In 1962, June brought us 'Silent Spring'

Jun 19, 2018

On June 16, 1962, The New Yorker published one of those articles that aspires to -- and achieves -- something much larger. The first part of the series was called Silent Spring-I, and Rachel Carson's words (later converted to book form) became the anthem of America's fledgling environmental movement.

Her article began simply, like a fairy tale: "There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings ... .

"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 came from great distances to observe them. Other people came to fish streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay."

But the mood quickly turned sinister: "Then, one spring, 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, and the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was the shadow of death."

Carson was sounding the alarm about the chemicals that had infiltrated American life. It's an issue that still bedevils the Great Lakes region -- a half-century after her New Yorker article appeared.

In a number of places across the region, residents are dealing with groundwater contaminated by industrial byproducts. And the International Joint Commission has called for faster government action on flame retardents and other harmful chemicals.

Here's how Carson -- more than a half-century ago -- summed up the danger of many man-made chemicals: "[T]hey lie long in the soil, and enter into living organisms, passing from one to another. Or they may travel mysteriously by underground streams, emerging to combine, through the alchemy of air and sunlight, into new forms, which kill vegetation, sicken cattle, and work unknown harm on those who drink from once pure wells. As Albert Schweitzer has said, 'Man can hardly even recognize the devils of his own creation.'"