Silent Spring (Rachel Carson)

Posted: September 5, 2014 in nonfiction
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Back when I was in undergrad, I had two professors who lived across the street from each other. The music professor is conservative, religious, and plays golf, so his lawn reflects that. Every blade of grass is regulation height, more firmly in line than the choirs he directs. [He was an important father figure to the ex, so I have very little contact with him these days.] The English professor is more liberal, one of those people who has always made me feel that whatever I do is not just fine, but awesome. If I were sacrificing a goat to Cernunnos, she and her excellent spouse would be at the top of the guest list. Her yard also demonstrates her philosophy of life – joy in whatever life manifests, whether that’s grass, weeds, or wildflowers. So once upon a time the music guy became concerned at the English couple’s lawn, or lack thereof, and he decided to take matters (and property values) into his own hands by cutting their grass. My friend grabbed her field guide to North American plants and stood guard over her plant life, pointing out to him all the rare plants that only grow in their small part of the world, flourishing in her less-kempt yard. Even the most conservative guy will recognize the power of invoking endangered species, and he eventually backed down. This week I’ve been reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, envisioning my former teacher as Gandalf defending Appalachia against a Balrog with a lawnmower.

This has been one of the most influential texts about the environment. The style is unusually readable for a book about scientific concepts, but that makes sense because the author takes a lot of research and packages it for public consumption. Unfortunately for her cause, she sometimes sounds a bit melodramatic, which would make it easy for some people to dismiss the book as leftist hysteria.

The world of systemic insecticides is a weird world, surpassing the imaginings of the brothers Grimm – perhaps most closely akin to the cartoon world of Charles Addams. It is a world where the enchanted forest of the fairy tales has become the poisonous forest in which an insect that chews a leaf or sucks the sap of a plant is doomed. It is a world where a flea bites a dog, and dies because the dog’s blood has been made poisonous, where an insect may die from vapors emanating from a plant it has never touched, where a bee may carry poisonous nectar back to its hive and presently produce poisonous honey.

Hysteria is the appropriate term – Carson refers frequently to research men, medical men, and men of science, which gives her argument a gendered feel, as if she is the one brave woman standing up against a host of authoritative men. In 1962 I guess you could get away with that. Now, an editor would change those to researchers, physicians, and scientists.

When I hear the title, I think of a spring of water, quietly bubbling up in a secluded part of the woods, but that’s not it at all. The title is about dead birds. A lot of this book is about dead birds. I find dead birds disturbing, so it took me over a week to read, even though I could knock out a novel this length in a single afternoon.

I should have read this book a long time ago. When I was in school, ecocriticism was the area of theory that appealed to me the most: I don’t see humanity as the only important thing in the world, and the other political theories tended to ignore anything nonhuman. The world of literary criticism has apparently shifted beyond the New Didacticism we were taught then, so it’s not surprising that in my no-longer-academic life I don’t think about it as much as I used to. Or perhaps it would be more correct to say that I think of it in different terms. I don’t go on about The Earth or The Planet; I think more in terms of life, and I turn my focus inward.

These insecticides are not selective poisons; they do not single out the one species of which we desire to be rid. Each of them is used for the simple reason that it is a deadly poison. It therefore poisons all life with which it comes into contact: the cat beloved of some family, the farmer’s cattle, the rabbit in the field, and the horned lark out of the sky. These creatures are innocent of any harm to man. Indeed, by their very existence they and their fellows make his life more pleasant. Yet he rewards them with a death that is not only sudden but horrible.

I’ve been thinking of human nature lately, and I’m trying to accept the fact that anger and hatred are part of it. I see them as psychological DDT, destroying whatever they come into contact with. It’s not quite accurate, and suppressing them can be just as toxic as suppressing optimism and love. Yes, I need to treat people with kindness, but I also need to let myself feel what I honestly feel.

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man. The concepts and practices of applied entomology for the most part date from that Stone Age of science. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth.

Control is a concept that troubles me. As a parent, I’m expected to control my children. As a teacher, I’m expected to control my students. At least no one expects me to control my wife any more. Control always has an adversarial quality to it, and I don’t like to live my life in perpetual conflict. Three years ago I had a major seizure because of the continual struggle against my own homosexual desires. Fighting against myself was wearing me out and could have killed me, so I decided to stop fighting. Even now I rarely actively fight. [Exception: This week the program director printed our names on paper for our office doors, in an effort to regulate the appearance of the university I suppose, and he asked my office mate to remove our handwritten name signs. When my friend told me, I said (a bit loudly), “Bullshit! I ain’t gonna!”] Isn’t my job as a parent or a teacher to let my kids find their own way? To discover what they have to offer instead of clipping them into shape, like some Marge Piercy work of artifice? All of this is more easily achieved without the conflict inherent in control.

Carson reacts against the types of control widely used in the United States in the 1950s – broadcast spraying of pesticides. One of my colleagues here blamed it for the in-his-opinion-excessive ecological concerns he was taught growing up in California in the 1970s, but I don’t think you can blame all of deep ecology on Rachel Carson. She includes passages like this:

The earth’s vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and the earth, between plants and other plants, between plants and animals. Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships, but we should do it thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place.

