Legacy of Rachel Carson

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(HOST) A walk in the fall woods has reminded commentator Ted Levin of the legacy of Rachel Carson.

(LEVIN) Recently, I followed my forester friend into the woods to watch him treat buckthorn and Japanese honeysuckle, two prolific invasives that crowd-out native vegetation. To the bad plants he applied Garlon, a synthetic herbicide mimic of the plant growth hormone auxin, that causes uncontrolled and disorganized plant growth. Garlon has a half-life of thirty days (older generation herbicides lingered in the soil for years and traveled up the food chain collecting in the tissues and organs of predators). He treated one plant at a time. The procedure is time consuming, but environmentally benign. Garlon is mixed with oil and sprayed down the lower trunk of each invasive. Rain doesn’t wash Garlon away. The plant absorbs the chemical and then the cells begin to spastically reproduce. Death by vigor results in a few days or a week. Non-target plants are not effected.

When Houghton Mifflin published Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962, planes systematically and liberally basted eastern North America with pesticides and herbicides. The enemies were legion: gypsy moths and fire ants, Japanese beetles and termites. Salt marsh mosquitoes. Bark beetles. Sand flies. House Flies. Spruce budworm. Insect borne diseases were destroying the American elm, and had all but killed-off the American chestnut.

Electric companies thought herbicides were a boon. It was so much easier to clear powerline right-of-ways by spraying than by hand-cutting. And so did suburban gardeners. My father dutifully injected an herbicide into every dandelion that reared its yellow mane on our lawn. We were armed with pump-action aerosol cans for spiders, for wasps, for hornworms, but that also meant dousing the tomatoes we ate.

Virtually no one in the fields of agriculture, medicine, or entomology had considered the long-term effect of broadcast spraying, on either wildlife or humans. Certainly, most home owners didn’t considered persistent pesticides or herbicides as either a health or an ecological issue.

I remember the summer when fire flies stopped twinkling and praying mantises stopped stalking. By the time I graduated high school in 1966 the osprey population on Long Island had plunged from six hundred breeding pairs to twenty-two, peregrine falcons were extinct east of the Mississippi River, and the best place to see a bald eagle was either in Alaska or in Florida Bay.

Things have certainly changed for the better.

Rachel Carson would be pleased to see how far we’ve come in forty years. Her book spawned a wide spread environmental awareness, an awareness that humans are not beyond the forces of nature.

There exists a direct link from “Silent Spring” to the first Earth Day in 1970, when my classmates and I paraded around an Indiana campus wearing gas masks. There’s also a direct link to the formation of the Environmental Defense Fund and the EPA, and the passage of the Clear Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act.

Now it’s time to attack both massive problems like global warming and and more local problems like water milfoil with the very same enlightened approach. Rachel Carson would have approved.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing.

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