Reprise Books

‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson

Strange blight: People using DDT for mosquito control in Bangkok.

Strange blight: People using DDT for mosquito control in Bangkok.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/ Istock

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, on the fraying relationship between nature and human beings, starts with “a fable for tomorrow” which seems terrifyingly close to the realms of possibility today. “There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings… Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change.”

She writes of “mysterious maladies” wiping out flocks of chicken; cattle and sheep dying; birds falling silent; apple trees that came into bloom with no bees droning, thus denying pollination and fruit. Her chilling conclusion that people had done it themselves and nature’s voice was being silenced in many towns made her want to explain what was going wrong.

First serialised in the TheNew Yorker before being published as a book, Silent Spring raised an alarm about the use of chemical pesticides, particularly DDT being sprayed widely first to kill mosquitoes, then all insects. This was the post-War years and “the use of toxic substances to eradicate pests was spearheaded by the US Department of Agriculture.”

In the 40th anniversary edition, biographer and historian Linda Lear says Carson’s writing “stirred an awakening of public environmental consciousness.” But initially the scientific community and particularly the chemical industry unleashed a fury against Carson, an outsider and a woman who had studied biology, “held in low esteem in a nuclear age,” and had discovered nature in the company of her mother.

And no birds sing

She loved to read and the Romantic poets of England were her favourite, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the title is inspired by John Keats’ poem, ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, with two of its lines contributing to the epigraph as well: “The sedge is wither’d from the lake/ And no birds sing.”

A zoology professor urged her to major in Biology rather than English, and she pursued a career in science despite the fact that it had “few opportunities for women” in the 1930s.

When Carson’s book caught the attention of President John F. Kennedy, investigations were launched to verify her claims leading to the ban on DDT for agricultural use in 1972. She didn’t live to see it, dying of cancer two years after the publication of Silent Spring.

But the words she wrote — “Can anyone believe it is possible to lay down such a barrage of poisons on the surface of the earth without making it unfit for all life? They should not be called ‘insecticides’ but ‘biocides’” — launched an environmental movement that made the world aware of the poisoning of nature.

The writer looks back at one classic each fortnight.

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Printable version | Mar 29, 2020 10:47:07 PM |

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