Yes, it’s all interconnected, but that doesn’t mean we can’t touch it. Life is change, and human beings are living things too. We are allowed to change the world around us. In fact, I believe that faith in our ability to change our environment for the better is an essential component of self-esteem. But changes must be made carefully. It is not enough to consider the impact of a change on me alone; I need to think about others as well. Why did I bother fighting against my sexuality for so long? Because I was married to a woman I loved, and I couldn’t come out of the closet without taking her into account. I didn’t handle that situation well, but coming out was not the self-centered move that some people have construed it to be. My being gay is a piece in the interconnected web of my family; it was the answer to the question, “If you love me, why don’t you ever want to have sex with me?” I cared about her enough to tell the truth; I can hardly be blamed for her responding by snatching my children and running away in the middle of the night. In the long run, we’ll both be happier apart. In many ways, we already are. And as for my brother who thought my coming-out was a personal attack on him, I will freely confess that I wasn’t thinking about him when I told my mother that I’m gay. He wasn’t there. I never thought of him when I was having heterosexual sex, so I don’t see how he should be invested in my gay sex life. So he announced my death, and his intention to knock all my teeth down my throat if he should ever see me aboveground again. My mom still tells me about what’s going on in his life, and she still invites us to the same family events that neither of us attends. She even talks about us riding to them together, as if all she has to do is concoct a scheme to place us in the same room and we’re suddenly going to have an emotionally dramatic reconciliation, as if real life were a 1980s sitcom. I don’t know if the ties between us will ever really be broken – we have too much family for that to happen.

In this elemental drama all life is revealed as one.

The copy of Silent Spring that I picked up this summer originally went for seventy-five cents, so I think it is actually from the time it was written. It certainly smells like a fifty-year-old paperback. This time differential has been weighing on my mind as I read – what has changed since 1962? Twenty-five years ago, I was growing up in a world of cotton and tobacco fields. Every time we heard an airplane, we ran inside to get away from the crop dusters. We also had to stay in our yard the day after, because that was how long we were told the poison stayed on the plants. Because poison stays on plants. I didn’t like the smell of tobacco, so I didn’t play in the fields much anyway. I preferred the patch of dirt by the back porch where grass wouldn’t grow because it was in the shade and it made a better place to play with cars. I mean seriously, have you ever tried to drive a pocket car through grass? That may be the only concern for a nine-year-old boy, but nine-year-olds don’t determine public policy.

The choice, after all, is ours to make. If, having endured much, we have at last asserted our “right to know,” and if, knowing, we have concluded that we are being asked to take senseless and frightening risks, then we should no longer accept the counsel of those who tell us that we must fill our world with poisonous chemicals; we should look about and see what other course is open to us.

The government, as Carson represents it, is a bit like the guy I picked up in Paris a while back. He seemed nice, but he started choking me during sex, and I pulled his hands off my neck and he said, “What, don’t you trust me?” I only met you four hours ago and it feels like you’re trying to kill me; of course I don’t trust you. Taking my pants off is not a sign that I trust someone with my life. Neither is acknowledging the election of a politician a sign that I trust him with my country. They fund scientists to approve mass distribution of chemicals that kill some of the target insects while ignoring the effect on non-target insects, birds, mammals, fish, and plants, all of which affect human life. We can see the dead birds and squirrels, we notice the sudden lack of good fishing, we see our neighbors die when they don’t heed the warning labels, and then the government asks, “What, don’t you trust us?” Not when you act like a nine-year-old who wants a bigger patch of dirt to drive his pocket cars around in, and certainly not when you approach environmental care as if it were choke sex.

The response to government these days is different. We weren’t raised during World War II, when the American nuclear family was the world’s savior against the evil Nazis. I was raised knowing that duck-and-cover will not save you, that periodically the entire world is going to be filled with poison by people you don’t know and will never see, and that families are only held together when they live in the same house. We don’t trust the government to protect us. We know they lie to us constantly, yet we believe one of the most egregious of their lies: that there is nothing we can do about it. Carson quotes a housewife who wrote to one of the prominent men of science, asking:

Is anything being done? Can anything be done? Can I do anything?

Our government would tell us no. Facebook is a useful tool here; I read an article about how government policies are resulting in the destruction of wetlands or rain forests or some such natural area, I click Like, and I consider myself as having done my job toward saving the planet. What have I accomplished? Nothing. Nothing at all. We haven’t even succeeded in changing our cultural attitude toward the people who devote their lives to preserving nonhuman nature. A misguided environmentalist is a minor yet powerful antagonist in Ghostbusters back in 1984, and then there’s 2014’s Transcendence, where computerized Johnny Depp implements ecofriendly practices by brainwashing and enslaving humanity. The environmentalist in I Heart Huckabees isn’t the antagonist, but he’s still portrayed as completely unable to work with or even live in mainstream society. Like women in James Bond films, movie environmentalists are either evil or incompetent.

I don’t have an answer. I don’t even know how pest control has changed since 1962. I know we’re not using DDT anymore, but when I worked at Home Depot in 2009 we were still selling malathion, one of the poisons Carson warns about in her book. We’ve made the world a scary place full of dangerous chemicals; if I knew what to do about it, I would. This is a bigger problem than I can solve alone, but I believe a solution is possible, even if I don’t know what it is. Together, we can stop fucking up everything around us. I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they have to be afraid of the airplanes that fly overhead.

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