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New London’s Silent Spring

A half-century ago, Silent Spring raised the alarm of pending environmental devastation. Some of the book’s evidence came from right here in southeastern Connecticut.

New London’s Silent Spring

The year that is rapidly drawing to a close marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The controversial book, now considered a classic, introduced many Americans to the dangers of synthetic pesticides and herbicides and sparked a national debate that led to Congressional hearings and bans on chemicals such as DDT.

Silent Spring, often credited with setting in motion the environmental movement, details the chilling side-effects of poorly-regulated and often unquestioned use of chemicals in cities and towns across the country — including New London.

In the book, Carson makes two specific references to the area. One recalls an instance in which “trees within the Connecticut Arboretum Natural Area were seriously injured when the town of Waterford sprayed the roadside with chemical weed killers in 1957.”

The Connecticut Arboretum is now the Connecticut College Arboretum; according to its website the name was changed by current Arboretum Director Glenn Dreyer when he joined the staff in 1988.

The Arboretum, which abuts the border of New London and Waterford, began as a small teaching garden in 1928 and now comprises 450 acres of woods, trails, and native plants.

Carson describes the impact of the 1957 spraying on the Arboretum’s trees. “Even large trees not directly sprayed were affected. The leaves of the oaks began to curl and turn brown, although it was the season for Spring growth. Then new shoots began to be put forth, and grew with abnormal rapidity, giving a weeping appearance to the trees. Two seasons later, large branches on these trees had died, others were without leaves, and the deformed, weeping effect of whole trees persisted.”

In another section, warning of the dangers of spraying along rural highways - which she calls “the senseless destruction that is going on in the name of roadside brush control” — Carson cites the observations of botanists Richard H. Goodwin and William A. Niering, published in the Connecticut Arboretum Bulletin in 1959.

Goodwin and Niering, both professors at the College and one-time directors of the Arboretum, termed the destruction of native shrubs and flowers a  “roadside crisis.” Of their findings, Carson wrote that “azaleas, mountain laurel, blueberries, huckleberries, viburnum, dogwood, bayberry, sweet fern, low shadbush, winterberry, chokecherry, and wild plum are dying before the chemical barrage. So are the daisies, black-eyed Susans, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrods, and fall asters, which lend grace and beauty to the landscape.”

The Arboretum’s collections still include most of the species that were threatened by the spraying Carson decried in 1962.

Connecticut College’s ties to Silent Spring go deeper than these brief passages. The school’s Linda Lear Center for Special Collections and Archives holds the archive of Carson biographer (and Conn College graduate) Linda Lear, who wrote introductions to all of Carson’s books, as well as other collections relating to environmental studies.

The New London-Waterford area is not the only Connecticut location mentioned in Silent Spring. The town of Greenwich is also named as a place adversely affected by the spraying of chemicals.

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