Silent shadows

Mick Stuart, Michael Allaby, Alan Gear and James Twine

14 December 2012

Published fifty years ago in 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has been described as one of the most influential books yet to be written by an environmentalist. The book’s beautiful prose, and damning indictment of the use of what were then ‘modern’ insecticides, caused a publishing sensation when it was first published and continues to influence national and global decision-making on the regulation of persistent and bio-accumulative chemicals. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of its publication four distinguished members of the organic movement’s history to give their personal recollections on Carson’s work.

Mick Stuart

The year was 1947. I had returned from India saturated with DDT. I was a mental and metabolic walking disaster. My notes from the anti-malarial course I’d taken somewhere in the foothills of the Himalayas state that DDT was “safe when handled dry”, and I had been breaking up the pale yellow crystals with my bare hands. In letters to India my father warned me of possible hazards in handling DDT. He had been receiving reports from the USA that workers involved in the manufacture of DDT were displaying some strange symptoms. It had not occurred to any one that my strange moods and behaviour were anything other than normal. I have always wondered what happened to the large amphibian that I encountered near our tented camp among the conifer clad hills in Hazara (North West Frontier Province); our actions must have destroyed the food that its tadpoles relied on. Vast areas of India and Burma and elsewhere must have undergone irreversible changes due to our efforts to control mosquitoes.

The 1940s were also the decade during which Albert Howard wrote about the “ridiculous Broadbalk experiments” at Rothamsted Experimental Station, and about the work of the then Agricultural Research Council. It was “. . . beginning to emancipate itself from the NPK mentality. A step forward in agricultural research has been made. At long last the soil is being studied as a vast biological complex in which myriads of active organisms are competing with one another for the available supplies of food materials and establishing between themselves a dynamic equilibrium which is constantly changing with every alteration in the physical, chemical and climatic environment”.

Meantime at Hopes in East Lothian, not far from Lady Eve’s home, we were surrounded by Indore Compost. The garden was much visited by Soil Association members. The house was the headquarters of the Scottish Health and Soil Society, and the Hopes Compost Club hosted the Scottish annual conference of the Soil Association. In its heyday in the fifties we offered a service with machines and operators that visited farms converting hundreds of tons of their organic ‘wastes’ into live compost by the Indore process.

Before Silent Spring we had, in our home, review copies of all the books that at that time were being published – every volume that there was about compost and organic farming. There was F C King, Friend Sykes, Maye Bruce, Fairfield Osborn, Donald Hopkins and others. I visited many of these authors around the country on my return from active service in 1947 before starting my degree course at university. I called at Haughley too in that year. Eve was there.

Silent Spring was published 15 years later. And today what do we have? Is it ever wise to say “Yes! Well we’ve moved on since then”. Have we? Moved on where? What is the state of affairs now? We believed we had “moved on” when we were doing such a good job with DDT. I know. I was there. For much of my life I suffered all the symptoms that Rachel Carson later described and had discovered among workers in the manufacture and use of DDT.

Now the honey bees are forgetting the way home after pollen and nectar gathering and we suffer colony collapse. When substances are described as “pyrethrum” and “nicotine” based there is an element of cosiness. Their names both have origins in plant families. But there is a consequent and inevitable rapid decline in insects and other arthropods. Following that, there are fewer small mammals and many birds are suffering too.

A neighbour produces plants for sale. He gave me six tomato plants with the advice that I should feed them in six weeks’ time. In all my farming and gardening years I have never resorted to the temptation of feeding plants, instead we have fed and provided the soil with the means of creating fertility. My plants are now vastly larger, healthier and more productive than his. He has become trapped. The ‘compost’ that he acquires for his commercial operation, he says, has to be sterilised. Therefore he has to feed the plants. He courts trouble. The system requires industrial scale applications of energy. He is forced to use ‘scientific’ chemicals to combat disease. Our planet has become a hydroponic production system with soil that is a mere root hold.

