Thursday, March 6, 2014

Silent Spring

Given the gridlocked state of the U.S. government, I have become curious about two occasions during the twentieth century when our government was inspired—by books!—to step up to the plate and take some mighty cuts against intractable public problems.  I already have posted a brief review of Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle, which inspired passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in the same year—1906—and which I am embarrassed to admit that I read for the first time last month. 

Now I have finished another famous book, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which, in 1962, argued against the indiscriminate use of insecticides and herbicides.  Carson’s book promoted an understanding of ecology and helped create a climate sympathetic to environmentalism, though it would take another decade for the EPA to be created and for the agricultural use of DDT to be banned.  Even this is remarkable, considering how difficult it has been in recent years for the United States government to do anything constructive on any front—climate change being perhaps the most pertinent case in point.

I found Silent Spring challenging is a number of ways.  First, of course, there is the science.  I am not a quick study when it comes to science, and as a result I am probably not as patient as I should be with scientific subjects.  So even though Carson is a terrific writer, I didn’t completely grasp all of Silent Spring, such as her treatment, in chapter 3, of the creation of various chemical compounds by manipulation of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

I thought, too, that her exposé was marred by its many references to early-1960s concerns about the fallout of atomic radiation in a world plagued by atmospheric nuclear testing.  “We are rightly appalled by the genetic effects of radiation,” she writes.  “How, then, can we be indifferent to the same effect in the chemicals that we disseminate widely in our environment?”  Are we still rightly appalled by atomic radiation?  It seems to me we’ve moved on to new outrages.  

I thought further that some of Carson’s complaints about the status of chemistry atop the scientific pecking order—at the expense of biology—sounded like special pleading for her field of study.  I am much more sympathetic to her argument for interdisciplinary study of the physical and natural world than to her insistence on the superiority of a specifically biological perspective.

I was surprised that while Carson is usually credited with (or blamed for) the government ban on DDT, her book doesn’t exactly advocate that.  Certainly, Silent Spring is a strident argument against the indiscriminate use of DDT, but it does not argue for a ban on its use against malaria-carrying mosquitoes, as Carson’s critics state or imply, particularly if they are trying to blame her for the millions of human victims of malaria.

Carson lays out her fundamental metaphor—a world without birdsong in the spring—early in the book, a rhetorically effective overture.  Chapter 2 is about the chemical war against insects and unwanted plants, chapter 3 investigates the chemical properties of various poisons, chapter 4 focuses on surface and ground water pollution, and chapter 5 is on soil pollution.  To me this organization of the material is probably defensible, though it seems a little random.  It’s not that I find her argument unpersuasive.  It’s just that I don’t understand the order in which she takes up subjects that inherently have a circular logic; all of these variables strike me as being related to one another somewhat interchangeably as either cause or effect, or both.

For me the most affecting aspect of Silent Spring—the part that will stick with me—is its fundamental metaphor, the silence that falls over an imaginary community of the future, a vision that could well be based on her hometown, Springdale, Pennsylvania, in the outskirts of Pittsburgh.  This community loses its song birds, bees, and fish to mindless spraying campaigns against insects and plant life.  “No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world.  The people had done it to themselves.” 

We are fast approaching spring here in Lithuania, but of course it can never come soon enough.  And reading this famous book has probably made me more aware than usual of the status of the local bird population.  We have noticed two kinds of birds that have been prominent over the winter:  pigeons and crows.  Lithuanian pigeons are distinctive only in that they occasionally chirp; I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered chirping pigeons before.  Once in a while, we have seen large gray birds that move a little bit like pigeons, but are a bit more streamlined in appearance; these may represent another species of pigeon (and I don’t believe that they go in for chirping).  And we have seen one magnificent black-and-white magpie, who likes to hang around in a tree directly across from our flat.  We have not seen any of Lithuania’s supposedly numerous storks, though on our walk to the Hill of Crosses we encountered an enormous nest that we assumed was home to a stork.

Lithuanian crows are big and noisy in all the familiar ways—except for the two that adorn the balcony of a nearby flat (see photo, above).  We figure that the purpose of these crow decoys is to keep away the pigeons, which produce prodigious quantities of nasty poop.  The silent sentries seem to be doing their job very well, but I’ll have to say that we’re hoping for a noisy, songbird-infested spring here in Lithuania.

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