|Looking back at the Blue Mountain/ Kittatinny Ridge - both an obstacle and an opening.|
|A tribute to the Lincoln Highway, Route 30.|
I arrived in Springdale late in the afternoon. This is a working-class town on the banks of the Allegheny River just outside of Pittsburgh, that, like most Western PA industrial towns is attempting to make a transition to a sustainable future. I met with Rachel Carson Homestead Executive Director Jeanne Cecil for an interview. She gave me a marvelous private tour of the home and we talked at length about the site serving as a sort of pilgrimage destination for many. She had some wonderful stories to share. We talked at length about Rachel's childhood and early academic life and the impact her hometown, family, and Allegheny topography had on her.
|From Life Magazine, 1962.|
From an environmental history perspective, Rachel Carson's early life was filled with all the ingredients that set her life's trajectory in motion. Her hometown was bracketed upstream and down by two coal-fired power plants that (pre-regulation) could fill the little river valley with thick smog, a precursor to the killing smogs of the 1940s. It would be some time, however, before a single electric line ran up the hill to the Carson home just above town. For all of her childhood, the family had no indoor plumbing. Electric came late - one small line was run to the house by her older brother working as an electrician - to light one bulb in one room. The house, however, was filled with light during the day. It was filled too, with stories read aloud to the family pets, piano music, and lessons in nature study. The sixty acre lot originally purchased by her father, was slowly sold off in parcels as the town grew uphill. Visitors are surprised to find the two-over-two German built farmhouse (1860s) now surrounded by homes in a very suburban setting.
|Coal-fired powerplant in Springdale, PA|
Rachel moved away from Springdale at the time America's industrial muscle was being flexed. Stell, cable, and wire mills doubled in size and chemical plants competed with coal crackers for river shoreline. The paradoxical nature of communities under the umbrella of chemical, power, and steel industries along the Allegheny River offered residents both the promise of jobs and the concern - if not fear - of heavy pollution. The killing smog of Donora in 1948 concerned Springdale greatly, but the economy and good paying jobs held the community together. "There was a rumor of blue sky,"said a plant worker in Donora, "but I never saw it."
|Rachel Carson's birth room. A space so sacred to some, they cannot enter it out of respect.|
As I toured the small house on the hill, Jeanne pointed out that Springdale, rightfully proud of their connection to Rachel Carson, has worked hard as a community to make their economy and physical environment a priority. Like so many Western Pennsylvania river towns that struggle to balance employment, health, industry, and security, Springdale serves as a microcosm of the challenges that face the region. Across Western Pennsylvania, townships and their residents struggle to balance the need for jobs with the heath of their communities. Right now the people of Beaver County, PA, in the Ohio River Valley, are facing the challenges that a new Shell ethane cracker plant will bring. Some residents fear the pollution will force them out of their family homes, while others applaud the jobs the plant will bring. https://www.alleghenyfront.org/shells-pennsylvania-chemical-plant-brings-hope-for-jobs-fear-of-pollution/
|The backyard. At the top of the hill is where young Rachel found her first marine fossil.|
In nature, change is inevitable and unstoppable. The small trail out back of the house leads up to the top of the ridge where young Rachel found her first marine fossil. Her discovery launched a life-long love affair with marine life, propelling her to degrees in biology and marine zoology. The hill, now topped by the high school parking lot above the house, was once the top of a long slope of an ancient river bank. To look at the town from the air (Google Earth) you can see a series of old floodplain steppes on which the hilly community is built. The region never experienced the uplift and folding of continental collisions as Eastern Pennsylvania did and at one time the Allegheny flowed placidly to the Great Lakes - there is hardly a gradient to speak of. The dendritic nature of entrenched creek and river valleys, however, make this a landscape rich in natural history and geological wonder. Rachel's mother, trained in the tradition of Nature Study in the 1890s, guided her excitement for finding clues to the region's marine past. Fossil hunting was lifelong passion for Rachel even as the idea of the age of Earth and the theories of evolution were still being debated and new fields of scientific discovery challenged old thinking.
