The Master Gardeners

The 40th Anniversary of "Silent Spring"

Bill Meredith

Every year, the beginning of May brings the memory of Rachel Carson to my mind, but this year is special… a 40th anniversary. It was in 1962 that her book, Silent Spring, was published. Maybe someone somewhere is planning a celebration; if they aren’t, they should be. It may have been the most read and discussed book on biology since the Origin of Species, and because of it, ecology became a household word.

Before World War II, ecological problems like deforestation, the dust bowl, and the extinction of native wildlife were widely recognized, but both the policy makers and the general public saw them in the framework of conservation. Soil erosion was a practical economic problem, and hunters clamored about the loss or decline of game birds and animals; but these were things to be concerned with saving, not threats to one’s personal life. Writers like Edwin Way Teale, John Burroughs and Aldo Leopold had wide followings, but are now remembered more for their prose styles than their influence on public opinion and policy.

After the war, ecologists were confronted with a new set of problems, which arose from the increased industrialization and urbanization of the world. Air pollution from automobile exhaust and industrial fumes produced caustic smog, resulting in an increase of respiratory ailments and occasionally fatal thermal inversions over cities. Water pollution from the sewage of burgeoning cities, strip mining, and non-degradable detergents got worse every year. These were all obvious problems; people could feel their eyes and throats burning, and could see foam in their tap water. But an even more serious situation was developing in the water and soil, unknown to the public and ignored by policy-makers who were warned by scientists. It was the buildup of toxic pesticides, insecticides and weed killers; it was most visible to birdwatchers. And Rachel Carson was a birdwatcher.

Carson was a classic case of the right person at the right place and time. First of all, she was an excellent writer who was already well known to the non-scientific public. Her book, The Sea Around Us, reached the best-seller list and won the National Book Award in 1951; then it was made into an outstanding documentary movie that was a hit at the box office and also was shown widely in schools. Second, in addition to her gift for writing, she was a well-trained scientist; as a young woman, she earned a Master’s degree in marine biology from Johns Hopkins University in the early 1930’s. Economic difficulties during the Great Depression prevented her from completing her Ph. D., but she went on to teach at the University of Maryland and do research at the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the country’s premier marine lab, Woods Hole. Hence she had credibility when she wrote about environmental problems. And third, she was either shrewd enough or lucky enough to select a title that caught the public’s imagination.

I recently got my copy of Silent Spring down from the shelf and re-read it. Looking back with the cynicism of one who has watched industrial lobbies and special interests manipulate uninformed or self-interested politicians for nearly seven decades, I am amazed that Silent Spring worked. Carson’s prose is still compelling, but the book is full of detail, documented by sources ranging from technical scientific papers to congressional hearings, and demands one’s full attention while reading; one would think the public would have dozed off before finishing it. It is passionate, sometimes emotional; one would have expected the scientific audience to be turned off. Carson was vilified by the agricultural and chemical industries and ignored by government agencies. Yet despite all odds, the book succeeded.

Part of its success was a matter of timing… as the ‘60’s went on and the large population of baby-boomers reached college age, idealism came to outweigh economics in the public psyche… but there were practical reasons also. Signs of environmental crisis became more obvious when DDT was confirmed as the cause of the threatened extinction of visible symbols like the American Eagle, and the effects of a modified weed-killer, Agent Orange, became known among Vietnam veterans. An aroused public celebrated the first Earth Day in April, 1970, and environmentalism suddenly become a respectable political position. A decade after the book was published, DDT was banned in the U. S., and the Environmental Protection Agency was established. Sad to say, Rachel Carson never saw her victory; she died of cancer two years after her masterwork was published.

Had she lived, she would be celebrating her 95th birthday on May 27, and it is tempting to wonder what she would think of the state of the global environment now. Eagles, pelicans and peregrine falcons have come back from the brink of extinction, and bluebirds, which had disappeared in the Emmitsburg area, now regularly appear on my daily records. But while DDT can’t be used in the U.S. any more, it is still being manufactured and sold for use overseas, and the list of other toxic pesticides on the market grows daily. Each spring, fields around Frederick County show the scorched brown color produced by the weed-killers used in no-till corn crops. Spring is not silent yet, but it is getting quieter. Most of the bird species I saw in the 1950’s still show up on my lists, but in fewer numbers each year as their migration routes and winter habitats are destroyed by sprawling human populations. If she were still here, I suspect Rachel Carson would regard the effect of her book as a stay of execution rather than a victory.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith