Of all the larger inhabitants of the soil, probably none is more important than the earthworm.
–Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
In 1973, I conducted a worm experiment. It sounded like a good idea in theory, but what did I know? I was ten years old when my elementary school held a science fair and required everyone in my class to enter. I had little aptitude for science and still hadn’t entirely ruled out the existence of leprechauns, so I was in no position to conduct, much less design, a science experiment.
Fortunately, my father was a Senior Research Organic Chemist (that’s how he always introduced himself, so proud of his profession). He got ahold of some sort of catalogue of science fair experiments. Dad held the pages in his blond-haired fingers while we peered at diagrams of various contraptions for testing animal cognition. His blue eyes lit up under his huge cranium, overburdened, I imagined, by so many brains, while his tongue protruded from his lips to help him think in that way that would mortify me as a teenager but still delighted me at ten.
When my father, the natural-born scientist I longed to be, chose to specialize in organic chemistry in the 1950s, the young field was still rooted in its origins as “the chemistry of living things,” which, therefore, meant the chemistry of carbon-based molecules. But laboratories had already begun to synthesize carbon-based compounds that no living thing could produce, such as plastics, pesticides, and preservatives. My father worked in plastics. “The future is in plastics” wasn’t just a (misquoted) line from The Graduate. My dad really did believe that we would live better through chemistry, which would wipe out malaria and feed the world through its Green Revolution. Things were already getting better and better for humans. Nature was a solvable problem.
“How about this one?” My dad pointed to a diagram of a big T with crawling worms guided by arrows. As he read over the small print, I watched his tongue bobbing in and out of his lips, itself a probing worm bared to the sun.
And so my dad and I set out to train earthworms.
“You’re one of the first people who’s never lived in a world without Silent Spring..,” the timeline generator on TheAtlantic.com tells me when I register my 1963 birth date. I’m the first of the post-Carson generation. Science writer Rachel Carson published her book Silent Spring, warning against the dangers of synthetic pesticides, in 1962. She’d already gained fame from her three previous books on the sea and marine life. Research for those books made her increasingly concerned about the adverse health effects of radiation and pesticides, especially DDT.
My father did not appreciate Rachel Carson. Today, we might see her as a progressive environmentalist, but back then he saw her as reactionary, resistant to progress. For him, as for so many like him in the 1970s, the fruits of organic chemistry were not seen as opposite to those of nature. It was pesticides that enabled him to teach my brother and me to enjoy nature. Every summer weekend we coated our pink skin in Off! bug spray—my dad’s varicose veins already worming out from his khaki shorts, as mine would years later—and drove to the Forest Preserves with butterfly nets. Tramping along the trails, we carved through the black-eyed Susans and Queen Anne’s lace and the milkweed stalks crawling with caterpillars. We tracked painted ladies, tiger swallowtails, and yellow-powdered sulphurs. My dad loved the monarchs most, and taught me not to be fooled by the viceroys’ mimicry of their more stately but poisonous betters. In nature, what at first seemed to be one thing might turn out to be something else entirely. Look closely: those seeming eyes might turn out to be the backside of Buckeye wings. Each time we netted a new species of Lepidoptera, we put it in a jar of chloroform-soaked paper towels, to be mounted later and displayed in our wood-paneled den. With its green wall-to-wall carpeting, that den felt like an extension of the forest, just as my dad saw his interest in chemistry as an extension of his love of nature.
We worked in that den on our worm experiment contraption, carving balsa wood on top of our gold-flecked fiberglass TV trays and gluing together the walled T, which my father stuck with butterfly-mounting pins for support while it dried.
The worm experiment was to be the insect equivalent of rats in mazes. The hapless wriggler was supposed to start at the bottom of the T and crawl up toward the horizontal bar. Once there, it would have to turn one way or the other. If it crawled left, it would hit a wire that my dad rigged up to give it a mild electric shock. If right, no shock. At least that’s how I remember it, wacky as it sounds now. The test would tell us if worms had memories and, if so, whether or not they could draw on those memories to adapt their behaviors.
After constructing the T we rounded up ten glass jars from the garage, bored holes into the lids, and went out into the garden. I turned over bricks, swept aside the roly-polies instantly beading, and unearthed ten robust and healthy worms. I coaxed each wriggling creature onto my patient index finger, its weightless crawl almost imperceptible to my crude human skin. Then I placed each one in its own soil-filled glass habitat and screwed down the lid.
The soil in those jars probably contained trace amounts of pesticide. Although DDT was banned for agricultural use in the U.S. the year before my worm experiment, its half-life was long—possibly years or even decades. While Silent Spring warned not only against chlorinated hydrocarbons such as DDT but also against organophosphates still in use today (as in Roundup), my father wouldn’t have believed Carson’s warnings and would have treated our garden and yard with the prescribed dose of commercial herbicide. He would have believed the chemists and entomologists of the recently formed EPA, who determined the pesticides safe for residential use in the recommended doses. Although many agricultural workers were showing symptoms of pesticide poisoning, including neurological seizures and even death as well as high incidences of cancer, causation was very difficult to prove. My father would have called Carson’s warnings alarmist hysteria.
He would have joined the backlash against Carson, which became brutal and ruthless, particularly on the part of ascendant giants of the chemical industry such as Monsanto and Dow Chemical. Her detractors characterized her as arguing against using any synthetic chemicals whatsoever—already a clear impossibility. Actually, she explicitly contended “not that moderate chemical controls should never be used under any circumstances but, rather, that we must reduce their use to a minimum and must as rapidly as possible develop and strengthen biological controls.” She advocated that we proceed more cautiously and employ more modest approaches, such as selective spraying, rather than wholesale aerial spraying. (Ironically, while writing Silent Spring, she was being treated for breast cancer with radiotherapy and chemotherapy, the human body’s analogs to radiation and pesticides in the environment.)
