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New London’s Silent Spring

A half-century ago, Silent Spring raised the alarm of pending environmental devastation. Some of the book’s evidence came from right here in southeastern Connecticut.

The year that is rapidly drawing to a close marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The controversial book, now considered a classic, introduced many Americans to the dangers of synthetic pesticides and herbicides and sparked a national debate that led to Congressional hearings and bans on chemicals such as DDT.

Silent Spring, often credited with setting in motion the environmental movement, details the chilling side-effects of poorly-regulated and often unquestioned use of chemicals in cities and towns across the country — including New London.

In the book, Carson makes two specific references to the area. One recalls an instance in which “trees within the Connecticut Arboretum Natural Area were seriously injured when the town of Waterford sprayed the roadside with chemical weed killers in 1957.”

The Connecticut Arboretum is now the Connecticut College Arboretum; according to its website the name was changed by current Arboretum Director Glenn Dreyer when he joined the staff in 1988.

The Arboretum, which abuts the border of New London and Waterford, began as a small teaching garden in 1928 and now comprises 450 acres of woods, trails, and native plants.

Carson describes the impact of the 1957 spraying on the Arboretum’s trees. “Even large trees not directly sprayed were affected. The leaves of the oaks began to curl and turn brown, although it was the season for Spring growth. Then new shoots began to be put forth, and grew with abnormal rapidity, giving a weeping appearance to the trees. Two seasons later, large branches on these trees had died, others were without leaves, and the deformed, weeping effect of whole trees persisted.”

In another section, warning of the dangers of spraying along rural highways - which she calls “the senseless destruction that is going on in the name of roadside brush control” — Carson cites the observations of botanists Richard H. Goodwin and William A. Niering, published in the Connecticut Arboretum Bulletin in 1959.

Goodwin and Niering, both professors at the College and one-time directors of the Arboretum, termed the destruction of native shrubs and flowers a  “roadside crisis.” Of their findings, Carson wrote that “azaleas, mountain laurel, blueberries, huckleberries, viburnum, dogwood, bayberry, sweet fern, low shadbush, winterberry, chokecherry, and wild plum are dying before the chemical barrage. So are the daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrods, and fall asters, which lend grace and beauty to the landscape.”

The Arboretum’s collections still include most of the species that were threatened by the spraying Carson decried in 1962.

Connecticut College’s ties to Silent Spring go deeper than these brief passages. The school’s Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives holds the archive of Carson biographer (and Conn College graduate) Linda Lear, who wrote introductions to all of Carson’s books, as well as other collections relating to environmental studies.

The New London-Waterford area is not the only Connecticut location mentioned in Silent Spring. The town of Greenwich is also named as a place adversely affected by the spraying of chemicals.

Bud Wizer December 27, 2012 at 02:15 PM
In Ms. Carson's day, it's fair to say, educated circles of the natural sciences were generally esoteric associations centered in upper-class cliques of academic and institutional rootings. That Conn College and Greenwich figure in "Silent Spring" is, therefore, not surprising. The record since the publication of the book that shook boardrooms and classrooms as though they were naughty children largely became familiar to the masses because of mass media. Across the nation, editors and journalists, publishers and producers brought her work to light. "Better Living Through Chemistry," a Mad Men mantra for the chemical industry, soon became a laughing stock in circles from blue-collar to tux-and-tails. Professor Dreyer today stands at the vanguard of academic and aborist guardians; and the late professors Goodwin and Niering, those of us who knew them can claim, would have received many hugs and kisses from Ms. Carson. Being a member of the generation to which Carson, Niering and Goodwin passed the torch, I not infrquently hear that famous Joni MItchell line when I think of "Silent Spring," the one about paradise and paving it over with a parking lot. And I am comforted knowing that my offspring's popular music sphere, the Indie thing, has not let up on whatever would irrevocably soil this blue star in space unconscionably and irreparably. Perhaps we might move on now to question the roadside clearings for "safety" now occuping public works energies and dollars?
Ralph Thayer December 27, 2012 at 03:18 PM
On the other hand… "While [Silent Spring] provided some clear benefits, a number of Carson’s major arguments rested on what can only be described as deliberate ignorance. Despite her reputation as a careful writer widely praised for building her arguments on science and facts, Carson’s best-seller contained significant errors and sins of omission. Much of what was presented as certainty then was slanted, and today we know much of it is simply wrong." -- Silent Spring at 50: The False Crises of Rachel Carson [http://amzn.to/W3yNam]
Bud Wizer December 27, 2012 at 04:57 PM
The author you're quoting and the publisher, Ralph? Might be good to include that instead of just a link, readers being so lazy and all. There's lot's of "on-the-other-hand" stuff out there, like FOX. Just sayin'. I'll stick with the Union of Concerned Scientists, thank you:)
Joseph J. Mingo December 27, 2012 at 05:06 PM
A much greater danger to our ecosystem is the destruction of native plant species. The DOT has begun a chain saw masaquer along our highyways and the deer population has stripped native plants. Non native species are populating our open space. These plants have chemicals that our native insects can't tolate. There is a large reduction of native insects who provide fat and protein to the food chain. This effects birds and other insects. The bug splatter on your car windshield has been greatly reduced. Good for you not so good for birds.
Laurie Gorham December 27, 2012 at 07:41 PM
Excellent article. Amazing that some of Ms Carson's evidence was right here in our backyard. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. A great reminder of how human activity can impact the environment.
Bud Wizer December 27, 2012 at 09:49 PM
Excellent points, Joe Mingo. My hobby is native wildflowers, which I hunt spring to fall hereabouts. What I've observed as but a layman in just the past four decades with respect to invasive plant colonizations, wildflower habitat loss, decimation and alteration of flora and fauna is too depressing to cite here. And whenever I see the muncipal and state highway crews making work for themselves under the auspices of safety by cutting down the roadside margins and verges, which are primely opportunistic habitats for many wildflower species, I could, well, cry or scream. At a Route 11 exit in Colchester there was a gorgeous New Engalnd Aster habitat some years ago. Now it's mowed. ChemLawn aesthetics seems to be trending toward botanical nihilism as The American Way..

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