This is where Rachel Carson came in. The 1950s produced a robust body of opinion that was confident that common sense would prevail. Then Silent Spring reinforced our thinking. They were not beliefs; we knew that what we were doing was right. I like the statement on the inside of Yeo Valley yoghurt pots: “Our cereal fields do not have tractor marks in them because we do not spray”. They know what they are doing.

Mick Stuart was born in 1925. On his return from military service with the Gurkhas during World War II, he took a degree in Agriculture at Edinburgh University and subsequently farmed on the island of Gigha. He also helped his father, Cdr R L Stuart, with his organic smallholding and farm machinery business. Later he went into agricultural education, becoming Principal of the Borders Agricultural College. Today he lives on the island of Islay, and publishes autobiographical works as well as books and videos on the natural history of the Hebrides.

Michael Allaby

Its pages are yellowing and my five-shilling paperback does not look like a book that changed the world. But in a way it did. This is Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s impassioned attack on the indiscriminate use of pesticides. It first appeared fifty years ago, not that I knew anything about it at the time. The furore that followed the serialization of parts of the book in The New Yorker in the summer of 1962 was largely confined to the United States. It reached Britain in 1963, when Hamish Hamilton published the hardback. My paperback came later.

Why did it have such a dramatic effect? I am not alone in crediting this book with having launched the modern environmental movement, but the reason is not immediately obvious. The risks of pesticide use were well known, at least among biologists, and a large popular conservation movement already existed. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had been founded in 1889 and every English county had its naturalists’ trust. There were societies for plant lovers, animal lovers, tree lovers, butterfly enthusiasts, herpetologists, and many more. It was difficult to name a single species that lacked its own dedicated band of supporters. Though the Highland midge might be an exception. I once attended a large conference at which a fierce argument broke out between those who demanded better protection for birds and those who wanted to protect the insects the birds ate. It was interrupted by someone who stood up to declare that neither group would exist but for her group. She spoke for the trees.

In January 1964 I went to work at the Soil Association, in Hyde Park Mansions, their offices in Eve Balfour’s flat just off the Edgware Road. It was while working there that I read Silent Spring. I was deeply impressed by it, and I know why.

At that time it seemed to me, and to many people of my age, that the world was a hair’s-breadth away from all-out thermonuclear war. It could happen at any moment, through madness or human error or simply by accident, and there were also risks arising from the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. The first protests were not calling for nuclear disarmament, but for the abandonment of atmospheric tests.

Weapon testing apart, war was something that might or might not happen. The contrast was straightforward between total catastrophe and no harm at all. In Silent Spring, however, I encountered a more insidious threat, of gradual poisoning on a global scale that was already taking place. Indeed, Carson’s message was quite explicit, and printed on the cover of my paperback: “. . . what we have to face is not an occasional dose of poison which has accidentally got into some article of food, but a persistent and continuous poisoning of the whole human environment . . .”

That was the message I heard and I think many others heard it too and reacted to it in the same way. It spoke to a wide audience of people living in the shadow of the bomb, and within a few years their numbers were swelled by the anti-war protestors, brought on to American streets by the Vietnam war, who found a new cause when that war ended. So the new environmentalists were radicals, socially and politically distinct from the conservationists whose long-established societies had grown to be part of the establishment. An essentially political movement was born, and Carson was its midwife.

After all this time it hardly matters whether or not Carson got it right, but mainly she did, although to some extent she was misinterpreted. She recognized the importance of pesticides in reducing crop losses; her plea was for more targeted use, not for an outright ban. And, of course, she exaggerated, spinning her arguments to build a case. The opening of her book, “A Fable for Tomorrow”, which told of a town where insecticides killed all the birds – the silent spring – never happened and probably never could happen.

