I have a confession to make. Although I teach Environmental Science, I have never read Silent Spring. I first learned about it in American Literature in High School and we also discussed in my environmental engineering courses in college. I know the basics of what the book was about and the importance to the environmental movement. Knowing the overview did not prepare me for just how powerful and well written this non-fiction book is. It reads like a science fiction novel, but the truth turns out to be even more frightening then fiction.
Carson starts the book with a powerful fable. All of the song birds have died, the livestock is sick, and the people have also started to show strange symptoms. It isn’t nature that caused these hardships, but the people themselves. Carson explains this hasn’t happened yet, but “what has already silenced the voices of spring in countless towns in America? This book is an attempt to explain.”
Carson explains how the soil, earth, and air to provide habitat for all of the creatures of the earth. She discusses these creatures and how even creatures that we deem unimportant, can have an important role in the cycle of life. She also explains the chemicals that were being used in the 1960’s, how they were applied, and the effects that they had. Basically the chemicals were being applied indiscriminately and were killing far more than they should. She talks about both herbicides and insecticides, but the book focused more on insecticides. The insecticides killed far more insects then what they were aiming for. They killed everything, including the natural insect predators of the insects they were trying to get rid of. They also would kill the birds that act that insects coated with the insecticides. They also traveled up the food chain, causing poisoning of birds, fish, and humans.
Luckily the book was not all gloom and doom. Carson also described what could be done. She implied that certain insecticides such as DDT should no longer be used. She also discussed how natural predators’ should be introduced to take care of problem pests. She discussed how insecticides and herbicides could be applied topically to the offending vegetation specifically rather than a blanket spray. These are all great options and what is typically used by ecologists today.
Distressingly though as I read the book, I realized times had changed, but a lot remains the same. Different chemicals are used now, but our lives are completely surrounded by chemicals. What effects to they have on us and the wildlife around us? The book discussed how insecticides were killing off the honeybees; a problem that has also recently been in the news the past few years. Are we always so sure what we are applying to land and vegetation does not have any harmful effects on humans and nature?
“The pollution entering our waterways comes from many sources: radioactive wastes from reactors, laboratories, and hospitals; fallout from nuclear explosions; domestic wastes from cities and towns; chemical wastes from factories. To these is added a new kind of fallout – the chemical sprays applied to croplands, gardens, forests and fields. Many of the chemical agents in this alarming mélange imitate and augment the harmful effects of radiation, and within the groups of chemicals themselves there are sinister and little-understood interactions, transformations, and summations of effect.” This is still true today, particularly with all of the medications ending up in water ways. We don’t know all of what they are, how to remove them, or how they interact with each other. We do know it is causing changes in fish.
“The trouble is that we are seldom aware of the protection afforded by natural enemies until it fails. Most of us walk unseeing through the world, unaware alike of its beauties, its wonders, and the strange and sometimes terrible intensity of the lives that are being lived around us.” I just loved this quote. Carson has a wonderful way with words and I also thought this was too true.
I also liked that there were examples in this book from Wisconsin and Michigan; my current state and my state of birth. In 1954, Michigan State University started spraying their campus for Dutch elm disease. The following year, there was a sharp decline in the robin population as eggs seemed unable to hatch. Perhaps most horrifying was how in 1959, Southeast Michigan (including suburbs of Detroit) was heavily dusted with pellets of aldrin to kill the Japanese beetle. Residents talked about how it looked like snow falling from the sky. Then they started to report the deaths of songbirds and housecats and the illness of dogs. Also people that watched the planes had “nausea, vomiting, chills, fever, extreme fatigue, and coughing.”
Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. It gives me great examples and discussion points for my environmental science class this fall. I also enjoyed how Carson was a wonderful wordsmith and did a great job of taking a complex problem and breaking it down so that it was understandable for the average citizen. There were also great illustrations at the start of each chapter. I would like to keep this book forever to use for my classes, but I must return it to the library. I need to purchase my own copy!
Book Source: Kewaunee Public Library