Silent Spring | Study Guide

Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring | Chapter 8 : And No Birds Sing | Summary

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Summary

Carson states in many areas of the country birds are being destroyed by the use of pesticides, resulting in a "silent spring." She cites reports from ordinary people as well as experts to document the fate of the bird population. She recounts the "story of the robin," a bird loved by many but "fatefully linked" to pesticide use. Efforts to save elm trees from being destroyed by disease-carrying beetles poisoned the robins and many other birds as well. She links the death of the robins to their diet of earthworms, which feed on fallen elm leaves. Of the robins that lived, few were able to reproduce.

Carson links mammals to the food chain, as well. She cites an economic impact of indiscriminate pesticide use, such as the impact of bird loss to fruit-growers. According to Carson, "the greatest enemy of insect life is other predatory insects, birds, and some small mammals." So the efforts to control pests actually remove the best controllers of pests because "DDT kills indiscriminately, including nature's own safeguards or policemen."

Carson argues humankind will become victim to its own attempts to secure temporary comfort at great future cost. Furthermore, she argues the choice is not simply whether to save birds or trees because pesticides do not produce the intended results of permanently eradicating particular pests. In addition, the residual and long-term effects are largely unknown. Carson highlights this folly in her discussion of the proven alternative of "sanitation," i.e., the removal of diseased trees.

In addition to the effects of pesticides on robins and other birds, Carson provides evidence eagles seem to be meeting a similar fate. She shows the interconnected nature of insects, birds, and small mammals, as well as humans. She argues for vigilance and voice, in the absence of which others will make decisions on the reader's behalf, while they remain oblivious to the destruction of the environment.

Analysis

This chapter reveals the reality of the "silent spring" referred to in the title of the book and predicted in Chapter 1. The first paragraph of the chapter is almost poetic, evoking emotion as the reader considers the losses that are already a reality in some parts of the United States: "The sudden silencing of the song of birds, this obliteration of the color and beauty and interest they lend to our world have come about swiftly, insidiously, and unnoticed." The repetition of the /s/ sound suggests a hushed tone, as if an intruder lurks in the shadows.

Carson provides a wide range of examples and firsthand testimonies to the deaths of the birds. For example, Carson includes a letter written to a leading ornithologist by a housewife, distraught over the loss of birds in her community due to the use of DDT. The voice of this "average" person allows the reader to see she too can have a voice and her concerns are valued and legitimate. In combination with the many other voices included, Carson provides compelling evidence the "silent spring" has become a terrifying reality in many places.

Carson takes up much of the chapter with her "story of the robin." The tale relates the near destruction of the beloved bird in an ill-considered attempt to save elm trees from disease. Carson focuses on the robin, "a bird known to everyone." She cites the common connection many have to this bird that is more than a simple winged creature but an emblem of spring and all that springtime represents. In this way Carson helps her readers to have not just an intellectual understanding of the problem, but an emotional connection. She wants readers to care enough to act.

Carson cites another symbolic bird, the eagle, as yet another tragedy resulting from irresponsible pesticide use. In this case the pesticides affected not the birds that experienced the spray but the next generation. Here Carson evokes the emotional appeals of protecting the nation, via its national symbol, and of protecting future generations. This speaks to the enduring effects of chemicals on the environment. Carson asserts the choice is not as simple as deciding whether we will save birds or trees, but rather understanding that continuing on "the well-traveled road" of indiscriminate spraying does not accomplish the goal, as the results do not last.

Using the avian symbols of springtime and of the United States, Carson makes a compelling case against widespread pesticide spraying. Toward the end of this chapter she turns the reader's attention to the issue of decision-making. Carson leaves readers with this question: Who has the right to decide if and how chemicals will be used?

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