Fifty years on, the silence of Rachel Carson's spring consumes us
By: Jay Griffiths
No chittering, no fluting, no chissicking. The bleak silence of a spring without its birds is the central image of Rachel Carson's most famous work. Since its publication 50 years ago, humanity has continued silencing the languages of nature, through the pesticides that Carson examined, habitat loss, pollution, overfishing, overhunting and climate change, reducing numbers and driving some species to extinction.
The losses of the natural world are our loss, their silence silences something within the human mind. Human language is lit with animal life: we play cats-cradle or have hare-brained ideas; we speak of badgering, or outfoxing someone; to squirrel something away and to ferret it out. I wish there was a verb to otter, ottering around in pure play, to honour Otter ludens, which plays in my mind long after I've seen one. But when our experience of the wild world shrinks, we no longer fathom the depths of our own words; language loses its lustre and vividness.
The human mind needs nature in order to think most deeply. Pretending to be other creatures, children practise metaphor and empathy alike. Cultures have long heard wisdom in non-human voices: Apollo, god of music, medicine and knowledge, came to Delphi in the form of a dolphin. But dolphins, which fill the oceans with blipping and chirping, and whales, which mew and caw in ultramarine jazz – a true rhapsody in blue – are hunted to the edge of silence. In the Sumerian period, according to legend, messengers of the gods in the shape of fish would spend their nights below the oceans, and in the days would teach humans the moral code and the arts. After the flood they did not return, so human scholars dressed themselves in fish cloaks, with fins and tails.
The stupidity of overfishing would have shocked Carson, herself a marine biologist. Since the 1950s, when she published her trilogy The Sea, two-thirds of the species we have fished have collapsed, and some species are down 99%, according to Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation, in his vitally important Ocean of Life. Dredgers carve graveyards in seabeds, fertilisers fuel plankton blooms that result in oxygenless dead zones, and climate change threatens much sea life.
Many cultures, such as the Iroquois, regard animals as guides. Biomimicry in architecture and design treats nature as a teacher; aeronautical engineers have studied the precise angle of eagle feathers. Art listens to the natural world, unwilling to shake the linnet from the leaf, refusing to silence the Rite of Spring. Take nature out of Shakespeare and it would be incalculably impoverished; without his bunch of radish or shotten herring Falstaff wouldn't be truly Falstaff, nor would Ophelia's lament be so poignant without her rosemary for remembrance and rue for you. And in a silent spring, the very Forest of Arden would be voiceless.
The forest doctors of the Amazon say each plant has its "song", and that to know how to use the plant you must listen to its voice. The silencing of the rainforests is a double deforestation, not only of trees but a deforestation of the mind's music, medicine and knowledge. Forest doctors use medicines the west needs so badly, and they say ayahuasca, the most profound of all medicines, guides the psyche; as I know from experience, it is the finest treatment for severe depression, the psyche's most terrible silence.
Published 7 months, 3 weeks ago under What We Do