About five years ago when I revisited Rachel Carson’s legendary exposé, Silent Spring, my jaw dropped.  Not because she coolly described so many terrible things with such compelling and careful scholarship.  Not because she so effectively drew the connections between human activity and global impacts, the longtime nature of these impacts, the “cradle to grave” effects on all forms of life, and the unpredictable but possibly lethal consequences of continuing along this same path.

No, my jaw dropped because I realized that so little had actually changed.  Yes, we took some products off the market.  Yes, we created the (much-maligned) EPA.  But how many more products have been introduced since 1962, how many more pounds of chemicals in countless combinations?  What have we learned about the Promethean perils of fooling with Mother Nature?

Zip, apparently.

Now you should know that I own at least two copies of this book, one from many years ago that I thought I should buy because Carson’s work is so often referenced, and a newer edition I purchased when my longtime interest in consumer safety re-sparked in the wake of the Chinese toy recalls.  Since most of what I thought I knew about Silent Spring I knew second- or third-hand, it seemed way past due to actually get back to the source.

I remember the moment vividly: reading in the Southern California sunshine at a children’s play park near the runway of a small airport.  (Right. That’s where we build those things when we’re crunched for public space.)  Using highly accessible language, Carson explained what the compounds are, how they’re used, how many, how much money they make (over a quarter billion dollar of wholesale value fifty years ago)* and where and how they penetrate every aspect of the biosphere.  As Carson chillingly stated, “for the first time in the history of the world, every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals, from the moment of conception until death.”**

And we knew this in 1962—pretty much my whole life—and despite all our efforts (Earth Day, Jimmy Carter, not to mention Julia Roberts playing a sympathetic defender of clean water!), my young daughter would still be subjected to a daily chemical bath.  (As Madge used to say—“you’re soaking in it!”)***  Furthermore, even with my expensive patronage of organic food and personal care items, we couldn’t avoid coming into contact with the thousands and thousands of synthetic compounds now available in the marketplace.  Everyone—Whole Foods shopper or not— lives with a tracery of chemical signatures in their water, air, soil, food and, of course, themselves.  No one has real choice in the matter; and, frankly, no one ever asked us.

It’s hard to imagine the incredible shock Carson’s book must have been at a time when post-war faith in science and technology flourished and every home could theoretically reap the benefits.  Those silly proto-Jetsons!  We 21st century ironic types know so much more now!  Ask so many more questions!  Refuse to buy things just because they’re for sale!

Uh, hmm, well.

This conundrum of the more information we have, the less we seem to want to use it, came to mind as I went for a stroll around my ‘hood a couple months back and smelled that smell.  You know, the Lawn Treatment Smell.  A quick glance confirmed my suspicion: the ominous and practically useless pesticide application notice on the adjacent grass.  In case you don’t have these things in your part of the world, the bright yellow (tiny) sign “warns” the reader that the property owner’s lawn service applied some kind of chemical and no living creature (my wording) should enter the green space for 24 hours.  Not sure robins can read such small type, though.

Crossing the road to avoid that lawn (if you can smell it, it’s pretty fresh), I mused some more on my on-going research of backyard soil testing, especially in the context of growing your own food.  In a very small way, I understood at a sniff the horror that the organic farmer must feel when contemplating the encroachment of chemicals and man-modified organisms.  I mean, that, er, stuff is everywhere!  In our particular case, we’re just trying to decide whether to eat our duck eggs but since our birds live off our land and that land exists in such a chemically-compromised world….

Then my soon to be 11-year-old asked the most important question which, in a fog of data interpretation and conjecture, I, myself, had neglected to ask:

“Mom, are the ducks going to be okay?”

That’s when I realized they’re not ducks but canaries.  Canaries not in a coalmine but in our own yards.

But we’re the guinea pigs.



* Source: “Elixirs of Death” chapter of Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, 1962, Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY.


***And if that reference doesn’t date me, no amount of carbon will.


Additional reading:

On a Farther Shore: The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson; William Souder; 2012; Crown Publishers, New York, NY.  A graceful and thorough biographical account.

Exposed: The Toxic Chemistry of Everyday Products, Who’s At Risk and What’s At Stake for American Power; Mark Schapiro; 2007; Chelsea Green Publishing Company, White River Junction, VT.



Silent Spring Institute

Environmental Working Group


Copyright 2012, Lori Fontanes