Tuesday, May 27, 2014

One Hundred and Seven Years of Bird Song

Female Mourning Cloak butterfly, laying her eggs this morning on a springtime willow twig.
“The more clearly we can focus our attention
on the wonders and realities of the universe about us,
the less taste we shall have for destruction.”
(Rachel Carson)

I met a butterfly this morning who, for some reason, started me thinking about Rachel Carson. The butterfly was a female Mourning Cloak, a rather subdued lady with darkish underwings and a beige trailing edge. She wore an elegant chocolate-brown on the top of her wings, and between this color and the trailing edge lay a sculpted, black margin featuring beautiful, blueish spots. Pretty, but prim and proper as butterflies go.

I don't even remember how old I was when I finally read Carson's "Silent Spring." It wasn't required in school. At twenty-something, I discovered her book and found it depressing, but sobering. Being the bearer of bad news wasn't an easy job for Carson, but it was especially difficult as a woman biologist in a man's post-war world. Somehow, she found the strength to do what needed to be done.

Rachel Carson preferred to write natural history adventures. But the male biologists who also knew about the growing problems associated with pesticide pollution had all remained silent. Carson spoke out, and "Silent Spring" was published in September of 1962 - just a few months after I was born.

At the time, DDT was a leftover weapon of war that had been re-purposed for civilian use without any advanced study of its effects. But the biologists knew, spray it repeatedly on any mosquito population and you create a DDT-resistant population in 8-10 years. The survivors breed fast. Meanwhile, the pesticide bio-accumulates its way up the food chain, reaching toxic levels in animals that people eat for food, like shellfish.

The people who made money selling these poisons attacked. Carson's unqualified, they claimed. Carson's a "fanatic," an "alarmist." She's a pretty woman who's unmarried, so obviously she's a communist. And these monied people are still attacking her, on this, what would have been her 107th birthday.

They claim that her book caused the near-global ban on DDT use, and this led to tens of millions of human deaths from malaria. What they won't tell you is that Carson's book did not recommend a ban on DDT, just judicial use to minimize the build up of resistance in mosquitoes. Every nation also has an emergency-use exemption, and they are free to use DDT whenever it's deemed necessary. They also won't tell you that DDT, due to over-use, has run its course and is no longer very effective on mosquitoes.

What you also might not know is this. All the while as Carson did her research, vetted her findings, published her book, and waged this public battle against these corporations, she herself was dying of breast cancer. In unspeakable pain much of the time. Wearing a wig due to the chemotherapy. Less than two years after publishing "Silent Spring," Rachel Carson died at home in April 1964, childless, at the age of 56.

I'm getting close to 56 now myself. Would I have lived this long, this healthy, if Carson hadn't spoken out? Somehow, I doubt it.

On this spring morning - filled with lots of bird song - my pretty little butterfly was preoccupied with laying her eggs. She survived the difficult winter, but now her wings were tattered and worn and she only has days remaining. But there she clung, buffeted by the wind, carefully and purposely laying out the future in one healthy row after another.

Happy birthday Miss Rachel. And, thank you.