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Image of Rachel Carson.

Natural Heroes

In a 1963 Peanuts comic strip, Lucy and Schroeder talk about nature writer Rachel Carson. "Rachel Carson says that when our moon was born, there were no oceans on Earth," says Lucy.

Schroeder stops playing his piano and explodes. "Rachel Carson! Rachel Carson! Rachel Carson! You're always talking about Rachel Carson!"

Unperturbed, Lucy replies, "We girls need our heroines!"

Fifty years ago, everyone was talking about Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, a disturbing account of the harm caused by the proliferation of synthetic pesticides being used outdoors, from back yards and beaches, to croplands and wetlands and forests. Though Carson was not calling for a total ban on pesticides, representatives of the chemical industry demonized her. But many others recognized the urgency of her message and saw Carson as a reasonable reformer.

Her life story is fascinating, and her biographer William Souder gives us a glimpse of it in this issue. "A Voice for Wildlife" presents some of the themes developed in his book On a Farther Shore. Souder makes clear that Carson did not set out to be a hero. As a biologist and writer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, she was well aware of the agency's research into the effects of DDT and other organochlorines on fish and wildlife. Deemed a safe insecticide, DDT came into use during World War II to combat insect-borne diseases such as malaria. Researchers at the wildlife refuge in Patuxent, Md., sprayed DDT at "safe" levels in test plots for four years running. The sprayed areas showed a 26 percent decline in bird numbers. The more the scientists investigated, the more hazardous to fauna and flora the pesticides seemed.

Carson clipped newspaper stories on pesticides, including one on a lawsuit to stop DDT spraying in a neighborhood on Long Island. When a resident encouraged her to write about this case, she turned to another writer, E.B. White, to prompt him to do a pesticide piece for The New Yorker magazine. He tossed the idea back to Carson. Though once reluctant to give up her belief "that much of Nature was forever beyond the tampering reach of man," Carson now wanted people to know about the dangers pesticides posed to the health of humans and ecosystems. She decided to write the magazine article and the book.

Silent Spring sounded the alarm about dramatic declines in bird populations. In this issue "The Case for Copper" calls attention to lead poisoning of eagles today. It is not causing a significant decline in Minnesota's eagle population. But ingesting lead can sicken and kill many eagles. Our story explains why some hunters have decided to use nontoxic copper ammunition.

Among other consequences, Carson's book led the government to establish a new pesticides laboratory at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. At the lab's dedication, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall said: "A great woman has awakened the nation by her forceful account of the dangers around us. We owe much to Rachel Carson."

Who are your heroes, your role models? Few people can have long-lasting, national influence, as Carson did. Most heroes are known only locally or in certain circles. My own list of heroes is long. It includes Bemidji-based songwriter and musician Jim Miller, who recorded acoustic instrumentals for some MCV online projects. Through his writing and music, he held fast to his outrage at injustice. A lot of people learned, as I did, to appreciate the vitality of music by listening to his strong, original voice. The Rev. Victoria Safford is my hero for many reasons, perhaps most of all for her deep love and concern for the natural world, expressed in powerful, poetic sermons and clear-minded actions. And my bachelor uncle Vern Torgerson, who fought in World War I and II, is a hero to me for his kindness and humility. He never owned a car, and he gave away more money than he spent. Vern's environmental footprint was very small, and his impression on those who knew him was larger than he could ever have imagined.

This issue covers many topics—hunting land, forests, clean water, wilderness, grouse, trout, eagles, rare species. What wild things do you love? How will you use your voice?

Kathleen Weflen, editor

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