Thursday, February 21, 2013
Joe Neal stays home and rereads a book: Silent Spring
Ice and snow of the past few days brings a gift. I have been rereading Silent Spring by Rachael Carson (1962). Like every proto-environmentalist in their enthusiastic 20s, I first read it as manifesto.
In chapter 10, she recounted the spraying fire ants in the South that resulted in mass bird killing. Just one example: in one area 13 coveys of Northern Bobwhites (121 birds) were reduced to zero. Fire ants kept marching.
American Robins disappeared over wide areas. Imagine spring without robins -- silent spring. Fire ants kept marching.
Bald Eagles were disappearing everywhere in the lower 48 states. Fire ants kept marching.
So the book has been in print for half a century and everything has been fixed? Better hold on partner. Take the Silent Spring 1962 model, and substitute chapter by chapter, some chemicals, some application techniques. Get it all updated to 2013.
Then, as now, companies and their allies in government assure us it's all safe. Maybe yes? Maybe no? Then as now, we are guinea pigs. Toxic products are on open shelves and sold in smiley-face containers that have been sorta of tested and sorta of reviewed by industry and government. We are the ultimate test.
In the early 1960s, Carson was attacked as a Communist. Today, the same folks aggravated by her questions would curse her as an Environmentalist, or worse, a Liberal follower of Al Gore.
But the truth is, she was not against the use of chemicals and she did not see any evil plots behind what was happening. She just thought we ought to get our brains in gear, slow down and be careful. Like E. B. White, she thought "We would stand a better chance of survival if we accommodated ourselves to this planet and viewed it appreciatively instead of skeptically and dictatorially."
My dad would have probably put it this way: Use your head for something besides a hat rack.
When I first read Silent Spring, I thought the charm came from all those marshaled facts. Carson was, after all, a trained biologist. But now by page 297, I see much of the charm derives from her writing style. Working in complexity doesn't muddy her effort. She is just a damn good writer.
She chose our planet and the future – us – as her concern. On a snowy day in 2013, her prose flows free and clear of the years and we are better for her effort.