She told only part of the story, and because DDT was the only insecticide many people had ever heard of, it took far too much of the blame. Other insecticides were much more harmful ecologically. Aldrin and dieldrin, cyclodiene organochlorines used as seed dressings, were very harmful to birds and mice that dug up and ate the dressed seed. Heptachlor breaks down in the soil to heptachlor-epoxide, which is more poisonous than heptachlor itself, and endrin is much more poisonous than DDT. Some of the early organophosphorus compounds, such as parathion and TEPP (tetraethyl pyrophosphate), were very poisonous to mammals. We do have documented evidence of what happened when the authorities in Sri Lanka, reacting to the panic caused by Silent Spring, banned the spraying of DDT in 1964. DDT had been used to control malaria by killing Anopheles culicifacies, the local mosquito vector for thedisease. In 1948, prior to the introduction of spraying, there were 2.8 million cases of malaria in Sri Lanka. In 1963 there were just 17 cases. Then spraying was banned and by 1969 the number of cases had risen to 2.5 million. Fortunately, DDT use was later resumed for malaria control.

Scientists were aware of the dangers to wildlife of broad-spectrum, persistent compounds. Voluntary restrictions on the use of dieldrin and aldrin as seed dressings were introduced in Britain in 1961, resulting in dramatic improvements in the survival of seed-eating birds and of the foxes and badgers that fed on them. Improvements were in train before Silent Spring appeared.

So, looking back across the years, what did Carson achieve? Reaction to her writing alerted a wide public to some of the problems inherent in our relationship with the natural environment, stimulating more careful consideration of the environmental consequences of our activities. That, I think, is her achievement. And, just for the record, I left the staff of the Soil Association in 1972.

Michael Allaby was born in 1933. After several years with the Soil Association he joined the editorial board of The Ecologist, working closely with Edward Goldsmith. He contributed to Vole and to Resurgence, among other publications. During the past forty years he has written many books on environmental science and is the editor of five dictionaries for the Oxford University Press. His website address is

Alan Gear

My concerns about environmental issues crystallised in 1972, as a result of reading reports on the widely publicised UN Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm that year, the Club of Rome’s book The Limits to Growth, and Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The message coming from all these sources was the same – the outlook for life on earth in the 21st century was likely to be decidedly bleak unless people ran their lives in a more environmentally sustainable way.

At that time my wife Jackie and I, both scientists, were already involved in environmental activities through our jobs. As a result of this, and reading those seminal works, Jackie felt that we should rethink how we were going to spend the rest of our working lives. She had been in correspondence with Lawrence Hills, the charismatic founder of the organic gardening organisation, The Henry Doubleday Research Association, (now called Garden Organic) and two years later we gave up our jobs to work with him.

As you can imagine, our opposition to the use of pesticides, and our scientific research into alternative methods of pest control, faced widespread opposition from orthodox horticulturalists, the chemical industry and its sponsored scientists in academia, but the evidence presented in Silent Spring about the damage that spraying could do was a vital weapon we included in our defence.

What struck me reading Silent Spring was the complexity of the relationships linking all organisms, and how even tiny disruptions by chemical sprays to this complex web of life can produce catastrophic repercussions further up the food chain. It is the reason, for instance, why we have lost so many of our farmland birds; not by poisoning, but through starvation, as herbicides have wiped out the crop weeds that host the insects and other creatures that are an essential source of food for young chicks.

Humans also are at risk from pesticide contamination in their food, and Rachel Carson drew attention to the risk of cancer arising from compounds like DDT and other highly persistent organo-chlorine insecticides. Most of these substances have since been banned, but how can we be sure that residues for current pesticides present in food are not going to result in long-term harm to health. Cancer is unquestionably on the increase, and not just amongst the elderly. According to Cancer Research UK "incidence rates for all cancers have overall increased for all of the broad age groups in Great Britain since the mid-1970s".

Rachel Carson was the first person to sow the seeds of distrust over the use of pesticides and this has continued to the present day in spite of official pronouncements that there is nothing to worry about. The gardening public and media are now extremely receptive to the organic approach as a result of a two-pronged assault on chemical growing over the decades – one by whistle blowers like Rachel Carson, the other by those, like HDRA and the Soil Association, that have demonstrated that there is a viable alternative.

