The Peripatetic Reviewer
SINCE the end of World War II, we have all been active or passive participants in a deadly assault on nature; either we encouraged it or we stood by watching without protest. The beginning was in a mood of innocence. In my part of the Beverly woods the four-motor mosquitoes are particularly carnivorous in June, so when the tree men began talking about a new DDT spray, I joined with our neighbors and had the woods drenched. This put down the bombers, but I notice that it also silenced the birds, some of whom, the orioles and a pair of scarlet tanagers which had been nesting with us for two springs, did not return.
The second act was the desperate struggle to preserve our patriot tree, the elm. The finest defense I saw organized was in Williamstown, where at the first sign of the Dutch elm beetle, the undergraduates of the college, released from class, joined with the pupils of the high school in a week’s search to identify every diseased elm and to make sure that it was cut down and burned. In other great elm cities, such as New Haven, funds were voted for the DDT spray, but the blight moved too quickly and the old veterans perished. On the Michigan State campus the rain of chemicals annihilated the robins but not the beetles.
Act three, for me, takes place in the cranberry bogs on Cape Cod, where for a decade I have fished the threading brooks and the reservoirs for trout. When the cranberry blossoms were threatened by a pest, the scrub oak and pine were removed and a low-flying airplane was flown in to dust the bogs. I came down alone with my canoe to fish the spring-fed ADM Brook, which winds through a beautiful half mile of cranberry, only to be warned off by the foreman. “I guess we laid on too much,” he said, and he was right, for every trout, eel, and frog was drifting toward the spillway, belly up and dead. It was a nasty sight, but at the time it never occurred to me to wonder what would have happened to an angler eating those fish had the spraying been a little less lethal.
By the early 1950s, when the budworm threatened to devastate the spruce forests of New Brunswick, we were no longer innocent. The red bug has made its assault in thirty-five-year rhythms which can be traced as far back as the time of Napoleon; in the last great blight, which began in 1912, the pests devoured faster than the foresters could cut and in their swath chewed up many million feet of pulp. But now we fought them with DDT solutions from planes traveling in tandem at treetop level, ladling out the poison on the spruce tips, on the open streams, on the fish hatcheries, on birds, insects, anglers, and the soil. Not even the biologists were very certain about the results — in some areas the spruce seemed to recover; in others a second season of intense spraying was called for, and the thought persisted that perhaps the pest was developing immunity. What happened to a great river like the Tobique I saw for myself, for here carelessness and ruthlessness combined to achieve an enormous death toll. The chub, by the thousands, blind and gasping, struggled to their death on the shore, where they were eaten like corncobs by the raccoon. In one stretch of several miles where the dosage had been too severe, millions of fingerling salmon were drifting like dead splinters. What I could not see was the extermination of insects and of birds and what the repeated saturation was doing underground.
POISONING THE CONTINENT
The campaign to poison a continent is a byproduct of World War II. In the course of developing agents for chemical warfare some of the chemicals were found to be lethal to insects; and continuing the process, agricultural schools, government agencies, and the drug companies refined the killers to fit each particular need. With the best of intentions, the forester fighting to preserve his trees, the cranberry owner to protect his bogs, the cotton planter to protect his cotton — each sought to save by spraying the crop for which each was responsible. The action was unilateral, with no regard for what the herbicide or pesticide was doing to animal life, and with no reckoning of what such mounting pollution might mean to the total environment.
Now, after fourteen years, comes RACHEL CARSON, with her important and appalling book SILENT SPRING (Houghton Mifflin, $5.00), to warn us, as other biologists should have done, that when poisons are introduced into our system on such a scale their cost in many instances is worse than their cure, and, what is so frightening, that the spread of a killer like DDT in the groundwater is a multiplication of poison extending far, far beyond the safe or expected limits.
“It is,” writes Miss Carson, “not only the groundwaters that are becoming contaminated, but surface-moving waters as well—streams, rivers, irrigation waters.” Then she tells us of the disturbing reaction which lias been building up in the National Wildlife Refuges at Tule Lake and the Lower Klamath in California. Here was land linked fatefully by a shared water supply, land reclaimed by drainage and streams diverted from an original waterfowl paradise of marshes and open water. The waters for the irrigation of filled-in farmlands are recovered from the fields that they serve, thence pumped into Tule Lake and from there to the Lower Klamath. The birds in the Wildlife Refuge are, in a manner of speaking, the guinea pigs for this area; and when in the summer of 1960 the Refuge staff picked up hundreds of them that were dead or dying — herons, pelicans, grebes, and gulls — it was to find that they had been killed by insecticide residue which had been building up to lethal strength in the water flowing from the heavily sprayed agricultural lands. Question: Can this chain reaction be stopped, and if not, how dangerous will these refuges be to the ducks and geese on their migratory flights to the north and south?
