By Adam Regn Arvidson
The Power of Rachel Carson
By Adam Regn Arvidson
I was almost finished reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring when I authorized the application of Garlon to 3300 square feet of vegetation surrounding a new commercial building. Garlon is an herbicide: a chemical officially called triclopyr—a cocktail of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, and chlorine arranged in a particular structure that makes it fatal to broad-leaved plants.
I visited the application site after a few days and the plants had already started to wither. Garlon takes a little while to act, but over the course of a week or two, the lambs-quarters and creeping charlie browned and fell to the earth. The company I hired later arrived to mow the whole thing down.
Silent Spring spends an entire chapter (ominously called “Elixirs of Death”) on how exactly the various pesticides and herbicides work. Garlon is more recent, so it doesn’t appear, but it shares many of the chemical properties of the chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphates Carson describes. “Elixirs of Death” occurs early in this seminal (some would say THE seminal) environmental work. Carson, an otherwise soft-spoken science writer, sets the book’s tone with the chapter’s title, and with stories like this:
On another occasion two small boys in Wisconsin, cousins, died on the same night. One had been playing in his yard when spray drifted in from an adjoining field where his father was spraying potatoes with parathion; the other had run playfully into the barn after his father and put his hand on the nozzle of the spray equipment.
Dwell on those words for a minute: “had run playfully into the barn after his father.”
Chemical diagram of triclopyr (Garlon)
I am a landscape architect, which means I typically come up with designs for parks, homes, and commercial properties, then leave the maintenance to others. At some level I suppose I understand that a broad array of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are being sprayed on my idealistically created landscapes. But what they do is their business—out of sight, out of mind. On the particular commercial project I mention above, though, I was thrust into a management role due to some contract discrepancies. The responsibility of maintaining the native prairie grasses I had seeded along the building’s main walkway fell to me. I called a prairie expert who told me herbicide would be the best way to get the weeds under control and allow the little bluestem room to grow. I wavered. Then agreed.
Hanging up the phone I was wracked with guilt. Carson’s book has a way of making one feel that way, if one is in any way complicit in the use of pesticides or herbicides. Silent Spring is both fact-packed and heart-wrenching. It leaves a reader feeling emotionally spent, yet unable to find relief in the possibility that the stories are either exaggerated or untrue. And that, of course, was its intended effect.
It’s hard to know exactly where to start a new essay about Carson, since of all the environmental writers in American history, she has been more researched, praised, referenced, essayed, and reprinted than anyone but perhaps Thoreau and John Muir. Certainly of all the writers covered in this series, no one sold more books and no one had a more direct effect on legislation than she did—even though she only wrote four books and succumbed to cancer a mere 18 months after Silent Spring was published, at age 56. If you want biography, read Linda Lear’s excellent and honest Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature. If you want homage, go for Courage for the Earth, edited by the venerable Peter Matthiessen. You can find Rachel Carson children’s books and Rachel Carson school curricula. (I’m thinking of starting a line of “what would Rachel do?” bumper stickers and coffee mugs.)
It’s hard to know where to start with Carson because so much has been said already. What I will add is this: Silent Spring struck me in two ways. Foremost, I felt like a direct subject of criticism, because of the Garlon, and the book has made me rethink some of my professional practices, even though it is near 50 years old and wildly out of date factually. I also felt a deep admiration for Carson because she, I believe, deliberately altered her writing style in order to have the desired impact. Silent Spring, in tone, subject, and language choice, is markedly different from her earlier works about the ocean: Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (a 1951 bestseller), and The Edge of the Sea (1955). Though this earlier trilogy—completed a full seven years before Silent Spring—has notes of warning, it is above all a paean to the sea, in all its glory and poetry. I read The Sea Around Us immediately before delving into Silent Spring, and the contrast was stark.
Indulge me in a side-by-side comparison. To make it a little more apples-to-apples, I’ll look at the same subject: water. Here is Silent Spring:
Here and there we have dramatic evidence of the presence of these chemicals in our streams and even in public water supplies. For example, a sample of drinking water from an orchard area in Pennsylvania, when tested on fish in a laboratory, contained enough insecticide to kill all of the test fish in only four hours….
For the most part this pollution is unseen and invisible, making its presence known when hundreds of thousands of fish die, but more often never detected at all. The chemist who guards water purity has no routine tests for these organic pollutants and no way to remove them.
And The Sea Around Us:
Fish, amphibian, and reptile, warm-blooded bird and mammal—each of us carries in our veins a salty stream in which the elements sodium, potassium, and calcium are combined in almost the same proportions as in sea water. This is our inheritance from the day, untold millions of years ago, when a remote ancestor, having progressed from the one-celled to the many-celled stage, first developed a circulation system in which the fluid was merely the water of the sea.
