately presents nature pulls on the heartstrings of her audience. The images Carson conjures are very relatable, from “personal experience” and “perhaps the sudden unexpected sight of a wild creature”(Cafaro Encyclopedia of Earth). She is also aware that if the only nature her audience relate to is the nature presented in this first chapter, than the intended effect has occurred. Carson knows how nature has a way about it that “takes us out of ourselves, that makes us aware of other life”(Cafaro Encyclopedia of Earth). An audience that relates to the subject of the book will be listening when she beings to describe the atrocities of a “grim specter [that] had crept upon us almost unnoticed”(Carson 3). By making her audience relate to nature, they now have something at stake if they didn’t already before.

Carson states the goal of Silent Spring in its first and only fictional chapter,  “this imagined tragedy may easily become a stark reality we all shall know”(Carson 3).  Carson asks, “what has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America? This book is an attempt to explain” (Carson 3). A large amount of Silent Spring is put towards explaining the circumstances of the complex push and pull between nature and science. Though Carson’s arguments are always clearly expressed. She knew that she could not just address scientists, chemical company owners, and government officials but the public as well. Carson welcomed readers that were silenced because of their experiences with the negative effects of pesticide use, knowingly or unknowingly.  A patchwork of scientific information next to strong opinion is extremely effective in Silent Spring. By having opinion followed by fact, she leads her uninformed audience systematically through the information. When she has her audience feeding off her facts, feeling unnerved by the horrors they are reading, Carson stamps her opinion at the end of a chapter. This is an effective way of making her audience convinced of her arguments. The chapter titled “And No Birds Sing” is a perfect example of how Carson constructs her argument. She begins small, by describing how birds are easily contaminated with DDT by eating worms.  She then opens her lens slightly more, stating how “all birds and mammals heavily dependent on…soil organisms for food are threatened”(Carson 110). The lens opens more, describing that when the birds die from eating contaminated insects that there is a “resurgence of the insect population” because the “birds are not there to keep their numbers in check”(Carson 113). Her audience is captivated and horrified that “the purpose this slaughter was intended to serve”(Carson 114) is being propagated by the slaughter itself. This, is when Carson drops her unarguable view,

“Who has decided – who has the right to decide – for the countless legions of people who were not consulted that the supreme value is a world without insects, even though it be also a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?”(Carson 127).

Carson’s audience cannot help but to be convinced by her powerful and direct argument. Her words and spirit highlighted the chemical industry’s corruption through her focus on the destruction of nature after their use.  These companies had produced a product that to them, was very profitable but was also equally lethal.

            The chemical companies “Who [had] decided”(Carson 127) how DDT and other toxic insecticides would be used and regulated did not take the publication of Silent Spring with a grain of salt, for they were being directly attacked. In order to gain as much speed in the positive reception of her book before its publication, Carson planned ahead. She knew well how to affect change so she went straight to the source, giving copies of Silent Spring to important politicians. She targeted a greater public sphere by publishing excerpts of the book in The New Yorker, The New York Times and Audubon. More people read these publications than would initially buy her book, so by sparking an interest in people through these publications, she created a net base of people who would buy her book upon its publication. This created a ripple effect of attentiveness in the public for what was to come.

With the publicity that Silent Spring was creating, chemical companies producing DDT, chlordane and heptachlor in the 1960’s such as Montrose Chemical, Dow Chemical, Velsicol and Merck threatened legal action against Carson and Silent Spring. The knowledge that Carson’s book made apparent created “a firestorm of controversy”, and the chemical companies made “personal attacks on her professional integrity”(U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service).  Carson’s scientific credentials were attacked; she was called a “hysterical woman”(Matthiessen Time Magazine) whose major claims were accused of being “gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific, experimental evidence, and general practical experience in the field”(The New York Times). They critiqued her view on nature, saying it was a “mystical attachment to the balance of nature”(Cafaro Encyclopedia of Earth), and would bring society back to a time before technology. They incorrectly re-interpreted Silent Spring in order to make it appear as if Carson wanted a ban of all pesticides. The chemical companies did everything in their power to protect their integrity, by attacking hers. One company began handing out pamphlets that said, “Hunger, hunger, are you listening, to the words from Rachel’s pen? Words which taken at face value, Place lives of birds ‘bove those of men”(Cafaro Encyclopedia of Earth). Each of these attacks could not be followed through with effects because her research was exquisite and she only wanted to limit the use of pesticides. When the chemical companies became desperate, Carson was called a Communist. This was for no other reason than to spark a negative emotional reaction in the public that would diverge them away from looking at the facts that Carson presented. Through all the negative publicity the chemical companies attempted to create, the legitimacy of Carson’s book shone through. She not only won the war over the chemical companies, but also received many awards such as the Paul Bartsch Award, the Audubon Medal, and an invitation to join the American Academy of Arts and Letters. President Kennedy responded to the publication of Silent Spring by appointing a panel of scientists to the President Science Advisory Committee in order to evaluate the claims made in Carson’s book. The committee found the claims to be true and urged the limited use of pesticides. In 1972, ten years after the publication of Silent Spring and eight years after the death of Carson herself, DDT was banned in the United States.

            Rachel Carson was thrown into the public sphere for the defense of her book. She was scrutinized and questioned, but what was kept quiet was the discovery of her breast cancer even before the publication of Silent Spring. Carson knew that she would not make it to see the results of her revolutionary book, so as she began radiation therapy, she prepared with her literary agent Marie Rodell for the attacks to come on her book upon its release. Carson’s preparation included gaining as much support for Silent Spring in the realm of scientists, specialists in the field and people within the academic community as possible. They all soon found their place promoting and defending this incredibly intelligent woman’s piece of work. Every action Carson took showed the caliber of her character, such as her position on how we should live in nature, the research and writing of Silent Spring, and most amazingly her astonishing foresight. She had prepared her book to be defended even after her death, and not for one moment did she give up on the level of work her book would need in order to create change. Carson gave up her personal comforts of being a quiet and timid woman to research, write, and in its reception, defend her work forcefully. The mere act alone of giving up her comforts of lifestyle for something greater than herself is magnanimous. Carson went one step further, giving up such comforts for the benefit of the world thereby performing the most selfless act there is. If Silent Spring itself was not a call to arms, than the personal sacrifices Carson made for the greater environment was. Carson had become one of the “One In Every Four”, organisms to get cancer as she discussed in her book. In Silent Spring Carson critiqued how people “neglect[ed] the golden opportunity to prevent, even while we seek to cure”(Carson 242).  And just as Carson discussed, the cure itself will for be enough for soon enough, the cancer found in Carson’s breast had moved quickly to her liver. Carson’s death was the embodiment of all she feared and the argument of Silent Spring. Carson died because of human’s desire to have “control of nature”(Carson 297). In an interview Carson said, “man’s endeavors to control nature by his powers to alter and to destroy would inevitably evolve into a war against himself”(U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service). We have created these truths Carson saw before use and we cannot put off facing them any longer. We face now, the up hill battle of “a war [man will] lose unless he [comes] to terms with nature”(U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service).

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