Guest Commentary

It's time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the book that exposed the dangers of DDT

As a child of the 1950s, I remember hot summer nights when we got relief from the heat only when a truck came by spraying a cool mist that would kill mosquitoes. We kids ran after that mist like it was the ice cream truck.

Several years later, with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, parents like mine learned that their children had been showering in toxic DDT.

Silent Spring broke like a tsunami across America, galvanizing an environmental movement to stop the poisoning of our air, land and water. But multinational chemical companies and even members of Congress lambasted Carson, who had been a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She was called a "communist," a "hysterical woman" and worse.

Carson described how DDT not only killed insects, but also entered the food chain, so that even though DDT did not harm brown pelicans directly, the birds were becoming extinct because the toxin caused their eggs' shells to thin. Whenever they tried to nest, their eggs shattered beneath them.

Scientists discovered that, for decades, chemical companies had been discharging DDT into waterways, where it was absorbed by fish that were eventually eaten by pelicans and other birds. This caused some colonies of pelicans in California to shrink by more than 90 percent. Fortunately, pelicans are no longer on the endangered-species list, and today, I can watch squadrons of them silently soar above me on the Santa Cruz shores close to my home.

Battling both her critics and a cancer diagnosis, Carson found sanctuary in her cabin in the Maine woods. Meanwhile, her book and its shocking scientific revelations attracted powerful champions. They included President John Kennedy and two sons of the West: Arizona's own Stewart Udall, the interior secretary, and Californian David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club. Silent Spring became the impetus for the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and other landmark legislation. Carson was, as Udall put it, the "fountainhead of the environmental movement."

I recently watched the inspiring program A Sense of Wonder on public television. The title was taken from Carson's book of the same name. At the end, the actress playing the dying author says there are a few things left that she wants to do, and one of them is to see a redwood. I live among the giant redwoods, and I wondered: Had Carson been able to make the journey?

She had. In October 1963, the author flew to California, writing later: "My mind is still filled with vivid pictures of that dream-like drift across the continents—what a privilege we have to see it that way." She noted flying over the snow-capped mountains near Denver, and seeing Lake Tahoe and Yosemite below. "I guess one should drive across it several times to get to know it. But I have been impressed, thinking about water in relation to the landscape—or especially the lack of it!"

She had come to California for a conference, and despite her terminal cancer, she intended to work, said David Brower in his book Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run. But she also let Brower drive her to the shores of what is now the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. "In the lagoon just inland were perhaps 50 brown pelicans having a hell of a good time, perhaps celebrating the beginning of their recovery with a pelican ballet, on that sunny day," Brower recalled.

When she returned home, Carson wrote to a friend about her experiences. Echoing the sentiments of those of us who find solace in nature, she said, "I longed to wander off, alone, into the heart of the woods, where I could really get the feeling of the place, instead of being surrounded by people! And confined to a wheel chair! I was so grateful to the Browers for taking me ... but the one thing that would have made my enjoyment complete, I couldn't have."

Six months later, Rachel Carson died of breast cancer.

Her legacy, however, lives on. She challenged corporate power with courage and backed up her charges with incontrovertible science. And she shared with us her gift of appreciating the outdoors.

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