Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 5 - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com/blog
5. Rachel couldn’t even think about writing her book until all her research material was organized. She had little storage room in the Maine cabin, so she kept boxes of material in her bedroom – so much that she could barely get in and out of bed – and brought it out to her desk-with-a-view to categorize and label it.
It was slow-going until Dorothy and Stan Freeman arrived to welcome her back to Southport. They quickly saw that Rachel had a time-management problem if she was to make any progress on her book that summer. Without hesitation, they offered to help.
The schedule they adopted had Rachel, Maria and Roger beginning the day with breakfast and walk on the beach. Maria would come if she was feeling up to it, but she was in her eighties now and often preferred to stay at the cabin. Roger was like a wind-up toy on the beach, vibrating with energy and rushing around as if it was a race to see how many natural phenomena one could absorb in an hour. Rachel tried to get him to slow down and spend time in appreciation of the details of each tidepool, but it was like trying to corral a wild horse.
Instead of forcing him to stay in the moment, however, Rachel let him enjoy nature the way he wanted to. Everybody had that right.
Dorothy and Stan would arrive in the early afternoon. Stan took charge of Roger and found absorbing activities for the six-year-old – and himself – away from the cabin. Maria would usually rest while Dorothy helped Rachel review the voluminous material in the boxes, noting important points and developing questions about the incidents described or the science behind them.
It was so much better for Rachel to have company, as well as a second pair of eyes, on the documentation regarding chemical pesticide use. As it happened, they started with a recent FWS report that Rachel had just obtained. It was designed to determine whether fish stored insecticides in their tissues, and the first case study was the spraying of large quantities of DDT to control the spruce budworm.
Not surprisingly, the report stated that there was DDT in the bodies of the fish living in the stream where the spraying had occurred. The researchers had compared their results with fish from a pool located upstream on the other side of a waterfall, where no spraying had been done. The fish in that pool also had DDT in their systems.
“That’s a shock now, isn’t it?” Dorothy said. “How do you suppose that happened?”
Rachel took a minute to look at the provided map, then shook her head.
“There is no way the water in the first stream made its way to the pool,” she concluded.
“If the contamination didn’t happen above ground, it must have happened below.”
Dorothy looked confused.
“The groundwater can go any direction underground and then emerge in a different spot,” Rachel explained, still thinking. “If that’s what happened, then the groundwater for the entire area must have DDT in it.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
They placed the thick incident folder in another box as a likely contender for inclusion in the book and went on to the next one, which contained information on another unexplained incident stemming from a manufacturing plant in Colorado. In 1951 a former war materials plant was converted to a factory producing insecticide. There were reports of crop damage on nearby farms and human illness. In 1959, when the wells used by these farms were examined, it was determined that they were contaminated by a variety of poisonous chemicals, including arsenic.
“Yuk!” was all that Dorothy could think to say of that one.
The most curious finding, however, was the discovery of the herbicide, 2,4-D, in some of the wells and the holding pond of the factory. It was curious because 2,4-D had never been manufactured there. The conclusion of chemists at the factory was that the mixed chemicals in the holding pond had combined in this natural setting to form a new substance. Without human intervention.
“How did that happen?” Dorothy asked, horrified by this idea.
“I’m not a chemist,” Rachel replied, shaking her head. “I need to look at the evidence more closely, and I need to consult with the experts. But the chemists at the factory were convinced it happened.”
“Maybe they were just saying that to . . . you know, protect the company. Because if it happened naturally, they wouldn’t be at fault.”
“You mean they might have said it just to cover their asses?”
Dorothy nodded with a half-smile.
“It’s possible. That’s why I need to check every fact, every connection, every assumption, and every conclusion made in these cases.”
“That’s smart, Rachel. And it’s great that you’re able to do that. But it’s all so scary.”
The next case was no better. Clear Lake, north of San Francisco had a gnat problem, and a chemical called “DDD,” which was similar to DDT but supposedly safer for fish, was introduced in 1949 to get rid of them. The chemical was greatly diluted, and it worked on the gnats for a while. However, when the gnats returned in 1954, the process was repeated at a slightly greater strength, and then again in 1957.
The western grebe, a regular and distinctively beautiful bird that frequented the lake, began to die. They tested the fatty tissue of the birds and found that the concentration of DDD was exponentially higher than it had ever been.