You will of course have to give me the benefit of the doubt that I have selected representative samples. Yes, there are glimpses of the critical Carson in the sea trilogy and of the enraptured Carson in Silent Spring (“those woodland sprites the kinglets…the warblers, whose migrating hordes flow through the trees in spring in a multicolored tide of life”). But it’s not a stretch to say that the sea trilogy is poetic while Silent Spring is analytical.
I believe that difference is not just because of the passage of time between the works, nor is it because of the inherently negative subject matter of the later book. As Ann Zwinger writes in her introduction to the 2002 reprint of Silent Spring, after World War II “The public endowed chemists, at work in their starched white coats…with almost divine wisdom. The results of their labors were gilded with the presumption of beneficence. In postwar America, science was god, and science was male.” Science also stood alone, in philosophical opposition to art and poetry. That dichotomy, which Loren Eiseley and others began to expose in the early 1960s, led to the intense social upheval that pitted “9-to-5-ers” and “hippies” against each other in the decades to come.
In order to have an affect on the science of the day, and on the general population, Carson needed to adopt an empirical rhetoric, mostly free of the soul-stirring prose that populates her earlier work but would be rapidly discredited in the context of her new subject. In fact, the chemical industry tried to do exactly that, launching a smear campaign that, among other things, labeled Carson a spinster and a madwoman—powerful and damning language in the late 50s. Carson buttoned Silent Spring up tight, leaving no space for the chemical establishment to set a hook and tear it apart.
However, if that had been Carson’s only trick, Silent Spring would stand as an excellent report to Congress, rather than as the “cornerstone of the new environmentalism,” as Peter Matthiessen calls it. Carson’s final book was embraced by an entire generation and many believe it led to not just the domestic ban on DDT application (for which it is best known), but also the Clean Air Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 and the Clean Water Act in 1972—all of which directly address environmental pollutants like herbicides and pesticides.
The reason for Silent Spring’s longevity is that laced within the analysis are passages like this:
I know well a stretch of road where nature’s own landscaping has provided a border of alder, viburnum, sweet fern, and juniper with seasonally changing accents of bright flowers, or of fruits hanging in jeweled clusters in the fall…. But the sprayers took over and the miles along that road became something to be traversed quickly, a sight to be endured with one’s mind closed to thoughts of the sterile and hideous world we are letting our technicians make. But here and there authority had somehow faltered and…there were oases of beauty in the midst of austere and regimented control…. In such places my spirit lifted to the sight of the drifts of white clover or the clouds of purple vetch with here and there the flaming cup of a wood lily.
Or this, in reference to the “explosive power” of nature to reproduce and fill a void:
I think of shore rocks white with barnacles as far as the eye can see, or of the spectacle of passing through an immense school of jellyfish, mile after mile, with seemingly no end to the pulsing, ghostly forms scarcely more substantial than the water itself.
It has been more than a month now since I was complicit in the application of an herbicide. Today the site is a green swath of baby prairie grasses pushing their roots deep into the earth and covering the soil with their stems. Next spring there will be fewer broad-leaved plants and after another year this landscape will not need to be mowed, fertilized, watered, or treated with chemicals of any kind—ever.
My 3300 square feet is infinitesimal compared to the millions of square miles of neighborhoods, forests, and farms that used to be sprayed from airplanes with a mixture of DDT powder and fuel oil (can you imagine?!). And Carson’s last chapter gives me an out: perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t call for outright bans, but rather a careful combination of biological control and chemical use applied where needed and for the right reasons.
She also calls for effective regulation and decision-making through sound science, and that sentiment became the foundation for the EPA and all the environmental legislation passed in the early 1970s.
So if you will indulge me in one more paragraph, I would be remiss in not mentioning current events.
I opened this series by referencing a January 25, 2012, speech by Newt Gingrich in which he proposed elimination of the EPA. He, the few remaining presidential hopefuls, and conservative members of the U.S. Congress have held that line for the past year. The standard phrase, crowed ad nauseum in debates and stump speeches, is that the EPA and the Clean Air and Water Acts are “job-killing” regulations. Gingrich and the other so-called advocates for business and jobs should take a moment to remember life before 1970: fuel oil dropped from airplanes on suburban neighborhoods, chemicals in general use so dangerous that children could die from touching a spray nozzle, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River so polluted it actually caught fire (that was 1969), cities across the nation dumping untreated sewage into local waters (yes, the Clean Water Act regulates government in addition to private business). Conservatives are holding a ridiculous and untenable position that essentially suggests businesses would pay more taxes and hire more people–if only they could pollute.
Carson described the 1950s as “an era dominated by industry, in which the right to make a dollar at whatever cost is seldom challenged. When the public protests…it is fed little tranquilizing pills of half-truth.”
Silent Spring is 50 years old in 2012—election year. As I wrote in the introduction, it’s time for another reading.
Proceed to the next essay, on Joseph Wood Krutch; or return to the Table of Contents.
–Adam Regn Arvidson