Near a brook in southeast England, the bird-spotter J.A. 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 agonized sunlight of its eyes slowly heal with cloud.”
The bird’s plight was clearly not natural. Nor was its fate 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 (RSPB), a massive leap on previous years.
“We were inundated,” the RSPB’s conservation director Martin Harper said.
The UK was not alone. For years, reports in the US indicated that numbers of birds, including the national bird, the bald eagle, were dropping alarmingly. Ornithologists also noted eggs were often not being laid while many that were laid did not hatch. Something was happening to the birds of the Western world.
Several causes were proposed — poisons, viruses or other disease agents — but no one had a definitive answer or seemed sure of the cause — with one exception: the biologist Rachel Carson. For most of 1961, she 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.
One or two authors had previously suggested modern pesticides posed dangers, but none wrote with the eloquence of Carson.
Serialized in the New Yorker during the summer of 1962, Silent Spring was published that September. It remains one of the most effective denunciations of industrial malpractice ever written and is widely credited with triggering popular ecological awareness in the US and Europe. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace trace their origins directly to Silent Spring.
“In the 60s, we were only just waking up to the power that we had to damage the natural world,” said Jonathon Porritt, a former director of Friends of the Earth. “Rachel Carson was the first to give voice to that concern in way that came through loud and clear to society.”
Or as Doris Lessing put it: “Carson was the originator of ecological concerns.”
We have much to thank Carson for: a powerful green movement, an awareness that we cannot punish our wildlife indiscriminately and an understanding of the fragility of nature’s food chain. However, is the environment really in better shape today? Have we saved the planet? Or is it in greater peril than ever? Fifty years after Silent Spring was published, as the world warms, sea levels rise and coral reefs crumble, these questions have acquired a new and urgent relevance.