Silent Spring on the Pacific Slope: A Postscript to Rachel Carson

Sportsman, author, and conservationist, CLARK C. VAN FLEET is a native Californian who for five decades has roamed the forests and fished the streams of the West Coast, He has been disturbed by the effect on wildlife of the reckless, uncoordinated use of pesticides. and he has been appalled at the attack on Rachel Carson by spokesmen of the chemical companies.

by Clark C. Van Fleet

WHEN Rachel Carson attacked the wholesale use of insecticides and pesticides, particularly the chlorinated hydrocarbons, she took on some of the largest and certainly the most potent of our big corporations — the major oil companies and their satellites, the petrochemical companies. The publication of her book Silent Spring led to an intense campaign of vilification, harassment, and denigration. News items appeared by the score accusing her of unfairness, prejudice, and hysteria. She was described as an overzealous nature lover and bird lover, slightly unbalanced on the whole subject of the dangers of pesticides to wildlife and to humans. Efforts were made to obtain statements from scientific societies, sportsmen’s groups, amateur bird-study associations, granges, and farm brotherhoods, criticizing Miss Carson’s thesis that harm was being done to wildlife by extensive broadcasting of chlorinated hydrocarbons within our fields and forests.

In January, C. G. King, president of the Nutrition Foundation and past president of the American Public Health Association, distributed a letter enclosing reprints of critical reviews of Silent Spring and articles commenting on its areas of concern. Dr. King said in part:

“The problem is magnified in that publicists and the author’s adherents among the food faddists, health quacks, and special interest groups are promoting her book as if it were scientifically irreproachable and written by a scientist.

“Neither is true. The book presents almost solely selected information that is negative and uses such bits from a period of many years to build a vastly distorted picture. The author is a professional journalist — not a scientist in the field of her discussion — and misses the very essence of science in not being objective either in citing the evidence or in its interpretation.”

An unsigned review of Silent Spring in Aerosol Age, October, 1962, said: “Rachel Carson is a clever journalist who has obviously made good use of her four and a half years of research to marshal an imposing number of case histories. The fact that all of the case histories fall into the debit side of the insecticide ledger does not seem to give her any misgivings.” [Italics mine.]

Dr. Robert H. White-Stevens, who appeared as spokesman for the chemical industry on the CBS television debate “The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson” on April 3, took issue with Miss Carson’s contention that pesticides are destroying the balance of nature. On this occasion he was moderate in his attack, and he did concede that “in certain cases, the use of pesticides on a large scale has reduced certain species of our wildlife in those areas. However, in general, the wildlife has quickly recovered and the impact of these pesticides upon wildlife is really quite insignificant.”

Six days later, addressing the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers’ Association, Dr. WhiteStevens said of Miss Carson, “She contends that irrevocable damage has already been committed in many areas, and cites a long roster of carefully selected, and in many cases irrelevant, references to support her contentions. Her book is littered with crass assumptions and gross misinterpretations, misquotations and misunderstandings, clearly calculated to mislead the uninformed as to the hazards of pesticidal chemicals. On the whole, her book will come to be regarded in time as a gross distortion of the actual facts, essentially unsupported by either scientific experimental evidence or practical experience in the field. Her emphasis is deliberately misplaced and her omission of the great mass of favorable evidence, documented by literally tens of thousands of published scientific papers, all militate against the validity of her treatise.” In the course of his long address, he conceded nothing to Miss Carson and accused her repeatedly of deliberate distortion and misrepresentation.

MISS CARSON’S image has been seriously tarnished by this barrage of criticism. My own feeling is that she needs some unqualified support from conservation leaders, institutions, leagues, and federations, which so far have failed to step forward and be counted. In all of the mythology built up by Miss Carson’s detractors, no mention is made of her long course of study in biology, her sixteen years’ experience with the Fish and Wildlife Service as a biologist, the medals she has won, and her awards. She is simply classed as a crackpot.

After reading Silent Spring, I decided to do a bit of research on my own. California, my home state, is particularly noted for its use of insecticides. Of the nearly 750 million pounds of spray chemicals for insect control sold in the United States in 1961, about 40 percent was sold in California. The state is a noted thoroughfare for migrating birds going south in the fall and winter and returning to their home grounds in the spring. From about the first of October, 1962, until well into January of this year, I spent part of every day in the field, counting and cataloging common migrants along the West Coast of California, except for three weeks in December, when I was in Oregon.

The most abundant migrant through California during the fall and winter is our Western robin. From late September until February these birds come in wave after wave, particularly through the coastal hills and pastures, where they revel in the abundance of toyon and madrona berries indigenous to our country and the different kinds of pyracantha to be found in most gardens of any size at all. They buzz around these bushes like bees about a honeysuckle vine. During the nesting season they are resident from the seashore to the High Sierras and from California to Alaska. After nesting, they gather in flocks and begin their southward trek.