Alan Gear MBE has been involved with organic horticulture since the early 1970s. He and Jackie worked for the Henry Doubleday Research Association for thirty years and were co-directors from 1986 – 2003. Their latest book, Organic Vegetable and Fruit Growing and Preserving – Month by Month was published in 2011.

James Twine

I was once asked by a farmer what it would take to convince me to use pesticides on my farm and without thinking I gave an immediate and off the cuff response, “I would rather blow the farm to smithereens then use pesticides”. The farmer looked back at me in disbelief and I could tell I had upset him. He then said “Oh God, you are one of those people who thinks they are going to change the world”. He turned on his heels and walked off in disgust. Whilst myresponse may not have been well thought out, it was at least honest.

I was born on Court Farm in North Somerset in 1975, after the vet came. My parents had bought the farm six years earlier and, having met at a Rudolf Steiner conference they were determined to farm in a different way. When they moved into the 15th Century farmhouse it was virtually derelict. There was just one inside tap, an outdoor toilet, windows still blocked up from the window tax and you could fall from the top floor to the ground without stopping. With it came 40 acres of land. The former tenants did not have enough money to ‘improve’ the farm so even at the height of the intensification of agriculture Court Farm was like an island – never being applied with pesticides, herbicides or fertilizer.

Back then, in 1969, buying an old run down farm with no agricultural background was bad enough – to run it organically was further madness, and to run it bio-dynamically was the final measure of complete insanity. So I soon got used to being mocked by the local farming community at school.

Growing up on a bio-dynamic farm means that I really do not know anything about non-organic farming. I have never spread artificial fertilizer and I would not know one end of a sprayer from the other. So with that background you might think that Rachel Carson and Silent Spring would not have had much of an impact – but it has. For me it is a constant reminder that organic, bio-dynamic and agro-ecological techniques are the future of food and farming. The Silent Spring that Rachel Carson warned about over 50 years ago is just as relevant today as it was then. Whilst DDT may have been banned, a new arsenal of chemical products have been developed, all with the same ‘quick fix’ false-promise of solving ‘the problem’ and having a negligible impact on the soil, biodiversity and the environment in the widest sense. Personally I think nothing could be further from the truth. Pesticides, or biocides, as Rachel Carson called them, do not have the military precision of highly trained sniper; they are more like an indiscriminate drop of oil on a puddle of water. And the impact, as we are increasingly learning, goes way beyond biodiversity. Every year pesticides cause millions of accidental poisonings and suicides, largely in the developing world, as farmers are unable to get off the never-ending pesticide treadmill.

I often wonder what Rachel Carson would make of the way food and farming have evolved over the last 50 years. Something tells me she would be disappointed. The benefit of history is that we should learn from it and the devastating impact of neonicotinoids on bees alone is a depressing reminder of mankind’s failure to do just this. But she would also find friends in the worldwide organic movement. Rachel Carson was not only right when she warned of a Silent Spring, she also showed great bravery by standing up for what she really believed in – despite the vicious personal attacks, attempts at ridicule and thecolossal weight of the entire food and agricultural establishment.

That of course is what I find so inspirational about her work. So when I have had a bad day on the farm, or have got things wrong in my work for the Soil Association, I often wander across the farm – looking at the plants, teeming wildlife and healthy cows – and am grateful for the stand Rachel Carson took. Although my farming friend who derided me for wanting to “change the world” might very well be right, at least Court Farm and tens of thousands of other organic farms across the planet are living proof that you can produce food whilst working with nature – and I hope that would make Rachel Carson proud. Her contribution just makes me feel humble.

James Twine is Business Development Director for Soil Association Certification. He also farms 40 acres in the Chew Valley in Somerset, and is a partner in The Story group.  

This article was first published in Mother Earth, the Soil Association's journal of organic thought and policy. We hope you enjoyed this article, please feel free to share this with your contacts. If you wish to support the production of Mother Earth in future, and receive the latest issue direct to your door, then please subscribe to Mother Earth, for just £12 a year.

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