Silent Spring | Study Guide

Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring | Chapter 6 : Earth's Green Mantle | Summary

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Summary

"Earth's green mantle," i.e., plant life, along with water and soil, is necessary to support animal life. Carson claims humanity forgets its dependence on plants for survival and acts upon plants in ways that are shortsighted. In previous chapters Carson explained the role of water and soil in the web of life; here she explains the role of plants. She argues at times it is necessary to disrupt plant life. But she warns "we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place."

Carson's first example of acting without thought and foresight is the campaign to replace sagebrush with grasslands in the West. From an evolutionary perspective, she describes why the sagebrush is well suited to the landscape where it is found. She also describes the animal life that depends on the sage and the natural balance in which they both exist. As ranchers and management agencies seek to create grasslands suitable for cattle, the balance is disrupted. Carson notes, "Few seem to have asked whether grasslands are a stable and desirable goal in this region." Furthermore, she argues the long-term effects of the chemical destruction of sage are unknown. These unknowns apply to the immediate areas of treatment as well as surrounding areas.

Carson cites a second example of shortsighted action: a catastrophic spraying of New England roadsides. It resulted in a visual blight affecting tourism, as well as the death of animal life. Carson describes the danger to animal life when plants are eliminated chemically. As plants wilt, they become more attractive to animals; animals, and potentially humans, eat the plants and ingest the chemical.

Carson argues the general public does not need to stand idly by as others make such decisions. She supports the argument with two cases of situational irony. First, chemical spraying of roadsides does not eliminate the weed problem, but rather requires repeated chemical applications. Second, better options are available.

Carson proposes an alternative shown to be viable: using plants or insects to control vegetation, like using beetles to control the Klamath weed. She argues the use of plant-eating insects holds potential as an effective alternative to the use of herbicides. She compares the costs of active spraying to the selective use of insects and plants to control problem plants.

Analysis

Carson opens the chapter citing humankind's tendency to forget the role of plants in our own survival. In addition to being forgetful, humans are self-focused; a plant's future is at the mercy of our whims. Humankind acts arrogantly, and in ways that are shortsighted and ill-considered, with little thought for the future.

In contrast, Carson elevates nature over humanity, portraying the sagebrush as wise and enduring, making important contributions to the web of life. She shows sage as an actor in nature that "could hold its place on the mountain slopes and on the plains, and within its small gray leaves it could hold moisture." Having moisture, the sage becomes a protector of life: "The low sage of the foothill ranges shelters their nests and their young."

Carson derides much of recent human activity as a "shotgun approach" that does more harm than good. Humans decide the sagebrush is in the way, and government agencies, industry, and ranchers work to eradicate the plant, which is considered a nuisance. However, the effort has unintended consequences, including the death of fish and loss of mammals that depended on the sage for food. Carson indicates humanity's irresponsibility and limited perspective: "Chemical weed killers are a bright new toy ... they give a giddy sense of power."

Alert that many readers will be skeptical, Carson brings in voices other than her own to support her claims. She cites the perspectives of travelers who had once enjoyed the beauty of nature, only to find roadside forests had been desecrated by chemicals. Carson affirms the aesthetic value of nature as a valid reason for preservation.

Carson asserts the situational irony of the indiscriminate use of chemicals is they often make the problem worse. Adding more irony, one of the most promising "controls" for plants is other plants. Likewise, one of the most promising controls for insects is other insects.

Humankind, in its self-focused state, fails to ask the very important question: "What is the relation between the weed and the soil?" Carson once again points to the interconnectedness of all nature and hints at the notion nature holds many of the answers to humanity's dilemmas, if only it would take the time to seek out its answers.

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