I estimate that last fall and winter no more than 5 percent of the normal population of robins drifted through California on their way south. They are bold, noisy, audacious birds during migration and difficult to miss if present. On trip after trip of a couple of hours’ duration at what should have been the peak of their migration, in favorite territory of previous years, I encountered scarcely any at all. Only when the cold became severe all through the northern tier of states were any flocks of robins seen, and these were birds from British Columbia and Alaska. The robins from California, Oregon, and Washington appear to have been practically wiped out.

The reason is not far to seek. Analysis of the fatty tissues of certain fish, birds, and invertebrates reveals that chlorinated hydrocarbons are stored intact in such areas and often build up to lethal strength. If the infected prey are eaten by other predators, their ingestion will cause sickness and eventual death. This was the cause of the almost complete loss of western grebes nesting in Clear Lake, California, when the population of the area dropped from two thousand pairs in 1949 to approximately twenty pairs in 1959. In this ten-year period the waters of the lake had been treated with extremely modest doses of DDT to kill the Clear Lake gnat, a nuisance to the residents around the lake. It was found after considerable research that the fatty tissues of the fish which inhabit the lake and are the natural prey of the grebes had high concentrates of this poison.

It is reasonable to assume that the cause of the drop in the robin population in the West is similar. Earthworms, somewhat resistant to chlorinated hydrocarbons themselves, store these poisons in their fatty tissues in fairly substantial quantities. One of the main foods of the robin during the spring and early summer is a nice fat earthworm. During the nesting season the young are fed this worm almost exclusively. Therefore, even if the robins themselves survive the poison they ingest at this time of year, the fledglings, which are particularly vulnerable to these poisons, are almost completely exterminated.

In making my census I tried to keep tabs on most of the common birds that usually pass through Sonoma County. In general, I believe the following figures to be true for the 1962-1963 fall and winter migrations.

Bluebirds 60%
Robins 95%
Meadowlarks 20%
Killdeer 10%
Dry-seed eaters xx
(Juncos, sparrows, etc.) Insectivorous birds 50%
(Warblers, kinglets, vireos, flycatchers, etc.) Cedar waxwings 50%
Blackbirds xx

I suppose the attitude of the spray chemical companies is that the loss of a few thousand birds more or less is unimportant as long as the noxious insect aimed at is controlled. If it all stopped right there, I might be inclined to go along with them to some degree for a few specific species and occasions. But when their poisons have a cumulative effect and involve whole races of living creatures from season to season until an entire species is overwhelmed by a policy of utter overkill, then I think it is time to call a halt.

Dr. Eldridge G. Hunt, chief biologist of the State Fish and Game Commission, in his article “California’s Investigations Regarding Pesticide Problems” says:

“It was apparent from our studies involving the indirect effects on wildlife of these chlorinated hydrocarbon insecticides that there is no predictable safe level of application when these toxic materials enter the food chain. Application at sublethal levels may be rendered lethal to one or more species in the food chain as a result of the concentration and accumulation of the toxic ingredients by the various relatively resistant organisms in the chain.”

It seems clear that insufficient control is exercised over the quality and dissemination of these new insecticides. In another paragraph of the same article Dr. Hunt indicates that there are 14,000 pesticide formulations registered for use in California, with new ones being introduced at the rate of 1000 per year. The State Fish and Game Commission has neither the staff nor the means to test and approve any of these poisons. And at present there is no law that makes testing mandatory for the producer or the seller; no label is required to warn the consumer except in the case of a few products that have proved to be extremely lethal. As a result, the farmer or the householder or other user of these poisons is totally ignorant that they can cause serious and often lasting damage remote from the insect or infestation he is trying to destroy.

It is fair to surmise that losses in bird population will continue to mount as more lands become highly impregnated with static poisons and spread from host to host and area to area. The public relations men may hoot at Miss Carson’s concern with the balance of nature, but in the ecology of every animal and plant this balance plays a distinct part. If it is seriously upset in one species, or even in an extensive group within a species, a severe dislocation occurs within another group, often far remote with a connection difficult to trace, which in turn will tilt another balance.

Let me give just one example. Stanislaus County is at the heart of the great San Joaquin Valley. This fecund land, watered by the Stanislaus and Tuolumne rivers, whose cross canals reach every cultivated acre, is rich beyond measure, and its people are wholly absorbed in extracting the ultimate ounce of produce from its soil. Intensely cultivated, therefore, it is spick and span, and its livestock are combed and groomed with loving care.

Modesto, the county seat, a bustling community of prosperous citizens, is as carefully tended and manicured as the surrounding county. At least, so everybody thought until one summer day in 1961 when a heavy infestation of houseflies visited certain portions of the city. They were followed the next day and the next by billions more. They filled the houses, driving the householders crazy. Windrows of dead flies were swept out daily, to be replaced by millions more. Stock was driven frantic; dogs and cats went berserk. People couldn’t eat, sleep, or take a drink in comfort. Flies crawled on the ground, blackened the porches, crunched underfoot. It was a mess.

