Dennis Anderson: Remarkable biography conveys important lessons

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 9, 2012 - 1:32 AM

Traditional conservationists can benefit from Rachel Carson's vision.

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Activist and author Rachel Carson, whose book "Silent Spring" led to a study of pesticides, testifying before Congress in 1963.

Fifty years ago, when Rachel Carson published "Silent Spring,'' the world changed forever.

But in many ways the human disposition remains as it ever was: indifferent to the health of the natural landscape surrounding us.

As chronicled in Twin Cities writer William Souder's remarkable biography of Carson published last week, Carson's exposé of the adverse effects of DDT on a smorgasbord of non-targeted fish and wildlife -- not least, eagles -- ushered in what we refer to now as the environmental movement.

Previously, "conservation'' was equated with stewardship of natural resources, an undertaking often spearheaded by hunters and anglers.

Environmentalism, by contrast, as Souder reminds us in "On a Farther Shore, the Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson" (Crown, $30), recognizes that man is not apart from nature but rather a part of it -- destined, in degrees, to share the fate of the world's other life forms.

Carson's story, and the scathing attacks she suffered from the chemical industry after publication of "Silent Spring," are similar in important ways to the reception many climate scientists have received when warning about melting glaciers, long-term droughts and other calamities; issues that should be important to everyone, especially hunters and anglers, who historically have claimed a special franchise on similar concerns.

Though some still dispute that climate change is occurring, argue about who or what is responsible and/or what if anything can be done in response, it nonetheless seems indisputable that in years to come entire populations of people worldwide must work in unison to mitigate pressing environmental problems.

By comparison, the struggle by U.S. hunters and anglers for more than a century to ensure they have sufficient game and fish populations to shoot and catch will seem like a walk in the park.

Souder's book doesn't specifically address these last issues. But he's a hunter and fisherman and a longtime friend and will indulge me, I hope, if I use his Carson biography (previous to which his memorable biography of John James Audubon was a Pulitzer finalist) as a springboard to propose discussion of this question in hunting camps this fall:

As competition for natural resources intensifies, and threats to them also, will the hunters and anglers who historically have paid the conservation bill in Minnesota and across the U.S. -- and largely defined its agenda -- remain in the stewardship vanguard?

Or will they instead reveal themselves to have been more concerned all along with sustaining their recreational distractions -- rather than properly shepherding the broad-based health of land, air and water?

Choosing the former will require of sportsmen and women sacrifices far greater than coughing up $50 once a year at a Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever or Trout Unlimited banquet (important though attending these is). And rewards for this increased commitment will be nowhere near as thrilling as catching a fish or shooting a duck or pheasant.

Put another way: Is the time well past when a hunter or angler can only be a "conservationist,'' concerned with fish and game exclusively -- and not also an environmentalist?

After all, the health and abundance of fish and wildlife depend on the health and abundance of clean air and water, the fertility of soil and continued relative climatic stability. Advocating for the former while remaining mute on the latter seems a fool's errand.

Souder's book inspires here, because in the decade after publication of "Silent Spring,'' DDT was banned, the Environmental Protection Agency was formed, pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals were regulated -- and the world became a better, and safer, place.

But required for this extraordinary transition was the spark of an extraordinary woman, Carson.

A scientist and renowned writer who had won the National Book Award previous to writing "Silent Spring," she was smart, educated, insightful, entirely focused and fearless, i.e. the perfect environmental advocate to expose DDT for the broad spectrum killer it was.

Writes Souder: "In the spring the robins returned, ate the toxic worms, and succumbed to the poison used in the previous year's spray program. Tests on worm tissues indicated as few as 11 earthworms could provide a lethal dose of DDT to a robin -- about as many as the bird consumes every minute it is feeding.''

An exceptional and important book, Souder's "On a Farther Shore'' points up that mankind's worst enemy -- and greatest hope -- is mankind itself.

Something to think about around a campfire this fall, or in a deer shack or duck camp.

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com

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