Monday, April 26, 2010

Rachel Carson

I'd like to hear your initial reactions to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.  You may choose to respond with any thoughts you had about your parents'/grandparents' lives during the time the documentary covers (say, immediately post WWII to 1963).  You may also post on any specific things from the documentary that provoked a response in you.  Let's stay focused on Carson/her book for now.

PS: If you're curious about children's books on Rachel Carson, try this link; it goes to one specific book, but then also shows other related books.


  1. As a tree-hugger myself, there were a few things that evoked a big reaction from me.

    One, which goes along with the timeline, was the lack of eagles and eagle reproduction in the 50s. My maternal grandparents live on the St. Croix river in MN, just beyond Hudson. They've been there as long as I can remember, and since I was a little kid, it was my favorite place to hide out and watch the numerous eagles that perched in their trees. A few years back when I was visiting them, I spotted 13 eagles in their big tree and called to my grandparents to look. "It wasn't always like that," Grandpa said. "A while back, all that branches held was leaves."

    On a less sentimental note, I was quite disgusted when I saw the insecticides poured on the children in the swimming pool, and was surprised that it took a Best Seller to get the point across to the political powers.

    I think that perhaps by sitting on my thoughts for a bit longer, they may expand into something broader - I'll certainly check back!

  2. I have heard of the pesticide issue in textbooks, but I don't think I ever grasped the extent of it. I was most impacted by the scenes in the documentary which involved people in everyday situations being consumed by clouds of poison. I think what Rachel Carson set out to do was beautiful. Not many people would have the guts to face such a powerful industry. While watching the documentary, I couldn't help but wonder what would have happened if she hadn't written Silent Spring. What would life be like today?

  3. Being a history major, I had learned about all the books they mentioned in class as I'm sure many of us have: Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Jungle, and Silent Spring. Personally, I thought it was kind of odd that out of the thousands of books published each year, a history class would chose a few to zero in on as evidence of some movement taking place during their respectable times.

    After seeing the documentary today, it became clear to me what such an impact books like Silent Spring have had. They don't just present a movement, but bring the evidence from the concerned few to the general public to our legislators. It's a way of lobbying politicians without having to spend time and money to acquire access to them. The Jungle, for example, wasn't read by every legislator who supported food regulation bills, but many of their WIVES did read it.

    As far my family's time line goes, both pairs of grandparents were on farms together starting their families. I don't know if they used DDT or how much, but I definitely want to ask them about their stories.

  4. To be quite honest, I had never heard of Silent Spring before taking this class (or was at least aware that I had heard of it). As a student who was given Uncle Tom's Cabin and The Jungle to read at a fairly young age, I wonder if, perhaps, the issues surrounding Silent Spring are too recent and controversial for us to see a book regarding them appearing in a middle school or high school classroom. It seems to me that it could be an issue which still "provokes" people of the previous generation, despite the undeniable evidence available against pesticides. The only grandparents I have ever known were about 23 and 26 around the time that it was published, and I wonder if, given that they were living in primarily agricultural areas, they were fighting the prohibition of pesticides alongside many others, despite the effects that everyone now knows they have on the environment.
    Keeping this in mind, I would like to bring up a point that I feel needs to be made. While many of us were amused, exasperated, or even aghast by the fact that they were spraying pesticides on children and in suburbs, at that time many did not realize the grave implications of their actions. I am certainly not condoning ignorance, but I wish to bring this up because I feel that many of us think we're superior to previous generations and would never make the mistakes they made. However. who is to say that we are not using a product right now that, in several years, will be found to be far more dangerous that DDT ever was. I think it is extremely important that we all step back and examine our own behavior when we find ourselves "judging" a previous generation in any sort of way. While we may have far more advanced technology than they did, chances are it brings with it far graver implications than pesticides ever brought, and will cause far worse problems for the environment that we will have to deal with in future years.

  5. I was especially struck by the courage that Rachel Carson displayed in writing Silent Spring. Such controversial and politically-charged topics are often avoided like the plague by writers and politicians alike. She could very easily have chosen to not write Silent Spring. She was already living comfortably off of her previous works and she had a child to care for. I think many people in her position would have opted to avoid the controversy that would surely result from such an expose. But she saw the necessity of the task before her and she took it upon herself to do what had to be done.

    Not only was she challenging big business, established political policy, and the science community, but she was doing so as a woman which, even at that time, was no small feat. I think it is easy for us today, to take for granted what a woman was able to accomplish and the legislative influence she wielded. But when I realized that she not only chose to weather the criticisms and counterattacks that would surely come about, but she also chose to endure the added controversy due to her gender. The fact that she did this voluntarily, simply because she believed so strongly in her work, is absolutely astounding to me!

  6. My thinking was along the same line as those who have already posted. I had heard of pesticides being more of an issue in the past, but I never would have imagined a gas truck coming through as normal as a street sweeper. To me, chemicals seem to be innately harmful to organic life, so the fact that it was so difficult to change people's mind about it was equally hard to imagine.