Is this a forerunner of things to come? We watch a swallow with deep pleasure as it dips, mounts, dives, and glides. To a swallow this is merely the business of living; on a warm bright morning each bird in the flock may take an insect every fifth of a second in this dance of life and death. An insectivorous bird — a warbler, a vireo, or a kinglet — may gobble 10,000 worms, egg cases, nymphs, or larvae in one hour’s foraging in a grove of trees. In Salt Lake City there is an imposing pedestal crowned by the statue of a sea gull. It commemorates the saving of the crops by hordes of gulls when a locust swarm threatened the early settlers with complete loss of their vital crops of grain and other produce.

BESIDES the constantly increasing shower of poisons that attack insectivorous pests in orchard and field, and thus, indirectly, fowl and mammals that inhabit that environment, many large industrial farms are using direct methods to eliminate birds and beasts themselves. I mention industrial farming particularly because the small, singlefamily farm is rapidly becoming extinct.

Sugar beets are planted in rows that extend almost to the horizon. At regular intervals during the growing season planes whip across these fields, spraying dieldrin in quantities sufficient to kill every living creature that is unfortunate enough to be resting beneath. The toll of pheasants, meadowlarks, and different classes of sparrows that are lovers of open ground can well be imagined.

Where rice is raised extensively, blackbirds are classed as a nuisance. The growers use planes in this instance as well. They not only attack the birds in the rice itself but spray their roosting and nesting tules, where they can slaughter them by the thousands. They also kill many pheasants, rails, terns, and nesting ducks who use the tules for shelter or cover. Naturally, all these residue poisons drain into ditches which finally find their way to the nearest stream, where the poisoned waters add to the hazards of fish life.

Beyond the scope of Silent Spring, but an extension of its plea for judiciousness in the use of pesticides, is the present situation regarding rodent and predator control by U.S. government and state agencies charged with this function. When strychnine and arsenic were the main weapons for poison control of the genus Mus, it took a fairly healthy dose of either of these poisons to accomplish the objective sought.

Today the use of sodium fluoroacetate, commonly known to its users as 1080, is becoming more and more prevalent. This is an overkill poison of the first order. Used in conjunction with grain as a rodent bait, a single kernel will immediately kill a mouse, a rat, a squirrel, or a rabbit. If a varmint should happen to eat a freshly killed animal, the poisoned flesh will in turn cause vomiting and death to the scavenger.

Over a hundred deer carcasses were found within a small compass where state agents had carelessly scattered poisoned grain. No one knows how many other deer had crept away from the site to hide and die. Some three thousand ducks and geese in Siskiyou County, California, died as the result of improper spread of grain containing 1080 as a poison for ground squirrels. Hawks and eagles were also found dead, as well as groundforaging varmints.

Birds are creatures of the sun. No day in the country is really complete without sight or sound of their presence. To have seen a hummingbird in his nuptial flight, a dancing jewel in the sun, as his consort watches demurely from some exposed twig; to watch the wheeling mock battle of pairing eagles high in the sky as they dive and threaten and sail gracefully away, their screams floating down like sudden grace notes to their lovemaking — those experiences are marked in your memory book forever. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and your state fish and game department are charged with seeing that we obey the law, each and every one of us. They are charged with the preservation of all wild things insofar as it is possible. Yet they permit the destruction of thousands of these creatures every season in the name of progress, or to save crops, or to protect an area from infection.

The detractors who belittle Rachel Carson’s message claim that up to the present no harm has come to human beings from the shower of insecticides with which this country has been bathed. Deadly poisons that are being spread across this land in ever-increasing doses waft into the farm home, settle on the food before it reaches the mouth, pollute the water in our tanks and ponds. Respiratory illnesses are increasing by leaps and bounds in orchard and berry country, where sprays are the order of the day from early March until harvest. Emphysema, unheard of thirty years ago, is now relatively common in country areas. There is a rising incidence of pneumonia among older citizens in these areas as well. Smog is not just a big-city complaint. In addition, there have been some unhappy accidents from handling lethal sprays and poisons. Children and workers have been killed or seriously affected by careless use of parathion, or because the proper warnings have not been posted. Accidental spillings have caused serious burns or infections. These facts add up to a considerably less rosy picture than has been painted by the promoters of these new sprays and insecticides.

Use of certain formulas of proved toxicity should be forbidden, or at least sharply curtailed. New products should be more fully tested and examined before they are released for public sale. The present rate of overkill, which eradicates specific insects but which also affects innocent species of both animals and birds, should be stopped. Otherwise, if the merchants of death have their way, we will soon have no birds at all to sing over the graves of our hero dead, no birds to fill the spring woods with their gaiety and chatter, and our land will be desolate and silent as a shroud.