Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 6 - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com/blog

6. Rachel and Dorothy continued their review. Along with a list of follow-up questions, Rachel put the files in new boxes labeled “water,” “soil,” “plants,” etc.

One was labeled, “herbicides,” which contained descriptions of actual cases where they were used with negative effects. A prime example was the campaign to eliminate sage and other wild vegetation in the western plains in favor of grassland that could be used for the grazing of cattle. The sage had survived naturally for a very long time in this environment, providing food for the grouse, antelope, mule deer, and sheep. But in recent years, herbicides changed the landscape, destroying the sage and, with it, the ecosystem that had been built around it.

While the cattle thrived, the animals that depended on the sage were dying. Sadly, it seemed no one cared. Or at least no one in a decision-making position about whether or not to use herbicides in this manner.

The efforts to eliminate weeds through the use of herbicides stretched across the nation. They were used indiscriminately for roadside “beautification,” as well as on private lawns, parks, golf courses, and other sites where unwanted plants, typically called “weeds,” got in the way. The widespread spraying to eliminate them would usually also kill the flowers and other plants in the immediate vicinity. And like the killing of sage, it likely disturbed the delicate balance of nature above and below ground as both the soil and, potentially, the groundwater absorbed the poison.

The picture was becoming clearer to Rachel Carson as she reviewed these files with Dorothy. However, the connection between herbicide use and the damage done to plants, animals, soil, water, or even humans would be hard to prove. Rachel’s communication with scientists who had seen the damage or evaluated the effects of herbicides would provide opinions that would help her write her book, but would it actually convince anyone that the chemicals were at fault?

Rachel was pleased to learn that there were usually natural alternatives to the use of chemicals, but they were seldom employed. Chemicals were easier and often had an immediate effect. Rahcel suspected that it was going to be hard to convince farmers, ranchers, homeowners with lawns, and golf course owners using the chemicals that they shouldn’t use them without doing a thorough analysis of the short- and long-term effects.

Rachel continued to make notes about how to get evidence of damage caused by chemical pesticides. This evidence could provide a baseline for understanding how damaging they could be. In addition, she was determined to find examples of non-chemical alternatives to solving “weed problems”.

Putting aside the rest of the case studies, Rachel and Dorothy searched through their material for information from botanists and other scientists about such examples. They found several right away. The first was a cheaper way to eliminate crabgrass simply by systematically planting and sustaining the desired type of grass and, therefore, not allowing the crabgrass to take hold. Similarly, other unwanted plants, like the Klamath weed in the U.S. and prickly pears in Australia, were stopped through the introduction of insects that ate the plant but were not harmful to the local habitat.

It was unsettling to Rachel that people didn’t bother to seek out such solutions before pouring vast quantities of chemicals onto the earth. Her unsettled state continued the next morning as she was tide-pooling with Roger, and she heard the birds twittering nearby. With the incidents she and Dorothy had been reviewing that week, it was like her fable was coming true. There were just so many cases where animals were killed unnecessarily, including birds, that she felt like the sounds she and Roger were hearing now would really and truly be silenced one day. They had already been silenced in so many places that . . .

“What’s wrong, Auntie Rachel?” Roger asked.

She shook her head and came out of her reverie.

“Oh, nothing,” she replied cavalierly. “I was just thinking about something.”

“What?” he asked, his curiosity piqued. “You looked so unhappy.”

“I’m sorry. My mind was wandering, and the birds singing took me to a faraway place. Their songs are beautiful, don’t you think?”

They listened quietly for a minute, and Roger nodded.

They continued with their tide-pooling, and Rachel tried to keep her mind from traveling to the endgame between the chemical pesticides and the plants and animals that comprise the balance of nature. A lot more thinking about how these chemicals were used would need to be done to understand – and prevent – the devastation being wreaked by the spraying of deadly chemicals.

A case she and Dorothy had reviewed the previous day had been especially unnerving. A few years earlier in Michigan, officials became concerned about the Japanese beetle. It was not the first time. This destructive beetle had reared its head many times in the U.S. since being introduced in the 1920s and 1930s. The solution decided upon in Michigan was to dust large areas with aldrin, a very strong pesticide that was apparently chosen because it was cheaper than others. The “dust” fell everywhere – on beetles, trees, birds, and humans of all ages.

The effect on birds was noticed immediately. As in Rachel’s fable, they were suddenly quiet in the sprayed area. They were absent from feeders and bird baths, and they were dropping dead in the streets of Detroit. Soon, it was discovered that other animals, like squirrels, were also dying, and cats and dogs flooded veterinarians’ offices with diarrhea and convulsions. People who were unfortunate enough to be beneath the planes as they dropped the aldrin complained of nausea, vomiting, and other health problems.

It was all so unnecessary. A natural method of controlling the Japanese beetle had been used way back in the 1940s. However, it was not used, or even tried, in Michigan, nor in many other places where spraying was chosen to control the pest.

The situation with Dutch elm disease, which in some cases had also been combatted by spraying insecticides, was similar. Many birds died, and other animals became violently ill. The robin was in particular jeopardy. Yet natural measures to control Dutch elm disease had been proven in New York decades earlier.

Rachel’s review of case studies was uncovering information that she would need to verify, but in her mind, the pattern of using chemical pesticides to solve a pest or weed seemed frequently to be a situation where the cure was far, far worse than the disease.

“Do we even have the right to do this?” she asked rhetorically. “Does anybody have the right to wage war on life like this?”

“You know, Rachel, according to these accounts, more often than not it’s the government waging this war. They believe they’re doing the right thing.”

Rachel sighed heavily.

“Just because you believe something doesn’t make it true.”

At the end of the summer season, Rachel, Maria and Roger moved back to Silver Spring. They had a nice big house, which sometimes seemed strangely empty without Dorothy. Rachel missed her company and her help, but she also realized she was getting to a part of the book that she had to do alone, anyway.

Of course, Rachel was never alone. Maria was not doing well and seldom left the house. After Rachel got Roger off to school, she would closet herself in her study and dig into the documentation that she and Dorothy had organized.

Each file had a list of questions that needed to be answered. There was contact information –if they’d been able to generate names in Southport – of people with first-hand knowledge about what had happened in a case. There was also a long list of scientists who could provide detailed information on the effects of certain chemicals, like parathion or endrin, or what would happen if the two were mixed. These names had been supplied for reference by Brooks and Maria, and they had all been contacted to ask if it was okay for Rachel Carson to contact them about a book she was writing.

Very few said no. Some of these scientists were on retainer from chemical companies. That was done purposefully, to ensure all views would be considered. Rachel spoke with many of them, trying to understand their point of view as they continued to endorse use of chemical pesticides.

She wanted to get the full picture, but in all honesty, she did not hear any compelling arguments against the straightforward step of trying to determine how much DDT, or whatever, was safe in an environment. Nor did she hear any good reasons not to consider natural solutions. While these approaches would usually entail a delay in treating fields or forests, it seemed reasonable to expect anyone dumping hazardous materials into the environment to follow such a process.

Rachel sensed more and more that there was no middle ground on this issue. While she still would not say she was opposed to all applications of chemical pesticides, she also could not see any case where a knee-jerk use of them was warranted.

The risk of irrevocable harm to the environment was simply too great.


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