Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 11 - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com/blog
11. Houghton Mifflin held a party in New York for Rachel in New York two days before publication day in late September 1962. Afterward, Rachel returned to Silver Spring where she planned to sit out the storm. And she did expect a storm, despite the lengthy preview in the New Yorker.
She tried to make the days after the release of Silent Spring as normal as possible. Rachel had returned to Silver Spring, where her day began by waking Roger. After he was fed and off to school, she would take some time for herself. She was almost always tired these days, but some days were better than others.
If she was having a bad day, she would rest as long as it took to feel better. Whether it was a good day or bad, however, she tried to be thankful.
That was not to say that she wasn’t upset, even angry that she no longer had control over her body and that the cancer had taken control. In fact, she was furious, desperate to get that control back, but she didn’t know how. Neither did the doctors.
The only person to whom she expressed her fury was Dorothy, but even then, she didn’t truly let go. She didn’t want to dump all her emotions on her loyal and supportive friend. She did write her almost every day, however, and it was almost as if they were together, chatting about this and that, knowing whatever opinion or feeling they had would be understood. These letters were just between them; Rachel wrote more general news letters to both Stan and Dorothy, but the most personal ones were only to Dorothy.
Staring out the back door of her house, where there was greenery and often soft sunshine shining on the trimmed trees and bushes, Rachel wished her friend was there. And looked forward to seeing her again on Southport Island.
Rachel closed her eyes and often a tear or two would drop before she shook herself. It was time to get down to business.
The business these days was mostly dealing with the voluminous mail that her mailbox was frequently too puny to hold. In a way, it was a reflection of the American public’s reaction to Silent Spring.
There were letters from incensed readers, either of the New Yorker installments or the whole book, some of them scientists and some of them high-ranking employees of pesticide companies. They called her a charlatan, and sometimes even worse names, claiming she didn’t know her elbow from her knee. She was standing in the way of progress, sensationalizing random occurrences to make a case so full of holes, it resembled Swiss cheese. She was a biologist, not a chemist, and the fact that she had a megaphone because of her nature books did not qualify as an expert on chemical pesticides, which were protecting America’s food supply from ruin.
Then there were letters from supporters, who called her a brilliant and courageous scientist. They applauded her for standing up to what President Eisenhower had called the “military-industrial complex”. Some of them had been the victims of pesticide contamination of their food or water, or knew of the death of fish, birds, squirrels or other animals, causing upheaval in the balance of nature. These people often thanked her for speaking up for the cause.
The periodicals she received, either directly or through her agent, were all over the place as well. Popular magazines ran articles that characterized Carson as a misguided crusader whose bias contaminated her book worse than DDT had ever contaminated any field or forest. Others noted that there were so many cases where chemical pesticides had literally saved the farm, it was unfair to point out only those rare cases where the application of them backfired.
But some scientific periodicals stated that Rachel Carson had done an admirable job of researching every one of her claims and noted that she was recommending restraint in the application of chemical pesticides, which was hardly a radical proposal, especially in the light of the harm done to the environment.
Rachel smiled at those, then turned to a set of recent articles that Marie had sent. They were by Robert Caro. an investigative reporter at the Long Island newspaper, Newsday. Caro was diligently tracking governmental action – or inaction – regarding chemical pesticides and wrote, as did Rachel, that the Department of Agriculture had been using these chemicals for years in spite of numerous warnings that they were toxic to more than just the insects they were designed to kill.
These claims had apparently reached the White House, and President Kennedy had ordered a comprehensive review.
This review did not lead to an immediate change in policy, of course, but the issue now seemed to be receiving serious attention at the highest level. In a press conference, Kennedy referred to “Miss Carson’s book,” and science adviser Jerome Wiesner convened a panel. By October, Caro reported that this panel had confirmed the accuracy of many of the charges of damaging effects from DDT and other chemical pesticides.
Back in Silver Spring, Rachel tried to stay current on the reaction to her book. There was a growing awareness in the country, and even at the highest level of government, that there was a problem – an unregulated, dangerous problem – with the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Even if Silent Spring was not entirely responsible, it seemed that “Miss Carson’s book” was having an effect.
Even so, awareness was not action, and the chemical companies and ag interests in the country were pushing back. Hard. The lines in the dispute were becoming clearer: business on one side and concern for the environment on the other. Rachel didn’t think it had to be that way; there was an avenue for conscientious use of modern chemicals within a broader concern for the environment.
But she sensed the break between the two had begun, and that the chasm would get wider with time.
Every bit of information Rachel presented, and every insight or conclusion she drew from that information was fodder for attacks from the chemical industry, as well as many of those who benefitted from products that protected their farms or gardens from destruction by insects or weeds. Despite the fifty-five pages of references in Silent Spring, her detractors contended that Carson had compiled anecdotal information in a biased way, exaggerating instances to prove an unprovable point – that chemical pesticides were unsafe – when that was merely her individual, personal interpretation. Silent Spring was an unfortunate piece of fiction by an irresponsible nature writer who stretched facts to meet her thesis. Her methods were inconsistent with a true scientific approach, and a novel would have been a more appropriate format for her far-fetched and wild imaginings of harm done by chemical pesticides.
