How ‘Silent Spring’ Changed My Life

Rachel Carson, biologist and author

I am writing to you from a very dusty apartment covered in the finely ground powder of fossilized sea creatures. It’s called Diatomaceous earth, and it’s a nontoxic way to annihilate the fleas that are causing my mutt, Petunia, a lot of itching. I think Rachel Carson would approve. She wrote the revolutionary book “Silent Spring” in 1962, for which she is widely credited with starting the environmental movement. In her seminal work, Carson, a biologist, introduces the concept of ecology and, using case studies and statistics, exposes the alarming dangers of DDT and other insecticides as toxic to all life. “What the public is asked to accept as ‘safe’ today may turn out tomorrow to be extremely dangerous,” she writes. Insecticides were first developed for use against humans in chemical warfare during World War II, she explains. (Another factoid for foragers to know: Carrots concentrate man-made toxins more than many other vegetables.)

Diatomaceous earth kills fleas by puncturing their exoskeletons and dehydrating them. Apologies to you vegan friends, but my loyalty is with my mutt, Petunia, who is very unhappy being itchy. Last month I wouldn’t have gone this route. My family and I have always used the chemical insecticides on our dogs at our vets’ recommendation, but this season the fleas have apparently acquired a resistance to all but the newest and most expensive product. And this development happened to coincide with my reading “Silent Spring.” In the book, Carson shows that no part of nature is isolated from any other, and so poisoning one thing ends up poisoning all things. Claims by insecticide manufacturers that there is a baseline acceptable toxicity, she shows, are false because cancer-causing cell damage is a cumulative process, and so small amounts can have big consequences — especially now, when exposure to man-made poisons is so widespread that we are all constantly threatened by contaminated food, water, consumer products and soil.

This book first entered my awareness at the recommendation of colleagues over 45 years old, but a lot of people my age (28) and younger have never heard of it. It’s filled with lots of great quotes that made me want to stand up and shout with a fist in the air and endure an annoyingly dust-filled living space for a week straight.

Rachel Carson

“Man has forgotten his origins and is blind even to his most essential needs for survival,” she writes. “The ‘control of nature’ is a phrase conceived in arrogance,” she says. “The balance of nature…is fluid, ever shifting, in a constant state of adjustment. Man, too, is part of this balance.” Here, here!

What eco reads changed your life?

11 thoughts on “How ‘Silent Spring’ Changed My Life

  1. Dear readers,

    This post was deluged today by spammers and their comments were deleted. I will not tolerate disingenuous posts on this blog.

  2. Thanks for the reminder about diatomaceos earth. We stopped using chemical flea products on or dog around a year ago and thankfully didn’t have any flea problems – until recently. I was about to research natural flea control. I’m off to buy some diatomaceous earth now. Thanks.

    I found you via RowdyKittens and glad I did. I love foraging and am keen to learn more about herbalism. Its lovely to ‘meet’ you.

  3. Huge fan of Carson’s book; we read it in high school, where it was assigned, oddly enough. But I gotta say that your final picture of her, with her finger pointing, looks disturbingly like Dolores Umbrage from “Harry Potter.” Yikes! 😉

  4. Safety considerations

    The absorbent qualities of diatomite can result in a significant drying of the hands if handled without gloves. The flux-calcined form contains a highly crystalline form of silica, resulting in sharp edges. The sharpness of this version of the material makes it dangerous to breathe and a dust mask is recommended when working with it.

    The type of hazard posed by inhalation depends on the form of the silica. Crystalline silica poses a serious inhalation hazard because it can cause silicosis. Amorphous silica can cause dusty lungs, but does not carry the same degree of risk as crystalline silica. Natural or dried diatomite generally contains very low percentages of crystalline silica. Diatomite produced for pool filters is treated with high heat (calcining) and a fluxing agent (soda ash), causing the formerly amorphous silicon dioxide to assume its crystalline form.

    The crystalline silica content of the dust’s particulate is regulated in the United States by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), and there are guidelines for the maximum amounts allowable in the product and in the air near the breathing zone of workers.[15]

    • Lisa,

      I got the DE I am using at the local pet store. The pet can be dusted with it without harm but it is very drying to their skin so some say it would be better to give them a flea bath instead.

  5. When I was in high school and curious as to why animals become extinct, my chemistry teacher taught us matter is finite. That explained it to me as well as reading Paul Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb”, and I chose then to be child-free for the child(ren)’s sake. At 65, my husband and I have no regrets about that decision either.

  6. Pamela,

    Thanks for your concern. I am aware of that issue — but I’ve been advised it’s more of a problem with pool grade Diatomaceous earth rather than food grade. I have the food grade stuff. Also supposedly I only need to worry about breathing it in when applying it. Once it’s gotten into the carpet, supposedly it’s not much of a problem. I do have the windows open a bit just in case.

  7. I applaud your ecological sensitivity.

    You need to be aware that diatomaceous earth is made of finely ground silica which can get into the lungs of you and your pet. Potters and farmers wear dust masks lest they develop silicosis, a disease of the lungs caused by breathing in silica dust.

    I wish I knew of a simple win win solution to the problem of fleas.

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