Have any of you ever been privileged to see the astonishing sight of a bald eagle soaring above an Oregon Coast beach? If you have, count yourself lucky and think what seeing that awesome raptor really means. It's not only about nature. It's actually more about human beings and human choices.
Not too long ago, after re-reading Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the 1962 book universally hailed as launching the modern environmental movement by exposing the ecological disaster wrought by the indiscriminate aerial application of poisonous chemicals, namely DDT, I made the three-hour drive to Portland from my home near Newport.
Earlier that morning, I'd cruised the beach with the dogs and saw the usual assortment of gulls and crows. Nothing too out of the ordinary but always special nonetheless. It put me in a good mood and ready to face anything American culture might throw at me.
On my trip to the big city, I observed: an Oregon Department of Transportation tanker spraying herbicide alongside Highway 101 several feet from an estuary; a truck spraying pesticide between the rows of a Yamhill County vineyard; a man wearing a mask spraying herbicide on the grounds of what appeared to be either a private school or day care center.
Apparently, people aren't reading Silent Spring anymore, which is a tragedy for the earth and for those who love great writing, because Rachel Carson wrote some of the most beautiful prose ever written by an American.
The next morning, returning from the big city, I hit my local beach with the dogs like I do every day, rain or shine or hail or hangover. As soon as we hit the sand, the dogs broke off to sniff at the rack line and I watched the sea around us, where all life began.
Contemplating the "old sound of the ocean," as the poet Robinson Jeffers described the roar, I then noticed two large raptor-like birds standing on the sand, unmoving, staring straight west, as the last inch of a wave trickled over their talons. What the hell? Hawks don't surf.
Tacking at northwest angles, I moved closer to investigate.
Suddenly, it dawned on me: For the first time, I am watching bald eagles in Oregon not in flight. They stand less than 50 yards away, on my beach, and not another human being is around to pollute the moment.
It also dawned on me that without one woman, Rachel Carson, a scientist, a writer, a warrior in defense of nature, a heroine, a goddess who should adorn our currency, I wouldn't have seen bald eagles on my beach or any beach on the Oregon Coast.
Silent Spring was an overnight bestseller around the world in 1962 and attracted an astonishing variety of readers, including a President of the United States, John Kennedy, who convened a special panel to investigate the disastrous effects of pesticides on the natural world. Later, DDT was banned and with the help of the Endangered Species Act and Richard Nixon, who signed it into law, the birds came back. The spring wasn't so silent anymore.
Imagine that. A President reads a book and the environment improves.
Also imagine this: a Portland television news commentator named Tom McCall read Silent Spring and went on to produce a groundbreaking television documentary on the chemical poisoning of Oregon, called Pollution in Paradise. This 60-minute film aired in late 1962 and is generally credited with launching Oregon's modern environmental consciousness. McCall went on to become governor and led the way to the state passing some of the most visionary environmental laws on earth, including the preservation of farmland. Those laws also helped bald eagles recover.
All from one book. Don't ever tell me a book can't matter. Silent Spring is up there with Common Sense, Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Jungle, and The Fate of the Earth as the most important books ever written in this country's history.
Without Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, there wouldn't be a pelican, peregrine falcon, or bald eagle left in this county, even Alaska. DDT was wiping them out and the government and farmers sprayed oceans of this poison across the land and water. It was a modern-day industrial plague encouraged by chemical corporations and their hired men in white coats who called themselves scientists, just as the primate researchers at OHSU do today.
A question. Have you read Silent Spring? Another question. Do you use pesticides or herbicides? If you answered ‘yes' to the latter question, then you are part of the problem. You can't get a little pregnant, and a lot of people who call themselves friends of the organic revolution routinely use chemicals in their upkeep of their pristine lawns and flowerbeds. They're pregnant. So go to the ground and dig up weeds yourself or, better yet, order your overweight kids to dig them up.
And speaking of pregnant, adding the fact that Carson's work also exposed the health risks chemical saturation poses to expectant mothers, here's a suggestion to the former Hollywood starlets always bitching about the lack of decent movie roles for women in middle age because of sexism and ageism: spend some of your own millions and finance a film on Rachel Carson. She was homely and apparently a lesbian. The Academy will love that! You can make yourself ugly, call it acting, and win an Oscar.