chapter  1
17 Pages

Beginnings: pollution

It is generally agreed that modern environmentalism begins with ‘A Fable for Tomorrow’, in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962). Carson’s fairy tale opens with the words, ‘There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings’ and, invoking the ancient tradition of the pastoral, goes on to paint a picture of ‘prosperous farms’, ‘green fields’, foxes barking in the hills, silent deer, ferns and wildflowers, ‘countless birds’ and trout lying in clear, cold streams, all delighted in by those who pass through the town (Carson 1999: 21). Concentrating on images of natural beauty and emphasising the ‘harmony’ of humanity and nature that ‘once’ existed, the fable at first presents us with a picture of essential changelessness, which human activity scarcely disturbs, and which the annual round of seasons only reinforces. However, pastoral peace rapidly gives way to catastrophic destruction:

In the ensuing paragraphs, every element of the rural idyll is torn apart by some agent of change, the mystery of which is emphasised by the use of both natural and supernatural terminology of ‘malady’ and ‘spell’. The most impassioned passage concerns the collapse in bird populations: ‘On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh’ (1999: 22). The ‘silent spring’ of the title alludes, on one level, to this loss of birdsong, although it also comes to function as a synecdoche for a more general environmental apocalypse. So the founding text of modern environmentalism not only

begins with a decidedly poetic parable, but also relies on the literary genres of pastoral and apocalypse, pre-existing ways of imagining the place of humans in nature that may be traced back to such sources as Genesis and Revelation, the first and last books of the Bible. Silent Spring initially suggests that the mythical eco-catastrophe of the fable might be supernatural, and emphasises this by including an epigram from Keats’ poem ‘La Belle Dame Sans Merci’, in which the magical power of a beautiful woman blights the environment: ‘The sedge is wither’d from the lake, / And no birds sing.’ But then the fable concludes: ‘No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.’ The rest of the book sets out to prove that such an apocalypse was already going on in a fragmentary way all over America, so that the doom befalling this mythical town of the future could be seen as a composite of lesser tragedies already known, and scientifically validated, in 1962. The real culprits, according to Carson, were the new organic

pesticides such as DDT, aldrin and dieldrin that had been introduced after the Second World War and had already proven highly successful in controlling pest insects. Silent Spring marshalled an impressive array of scientific evidence to show that this very success constituted a serious threat both to wildlife and to human health, confronting the utopian claims of agricultural scientists on their

own ground. Carson’s scientific claims have since been largely confirmed, leading to increased public awareness of pesticide pollution, firmer state regulation and development of less persistent agricultural chemicals. Environmentalist claims like these make crucial contributions

to modern politics and culture, and many of us respond to them to some degree, yet for the student of the humanities they can be difficult to assess on their own terms. Academia has been organised into relatively autonomous ‘disciplines’ and scientific problems seem to require scientific expertise. Nevertheless, the rhetorical strategies, use of pastoral and apocalyptic imagery and literary allusions with which Carson shapes her scientific material may well be amenable to a more ‘literary’ or ‘cultural’ analysis. Such analysis is what we will call ‘ecocriticism’. This book is a critical introduction to the field of ecocriticism today. Let us look, then, at some provisional definitions of the subject.

The first is from the ‘Introduction’ to The Ecocriticism Reader (1996), an important anthology of American ecocriticism: