Thursday, January 27, 2011

On Rachel's Wings

“Oh, it’s just another eagle.” The implications of that dismissive comment I made while driving around Cape Breton Island with Sarah last summer didn’t strike me immediately. Moments later, I replayed the conversation in my head and couldn’t help but be stunned. A soaring bald eagle, yet we didn’t even pull over to focus binoculars on it. Why? Because we’d spent most of the morning seeing bald eagles here, there, and everywhere. And this in a not-particularly-wild part of Nova Scotia. Who would have envisioned that in 1973?

Bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus), the national avian reptile of the United States, now exist in all 50 and nest in at least 45 of those states. 35 years ago, no one was sure how long the species would exist. It was looking like we should have sided with Benjamin Franklin and made the wild turkey our representative. The eagles’ decline was no mystery, thanks to a recent awakening of ecological awareness among Americans. The hands on the alarm bell belonged to a quiet young woman from Pennsylvania named Rachel Carson.

Rachel Carson in 1940, working for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries.

Carson was a marine biologist, starting out with a job with the U.S. government, but securing her future with the best-selling natural history tomes The Sea Around Us and The Edge of the Sea. Somewhere during the waning days of World War II she became aware of a lurking menace known as dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, which normal people called DDT. Her attentions turned to the perils of synthetic pesticides, but knowing the public was deaf to conservation issues, she published nothing on the matter during the post-war boom. Finally, in 1962 she sounded the bell.

Carson and her magnum opus.

 Silent Spring sent shock waves through the American industrial complex and helped spawn the conservation movement that would christen Earth Day eight years later. Carson envisioned a spring morning of silence, absent of singing birds as their eggs had been rendered worthless by the lingering effects of pesticides.
The chemical industry reacted as would be expected. Apoplectic outrage would be an accurate description. Her thesis was flawed, they said. Her training not relevant. Unspoken by most, but always present, was the indictment of her worst offense: she was a woman trying to “do science.” To Carson’s greatest credit, she persevered. She spoke whenever and wherever she could. She made sense. The public, the folks without a hint of training in ecology, believed her. And what a blessed miracle that was, given that she was absolutely correct about everything.

Bald eagle on a perch above Bonne Bay, Newfoundland.

Carson succumbed to breast cancer in 1964. DDT use was banned in the United States in 1972 (1985 in Canada). The bald eagle was made an official endangered species in 1973. Today Carson’s legacy of conservation lives on, DDT is sadly still widely used on other continents, and the bald eagle has gone from a mere 400 nesting pairs in the 70’s to hundreds of thousands of birds across the continent. Two out of three ain’t bad, but there’s clearly more work to be done.

The next time I see an eagle, I promise to not so quickly take it for granted. If you listen closely, you can hear a soaring eagle speak to the wind. Not the call the birdwatchers learn, but a grateful whisper to their existence. Thank you, Rachel, they say.