REVIEW: Carson’s “Silent Spring”

Robust, Gripping, and Evocative






Certain authors have the power within their words to evoke a wide spectrum of feelings from their reader. Done in colorful prose, some of it is challenging, but none of it impossible to the lay reader. It teaches you things, or makes you think differently—in some way, good writing forces you to make an observation. It pulls from archetypes to place you within the story; from this, it can touch a reader emotionally. The more readers it engages, the wider readership it can obtain. Harnessing emotion around an issue and into a cause, this power can become a force for paradigm change or even revolution.  Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,” does just that on the subject of toxic chemicals in our environment by painting a fantastic vision of “a town in the heart of America” in all its sentimental glory and killing it before the close of the introduction.

Silent Spring begins in your neighborhood, idealized. It brings up images that a rural reader would be familiar with and appreciate. It observes with the reader, a presupposition of regular abundance in nature, where calamity and catastrophe are buried notions. .

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. 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.

Very quickly, she destroys the notion that such an arrangement is sustainable. She does so in a way that seems very black and white. ‘Blight’, used to describe the effects of DDT, fits aptly as a metaphor, and describes for someone in the 1950’s, a familiar danger from history that could strike at any day, without warning. Technically, she does so using well timed alliteration and assonance, which helps the flow of her dialogue.

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.(Silent Spring, p.10)

As propaganda, it works brilliantly. The titular Silent Spring “crept” in, without warning, possibly scaring the reader much like a nuclear attack. For the landowner/farmer, the potential threat of infertile land was akin to going bust. The colorful descriptions of the land and life prior could be lost, without action on the part of the reader. It portrays it’s topic in clear terms, as evil, and responsible for death; this is strong language, but a fair and agreeable position to its likely reader, and a public relations nightmare to the product maker, which was probably a tangential goal of the piece. Carson ‘draws the line’ in her narrative, as if the matter is a showdown, but takes the time and prose to fully articulate all that is at stake.

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