The Peripatetic Reviewer
BY EDWARD WEEKS
I REMEMBER a sunset talk I had at Dam Camp with Barney Flieger, the eminent Canadian biologist, in July of 1953. I had been fishing for
salmon in the pools of the Northwest Miramichi, and he had spent the day tramping through the spruce forest owned by the Canadian International Paper Company. His mission was to observe the effects of the DDT spray which had been heavily applied in June from low-flying single-seaters to stamp out the budworm, and occasionally when he found himself in a pocket of old trees, he was curious to discover from reading the bark how often in the past the blight had eaten its way through this vast wilderness. There was plenty of evidence of the enormous destruction in 1911 and 1912, and from one old giant he learned that the scourge had been there in the age of Napoleon. “Do you think that the spraying will save the trees this time?” I asked. Barney brooded over this before he answered. “It looks as if it might save a lot of ‘em,” he said, “but I wonder what it will do to the river.”
The decision which Barney and his company took to save their valuable timber was taken unilaterally by many other anxiously concerned parties in the United States: by other foresters; by farmers whose spraying and dusting of farmlands cover annually six million acres of farmland in California alone: by farmers in the Northwest and Middle West whose irrigation ditches feed back into lakes or river valleys; by conscientious members of garden clubs intent on keeping their show places free from pests; by highway patrols spraying the moth caterpillar; by suburbanites who wish to put down mosquitoes. So, in a shortsighted way, millions of Americans came to be involved in the poisoning of the land, the birds, the lakes, and the rivers, a reckless drenching against which Rachel Carson spoke out so sharply in her historic book, Silent Spring. What few scientists or pesticide manufacturers seemed to anticipate was that the effect of all this poisoning was cumulative and that its damage would be far more malignant than any single act. Miss Carson’s book, carrying as it did a dreadful warning to the country at large, might properly have been written by a courageous man in the Department of Agriculture or the Interior. Instead, it was written by a woman, a marine biologist by training, whose earlier books were at once scientific and poetic expositions, and whose last book with its alarming documentation was published at a time when she was privately making a desperate, hopeless stand against cancer.
The predictions which she made — her claim that the cumulative doses of poison would produce an appalling destruction in our waterways and our land — have come true with a vengeance. Secretary of the Interior Udall said recently that the enormous destruction of Mississippi River fish and the ravaging of the shrimp beds are symptomatic of conditions all over the country. Lake trout in New York State, particularly in Lake George, are failing to reproduce because of the amount of DDT in the water; fingerlings of the wild trout in New Hampshire, as of those in the hatcheries, are failing to survive for the same reason; the landlocked salmon in Lake Sebago in Maine are so impregnated with DDT that they cannot be eaten. The pesticide has also been detected in pheasant eggs in California and in the eggs of wild ducks from Maine to Maryland. Measurable residues, reported the Secretary, have been found in blue grouse in Montana and in deer and elk in other parts of the country. “We are concerned,” he concluded, “with the effects upon shrimp and menhaden, as these species comprise the nation’s most valuable and largest fisheries.”
In the light of what has happened, the outcries of the drug and pesticide industries, the little parody-advertisement published by the Monsanto Chemical Company which envisioned a world dominated by insects, the denunciation by Chemical Week, the trade journal, that “her innuendoes [are] misleading,” the statement of Dr. Robert White-Stevens, a spokesman for the industry, who said, “The major claims of Miss Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring, are gross distortions of the actual facts, completely unsupported by scientific experimental evidence, and general practical experience in the field” — such utterances now seem as silly as they were stubborn. Time magazine ignored the obvious, that poisoning does not have to be instantaneous to be poisoning. With its characteristic disparagement, Time quoted the contention that Miss Carson’s argument was based on accidents, and in a renewed attack on the book, Time said, “Scientists, physicians, and other technically informed people will also be shocked by Silent Spring — but for a different reason. They recognize Miss Carson’s skill in building her frightening case; but they consider that case unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” Yes, but when you are warning people against death, how can you be anything but “one-sided"?
The garden clubs might have come out more boldly in her support; perhaps because they were careful in what they used they could not believe the excess with which others less careful were abusing the pesticides. With exceptions here and there, town spraying went cheerfully forward as if nothing had been said, and the pesticide manufacturers continued to advertise their newest weed killers. “Why tire your back when you can use a spray?” Why indeed? Why bother to think?
Few of the regulatory agencies authorized by Congress have lived up to the responsibility with which they are charged. But here is a case where private and selfish initiative have landed us in an outrageous mess. The manufacture and the use of pesticides must be restrained by law; the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare should tell us where these cumulative poisons are leading us and how to prevent such recklessness in the future. “It is not my contention that chemical pesticides must never be used,” wrote Miss Carson; “I do contend that we have put poisonous and biologically potent chemicals indiscriminately into the hands of persons largely or wholly ignorant of their potential for harm.”As for the pesticide manufacturers, they owe it to the nation to devote a major part of their research to seeking a substitute for the poisons they have profitably dispensed.
