Silent Spring | Study Guide

Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring | Chapter 5 : Realms of the Soil | Summary

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Summary

Carson opens with the claim living things need soil to survive. She explains the role of soil as part of nature's cycle, supporting "the green mantle." In contrast to the common notion soil is lifeless, Carson shows it is teeming with life. Moreover, this life, including the tiniest microbes, plays an integral role in nature.

She then poses the problem: "What happens to these incredibly numerous and vitally necessary inhabitants of the soil when poisonous chemicals are carried down into their world?" She argues humanity cannot introduce poisons into the soil and not reap a negative effect.

She then poses a second problem: Not only need we be concerned with the soil, but also with the extent to which contaminants from the soil are absorbed into plants. Carson claims pesticide residues continue to build over time, creating increasing hazards, which people don't yet fully understand.

This foundation sets the stage for the point of the chapter: "This soil community, then, consists of a web of interwoven lives, each in some way related to the others." If we poison the soil, we poison life.

Analysis

In Chapter 5 Carson continues to apply storytelling techniques seen in previous chapters. In this case she presents soil as a living thing—both a conglomeration of living things and an ecosystem in which these things live. Rather than being composed of just mineral compounds, the soil contains bacteria, fungi, insects, worms, and many other types of life.

Carson uses a variety of examples and detailed descriptions to reshape the reader's understanding of soil. She shows soil to be a vital, dynamic part of the interconnected web of life: "For soil is in part a creation of life, born of a marvelous interaction of life and nonlife." She continues her assertion soil is living by explaining its origins. She argues, "Life not only formed the soil, but other living things ... now exist within it." In addition, she explains soil changes and is part of ongoing cycles of nature.

To emphasize the activity of the soil, Carson personifies the soil. She tells the reader how humans "have proceeded on the assumption the soil could and would sustain any amount of insult ... without striking back." She follows this ominous statement with details about the unknown dangers and unexpected consequences of fooling with such a complex and fundamental force of nature.

Like the previous chapter's discussion of water, Carson shows how pesticides infiltrate and persist in soils. As an active part of the natural life cycle, the soil acts upon and is acted upon by the presence of pesticides. Carson goes on to cite examples of the use of chemicals in the South, which remained in the soil for many years. She illustrates the chemicals' impact upon the plants and animals that relied on the soil long past the time of the initial spraying.

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