By North Cairn, Staff Writer
For those who read Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller, “Silent Spring,” its impact often is not an abstract concept.
‘The forest was blanketed with dead birds.’
“ABSOLUTELY, I read ‘Silent Spring’s when I was in my mid-teens, maybe 14 or 15,” recalled Deborah Aldridge of Mopang Lake, whose life was changed forever — not by Carson’s book alone but in connection with an experience some months later.
Her family — the Peaveys, longtime residents of the Mopang area — had a camp on land leased from a paper company. Located just off Route 9 in Township 29, it was a pristine place that Aldridge remembers with fondness.
Less than a year after she read “Silent Spring,” Aldridge, not yet 16 years old, took a walk one afternoon with her family through part of the thousands of acres of forests owned by the paper company. Not far from the Peaveys’s camp, aerial spraying with DDT had been done to combat spruce budworm, and as she and her family ambled through the woods, they noticed something unusual.
“The forest was blanketed with dead birds,” she said.
Gone were the woods brimming with the sights, sounds and fragrances they ordinarily enjoyed on family outings. “There was such a difference,” she said. “The forest was deathly quiet.”
Seeing firsthand what pesticides could do to creatures not intended to be hurt or killed marked a “turning point” for Aldridge, who was “horrified,” she said, by what she witnessed. “And that’s even a mild way of saying how I felt.”
Between the shock of seeing so many small songbirds — chickadees and sparrows mostly, she recalled — and what she already knew from reading Carson’s book, Aldridge felt a deep shift within her, like continental plates colliding.
“It was beyond belief,” she said, now nearly 50 years later. “It had a huge impact. It made me aware of the world … and that we are all caretakers.”
The incident catalyzed her thinking in unexpected ways, shaping her ideas about “how I was going to treat the Earth and my little corner of it.”
Years later, after Aldridge married, she and her husband, Peter, began farming organically. The couple cultivated blueberries on a 20-acre parcel of the 200 acres they owned in Jonesboro.
Growing food organically, she said, healed some of the distress she had felt so many years before. “The change was just so incredible,” she said. “Caterpillars and butterflies no longer emerged deformed.”
And the farm did not suffer for the elimination of pesticides; it was still producing 30,000-40,000 pounds of blueberries a year.
And there was another deep change. Aldridge and her husband became advocates for organic farming and the elimination of deadly pesticides. She became politically active as an organic grower in the region and tried to work from within the system to reduce the dependence on chemical pesticides in farming and forestry.
“A person feels so helpless when the people in power have all the power and it seems there is nothing you can do,” she said. But through the way of life and work that she and Peter chose for themselves — and the message they carried to others — they felt they had accomplished something.
“It was,” Aldridge said, “the best we could do.
“We encouraged conventional people to keep their minds open” about the benefits of organic farming. “What I’m doing and what impact I’m having, how I’m changing the landscape, and me, for good or for ill — that came from Rachel Carson, I think.”
“It’s a much different mindset when you stop being an owner of property and become instead a caretaker,” Aldridge said. And though “nothing can undo” what she observed that day so long ago in the woods with her family, the spark of consciousness that was fanned to a lasting fire in her remains profound and energizing.
Other changes — or restorations — have taken longer.
“It’s only been in the last five years,” Aldridge said, “that I’ve noticed the birds have come back.”
‘The things that she wrote rang true; they echoed in me.’
“RACHEL CARSON was ahead of her time,” said Patty Bailey of Gouldsboro, who served for most of her career in the Maine Department of Conservation as a nature educator. “The things that she wrote rang true; they echoed in me — the beauty of her writing, her way of engaging people and keeping them engaged. I always felt bad that she didn’t get the recognition and support she deserved.”
From Carson’s words in “Silent Spring” and, even more so, in “A Sense of Wonder,” Bailey was inspired by a single idea that ran like a tributary through her life and work: “First and foremost, to know that we are all connected and that everything we do has an impact.”
“The things we think and feel make a difference, too,” said Bailey, now retired. Helping to mold ideas and raise consciousness — especially among children — became for her a driving force, compelling further study, leading to public service in the state parks system and spurring her to create an informal nature-education curriculum.
A series of her guided walks for young people bears names that are titles of books by Carson or resound with her ideas: The Edge of the Sea, for example, or Secrets of the Shore.
For nearly 20 years, Bailey communicated those lessons and values through her work as an interpretive guide at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park in Freeport. There she was able to hold on to — and share with others — a love of nature she attributes to time spent as a child with her father, canoeing through a bog in the evening to check for ducks.
