Sunday, 6 February 2011

White to Carson

I've been doing a bit of catch-up reading of a diptych of eco classics; today I finished Gilbert White's "Natural History of Selborne, and started Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring".

White's book is in the form of letters, and he often hopes they "may not be unacceptable" to his two correspondents! He was a meticulous observer of birds, weather and other phenomena, and went some way to interpreting and understanding his observations, for example in the wonderful passage on house martins cited in the introduction. His methods were at times questionable, involving shooting many of his subjects! And his theories did not always fit the facts, for example why clear nights are colder, or whether swallows migrated or hibernated. But science is a process of developing theories and collecting evidence to test and accept/reject/refine the theories, or developing new methods of collecting evidence which may lead to radical new theories. Hence White is not content with just observations, but continues to seek understanding and applications: "The standing objection to botany has always been, that it is a pursuit that amuses the fancy and exercises the memory without improving the mind or advancing any real knowledge... The botanist... should be by no means content with a list of names; he [sic] should study plants philosophically, should investigate the laws of vegetation, should examine the powers and virtues of efficacious herbs, should promote their cultivation; and graft the gardener, the planter, and the husbandman, on the phytologist."

Carson I suspect is just as meticulous. So far, she has been describing the pesticides and herbicides - DDT, malathion, dieldrin, etc. It's incredible (now at least) to think that some of these chemicals used on food crops were closely allied in structure to the nerve gases developed by Germany and used during the war.

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