Silent Spring

Fearghal Duffy: ‘A Fable for Tomorrow’

THERE WAS ONCE a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields.

Thomas Moran ‘A Pastoral Landscape’ 1889

‘In autumn, oak and maple and birch set up a blaze of color that flamed and flickered across a backdrop of pines. Then foxes barked in the hills and deer silently crossed the fields, half hidden in the mists of the fall mornings. Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns.

From Pastoral to Apocalypse

‘Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families. In the town the doctors had become more and more puzzled by new kinds of sickness appearing among their patients. There had been several sudden and unexplained deaths, not only among adults but even among children, who would be stricken suddenly while at play and die within a few hours. There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere

were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh. On the farms the hens brooded, but no chicks hatched. The farmers complained that they were unable to raise any pigs—the litters were small and the young survived only a few days. The apple trees were coming into bloom but no bees droned among the blossoms, so there was no pollination and there would be no fruit. The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died. In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams. No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.’

Edward Burtynsky’s Anti-Pastoral ‘Manufactured Landscapes’

In 1962 Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, signalling the birth of the modern environmental movement. The name of Carson’s book is a literary allusion to John Keat’s poem ‘La Bell Dame Sans Merci’, which depicts an ailing knight who loiters in a barren landscape where “no birds sing” but the rhetorical imagery of the ‘silent spring’ also came to function as “a synecdoche for a more general environmental apocalypse”[i] amongst environmentalists. Carson’s book was explicitly concerned with the harmful effect chemical pesticides were having on the environment and particularly how the aerial spraying of DDT[ii] was basically eradicating birdlife. Implicitly, Silent Spring called into question the impact human beings were having on the

environment in their spirit of hubristic progress to control and master nature through the use of science and technology. Although Carson was a marine biologist with a scientific background, Silent Spring does not present its findings solely through a disciplinary jargon

but achieves its momentous affect by employing literary allusions, mythological motifs, and apocalyptic rhetoric to convey its core environmental message. The opening chapter, ‘A Fable for Tomorrow’, begins by using the well-established pastoral mode whereby the people appear to be living an idyllic existence in harmony with the flourishing natural environment. But then, the tone changes dramatically and the “strange blight” and “evils spells” disrupts the pastoral scene. To achieve this affect, Carson evokes a fairy-tale atmosphere which portends an apocalyptic end-of-the-world scenario. These literary motifs and foreboding plot-lines are well-known to us all from childhood. Carson deliberately uses these well-familiar narrative formats to enframe her message in order to present her message in the only way for people to comprehend and accept its import. Sometimes presenting the basic facts just won’t do. Facts don’t quite capture our imagination. We are story-beings and we need stories to make sense of our place in the world. We are also more ready to accept unpalatable truths when they are presented to us in story-format.

In describing the dangers of chemical pesticides with “a novelist’s art and a scientist’s knowledge”[iii] Carson not only reached out to those in the scientific field who could academically support and confirm her claims but also to the general public, whose hearts and minds needed to be

won if there was to be a change in U.S. government policy on the use of harmful pesticides. Carson’s Silent Spring made a significant impact on public opinion and it effectively accomplished putting the environment onto the popular political agenda. Carson did indeed have a novelist’s art and an artist’s intuition in communicating the portentous realities of the environmental dilemma. She perceived that it required a poetic language that spoke in metaphors and used parables rather than just plain didacticism to impel an ecological conscience amongst the public and to change the way they regard nature and behave towards the environment. Carson’s achievement was to reconcile the old presumed foes, science and poetry, in their common struggle to make sense of our place on the earth, belying the notion that the two are diametric opposites.  The question that emerges from this understanding of Carson’s art, and which is highly pertinent to ecocriticism, is: how might the ways in which the natural world is spoken about or symbolically rendered affect the way we relate to it?  

Fearghal Duffy–Metamorphosis Collaborator

[i]  Greg Garrard (2004), Ecocriticism, London and New York: Routledge,  p 2.

[ii] Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, an organochlorine insecticide.

[iii] Glen Love (2003), Practical Ecocriticism. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, p 2


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