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A Minute’s Not-So-Quiet Reflection

News Icon 11/04/2014

Guest blog by Conor Mark Jameson

The 50th anniversary of the US publication of Silent Spring inspired a flurry of headlines and comment in autumn 2012; particularly, of course, in North America, where author Rachel Carson is still widely revered.

UK publication of this iconic book came a year later, in 1963, although by then the ripples had already been felt on this side of the Atlantic. Prince Phillip is said to have brought advance copies of Silent Spring to these shores aboard the royal yacht, so alarmed had he been by the insights within it.

The words ‘silent spring’ were quickly ingrained in the public consciousness as the book sold worldwide. I sometimes wonder if any title, aside from religious texts, has been registered by so many, even those who have never picked up the book.

What’s less well remembered about Rachel Carson is an event that gives us the third of three consecutive half-century anniversaries, and which falls on 14th April 2014. On that fine spring Sunday evening, in a Maryland town called Silver Spring, Rachel Carson died. She had lived barely 18 months beyond publication of her world-changing book; long enough to witness its extraordinary initial impact, and to weather the extreme backlash it provoked from sections of industry and the scientific community. Long enough too to be vindicated by President Kennedy’s Scientific Advisory Committee, specially appointed to examine the validity of the issues ‘Miss Carson’ had raised and exposed.

CBS broadcast a special programme when the Committee released its findings. “Miss Rachel Carson had two immediate aims,” it declared. “One was to alert the public; the second, to build a fire under the Government. She accomplished the first aim months ago. Tonight’s report by the Presidential panel is prima facie evidence that she has accomplished the second.”

“The report has vindicated me and my principal contentions,” Carson responded. “I am particularly pleased by the reiteration of the fact that the public is entitled to the facts… My reason for writing Silent Spring.”

I’ve been giving talks on the theme of Rachel Carson’s legacy. People are usually shocked when I mention that she died so soon after Silent Spring, that she didn’t live to see the later impacts of its message, such as the banning of agrochemicals such as aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor, the setting up of the Environmental Investigations Agency, and the withdrawal of DDT from the US a decade on, and later (as well as sooner) elsewhere.

People were also shocked by news of Carson’s death in 1964, including many of those who knew her well. She hadn’t told them that she was seriously ill. In fact she had been battling illness for a substantial part of the four and half years it took to research and write Silent Spring.

By the latter half of the project she was often in extreme discomfort. She kept secret her illness primarily because she was sure her opponents – the ranks of vested interest profiting from the ‘war on nature’ being waged at the time through indiscriminate ‘biocide’ use – would use it to undermine her still further, to question her motives and her objectivity.

Rachel Carson had cancer. It has never been suggested – and certainly not by the author herself – that her condition was linked to agrochemical excesses. How could it be, any more that any individual case can be attributed to ambient toxins.

But dying she most certainly was, and she bore this with the same quiet, stoic dignity that characterised all her public appearances and utterances. She was an extraordinarily resilient person, who overcame all the obstacles placed in the path of women wishing to train as scientists. She adopted and raised her orphaned grand-nephew. She was a carer and provider for older relatives too.

Through the success of a trilogy of books on the marine environment she achieved the financial independence she needed, that made the Silent Spring project possible, despite everything. She had been able to retire from government service to work on the book, to bring the facts together and raise the alarm, knowing that government would not – or could not – do the job itself.

It is the exceptional courage and dignity of Rachel Carson that I mostly urge people to recognise, as well as the wisdom of her words. If it were up to me, then April 14 would be officially designated as Rachel Carson Day. We might mark it each year not with a minute’s silence or even with a minute’s applause for her achievements. I’d advocate a minute’s birdsong – ideally the real thing.

Conor Mark Jameson

This article was first published in the journal British Birds, April 2014

Conor Mark Jameson is an author and conservationist, who works for the RSPB. His latest book, Shrewdunnit; The Nature Files, is published this month. He is the author of Silent Spring Revisited (2012) and Looking for the Goshawk (2013). Like so much other biodiversity he is in the process of moving further north, to a very old house in a leafy corner of fenland.

Conor’s blog this month includes an extract from Farmageddon.

To get your copy of Farmageddon: the true cost of cheap meat, click here.


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