She remains deeply influenced by Carson’s last book, “A Sense of Wonder,” which was published posthumously but remains one of the author’s signature works. In it, Carson displays a different voice than the one that carries “Silent Spring.”
In that later, shorter text, the language of the reformer settles to a nearly maternal, comforting whisper.
Carson aimed her gentle persuasion at parents looking for ways to help their children appreciate the natural world and retain the sense of awe and wonder that, she felt, is so often lost or discarded in adulthood.
And though Bailey has changed in focus in retirement, now devoting herself to practicing methods of alternative healing, the walks she designed are still offered every week at Wolfe’s Neck.
And though the children who visit the park now and learn about the forest and shore might not know it yet, they are part of a whole new generation who are being transformed. Scientists say these young people already bear at a cellular level the imprint of persistent pesticides, but they are being changed by something else as well, the lasting legacy of Rachel Carson.
‘She knew how to translate other people’s work for lay people …’
FOR BARBARA VICKERY, recalling the 1962 publication of “Silent Spring” represents more than memory; it is a symbol of awakening.
The image is this: Her mother and aunts are clustered around the kitchen table, discussing Carson’s best-selling book on the environmental impact of indiscriminate use of pesticides. All four women had grown up on a farm and had been exposed to DDT, the chemical agent Carson so soundly criticized in her groundbreaking book.
That evening the women sat together, quietly reviewing what they had learned from “Silent Spring.” One of her aunts was ill, and there was talk about whether her illness might be linked to the poisons that had been used on the farm decades before. Another, whom Vickery remembers as “an avid bird lover,” was worrying over what harm might have been done to songbirds in the fields.
Vickery, then a young girl, lingered on the margins of the conversation, listening.
“There was that sense of sitting around the kitchen table,” she recalled. And “a horrible sense of misgiving and regret” that the family might have unwittingly engaged in farming practices that had been damaging — even to themselves. The moment was permeated with the dread that they might have “in ignorance, participated in things that were just plain wrong.”
“That made a profound effect on me,” she said. “It was a very personal sense of awakening.”
A call to action is how Carson herself might have described the book, though alerting and educating the public to the issues surrounding pesticide use were essential first steps.
“Silent Spring” achieved that. So persuasive and compelling was her presentation of what had previously been only piecemeal information and scattered details on the adverse effects of pesticides that, when the book was published, Carson become at once the foremost expert and most vilified advocate on the subject in the world.
Part of the power of the book was the potency of the writing. “She understood how to do good research,” said Vickery, now director of conservation programs for the Maine chapter of The Nature Conservancy, for which she has worked for 28 years. “She knew how to translate other people’s work for lay people translate it into what people should do and what people should care about.
“One of the ways she influenced me was that she opened my eyes to other ways of being,” Vickery said. Carson and her book enlarged the sense of what was possible for individuals to become and to accomplish.
Carson, who to this day is described both as scientist and non-scientist — depending on who is assessing her credentials at any given moment — held an undergraduate degree in biology and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
She also studied at the Marine Biological Lab in Woods Hole, Mass., and through her own writings became conversant with much of the then-current research in marine biology, ornithology, entomology, botany, biochemistry, oceanography and wildlife management.
And she influenced generations of women, pioneering their credible participation in arenas before reserved almost exclusively for men. By example, she encouraged women to strive for more from and for themselves, to work harder and to stand up for themselves and their convictions.
“I didn’t lack for (role) models,” said Vickery, whose father was a physicist and mother a social scientist. She herself was enamored of Marie Curie as the classic woman scientist.
But through Carson, she said, she came to understand more about what environmental advocacy meant, and during her tenure with The Nature Conservancy, that impact has become a very tangible reality.
Along with huge changes in the public’s understanding of what it means to be a caretaker and steward of the environment, there is the matter of money: The continuing sales of Carson’s books comprise an endowment of “royalties each year in the tens of thousands of dollars,” said Vickery, who serves as the chief planner for conservation and oversees the use of the endowment funding for coastal and marine purposes.
For Vickery, Carson embodies the power of “perseverance versus stridency.”
Because Carson tackled the pesticide issue at a time when it was unwelcome — especially for a woman — to raise such questions, “some people would assume that she was a strident battler,” Vickery said.
“She was a battler absolutely,” she conceded, “(but) a very gentle battler.”
And a somewhat reluctant one at that.
The founding chairwoman of the Maine chapter of the conservancy, Carson felt “a personal struggle between her love of Maine” and the work she believed she was compelled to do for the world that lay beyond its borders, Vickery said. “There was always this issue that she struggled with — of enjoying the world or saving it.”