Rachel Carson's Legacy
In the summer of 1960 conservationists from many states converged on a peaceful Maine island to witness its presentation to the National Audubon Society by its owner, Millicent Todd Bingham. The focus that day was on the preservation of the natural landscape and the intricate web of life whose interwoven strands lead from microbes to man. But in the background of all the conversations...was indignation at the despoiling of the roads they had traveled.
Rachel Carson in Silent Spring
Let's see. In the summer of 1960 I was a ten year-old boy far from the Maine coast, probably playing a little baseball, but mostly flying my bike down tree-lined streets in a suburban Ohio neighborhood. My natural sense of wonder had not moved me to try to identify many species of birds, besides robins and cardinals; the only trees I knew for sure were apples and cottonwoods, the latter gifting our backyard with their snowy summer mess.
I don't remember much about chemical applications in those days. My parents talked about spraying the apple tree. Every year when the yield became bug ridden, their able-bodied children, of which I now officially qualified, would be loaded into the station wagon and carted off to a rural fruit farm where we helped pick a few bushels of golden delicious for use in Mom's famous apple sauce. The annual hope was our backyard tree would turn around next year with the help of some modern marvel sprayed under pressure. I'm not sure that my dad ever got around to it. I honestly think he preferred taking us kids out for an apple picking day in the country.
But it was August 1960 when Rachel Carson, still collecting stories that would complete Silent Spring, took a day to visit Millicent Todd Bingham's Hog Island just up the shore from her own summer place in Muscongus Bay. The application of chemicals was, it would seem, a topic of some of that day's conversations at the island's Todd Wildlife Sanctuary dedication.
Which brings us to the theme of this last post: Just what is Rachel Carson's legacy?
Some detractors claim hers a "cancerous" legacy which has taught a world population to blame farmers for using chemicals that promote human disease instead of looking into their own genetics. Further, her efforts to ban DDT have condemned millions of malaria victims to unnecessary suffering and death.
In another light, Rachel Carson is celebrated as a twentieth century visionary who successfully articulated the warning over widespread use of chemicals not only on fields and roadsides, but in urban and suburban populated areas. Also, of course, is her extensive body of work in marine biology and her influence in inspiring a generation of environmental activists.
Where do you stand on the Carson's legacy? Has she done more good than harm? What have the lessons of her writing left us? How will her story play out a century from now?
For me, The Sense of Wonder will always be a treasure. Commissioning me to take my own kids, my students, and my grandkids out to experience nature is a pearl beyond price. And for me, Silent Spring will forever be a bridge between the evolution of the conservation movement and my beloved Hog Island, current home of Maine Audubon's Hog Island Audubon Center, which, by the way, has kept the faith of teaching campers about "the intricate web of life whose interwoven strands lead from microbes to man" for almost seventy-five years now. Ms. Carson probably wouldn't mind if I encouraged you to visit their Web site.
November Reading Schedule
The Sea Around Us Field Notes Blog continues through December
November 30, 2007
Rachel Carson's Legacy