LOOK OUT FOR GRANPAP
Not since the novels of Walter D. Edmonds has an American written with such color and insight about our old primitives as CONRAD RICHTER. He does not always deserve the superlatives in the blurbs about his books, but at his best, as in TheSea of Grass, The Trees, and The Town, Mr. Richter is very good indeed. There is a strain of evangelism in his stories, inherited, no doubt, from his father and grandfather who were clergymen. He himself was intended for the ministry but turned away from the calling to devote himself to American history and eventually to the writing of short, highly selective novels about American pioneers, whether in Pennsylvania, the Midwest, or Texas.
THE GRANDFATHERS, Mr. Richter’s new novel (Knopf, $3.95), is a story about the Murdoch clan who lived lustily and beyond the law in the mountains of western Maryland. Kettle Mountain was theirs by rights; the weathered, unpainted house stood deep in the trees with its pigpen, smokehouse, chicken pen, wagon shed and ramshackle barn, and a little old trolley without wheels “that Granpap had got for nothing and hauled out on a wagon years ago.” It was a good place to loiter. The girls lent themselves freely and had a raft of fatherless children. The boys, Uncle Heb and Uncle Nun, earned just enough from their wood chopping to pay for the moonshine, and Granpap, when he had a score to settle, burned down his enemy’s barn or house. All this sounds like a caricature out of Esquire. What makes it lifelike is the charming dialect in which the story is told, and the strong, defensive character of Charity, the oldest of the illegitimate children, through whose eyes the story comes to us.
Chariter, as the family calls her, at fifteen bears little resemblance either in her coloring or in her nicety to her half brothers. She is treated with a touch of deference by the menfolk, and as she matures she determines to discover who her father was. Chariter’s struggle to establish her identity and have a life of her own is what makes the book. Her life in the clan and her life apart are told in memorable detail: her efforts to get through to her grandfather; the Sunday comedy as she watches Tom the blacksmith cutting her mother’s corns; the day all the Murdochs climb the mountain for the dandelions to make their wine; the humiliation she suffers at the revival meeting; and the courage with which she holds at bay her impetuous suitor, Fulliam, are pages I read with delight. Dialect is out of fashion these days, and it is refreshing to see with what skill Mr. Richter has framed the entire tale in an idiom of the past.
THE STRUGGLE FOR SELF-CONTROL
ERIC HODGINS is a gifted editor who never spared his horses. As a young man he did his best to save the Youth’s Companion from collapse. From 1929 to 1933 he worked for McCall’s and Redbook, then as editor in chief of Fortune. Later, as general manager of Time, he made a brilliant record in one of the most demanding of organizations. I encouraged him to write his first book, a history of aviation entitled Sky High, and I was one of many who delighted in his greater success, Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, which was published in 1947. Thirteen years later Mr. Hodgins, alone in his New York apartment, was knocked flat by a stroke. He managed, heaven knows how, to struggle downstairs to the janitor’s office, and moments later in the Lenox Hill Wollman Pavilion, directly across the street from where he lived, he embarked upon the slow, exasperating recovery which he recalls in such accurate and entertaining detail in EPISODE (Atheneum, $5.00).
The older we grow the more we have to listen to the operations and the grievances of our contemporaries. What sets Mr. Hodgins’ recital apart from all others I have read or heard is the liveliness of his mind, which was unimpaired by the paralysis; his deft and hilarious characterizations of the medical fraternity, speaking, as he says, “in the strange, strange language so many medical men prefer to English”; his delightful observations of his nurses; and, most of all, his unsparing account of what he did and how he felt as he fought to regain self-control. There are passages which bog down in the slow progress of the CVA, and not every reader will want to know this much about so many treatments, but I must say I find his buoyancy supportable.
The Hotel Moderne Aristide in its rocky little village in the Midi was a one-man restaurant whose Michelin star attracted the discerning from Nice and Cannes. The chef-proprietor, who called himself Michal, was a good-natured Greek who had been brought to France as a child and naturalized in 1917. He ran the place with the help of his wife and his adopted son, Philippe, and with his life savings he meant to buy it. Such is the setting, warm-lit and believable, with which STORM JAMESON opens her dramatic short novel, THE BLIND HEART (Harper & Row. $3.95). Michal, as he serves his cronies, cheers up the lonely English guest, and bargains with Monsieur Larrau, the miser who owns his heart’s desire, is fun to watch. But Michal is impulsive and as blind as the title suggests, and the story which Miss Jameson has devised, not always persuasively, is of his betrayal by his wife, by his spoiled, corrupted son, by the Englishman who could have helped him, most of all by his own good intentions. In this tale Miss Jameson is more skillful at building suspense than in developing character; too many of her people are one-dimensional and too often we ask if Michal would really have left himself as open as he did.