“Where’s the proof that pesticides killed anything other than the insects they were intended to kill?” her detractors wanted to know. “Where’s the proof that pesticides have harmed even one single human being?”
It did not exist.
Rachel found herself repeating her counter-claim that everything she wrote in Silent Spring was documented. It was checked and double-checked with experts in the field. Besides, she never suggested that the government should ban chemical pesticides. Her contention continued to be that these potent and dangerous chemicals should be used only after careful analysis of the need and a solid understanding of the effects of their use on the environment.
And on people.
Rachel went to Cleveland in October 1962 for a periodic check-up. The treatments seemed to have been doing their job, and while Rachel always felt the shadow of cancer near her – if not directly over her – these days, the report from Dr. Crill did not show any new tumors.
Still feeling energized in December, Rachel traveled to Washington, D.C., to give a speech to the prestigious Women’s National Press Club. She felt freer than ever before in this setting and proceeded to express how frustrating it could be to have so many complaints and criticisms from people who had never read Silent Spring. Either that, or they deliberately and intentionally made false claims about what the book said in an effort to close the minds of open-minded people to Rachel Carson’s folly. In addition to making up all sorts of wild accusations about the content of her book, many critics had chosen to vilify her.
As she was introduced that day as “Silver Spring’s Joan of Arc,” Rachel said tongue-in-cheek that she was much better known in some circles as “Attila the Hun”. The attacks against her personally were sometimes vicious and almost never true, though she did admit that there were times she felt more comfortable in the presence of birds and fish than humans.
More seriously, Rachel spoke about the attempts to discredit her and her book. She wondered openly how many supposedly independent newspapers, periodicals and associations were influenced by companies and their representatives who had a vested interest in keeping chemical pesticides flowing onto farms and gardens throughout the United States, unregulated and unchallenged. She knew of several well-known and well-respected organizations that were less independent than one might think. And, she suggested with a clear voice, that the reports they commissioned to evaluate both the effectiveness and dangers of pesticides might not always be entirely unbiased.
Rachel encouraged the Women’s National Press Members to check on the composition of the boards of directors and CEOs of organizations before taking for granted that their opinions were based on scientific facts – as opposed to being influenced by rich and powerful figures with a finger in the pie.
That was not to say that Silent Spring was perfect. It was as good as she could make it, and she had fifty-five pages of documentation and hundreds of notes from experts in the field that testified to its accuracy. If she made a mistake, it was an honest one. Call me on it, she encouraged them, and I’ll do what I can to make it right.
Then she asked the women assembled before her if they thought the chemical companies would do the same.
After a significant pause for effect, Rachel provided a summary of her findings about the origin and surprising prevalence of chemical pesticides in America. Even though it was likely everyone there had read, or at least heard about, these disturbing statistics, the room went absolutely silent as if hearing them in person made it even worse.
From there, Rachel described the process by which toxins seeped into the food chain. She started with water, which she called the most precious of our natural resources. Yet it was being polluted every day by trash and debris from cities and towns; chemical waste from factories, hospitals, and scientific laboratories; radioactive waste from nuclear power plants; and fallout from nuclear explosions – and now, thanks to the proliferation of pesticides, chemical sprays applied to farmland, forests and fields.
All those sprayings that occurred across the country – to contain a single insect or a swarm, to rid crops of an invasive species of plant, to control an infestation in the forests – did not remain in the area they were applied. Beginning wherever these chemicals were used, rain caused a slow movement to the sea. The chemicals seeped into the soil and made their way to the streams and rivers we could see, but also into the invisible underground network of streams and rivers that replenished our wells and aquifers.
Water treatment plants were woefully behind the times in testing for all these chemicals. Thus, this water, contaminated by molecules of poison intended to kill insects, rodents or weeds, could be drawn through the faucets of our homes, where it was drunk by us and our children, whose tolerance for these poisons was almost certainly much lower than ours.
Rachel Carson told her audience that if they picked anyone at random out of that room, an examination would reveal that she had insecticides in her system. If she had children, they probably did as well.
As disturbing as that reality was, they also probably had traces of radioactive elements as a result of fallout from nuclear testing in the atmosphere. But that talk was for another day.
“My point is,” Rachel said, “that it’s not possible to add pesticides to water anywhere without threatening the purity of water everywhere.”
She added that the pesticides and insecticides being spread across our nation with impunity have another way to enter our systems. Contaminated plankton in the water was eaten by water fleas, fish and birds, contaminating the wildlife. Some of these animals were eaten by larger creatures, and some of those larger creatures were ultimately eaten by humans.
Or spraying was done on grassland, which was eaten by cows, who were subsequently eaten by humans.
She spoke faster and faster as she described the devastation wreaked by these chemicals, talking about soil as if it was a living thing in light of the microscopic life there. The long-term effects of spraying chemicals into this ecosystem were not well understood, but the potential for damage was disturbing. The organic materials that had created a balance of nature for millennia were being ignored, as if they could be easily replaced.
But no one really knew. Rachel suggested that there was a staggering amount of human arrogance behind the assumption that once we poisoned nature, we could un-poison it.