The Midwest has been using the deadliest, and cheapest, of all chemicals in an indiscriminate spraying for the Japanese beetle; and again Miss Carson reports the annihilation of robins, meadowlarks, brown thrashers, and pheasants in Blue Island and Sheldon, Illinois. It seems to her wanton that such destruction could be perpetuated in one part of the country while in the fourteen Eastern states the fight against the beetle was being waged in greater safety by the use of parasitic insects. This is Miss Carson s vital solution: that insects, pests, undesirable growths may be controlled by encouraging their enemies, a suggestion that was put forward by Erasmus Darwin about 1800. Fight ragweed, the source of so much hay fever, says Miss Carson, by helping to maintain the dense shrubs and ferns that crowd it out; fight crabgrass by providing better soil for the grass you desire; “fight insects by seeking to turn the strength of the species against itself,” instead of by the heedless and unrestrained use of chemicals. No book to be published this year packs such an indignant and piteous warning.
THE GREAT RIVER
ALAN MOOREHEAD IS an Australian who began as a war correspondent and who has moved up into the great tradition of English travel writers. It is his gift to take a campaign, such as Gallipoli, or a setting, such as the sources of the White Nile, and adding his own interpretation and judgment of what has already been written, to reshape for us an adventure that has never been so well told. In THE BLUE NILE (Harper & Row, $5.95) he is concerned with those like James Bruce, the towering, wealthy Scot who at the age of thirty-eight decided to travel up the Nile into the unknown vastnesses of Ethopia, and equally concerned with Napoleon and Napier, each of whom had great and quite different designs upon the same stream.
Enmeshed in Mr. Moorehead’s enchanting prose are lesser travelers like the unarmed, halfsick indefatigable Burckhardt and Napoleon’s audacious young General Desaix, who “in a little more than a year, and with a force of barely five thousand men, had conquered a territory half as large as France”; enmeshed also are native rulers as tough and resourceful as Muhammad Ali and warriors as destructive as the Mamelukes, whose cavalry had galloped roughshod over the Crusaders and whose contempt of Napoleon was based on the fact that for five hundred years they had ruled these deserts and cataracts. “Lawless adventurers, slaves in origin, butchers by choice, turbulent, bloodthirsty and too often treacherous,” these slave-kings and their dependents, numbering nearly 100,000 in 1789, went down like tenpins before Napoleon’s disciplined squares.
The human reaction in this blinding encounter between the medieval and the modern; the beauty of the Nubian women; the awesome aspect of the great tombs as they were first seen by white men; the wild and remote gorges of the upper stream; the dusty fleshpots of Cairo; Napoleon’s attempt to instill freedom into the Egyptians, and the extraordinary curiosity of the French savants he brought with him; the lonely endurance of a traveler in disguise like Burckhardt — these are some of the many experiences which Mr. Moorehead has charged with such life and fresh color.
That C. S. FORESTER has written a new novel about his favorite character, Horatio Hornblower, will be good news to those who like to read about sailing ships and the men who fought them in the great age of Nelson. Better still, HORNBLOWER AND THE HOTSPUR (Little, Brown, $4.95) carries us back to the young officer, newly appointed commander of the Hotspur, “the smallest thing with three masts and quarterdeck and forecastle in the navy list.”This is another way of saying that any French warship she might meet would be her superior in size, in weight of metal, in number of men — and Horatio is never better than when the odds are against him. What a lean, modest, likable man he is. Ten days ago he had been a half-pay lieutenant, with pay and promotion deferred by the Peace of Amiens. He had not known where his next meal might be coming from. Then, in a lucky night he had won forty-five pounds at whist from a group of senior officers; the money had gone to his head; without quite meaning to he found himself proposing to Maria Mason, and their marriage becomes a certainty when, prompted by Bonaparte’s increasing belligerency, Parliament puts the navy on a war footing. Keen for his new ship and not too sorry to leave the embarrassment of his hardly begun life with Maria, Commander Hornblower is rowed to the Hotspur, where a picked crew and his dependable lieutenant, Mr. Bush, are waiting for him.
His sealed orders assign him to the delicate job of spying upon the great harbor of Brest. He is to make contact with the fishermen and to bribe them when possible, to glean all information about the French fleet in port (Is invasion coming?), and to keep beyond range of the French ships of the line until, war declared, he will be joined by Admiral Cornwallis and the English fleet. This mouse-and-cat mission brings out the best in him: his superb seamanship when, despite his recurring seasickness, he shows his heels to the frigate Loire; his exhilaration and swift decision under stress; and in many ways, his rare capacity for rousing and testing the temper of his crew. Horatio is never cocksure; his foresight tells him the worst that can happen, just as his acumen and reflexes tell him what to do. He is unsparingly frank; he berates himself furiously when he has made real or fancied mistakes; and for his modesty quite as much as for his resourcefulness, he is a joy to watch. In his raid on the French signal station and on that hazardous New Year’s Eve when, like a decoy, he leads the French transports to destruction on the Pollux Reef, I am as absorbed by what is going on in Horatio’s mind as I am by the blazing, splintering action of the guns.