Lost Woods: The Discovered Writing of Rachel Carson - Rachel Carson, Linda Lear (1999)

Part IV

Part Four covers the period 1959–1963. During that time Carson was occupied with either writing or defending Silent Spring, which she had initially titled “The Control of Nature” when she began her research in the fall of 1957. It took nearly five years for her to gather evidence, synthesize, and shape the enormous body of scientific literature into a compelling indictment against the flagrant misuse of synthetic chemical pesticides, and the folly of trying to conquer nature.

Included in Part Four are three of Carson’s most important public speeches, as notable for their clarity of language as for their expression of her convictions about both the dangers of pollution and the interconnectedness of life. Attacks on Carson and her work increased after 1962, and she answered her critics with a calm but compelling analysis and unexpected political insight. Carson had attacked the integrity of the scientific establishment, its moral leadership, and its direction of society. She exposed their self-interest as well as their poor science, and defended the public’s right to know the truth.

At the same time as Carson carried out her public crusade she was fighting an even graver private adversary. Diagnosed with an aggressively metastasizing breast cancer in 1961, she defended the earth she loved with an added passion born of knowing that her opportunities to speak out were now limited. Part Four ends with letters to her physician and to her dearest friend.

Chapter 24. Vanishing Americans

[1959]

CARSON HAD BEEN WORKING on the book that became Silent Spring for nearly two years when the Washington Post published an editorial commenting on a recent National Audubon Society report describing the effects of an unusually harsh winter on migrating birds in the South. Knowing that climate variations explained only a small part of the population decline, Carson wrote exposing the role the widespread use of toxic chemicals played in “silencing the birds.” Her focus on birds offered a good opportunity to gauge the public’s awareness of the pesticide problem.

Her letter, published in the newspaper a week later, provided the first clue that Rachel Carson was studying the subject of synthetic pesticides. She was gratified when the public response to her article testified to an intense interest in the subject.

An added benefit of the publication of Carson’s letter was the support of the Washington Post owner Agnes Meyer and of activist Christine Stevens, president of the Animal Welfare Institute in New York. Both women subsequently became influential advocates of Carson’s work.

image YOUR EXCELLENT MARCH 30 EDITORIAL, “Vanishing Americans,” is a timely reminder that in our modern world nothing may be taken for granted – not even the spring songs that herald the return of the birds. Snow, ice and cold, especially when visited upon usually temperate regions, leave destruction behind them, as was clearly brought out in the report of the National Audubon Society you quote.

But although the recent severe winters in the South have taken their toll of bird life, this is not the whole story, nor even the most important part of the story. Such severe winters are by no means rare in the long history of the earth. The natural resilience of birds and other forms of life allows them to take these adverse conditions in their stride and so to recover from temporary reduction of their populations.

It is not so with the second factor, of which you make passing mention – the spraying of poisonous insecticides and herbicides. Unlike climatic variations, spraying is now a continuing and unremitting factor.

During the past 15 years, the use of highly poisonous hydrocarbons and of organic phosphates allied to the nerve gases of chemical warfare has built up from small beginnings to what a noted British ecologist recently called “an amazing rain of death upon the surface of the earth.” Most of these chemicals leave long-persisting residues on vegetation, in soils, and even in the bodies of earthworms and other organisms on which birds depend for food.

The key to the decimation of the robins, which in some parts of the country already amounts to virtual extinction, is their reliance on earthworms as food. The sprayed leaves with their load of poison eventually fall to become part of the leaf litter of the soil; earthworms acquire and store the poisons through feeding on the leaves; the following spring the returning robins feed on the worms. As few as II such earthworms are a lethal dose, a fact confirmed by careful research in Illinois.

The death of the robins is not mere speculation. The leading authority on this problem, Professor George Wallace of Michigan State University, has recently reported that “Dead and dying robins, the latter most often found in a state of violent convulsions, are most common in the spring, when warm rains bring up the earthworms, but birds that survive are apparently sterile or at least experience nearly complete reproductive failure.”

The fact that doses that are sub-lethal may yet induce sterility is one of the most alarming aspects of the problem of insecticides. The evidence on this point, from many highly competent scientists, is too strong to question. It should be weighed by all who use the modern insecticides, or condone their use.

I do not wish to leave the impression that only birds that feed on earthworms are endangered. To quote Professor Wallace briefly: “Tree-top feeders are affected in an entirely different way, by insect shortages, or actual consumption of poisoned insects. [ … ] Birds that forage on trunks and branches are also affected, perhaps mostly by the dormant sprays.” About two-thirds of the bird species that were formerly summer residents in the area under Professor Wallace’s observation have disappeared entirely or are sharply reduced.

To many of us, this sudden silencing of the song of birds, this obliteration of the color and beauty and interest of bird life, is sufficient cause for sharp regret. To those who have never known such rewarding enjoyment of nature, there should yet remain a nagging and insistent question: If this “rain of death” has produced so disastrous an effect on birds, what of other lives, including our own?