    It is also very easy to picture the people arguing for the use of pesticides as evil/manipulative, though. Before they showed the opposing scientist I could only picture shadowy figures standing in the background, not making changes just to get money. I'm glad they showed this scientist in detail, because it made it easier to see how the public could be so confused, as well as how not evil the man was. He was genuinely convinced about what he was saying, although that may be due in part to money he was getting from chemical corporations. The world is much easier to paint as black and white in retrospect, and I think the carbon debate that is now so political will look similar to this in the future.

  7. I would have to agree with Elizabeth's comment above; the scenes where the pesticides were being sprayed on everything in sight were shocking and appalling. Based on my strong personal reaction, I have a difficult time comprehending that that was considered "normal" and "beneficial" at the time. The world was such a different place back then, yet, so the same. I have never talked to my grandparents about conservation before, but watching this film has made me want to find out what their memories and perspectives are/were.One side of my family would have been heavily involved in agriculture during this time period and I think that it would be incredible to have a conversation about this topic.

    Even though this does not correlate exactly with the topics we are discussing, a second portion of the film that touched me was the ending. Rachel Carson was such a remarkable person. I though her words about the natural cycle of life were profound and moving. As we have been learning, the world does move in natural cycles, and as humans, it is our job to make sure that these cycles, such as the life cycle of a butterfly or a fire ant, are not destroyed. Rachel Carson was a part of that movement just as Kolbert is, and just as we are. This was definitely a text that made me feel like I should be doing my share to help the planet!

  8. Like others in the class, I was amazed at some of the images of chemicals being sprayed throughout neighborhoods and groups of children eating at a picnic. Things are always clearer in retrospect, so looking back we instantly think at how horrible it is that chemicals were sprayed with such abundance. But, like Steph mentioned, many people at the time didn't know all the implications of their actions. I found it astounding that no one cared to find out those implications, or at least no one made them widely known until Rachel Carson. She was definitely a corageous woman. I was talking with my friends today at lunch about what I saw in the documentary and I said, " know, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson?" and every single one of my five friends at the table didn't know who she was or what the book was about. Now, my friends aren't stupid, but I was surprised, to say the least, that they hadn't heard of such an important figure that basically started the conservation movement in this country. I think this demonstrates that we still have a long way to go in informing the general public about environmental issues, such as global climate change.

    As far as what my family was doing at this period in time, my paternal grandparents, as well as my dad and aunt were living abroad. I don't know the exact years they were in each place, but they were either living in Nepal or Nigeria around the time of Silent Spring. I think it would be really interesting to talk to them and see if they remember hearing about DDT and Silent Spring from friends in the States, and if pesticides were used regularily in each of the countries they lived.

  9. Hillary just made a good point that I had been thinking about. The documentary mentioned that the book Silent Spring was translated into 22 languages. Did other countries also use the DDT and pesticides as widely as the United States, and could they truly understand the importance of that book?

    As many of you have previously mentioned, I greatly admire Rachel Carson. As a strange coincidence, we actually discussed Silent Spring and similar books in my English 110 class after our discussion today. My professor strongly believes that writing has to have a purpose and about a topic that matters. Even if few people share the same view, the writer themself has to feel confident about their view. Our professor gave us this advice referring to our term paper, but it definetly applies to all writing. I suspect authors like Carson and Kolbert have this quality, which is why their writing influences an entire nation.

    A quote in the documentary stuck in my head all day, "A person who believes is a majority, most other people don't have an opinion."

  10. As a few others have previously posted, I have not discussed the release of Silent Spring with my parents or grandparents, but I think they would have a lot to share about it. My grandpa was a farmer and was likely affected by the use and controversy surrounding DDT.

    I knew that DDT was used very heavily in the past, but I never realized what it was being used for; I was surprised to find out that it wasn't just used in farming. Seeing city streets, swimming pools, and entire forests being sprayed with DDT was a new concept, and a rather frightening one. It honestly reminded me of my flight back from Africa last spring. We had a two hour layover in Dakar, but could not get off the plane. Since we had been on the plane for so long, the airline apparently felt it necessary to fumigate us, and the flight attendants walked up and down the aisles spraying deodorizers. I put my blanket over my face so I wouldn't be breathing it in. I realize that this is not nearly the same thing, but it made me think about how some of the things we do today might have implications or effects of which we are unaware.

    I had not heard of Silent Spring before this course either, but of course have read The Jungle and Uncle Tom's Cabin. I have added it to the top of my book list for the summer, and I hope that it becomes more of a staple in literature courses in the near future. It may make our current environmental situation more real and pressing for many people, as many connections can be made between the two situations.

    I am thankful for Rachel Carson's courage and dedication, because as Elizabeth stated earlier, had Carson not written Silent Spring our world today might be a very different place. She is inspiration to do everything we can to inform others of the reality of global climate change and to convince them that we need to drastically change our behaviors.

  11. I really enjoyed this video about Silent Spring, since I have read the book. It is a very good book and is well written. Like many others have mentioned, the thing that surprised me most in the video was how they would spray people, especially children, with these toxic chemicals. I agree that they did not understand the problems caused, but I am surprised they did not care to find out.

