Silent Spring | Study Guide

Rachel Carson

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Silent Spring | Chapter 9 : Rivers of Death | Summary



Carson describes the effect of pesticides on river life, specifically the loss of salmon in the Miramichi River in New Brunswick in 1953. Young salmon feed on a river's insect life. Spraying to save the forests from the budworm resulted in the death of many salmon, as well as other fish and birds. As a result of the DDT spraying, no insects remained for the fish to eat. Because good records were kept of pre-spraying conditions, the effects of the DDT could be documented. Not only were fish lost, but "repeated sprayings have now completely altered the stream environment" by reducing the numbers of insects. This food supply would take years to rebuild. While the younger salmon could feed on smaller insects that build their population more quickly, the larger insects needed by the more mature salmon took longer. Despite such devastating effects on the river life, the budworm population was not eradicated.

Carson argues pesticide-spraying campaigns are not the only solution to insect problems and should not be passively accepted as such. She argues the present and future impact of chemical spraying is long lasting and not easily remedied once it is in the environment. She cites the example of the fish kill in Austin, Texas, which resulted from industrial waste that polluted waters for 200 miles. Carson states such devastating examples are merely the known effects. She questions what invisible effects are occurring, as well as those that will occur in the future. She closes the chapter asking, "When will the public become sufficiently aware of the facts to demand such action?"


As in Chapter 3 "Elixirs of Death," this chapter, entitled "Rivers of Death," evokes a contrast. Rivers are associated with life and refreshment, but Carson shows in this chapter rivers polluted with chemicals are neither life-giving nor refreshing.

Carson uses the device of storytelling to introduce the problem. The "story" is set in the Miramichi River, "one of the finest salmon streams in North America." She gives a sense of time; the salmon repeated "age-old patterns" that enabled the species to thrive in this setting. But, as in every story, a problem occurs. In this case the problem was the introduction of chemicals that broke the age-old patterns of the salmon. Carson provides vivid description to enable the reader to envision the story's events: "These young fed voraciously, seeking out the strange and varied insect life of the stream." Spraying caused the young salmon that survived the poison to starve to death.

Carson adds specific details from the research reports that add credibility to her account. She considers this account particularly important because records were kept before and after spraying, demonstrating clear and unmistakable evidence of the destructive effects of DDT. She includes additional anecdotes to support her claim all water, like all of nature, is interconnected. She shows how pesticides have present effects in the area sprayed, broader effects on life that was not targeted, and future effects to later generations.

Carson argues the future effects of pesticide use are not fully known. She cites evidence chemicals remain in the mud at the bottom of ponds for years. Also, chemicals have been known to travel in rivers for hundreds of miles, doing damage all along the way. Carson has provided much evidence of the direct effects of pesticide use, which she considers reason enough to be alarmed. She believes the indirect and unknown impact should move the public to action.

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