|The worn steps of the house resemble the steps of ancient flood plains outside.|
The steps towards regulation of dangerous pesticides had begun before Carson had gotten involved. DDT made its debut during World War II. It performed its louse-killing and malaria prevention duties with so much success that the U.S. military made it clear that despite its heavy use on soldiers and civilians, no one had died from exposure to it and many lives had been saved from insect-borne diseases as a result. But this was a wartime narrative that transitioned to widespread civilian use as soon as the war had ended. Civilian manufacture and use of DDT applied the same reasoning and logic - that it had saved millions of lives and hadn't killed anyone. This became a persistent storyline that continues to support both its manufacture/sale/use today in other countries and to defame its critics, including Carson and other scientists who urged caution.
|Honeybee die-offs offered the first evidence that DDT, used without farmer consent, would become a regulatory issue.|
Farmer Dorothy Colson became one of DDT's first critics. She launched an investigation soon after DDT was sprayed by cropduster, without her consent, near her family land in 1946. She lost an entire apiary of honeybees, a vital part of their farm's income for pollination services and honey sales. “Any poison strong enough to kill or damage honey bees is surely strong enough to affect people,” she wrote to local health officials urging a more rigorous study of its use. The fact was that federal agencies were worried about its affects. U.S.Fish and Wildlife scientists in Patuxent, MD, were working on field studies in the mid-1940s that proved DDT was a bio-accumulant, killing fish-eating and insect-eating birds who consumed aquatic prey exposed to long-term or heavy applications. The Association of Economic Entomologists were worried too, and suggested that long-term exposure might not be evident for decades in humans - possibly over generations. Monsanto in the late 40s, a major manufacturer of DDT, warned that “the danger inherent in the indiscriminate use of DDT as a cure-all is very real.” (1)
|DDT application to American Elm. Wisconsin Historical Society.|
As Carson began her research into DDT studies (to be compiled into her book Silent Spring) she knew that she was setting herself on a course that would result in widespread attack for challenging the wartime-turned-industry narrative. Nowhere in that narrative was the long-term concern that Carson and many scientists and farmers before her had raised. As we know now, long-term and early exposure to DDT in pregnant women and their children has resulted in a human cost of lives related to testicular, ovarian, and breast cancers. It is an age and time-related connection that rewrites the narrative for modern chemical regulatory policy. "We were looking in the wrong places," writes anthropologist and biotechnologist Glen Davis Stone. (2)
|Jeanne Cecil, Executive Director, RCHS|
I stopped at a convenience store to gas up and met with a resident there who explained the damned-if-you-do/ damned-if-you-don't devil's bargain that many river towns experience. "Those stories about China and India smogs in the news recently? Yeah. My grandfather remembers this town looking like that," he said. "But what are we to do? We have a love/hate relationship to environmental regulation because - we are told - it kills jobs. I don't believe it. The wind industry has brought jobs. Solar has brought jobs. We need to adapt." The narrative of good paying jobs weighs very heavily in Western PA and not a few people compare it with the storyline of DDT.
(1) Elana Conis, "Beyond Silent Spring: An Alternative History of DDT." https://www.chemheritage.org/distillations/magazine/beyond-silent-spring-an-alternate-history-of-ddt
Conis offers compelling historical evidence that challenge persistent military narratives that suggest civilian and scientific concerns were raised before Carson even raised her own pen.
(2) Stone's 2015 blog Field Questions post "GM Foods: A Moment of Honesty," compares industry narratives between the DDT debate and GM foods claims. An interesting read that contains links to the groundbreaking long-term epidemiological work of Dr. Barbara Cohn. https://fieldquestions.com/2015/07/29/gm-foods-a-moment-of-honesty/
Springdale Borough's town website, "The Power City," offers a really nice overview of the history of the river valley and a tribute to their daughter, Rachel Carson (see: Information). http://www.springdaleborough.com/
The Allegheny Front is a public radio program well worth exploring online. I am a loyal subscriber to the podcasts and their webpage is excellent. https://www.alleghenyfront.org/
Please help the Rachel Carson Homestead get a leg up on much needed restoration and staffing! Donate and become a member. At this time there are still raffle tickets left for a lucky winner to spend a week at Rachel Carson's Maine cabin next summer! https://rachelcarsonhomestead.org/