The scientists explained that this unnaturally high concentration could be due to the cycle of life at the lake. The herbivores had eaten the plankton, which had absorbed the DDD from the lake water. The small animals in turn ate the herbivores. The larger animals ate the smaller ones, and the cumulative build-up of DDD in their systems was huge, far higher than the concentration of DDD in the lake.
And so the grebes died. But there was something else. Testing almost two years after the last administration of DDD showed that it was still present, and in high concentrations, in the plant and animal life of the lake, raising the question of how long its effects would linger.
“What does DDD do to humans?” Dorothy asked.
“I’ve read that it affects the adrenal glands.”
“What do they do?”
“They produce hormones that regulate our immune system, metabolism, blood pressure, and other things.”
“Is that why the birds died, because their adrenal glands were affected.”
“I don’t know, Dorothy,” Rachel replied with concern. “And I don’t think anyone else does, either.”
“I don’t understand. Why would they put it in the water? Don’t people drink that water?”
“They might drink it, or the chemical might get distributed through the groundwater like that pesticide we were just talking about. Also, the fish in the lake must be contaminated, and people fish in that lake all the time.”
“And eat the fish for dinner.”
Rachel frowned and shook her head.
“I don’t understand,” she said finally. “The more I read, the clearer it is that the chemicals in these pesticides and insecticides are dangerous to all living things. To think that you can kill a weed or a gnat with a poison and think that poison won’t affect the rest of nature is foolish. No scientist would believe it.”
“Yet there are scientists working for the chemical companies,” Dorothy said with a sigh. Rachel rolled her eyes and picked up the next file.
They reviewed several folders that dealt with soil contamination. Rachel knew how important the soil was to sustain life on earth. It provided a home for the decomposition of dead plants, animals and other organisms, an essential step in the release of carbon, nitrogen and many other minerals. While supplying necessary nutrients to plants, the soil also served as storage and a filter for water.
It went without saying how important it was to keep the soil free of contamination. So, Rachel didn’t say it, but she thought it.
The next file that Rachel and Dorothy reviewed presented evidence that certain chemical pesticides – lindane, heptachlor, and benzene hexachloride – slowed or stopped the process of nitrification, which made nitrogen available to plants. It was a disturbing example of the stilting effect of using chemicals without knowing how they would affect the land. In the subsequent files, there were more examples of insecticides and pesticides affecting what she began to call “the balance of nature.”
Rachel knew that these incidents were not conclusive proof of anything, but they were indicative of a serious problem. Many of the chemical pesticides being used in the U.S. were not only extremely persistent, they were being applied repeatedly in many cases. Thus, the chemicals built up in the soil over time, and it was not known how many of the essential functions that occurred in the soil would be affected in the future.
An example from Washington and Idaho showed that using heptachlor to control the strawberry root weevil killed the roots and vines of plants. Replanting did not help. Those plants died as well, and heptachlor was still detectable four years later.
After assessment of this problem, a report from ecologists at Syracuse University concluded, “A few false moves on the part of many may result in destruction of soil productivity and the arthropods may well take over.”
“I’m definitely putting that in my book,” Rachel said.
Late that night, after Roger had gone to bed, Rachel thought about how the outline of her book, tentatively titled, “Man Against the Earth,” was becoming clearer. She knew she needed a summary chapter that would describe the nature of chemical pesticides and their destructive power. She would stress the fact that humans now had the ability – with these chemicals as with nuclear weapons – to modify nature in ways that not only caused severe problems, but may not be fixable. Then she would take examples about how water and soil were being contaminated to make the case that studies were needed before proceeding any further along this dangerous path.
At the same time, she realized that her book could not be neutral. She could not write this book as she wrote The Sea Around Us or any of her other books. In those books, she was not writing about a danger, a threat, about which people were either completely ignorant and some, it seemed, had a hidden agenda.
Maybe not so hidden, in some cases.
The people who were ignorant needed to become aware of the danger, the threat to them and their environment. They needed to know the potential dangers of chemical pesticides. They needed to understand what we were doing to our drinking water, our food, and our world by using them so heavily and indiscriminately.
That was the job Rachel had signed up for. She was the one in a unique position, the one in possession of the facts – or she soon would be – and the one with a voice that could and would be heard. She was the one who would need to sound the call to action.
She sighed and her shoulders slumped.
“I guess I’d better get busy,” she said softly to herself.
That was the night she wrote the fable that would set the tone for the book, the one where all the birds go silent.