Silencing of spring puts human soul at peril

As we inch closer to silent spring predicted in classic book, we create a dead zone of the mind

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 October, 2012, 4:04pm

No chittering, no fluting, no chissicking. The bleak silence of a spring without its birds is the central image of Rachel Carson's most famous work. Since the publication of Silent Spring 50 years ago, humanity has continued muting the languages of nature, through the pesticides Carson examined, habitat loss, pollution, overfishing, overhunting and climate change, reducing numbers and driving some species to extinction.

The losses of the natural world are our loss, and its silence silences something in the human mind. Language is lit with animal life: we have hare-brained ideas; we speak of outfoxing someone, squirrelling something away and ferreting it out. I wish there was a verb to otter, to honour Otter ludens, which plays in my mind long after I've seen one. But when our experience of the wild world shrinks, we no longer fathom the depths of our own words; language loses its lustre.

The human mind needs nature to think most deeply. Pretending to be other creatures, children practise metaphor and empathy alike. Cultures have long heard wisdom in non-human voices: Apollo, god of medicine and knowledge, came to Delphi in the form of a dolphin. But dolphins, which fill the oceans with blipping and chirping, and whales, which mew and caw in ultramarine jazz - a true rhapsody in blue - are hunted to the edge of silence.

In the Sumerian period, according to legend, messengers of the gods in the shape of fish would spend their nights below the oceans, and in the days would teach humans the moral code and the arts. After the flood they did not return, so human scholars dressed themselves in fish cloaks, with fins and tails.

The stupidity of overfishing would have shocked Carson, herself a marine biologist. Since the 1950s, two-thirds of the species we have fished have collapsed, and some species are down 99 per cent, according to Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation, in his essential Ocean of Life. Dredgers carve graveyards in seabeds, fertilisers fuel plankton blooms that result in oxygenless dead zones, and climate change threatens much sea life.

Many cultures, such as the Iroquois, regard animals as guides. Biomimicry in architecture and design treats nature as a teacher; aeronautical engineers have studied the precise angle of eagle feathers. Art listens to the natural world, unwilling to shake the linnet from the leaf, refusing to silence the rite of spring. Take nature out of Shakespeare and it would be incalculably impoverished; without his bunch of radish or shotten herring, Falstaff wouldn't be Falstaff, nor would Ophelia's lament be so poignant without rosemary for remembrance and rue for you. In a silent spring, the very forest of Arden would be voiceless.

The forest doctors of the Amazon say each plant has its "song", and that to know how to use the plant you must listen to its voice. The silencing of the rainforests is a double deforestation, not only of trees but of the mind's music, medicine and knowledge. Forest doctors use medicines we need badly. They say ayahuasca, the most profound of all medicines, guides the psyche; as I know from experience, it is the finest treatment for depression, the psyche's most terrible silence.

But those who want to make nature history attempt to silence its protectors. Carson has been vilified with false accusations that her influence on DDT restriction caused millions to die of malaria. (It was not banned in anti-malarial use, but in agricultural use, and that partly because its indiscriminate use created resistance in malarial mosquitoes.) In the Amazon, the forest doctors are attacked by missionaries and the forests are destroyed for timber extraction and cattle ranching. We are taking the most precious mind-medicine and turning it into beef burgers. Here's rue for us all.

In silenced forests, in silenced seas, in silenced springs, the human mind loses its thoughtways, risking the extinction of metaphors, losing the resonance of language, putting the significance of wildness on a Cites list of endangered ideas. The web of life is also a web of thought, and our minds are cats-cradled in the unsilenced, singing earth.

Jay Griffiths is the author of Wild: An Elemental Journey, and the forthcoming Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape

The Guardian