Rachel Carson's AHA! Moment, Chapter 7 - all chapters at www.bryantwieneke.com/blog
7. During the day in the Silver Spring house, Rachel rattled around, immersed in her review of the material, with more coming in all the time. Given that nothing seemed to be impeding the increased, uninhibited use of chemicals to combat pests and unwanted plant growth – more of which were coming out all the time, stronger and stronger – she began to believe that the balance of nature might be at stake.
She had to ask herself, with a sinking stomach, if her book could possibly have an effect on this disturbing trend. She hardly thought she had that loud a voice, even after three best-selling books on nature, but she had to do what she could to wake up America to what was happening.
She laughed at herself, thinking that she sounded, even if it was just to herself, that she was on a mission.
Maybe she was. The issue was too important not to be.
She would try to keep an open mind, but she had to challenge the arrogance of anyone who thought they could attack nature in this awful way and get away with it, that they could keep on using more and more of these chemicals without regard for the horrors they caused, until they had done irreparable damage.
No, it was not right. And if that meant she was on a mission, so be it.
She put all of this into one of her regular letters to Dorothy, who responded that there was no one better to hold up a banner on behalf of nature and say, “Enough is enough!” She added, “You are on the side of the angels.”
In the afternoons after Roger came home from school, he and Rachel played or took a walk, and she helped him with his homework if he had any. Then she cooked dinner for the three of them, and they sat in the living room, listening to the radio or watching TV. Maria and Roger both went to bed early, and that’s when Rachel retired to her study to write.
It was quiet in the house as she worked. Her outline for the book included the fable, then an overview of how chemicals were being widely used as pesticides and insecticides. Then she intended to explain how powerful these chemicals were and cite specific instances where they had caused damage to rivers and streams and groundwater, to the soil and its essential microorganisms, to edible plants, and, sometimes, to the air that we breathed. Sadly, Rachel had amassed boxes full of files describing such cases.
She would then discuss alternative approaches, such as seeking natural solutions or evaluating – scientifically – how much DDT or malathion was required to do the trick before applying them.
In her mind, she would also always come back to the parallels between using the chemicals she now called “biocides” and the proliferation of nuclear testing that was happening in the early sixties. Both were contaminating the environment, and both could be seen as irresponsible.
As she thought about next steps, Rachel realized that she needed to emphasize the connectedness of all things in nature, as the chemicals being sprayed into the atmosphere, dumped into bodies of water, or applied to trees in cities or forests were not contained locally and represented “a problem of ecology, of interrelationships, of interdependence,”. One point made over and over again in her case studies was that the chemicals expanded beyond the targeted area and were distributed widely and uncontrollably. Nobody knew the effect of this widespread distribution, but it wasn’t good because, after all, these were poisons.
Rachel sometimes thought of our bodies as small ecosystems, and the introduction of a poison to one part of our system had the potential to affect the whole body. She became particularly interested in the effects on the liver, which played such an important role in keeping the body free of toxins. Some researchers had noticed the ability of these chemicals to make their way into the liver and do extensive damage to this essential organ.
She knew she had to write about this, but she had no actual proof that anyone’s liver damage had been caused by chemicals infiltrating their body.
Another challenge would be to establish a tone that did not put off her readers. In her first three books and many of her articles, Rachel Carson’s voice was one of gentleness and sensitivity. She was proud of her ability to convey her love and admiration for the beauty of nature and her respect for its power.
Now, her writing needed to have a purpose beyond the description of natural phenomena, and that purpose had to be presented in a logical, unhysterical manner. She needed to say, “This is where we are and what we’re doing to nature, and we need to understand what the effects are going to be. Or else.” The “or else” part was something no one could know, but Rachel’s job was to suggest that what she now viewed as the continued heedless and reckless use of chemical pesticides and insecticides would bring us to a very dark place.
It would bring nature to ruin. And quite possibly, ourselves.
Still, Rachel could not conceive of writing about Nature, even in its suffering, without describing its majesty and harmony. She would need to put those descriptions in the book, but not as an end in themselves. It would be like leading the reader up to the highest point in Yellowstone National Park and explaining that the indiscriminate use of chemicals was taking us over the edge. Once we were over it, there was no going back.
That was a bit dramatic, and she did not intend to use that metaphor. But the tragedy Rachel was suggesting had already happened on a local level – in fact, many local levels – and would continue to happen until someone stopped the spread of these vicious chemicals.
All these thoughts flitted through Rachel’s head as she sat in her study late at night. She was often tired from the day, but perked up as she considered the effects of pesticide and insecticide use on water, soil and plants, as well as beneficial insects and all sorts of animal life.
And birds. Rachel felt a pang every time she thought of all the dead birds. And people, of course. People were being affected in a variety of ways, including contracting cancer without any idea where it originated.
She began to describe the effects of DDT spraying along the Miramichi River in Canada. The target was the spruce budworm, which was causing great damage to the balsam trees, the mainstay of the country’s pulp and paper industry. The result was the inadvertent slaughter not only of the salmon, which spawned there every year, but the brook trout and the birds who lived in this lush area. Rachel was able to visualize the setting and describe it in its stunning beauty – until the slaughter began. Then her prose became dramatic in a different way because the loss of something precious was occurring before our very eyes.
The point being that we needed to be aware of the chemical fallout before we poisoned the spawning ground for salmon or the habitat for brook trout, for the birds and for uncountable insects.
There were many examples of aerial spraying of DDT, parathion and other chemicals on farms around the country. Analysis of the after-effects showed that milk and produce from these farms were contaminated by the chemicals.
Rachel stopped and asked herself what “contaminated” meant. Could she use that word accurately to describe what was happening? How much DDT did there need to be in a quart of milk to consider it contaminated?
She didn’t know, but that was the point. Neither did the farmers, the sprayers, or the government officials who issued the guidelines.
Rachel documented what she could, and she intended to have experts chime in on all these questions. She knew, however, that she could never prove cause-and-effect between the use of chemicals and dead salmon, dead birds, dead beneficial insects, or sickened people. However, she could, and would, provide evidence from the scene and opinions from experts that there was a causal link. That was her responsibility and her job.
The public would have to draw its own conclusions.