Silent Spring Revisited
For 50 years, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring has been an iconic book. With haiku-like eloquence, her simple title declared a fear for a world drained of birds and bird song, and helped catalyse the then nascent trans-Atlantic environment movement. Carson straddled the science/arts divide with equal ease, and was admired in both spheres, not least by poet Ted Hughes, who drew on Silent Spring for his own environmental writing.
Anyone who has followed Conor Jameson’s regular column in the RSPB’s Birds magazine knows that he is a fine writer, who weaves together an artist’s sensibility with a conservationist’s sense of reality. These skills lie at the heart of Silent Spring Revisited. After a personal introduction, Jameson has taken the 50 years since Carson published and created an absorbing history of bird conservation. Each chapter looks at a whole decade, and each section a year. The detailed accounts are compelling and a vital read for anyone with an interest in the genesis and history of contemporary British environmentalism.
As a child of the Sixties, events like the Torrey Canyon disaster of 1967 had a huge impact on my emerging concern for birds. The mass disappearance of Common Whitethroat in the spring of 1969 was another key moment. It was hard, nay impossible, to imagine a countryside empty of these hedge sprites, their “faintly manic song flight”, as Jameson describes it, extinguished. This fear drew a new generation of citizen scientists into the Common Bird Census; many of them no doubt now Birdwatch readers.
Jameson’s narrative interweaves snatches of autobiography with the key issues and events: hunting on Cyprus, the first bird atlas, the Amoco Cadiz disaster, the Wildlife and Countryside Act, the Flow country crisis, a last nesting Red-backed Shrike, the RSPB’s innovative Hope Farm. Books, reports and public outcry all add to a sustained clamour for a sane balance between our natural environment and economic development.
The book is enlivened with an elegant caroling Song Thrush cover by Carry Akroyd, and pages that dance with characteristically lively pencil sketches from that master of the genre, John Busby.
Jameson might not claim that Silent Spring Revisited will fire up a passionate new environmentalism, but as world leaders gather in Rio for the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, he has skillfully stitched together a narrative that reveals the highs and lows of conservation, and will, I am sure, convince many that the good fight is still worth it.
• Silent Spring Revisited by Conor Mark Jameson (A&C Black, London, 2012).
• 288 pages, many pencil sketches.
• ISBN 9781408157602. Hbk, £16.99.
Available from Birdwatch Bookshop