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  • Megan Kaun

Rachael Carson on Roadsides

Updated: May 23, 2023

"There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony..."

We honor one of our guiding lights this month, Rachael Carson born May 27, 1907. Many of us remember this iconic first sentence from Rachael Carson's Silent Spring (1962). In Carson's opening paragraphs, she specifically mentions roads:

"Along the roads, laurel, viburnum and alder, great ferns and wildflowers delighted the traveler’s eye through much of the year. Even in winter the roadsides were places of beauty, where countless birds came to feed on the berries and on the seed heads of the dried weeds rising above the snow. The countryside was, in fact, famous for the abundance and variety of its bird life, and when the flood of migrants was pouring through in spring and fall people traveled from great distances to observe them. Others came to fish the streams, which flowed clear and cold out of the hills and contained shady pools where trout lay. So it had been from the days many years ago when the first settlers raised their houses, sank their wells, and built their barns."

Carson contrasts this scene by describing the small farming town landscape after the introduction of synthetic pesticides.

"The roadsides, once so attractive, were now lined with browned and withered vegetation as though swept by fire. These, too, were silent, deserted by all living things. Even the streams were now lifeless. Anglers no longer visited them, for all the fish had died."

It is fascinating that the same issues Carson described over 60 years ago are still prevalent issues today. In brighter terms, it can be useful for us to remember the past when finding new paths for the future.

Carson's connection between roads and streams is apt. Roads are edge locations, places between worlds (where cars drive--where car's don't drive, cleared land--vegetated land). Many species of plants and animals thrive in edge locations, where a mixture of sun and shade, wet and dry, create the perfect paradoxes for life. When roadsides are stripped bare of all vegetation, left in only in a thin covering of dirt, the entire ecosystem suffers. The edge location is no longer one that supports life (except for the prickliest, most pesticide-resistant and invasive weeds and insects). This dead zone spreads past just the side of the road. The bare, now contaminated dirt readily erodes during wind and rain events, clogging culverts and causing major road repairs. This traveling dirt also clogs the streams and waterways, suffocating the food chain and killing the fish.

This is exactly what has been witnessed in Sonoma County California. The Russian Riverkeeper NGO tells us that the watershed's biggest contaminant of concern is sediment. Too much sediment not only kills fish, it changes the flow of the river, making it easier for plants like duckweed and azolla to proliferate, further damaging water quality and habitat. What do land managers do when rivers and lakes have too much aquatic vegetation...?? They often spray dangerous pesticides directly into the water. This has created a damaging cycle, one that proliferates ecosystem destruction, continuous "necessary" pesticide use, and big profits for the chemical industry.

Erosion along California Highway 1 following Caltrans' application of pesticides for vegetation management, 2023.

Many things have changed since Silent Spring was published, industry has provided a suite of substitute chemicals that are admittedly safer than the DDT of yesteryear. Glyphosate (active ingredient in RoundUpTM), of course, is our most famous example. We know, however, that these chemicals are still not safe and that the exponential increase of pesticide use despite Carson's warnings since the 1960's continues to pollute air, water, soil, and food. We also know that the practice of spraying a chemical that kills every plant, every insect, is not ecosystem friendly, even if the chemical itself is more benign than its predecessors. There is a better way, one that is simultaneously ancient and modern, one that works with nature rather than against, one that chooses collaboration instead of war.

Increases in pesticides used in the United States since Carson's Silent Spring was published in the 1962. Pesticide use has increased exponentially over the past 60 years despite Carson's warnings. Source:

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