Rachel Carson Day

Conor Mark Jameson writes …

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The RSPB holds its annual weekend for members at York University each spring during half-term. The students are away and the wildfowl own the campus. Members (and staff and volunteers present) are treated to a range of stimulating talks and activities, guaranteed to recharge the batteries, and remind us what multi-tentacled beast is this organisation, grappling with challenges on all sides. Most of all you leave York with the strong sense that there is hope yet for saving nature. This year I was lucky enough to be invited to give a talk that I call Silent Spring Revisited – Rachel Carson’s legacy.

As I did a bit of last-minute adjustment I realised the significance of the date. Tuesday 14th April was the day in 1964 when something very significant happened that is much less well remembered than Silent Spring itself, published just over a year earlier.

On that spring morning, Rachel Carson died. It comes as a surprise to people when I tell them this, just as the event itself came as a shock even to many of those who knew well the naturalist, scientist, author and campaigner. They didn’t know she’d been ill, and they didn’t know because she hadn’t told them. She thought that knowledge of her condition would be used against her by her opponents, deniers of the widespread harmful effects of indiscriminate pesticide use.

In fact Rachel Carson had been battling cancer and a succession of illnesses for a large part of the four and a half years it took her to research and write Silent Spring. Arthritis required her at times to use a wheelchair.

Forty-nine years on, this anniversary Sunday morning fittingly brought strong, mild blustery winds from the south and west. With them came the long awaited and much delayed spring migrant birds from the south, where they had been backing up around the Mediterranean and beyond. Chiffchaffs at last were calling from the bare treetops among the halls of residence on a misty Yorkshire dawn.

The turbulent air also encouraged our Scandinavian visitors to head once again north and east. Redwings streamed overhead and out towards the sea, and we craned our necks seeking our first glimpse of swallows arriving to replace them. Someone reported seeing a waxwing and a willow warbler in the same hedgerow – an unusual collision of arrivistes and the departing. But it wasn’t till I’d made the journey home afterwards, south by train against this general flow of returning nature, that I found my first swallows. There were three of them, surfing the wind over the village a few hundred metres from the house, by way of welcome. They’ve made it again, as always oblivious to all that’s going on below them, in our increasingly uncertain world.

Next year will be the fiftieth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s passing. It would be fitting to mark the occasion then not with a minute’s silence, nor even with a minute’s applause, but with a minute’s birdsong, and other springtime sounds from nature. Perhaps we might even officially designate it Rachel Carson Day.

People wherever they are might then listen for the birds, and take a moment to recall Rachel Carson’s determination, courage and sacrifice, in the face of powerful opposition, in raising the alarm about the danger of biocide misuse. She didn’t live to find out what came next. She did this work not for her own benefit, but for those who would follow. This is one hero we mustn’t allow to be unsung.

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Conor’s book, Silent Spring Revisited, is now out in paperback.

9781408194072

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