Near a brook in south-east England, the bird-spotter JA Baker stumbled on a grim little scene in 1961. “A heron lay in frozen stubble. Its wings were stuck to the ground by frost. Its eyes were open and living, the rest of it was dead. As I approached, I could see its whole body craving into flight. But it could not fly. I gave it peace and saw the agonised sunlight of its eyes slowly heal with cloud.”
The bird’s plight was clearly unnatural. But its fate was not unique. That year, large numbers of dead birds were found strewn across the countryside. On the royal estate in Sandringham, for example, the toll included thrushes, skylarks, moorhens, goldfinches, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, hooded crows, partridges, pheasants, and wood pigeons. Nationally, more than 6,000 dead birds were reported to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, a massive leap on previous years. “We were inundated,” says the RSPB’s conservation director, Martin Harper.
The UK was not alone. For years, reports in the US indicated that numbers of birds, including America’s national bird, the bald eagle, were dropping alarmingly. Something was happening to the birds of the western world.
For most of 1961, Rachel Carson had locked herself in her cottage in Colesville, Maryland, to complete her book, Silent Spring. It would provide an unequivocal identification of the bird killers.
Powerful synthetic insecticides such as DDT were poisoning food chains, from insects upwards.
“Sprays, dusts and aerosols are now applied almost universally to farms, gardens, forests and homes – non-selective chemicals that have the power to kill every insect, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’, to still the song of the birds and the leaping of fish in the streams, to coat the leaves with a deadly film and to linger on in the soil – all this though the intended target may be only a few weeds or insects,” she wrote.
Rachel Louise Carson was born on May 27, 1907. She studied at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory and later Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. She was a brilliant marine biologist and a superb writer whose prose was exquisite in its precision and lyricism. She began writing for the Baltimore Sun and in 1936 was made editor-in-chief for publications for the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Silent Spring was a brave effort. Even legitimate criticism of government policy was a risky act in the US then. “Science and technology and those who worked in these fields were revered as the saviours of the free world and the trustees of prosperity,” says another biographer, Linda Lear. “Rachel Carson exposes these experts to public scrutiny and makes it clear that at best they had not done their homework and at worst they had withheld the truth.”
DDT was banned not just because it was accumulating in the food chain but because mosquitoes were developing resistance to it, say science historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway.
Nevertheless, groups still blame Carson for the current blight of malaria.
She denounced the links that had been established between science and industry. “When a scientific organisation speaks,” she asked, “whose voice do we hear – that of science or of the sustaining industry?” The question remains as pertinent today as it did in 1962.
Martin Harper of the RSPB says, “It took 10 years to get DDT banned after its effects had been demonstrated. And similarly today, when warned about a chemical’s danger, governments wait until research results are unequivocal. Then they suggest industry takes voluntary action. Only when that fails does it issue a ban, years too late.”
As Carson wrote: “Chemical war is never won and all life is caught in its violent crossfire.”
“In the 60s, we were only just waking up to the power that we had to damage the natural world,” says Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth. “Silent Spring outlined a clear and important message: that everything in nature is related to everything else.”