Before ‘Silent Spring’

This week I’ve been listening to The Essay on Radio 3, five talks on the theme ‘Before Silent Spring‘. Rachel Carson’s book was first published in 1962, a warning about the long-term effects of pesticides and a call-to-arms that is widely regarded as the starting point for the modern environmentalism.  Five writers, scientists and environmental campaigners reflected on how Carson built on the work of others who’d gone before her, figures whose ideas preceded Silent Spring and laid the foundations of the contemporary environmental movement.

The first essaywas presented by Vandana Shiva, a veteran of the Indian Chipko movement in which Indian villagers, predominantly women, have sought to protect their livelihoods through non-violent resistence. She explained that the forests of India are a critical resource for the subsistence of rural people, especially in hill and mountain areas, both because of their direct provision of food, fuel and fodder and because of their role in stabilising soil and water resources. During the 1970s and 1980s the forests were increasingly felled for commerce and industry and resistance to their destruction spread throughout India and became known as the Chipko Movement.  But her main theme was the first recorded Chipko protest that took place in 1730, when 363 villagers in Rajasthan sacrificed their lives while protecting trees considered sacred by the community, hugging them and dying under the axes of men sent by the local ruler.

In the final essay, Richard Mabey told how he only encountered Silent Spring several years after its publication, since at the time he was absorbed in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the peace movement. One night at the height of the crisis, when all life seemed about to end, he distracted himself by building a bookcase. The following day, the crisis over, Silent Spring was not one of the books placed on the shelf.  If it had been, Mabey suggested, he would have been struck by its argument that threats to nature were also threats to humanity, and might have reflected that both toxic chemicals and nuclear weapons had sprung from a common well of hubris.

It was later that Mabey discovered Silent Spring – around the same time that he also stumbled upon the work of the 19th century poet John Clare.  He was surprised to find so many similarities between them. Both highlighted the complex links between all living things and both gave stark warnings about the dangers of breaking those links. In his essay, Mabey explored John Clare’s purpose in bringing the beauty and fragility of the natural environment to wider public attention in his poetry, ‘dropping down’ to see nature as it might appear to other creatures, exploring the ‘extraordinariness of small things’.

Clare was an early voice articulating  the impoverishing effects of agricultural intensification – a process beginning with the enclosures in his time and culminating in the toxic chemistry of Silent Spring. The best of Clare’s poetry, Mabey asserted, is an attack on our abuse of the land. He found it natural to turn to Clare for an epigraph when he was writing his own seminal work, The Common Ground, in 1980, the British equivalent to Silent Spring that helped  launch the conservation movement in this country. Mabey recalled the passage he chose as the epigraph for the book:

I often pulled my hat over my eyes to watch the rising of the lark, or to see the hawk hang in the summer sky and the kite take its circless round the wood. I often lingered a minute on the woodland stile to hear the woodpigeons clapping their wings among the dark oaks.  I hunted curious flowers in rapture and muttered thoughts in their praise. I loved the pasture with its rushes and thistles and sheep-tracks. I adored the wild, marshy fen with its solitary heronshaw sweeing along in its melancholy sky. I wandered the heath in raptures among the rabbit burrows and golden-blossomed firze. I dropt down on a thymy mole-hill or mossy eminence to survey the summer landscape….I marked the various colours in flat, spreading fields, checkered into closes of different-tinctured grain like the colours of a map; the copper-tinted clover in blossom; the sun-tanned green of the ripening hay; the lighter charlock and the sunset imitation of the scarlet headaches; the blue corn-bottles crowding their splendid colours in large sheets over the land and troubling the cornfields with destroying beauty; the different greens of the woodland trees, the dark oak, the paler ash, the mellow lime, the white poplars peeping above the rest like leafy steeples, the grey willow shining in the sun, as if the morning mist still lingered on its cool green.  .  . I observed all this with the same rapture as l have done since. But I knew nothing of poetry. It was felt and not uttered.
- John Clare, from The Autobiography

Mabey went on to consider how Clare, in many of his poems, was unashamedly political, writing ‘calls to arms against profit-driven assaults on nature’. Two examples chosen by Mabey were To a Fallen Elm and Remembrances:

