Silent Spring: Chapter 9, 10

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Summary of Chapter 9: Rivers of Death


Carson paints a complete picture of the salmon cycle of the Miramichi River of New Brunswick. In the spring of 1954, the Canadian government sprayed the forests with DDT for the spruce budworm to save the trees. The spray fallout included dead salmon in the river within two days, and dead birds as well. Young salmon feed on the caddis fly larvae, and they were wiped out, so the young salmon were scarce. The budworm solution is only a stopgap measure at best, and respraying is always needed. Nature itself intervened to save the salmon and Miramichi River with Hurricane Edna that brought fresh rivulets and salmon from far out at sea. The cycle was renewed with food for the young. This story turned out well because there was only spraying affecting this part of the river for one year. Maine salmon exposed to DDT in 1958 did not fare as well. The poisoned fish swam erratically, staying near the surface gasping for air. They floated passively downstream, blind. In the late 1950s, the Forest Service allowed spraying in Yellowstone Park. There were dead trout all along the shores with DDT in their tissues. Sometimes the fish do not die immediately, exposing fisherman to the poisons.


Carson pleads for alternative methods of forest management, including natural parasitism and microorganisms. Fishes suffer from forest spraying, from agricultural run-off, and in salt marsh spraying. She discusses examples of each kind of disaster in the United States and also includes examples of run-off in milkfish farming in the Philippines, China, and Indonesia. She brings up the spectacular fish kill in 1961 on the Colorado River 200 miles downstream from a chemical plant leak in Austin, Texas. Many plants were allowing insecticide wastes into sewers that dumped into the river. Twenty-seven species of fish died, and the pattern of fish population altered for years. In a salt marsh in Florida all fish and crabs were killed with dieldrin one year in an attempt to eliminate the sandfly larvae. Pesticides threaten the shrimp and oyster industries by destroying plankton, the food of the young.


Commentary on Chapter 9: Rivers of Death


Each chapter, with many incidents of massive death by insecticides, builds up the dire overall picture that cannot be dismissed as a few minor accidents. Here the whole fishing industry and the sport of fishing are shown threatened by careless spraying. Having lived with this problem now for fifty years since Carson wrote the book, all consumers are aware of the danger of eating contaminated fish. Some, who want to be safe, eliminate fish from the diet, unless they know where it comes from. Besides the danger of single chemicals, like dieldrin, Carson reiterates the danger of pesticides combining or transforming their properties so that they become completely unknown substances running in the rivers.


Summary of Chapter 10: Indiscriminately From the Skies


Carson criticizes the carelessness of aerial spraying from planes. The chemicals are not treated by the pilots as dangerous, and often, there is overspraying in terms of amount or territory. She speaks specifically of the campaigns against the gypsy moth and the fire ant and the refusal of the Department of Agriculture to control abuses. The spraying was done out of scientific ignorance of the insects involved. The gypsy moth larva attacks oak trees and had been long controlled by natural methods. In 1955 the Department of Agriculture attempted to eradicate the gypsy moth with spraying. The Long Island spraying included populated towns. Citizens sought a court injunction against the spraying and were refused. The case went to the Supreme Court, which would not hear the case. The gypsy moth spraying ruined milk and farm produce. There was a total lack of consumer protection. When growers proved they could not sell because their produce exceeded DDT limits, they were awarded damages. Beekeepers also sued, but often it could not be found who had the out-of-state spraying contract. The spraying was stopped.


The fire ant was a publicity campaign of the U. S. Department of Agriculture condoning the spraying of twenty million acres in nine southern states. It was universally condemned because the fire ant is better treated through local controls. The fire ant is also useful in that it kills other insects. The Department of Agriculture made a propaganda movie showing the fire ant as a menace to public health. Heavy doses of dieldrin and heptachlor, which were new and untested chemicals, stronger than DDT, were used despite protests of state conservation groups. Complete destruction of wildlife and heavy loss of domestic livestock resulted. Carson gives pages of the losses of life in this fruitless war. The results were initially dismissed by the Department of Agriculture, which has since then reversed its stand on these chemicals in its publications.


Commentary on Chapter 10: Indiscriminately From the Skies


Carson knows how to build her argument. In case the reader does not sympathize with the chapters detailing the death of wildlife, she begins to introduce chemical spraying as an atrocity to the ordinary citizen who has no legal protection. She asks, “who is safeguarding the consumer” (p. 153)? The Department of Agriculture embarked on their campaigns with no investigation of the safety of the chemicals and abandoned the procedures after three years. Later, they tried to offer the chemicals free to farmers. The programs did not curb the gypsy moth or fire ant.

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