    Since many are mentioning their family history, I will contribute mine. During this time, my great-grandfather had a farm, which my family now lives on. I can say with a fair amount of certainty that DDT was used on the land there. I have heard stories from my family about how there were no eagles for a very long time. Now there are so many eagles they are difficult to count.

    Before it was mentioned, I did not think to compare Kolbert's book to Silent Spring, but they are both written so that the average person can understand the science surrounding the issues. I can only hope that Field Notes, or some other book, becomes a Silent Spring equivalent for the global climate change issue.

  12. In my environmental class in high school, we read several parts - if not close to all - of Silent Spring. However, while the book itself was extremely powerful and beautifully written, I think the documentary encouraged my thinking in ways the text could not have done. Actually seeing the recordings of the pesticide sprayed on people was astounding. I was really surprised by the swimming pool shot - while I understand they are showing how pesticides supposedly don't harm anyone, why did they do a swimming pool? That has nothing to do with pests! I was never aware of how powerfully and repeatedly the government used pesticides, and consistently supported the claim that they were safe.

    It was also very interesting to see the response the book caused. Reading the text, I wasn't aware of the backlash - I am very intrigued to find more out about Dr. White-Stevens. He actually kind of scared me! He was a very powerful speaker, and I was not aware of his power and claims until watching this documentary.

    When I was younger, my family camped nearly every weekend. I have a massive collection of Jr. Ranger badges I would earn, and one of them, though I can't remember the specfics, was for completing an activity book regarding Silent Spring. It is so interesting to me that the only way I received this knoweledge growing up was in a very pro-environment setting. I would never have known about Silent Spring until my senior year of high school had I not had the camping experiences. I don't ever remember talking about Silent Spring or pesticides and the government in any grade until high school. I think it is such an important need to continue our knowledge and understanding of not only pesticides but any harm to the environment, or such problems will only happen again.... like they are now...

  13. I had never heard of this book before we mentioned it in class. I knew about the books The Jungle and Uncle Tom's Cabin, and I think I have to agree with Steph's comment about Silent Springs being too recent and controversial. Although this issue has been "taken care of" and pesticides are no longer being used so heavy, people still don't want to talk about it. Perhaps it's because many people still alive today were once apart of the general public being sprayed with poison, and they don't want to admit their, if not avocation, compliance with such an act.

    Like many other people, I was really disturbed by the scenes in the movie where people were going about their business and then being sprayed with pesticides. No one questioned the spraying of the poison as they didn't know the consequences of this action. I makes me wonder if things we do today without thinking will be looked back upon with the same surprise many of us felt while watching this movie.

  14. I know that Dr. Hale said to stick to Silent Springs and the documentary, but I can't resist. I think that it's astounding to see how similar our situation today is to the pesticide problem. Both have a big business invested into convincing the government and the people that nothing's wrong. The propaganda of the 1960s was the videos we hated showing pesticide being sprayed on children. Today, we're up against "experts" trying to convince people that "if it is happening, just think of how nice a few more months of summer would be!" It's the same case of a minority with evidence versus a majority with money.

  15. I think Teresa and Jason have brought up good points - it's important to see how this applies to us today. Luckily I've never been fumigated on an airplane (though I have been seriously annoyed by climate change nay-sayers). One issue I have run into personally, though, is textbooks. A lot of textbooks have glossy, colored photos. Most people never even notice - at least consciously. My family tends to have a more severe reaction, including almost immediate headaches, tiredness, and a total inability to concentrate. (Similar problems arise with new shoes, cars, carpets, etc.) The effects may be more subtle than those of DDT, but it hardly seems a bright idea to me to poison students every time they try to study. However, between the people who say chemical sensitivity is a myth and those who say there couldn't possibly be a problem since surely no one would put anything harmful into a product meant for children, who knows when someone will actually take a stand and make a significant change.

    Regarding the film, the thing that struck me the most was actually what was said about using DDT in WWII. I've never been an expert on Silent Spring, but I've heard just enough to know of this evil, horrible, poisonous chemical that was destroying the environment. Knowing about its use in WWII put the situation in perspective for me - and helped me realize why Silent Spring was probably the only thing that could have stopped the mass DDT sprayings. My grandfather served in WWII - not as a soldier, per se, but as a radio operator in the merchant marines. As far as I know, he never really got up close and personal with the actual fighting. He could have, though. And, if he had, he could have very well died before my dad was born. What's even more sobering to realize, though, is that, had there been no DDT, he could have died, not from enemy action, but from a simple disease.

    That really made me think of all the mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, who didn't lose their loved ones in WWII. Those men, women, and children survived solely because of this amazing new miracle spray which killed the fleas before those fleas could kill them. It may have poisoned them as well, but any effects were a long ways away, and anyway, who really wants to look a gift horse in the mouth? I'm not saying that that made it okay for the government and chemical companies to start flooding the entire country with a really nasty poison, but it did make me realize that people had good reason to be grateful to DDT. That makes what Rachel Carson managed to do even more incredible.


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