I see a picture that thy fate displays
And learn a lesson from thy destiny
Self interest saw thee stand in freedoms ways
So thy old shadow must a tyrant be
Thoust heard the knave abusing those in power
Bawl freedom loud and then oppress the free
Thoust sheltered hypocrites in many an hour
That when in power would never shelter thee
Thoust heard the knave supply his canting powers
With wrongs illusions when he wanted friends
That bawled for shelter when he lived in showers
And when clouds vanished made thy shade ammends
With axe at root he felled thee to the ground
And barked of freedom…
- from ‘To a Fallen Elm’

Discussing ‘Remembrance’, Mabey noted that the historian EP Thompson remarked that, ‘So close is the mutual ecological implication of the human and the natural here that each might stand for the other. Clare might be described…as a poet of ecological protest:

Here was commons for the hills where they seek for freedom still
Though every commons gone and though traps are set to kill
The little homeless miners- O it turns my bosom chill
When I think of old ‘sneap green’ puddocks nook and hilly snow
Where bramble bushes grew and the daisy gemmed in dew
And the hills of silken grass like to cushions to the view
When we threw the pissmire crumbs when we’s nothing else to do
All leveled like a desert by the never weary plough
All vanished like the sun where that cloud is passing now
All settled here for ever on its brow [...]

By Langley bush I roam but the bush hath left its hill
On cowper green I stray tis a desert strange and chill
And spreading lea close oak ere decay had penned its will
To the axe of the spoiler and self interest fell a prey
And cross berry way and old round oaks narrow lane
With its hollow trees like pulpits I shall never see again
Inclosure like a Buonaparte let not a thing remain
It levelled every bush and tree and levelled every hill
And hung the moles for traitors – though the brook is running still
It runs a naked brook cold and chill

O had I known as then joy had left the paths of men
I had watched her night and day besure and never slept agen
And when she turned to go O I’d caught her mantle then
And wooed her like a lover by my lonely side to stay
Aye knelt and worshipped on as love in beautys bower
And clung upon her smiles as a bee upon her flower
And gave her heart my poesys all cropt in a sunny hour
As keepsakes and pledges to fade away
But love never heeded to treasure up the may
So it went the comon road with decay.
- from Remembrances

Mabey introduced ‘Wood Pictures in Autumn’ by noting its ‘extraordinary evocation of a landscape in which every element is interlinked’:

The woodland swamps with mosses varified
And bullrush forests bowing by the side
Of shagroot sallows that snug shelter make
For the coy moorhen in her bushy lake
Into whose tide a little runnel weaves
Such charms for silence through the choking leaves
And whimpling melodies that but intrude
As lullabies to ancient solitude
The wood-grass plats which last year left behind
Weaving their feathery lightness to the wind
Look now as picturesque amid the scene
As when the summer glossed their stems in green
While hasty hare brunts through the creepy gap
Seeks their soft beds and squats in safety’s lap

Mabey concluded his essay with these words:

Of the many things [Clare's] poems teach us – the value of the local, the mutual dependence of all living things – the best is perhaps that language may be our greatest ecological gift and that the answer to the threat of a silent spring is for us to sing against the storm.

In a further essays this week, Curt Meine considered Aldo Leopold, forester, philosopher and author of A Sand County Almanac, published posthumously in 1949, a classic in American nature writing and a cornerstone of environmental ethics; botanist Sandy Knapp discussed 19th century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, best known for co-proposing the theory of natural selection with Charles Darwin;  while historian Donald Worster explored the life of John Muir, the nineteenth century Scot who emigrated to the United States to become an outspoken advocate for the American wilderness – resulting in the founding of National Parks.

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4 thoughts on “Before ‘Silent Spring’

  1. Thanks Gerry – I only caught half the program
    how frustrating that this had such a short life in iplayer

    I’d just add that Mabey noted (importantly from a poet’s point of view) how Clare could:
    “trace out the mutual dependence of things, not just out in the world as it were, but in the very structure and syntax of his writing.”

    Cheers

  2. Thanks for adding that significant quote, John. I don’t know why these talks can’t remain indefinitely on iPlayer, or their text be posted on the BBC website.

  3. Hi there,

    My name is Adrian shirk; I work for a horticulture and design publication called Wilder Quarterly, and we’re running a story about the Chipko movement. Do you know who I should contact about acquiring temporary rights to use one or both of the paintings you featured in this post?

    You can reach me at adrian@wilderquarterly.com

    Many thanks.

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