Today is the 40th “Earth Day.” Over at the New Yorker, where they are celebrating the 85th anniversary of that excellent magazine, they are running a series of articles taken from those eighty-five years of publication. Today, they feature Rachel Carson. Her book, “Silent Spring”, marked the beginning of public awareness that Mother Earth requires attention. The Environmental Protection Agency has published an official history in which it says that its mere existence is the “extended shadow of Rachel Carson.”
The first publication of “Silent Spring” came in the pages of the New Yorker which ran three extended excerpts before it was published in 1962. In the first, Carson detailed what happened at Clear Lake, California. Clear Lake was a popular fishing destination that also constituted perfect habitat for billions of little gnats that annoyed the fishermen. Thinking it would be good to rid the lake of those pests, the authorities decided to spray the lake with DDD, a close cousin of DDT. Three times they sprayed and millions of gnats died.
Unfortunately so did the Western Grebes.
“The following winter months brought the first intimation that other life was affected; the western grebes on the lake began to die, and soon more than a hundred of them had been reported dead. At Clear Lake, the western grebe is a breeding bird and also a winter visitant, attracted by the abundant fish of the lake. It is a bird of spectacular appearance and beguiling habits, building floating nests in shallow lakes of the western United States and Canada…. Following a third assault on the ever-resilient gnat population, in September, 1957—again in a concentration of one part of DDD to fifty million parts of water—more grebes died . . . .”
By now, we know the rest of the story. As Carson wrote,
“Water, of course, supports long chains of life – from the small-as-dust green cells of the drifting plant plankton, through the minute water fleas, to the fish that strain plankton from the water and are, in turn, eaten by other fish or by birds, mink, raccoons, and man himself, in an endless transfer of materials from life to life. We know that the minerals necessary for all these forms of life are extracted from the water and passed from link to link of the food chains.”
The DDD sprayed to kill the gnats went to the fish where it concentrated and then to the grebes which ate the fish and then died.
All this reminded me of archy the cockroach’s complaint in the poem by Don Marquis called, “Pity the Poor Spider.”
I will admit that some
of the insects do not lead
noble lives but is every
man s hand to be against them
yours for less justice
and more charity
Happy Earth Day.
The part of the Carson piece in the New Yorker that you can read without a subscription is here. The entire piece requires a subscription but it’s worth it. Subscribe to the magazine and you get access to the entire eighty-five years of the New Yorker, every article and every cartoon. We read around in back issues the way a dog eats dinner.
What’s more, the New Yorker remains true to its environmental concerns. Elizabeth Kolbert picked up the Carson mantle and carries it forward.
The Western Grebe photo is by Dominic Sherony and graciously made available through creative commons. The photo of Rachel Carson is her USFWS official portrait and is in the public domain.