Sometimes I wonder just what went through the minds of the average American reader when he or she picked up Silent Spring, published 50 years ago.
Author Rachel Carson’s early work, filled with sparkling prose, coupled with biological fact, had pushed science books onto the best-seller lists as people gobbled up her stories about the sea and its denizens. Readers learned we share this earth with some amazing critters—and we need to consider the effects of our actions on them and the environment.
Rachel Carson meets with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall in 1962. USFWS photo
And it was to this theme she again turned to in Silent Spring. “In nature nothing exists alone,” she wrote.
Silent Spring served as an alert to the massive dangers associated with the widespread and unrestrained use of pesticides, most notably DDT, in the environment. She did not argue to get rid of pesticides altogether but wanted to ensure they were used safely.
The prose of this new work was just as moving, but the tone was definitely darker. The first chapter alone—describing a chemical-filled destruction hitting one hypothetical town—must have kept some people up at night. And the book did not get a lot more cheerful. It went on to explain in a simple-but-scientific way how chemicals from pesticides leached into the water and soil, and found their way into plants and the animals.
Carson, a former writer-biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, filled Silent Spring with page after page of primary source material—all grounded in solid scientific fact. Much of this information came from refuge managers, fishery biologists and the scientists at Patuxent Research Refuge.
Her critics howled. They flung accusations and tried to discredit her work, hoping to sway the public and knock Carson off her game.
Nothing worked. Carson, though dying of cancer, defended her work with a steadfast dignity and brilliance. But what were the readers of 1962 thinking?
I suspect some must have felt horror at this revelation. Others must have been angry. And some were probably still a little unsure.
But I imagine no one doubted the relevancy of natural resource conservation and the federal agency most responsible for it, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Eleanor Mallett, a sixth-grader from Berwick, Maine, performs her own one-woman play “Silent Spring: Reactions and Reforms to the Environment." Eleanor researched and wrote the 10-minute performance for National History Day and proceeded to perform in D.C. for a national audience. Throughout the play Eleanor portrays the many opinions formed toward Silent Spring, taking on the roles of President John F. Kennedy, pesticide spokesman Dr. Robert White-Stevens, and here, Rachel Carson herself. Photo credit: Ryan Robert, USFWS
From Carson’s landmark work sprang the early environmental movement, as people took to heart her lesson that we are all connected. Eight years after her death, the Environmental Protection Agency banned most use of DDT in the United States.
The importance of conservation has not shrunk in the 50 years since Silent Spring appeared in bookstores. In some ways conservation and the Service are more significant now than at any time in our history.
Last year, the world’s 7 billionth person was born. The world population is likely to top 9 billion people by 2050. With more people consuming more resources— land, water, food, fiber and fuel—wildlife will get less.
So, it will take extraordinarily strategic conservation efforts to ensure that abundant, healthy and diverse populations of wildlife are left for the next generation.
But not everyone realizes this or even cares.
It is up to us to foster awareness of this issue and to show everyone that they have a personal stake in conservation: that conservation is relevant to them.
And how did Rachel Carson do that? She told conservation’s stories.
There are many out there. In the latest issue of the Fish & Wildlife News alone (http://1.usa.gov/U1qpY4 ), you can read about cooperative efforts to clean up Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in the Southwest, save tree cactus plants from sea-level rise in the Southeast and restore mussels in the Mississippi River.
You will find pieces on Rachel Carson herself from Ward Feurt, who has ably managed Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge for more than 15 years, and one of Ward’s interns, recent college graduate Bri Rudinsky.
I hope you enjoy the stories and that they inspire you.