Silent Spring begins with a fairytale-turned-nightmare about a town “where all life seemed to be in harmony with its surroundings” until some “white granular powder” was “dropped, like snow, upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and the streams.” Afterwards,
…there was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone? Many people, baffled and disturbed, spoke of them. The feeding stations in the back yards were deserted. The few birds to be seen anywhere were moribund; they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices.
When Rachel Carson died in 1964, DDT use was on the rise. America was on its way toward her nightmare scenario. Already, birds were disappearing.
In my worm experiment of 1973, the trace pesticide in the soil of my worm jars was the least of my problems.
In retrospect, my dad and I should have foreseen the problems with the experiment. Under best case scenario, when a worm crawled up the T and turned left, I couldn’t tell if the shock actually happened. The worm showed no reaction. More often, though, it tried to crawl over the T’s restraining walls. Or the worm didn’t crawl up the T. Sometimes the worm didn’t move at all. I wasn’t always sure it was alive.
As the days went on, I started having trouble removing worms from the soil in their jars. Although I was as careful as I could be, sometimes I pulled too hard and the worms split in half. Horrified, I’d fling the half-worm hanging from my pinch back into the jar and close it tight.
I began to dread going into the den each day.
Years later I would enter college as a chemistry major. In retrospect, it’s obvious that I wanted to emulate my father, though at the time I convinced myself that I loved chemistry. Not surprisingly, my lab techniques never improved. On paper, molecular structures were neat maps into invisible worlds. I loved the reliability of valences and the cleanness of balanced equations. I loved working mechanisms, more fun than crossword puzzles. I loved having answers. But in lab I was a disaster. In organic chemistry class I either got 13% yields, or, disproving the law of conservation of mass, 113% yields. Nothing about the system of flasks, tubes, and Bunsen burners, or the filtration and titration columns, was intuitive, at least not in situ. As a friend of mine likes to say about me, I’m “better with the theory than the lab.” That turns out to be a widespread condition.
Because I was always the last to leave organic chem lab, I got to know the poor grad student monitors, usually nerdy lab rats like my father, who had to wait for me. They must have resented it, though they were always polite, with their soft rural-Southern accents or reassuring Indian lilts. One such lab monitor mentioned casually one day that, statistically, organic chemists die young. I hadn’t heard that before.
“Why?” I protested.
He shrugged. “We’re around some pretty toxic stuff. Known carcinogens, for starters. Even if we’re scrupulous about using the hood….” He shrugged again. Although he planned to be a career organic chemist, he had only a couple of years on my 19, and was therefore still immortal.
But I thought of my father, now in his fifties, and realized for the first time that he was going to die someday. In a wave of nausea, I remembered the slowing wings of the butterfly in a jar of chloroform-soaked paper towel.
My father did die relatively young, at 63. I’m not claiming causal relationship between his early death and his years of working with volatile organic chemicals, but they couldn’t have helped. Our own private silent spring.
I recently mentioned to a colleague, as she photocopied articles on ecocriticism, that my dad had been a plastics chemist. Her response spurred this essay. “So he was one of the ones to thank for all our problems,” she said, smiling wryly.
Huh? my face must have said.
Duh, hers answered, but she said, “One of the ones who got the earth into the mess we’re in today.” It seemed so obvious to her.
But my father was one of the good ones, I wanted to protest. He took me butterflying, and helped me with my homework, and worked hard in the lab, and tried to make the world a better place. In spite of my own concerns for the environment, it had never occurred to me until that moment that my dad was part of the problem, not the solution. He was the antagonist in the progress narrative, as easy to vilify as the giant corporations of the chemical industry he believed in. How had I failed to see the obvious?
Even at his death in 1995, my dad remained a believer in synthetic chemistry as our savior, though evidence to the contrary was accumulating. Now I wonder: had my dad lived a full lifetime, I don’t think he would have become a climate change denier—not given his respect for scientific evidence—but I can’t be sure.
I did not become an organic chemist. Eventually I changed my major to English and never looked back. Years later, as an English professor, I was assigned a composition class teaching science majors to write for non-specialist audiences. Toward the end of the semester, I threw in the opening chapter of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, in part because I found that most of my students had never heard of the book, which I thought every science major should know about. We’d been talking about communicating the urgency of climate change issues to non-scientists, and about the problems (and benefits) of the apocalyptic frame (casting climate change as a kind of secular apocalypse). I was hoping students would discuss Carson’s apocalyptic framework in her introductory dead bird scenario. Did they see it as a responsible writing strategy or an overly alarmist manipulation?
Most of the students, I discovered, hadn’t done the reading. It was two weeks after Donald Trump’s election and any progress narrative these ecologically conscious young scientists had composed was now shattered. When I had the class read the opening of Silent Spring together, many of the students found Carson’s nightmare scenario rather tame and quaint. Far from critiquing apocalyptic discourse, they were themselves catastrophizing. Climate change was already irreversible, said the Natural Resources students. The earth was hopelessly overrun with artificially introduced invasive species, which couldn’t be combatted without more artificial solutions. The nutrition major talked about how even organically grown food tests positive for pesticides and GMOs. The marine biology major described coral reef degradation due to climate change: coral reefs serve as the bones of the ocean’s body, and our oceans already have severe osteoporosis. In addition, in the ocean deeps we find synthetic micro-beads in the digestive tracts of bottom-dwelling fish. Plastics clog our oceans on the macro scale as well, with such wonders as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a slurry continent of permanent plastic waste. One student said that even before the election of a climate-change-denying president, it was already too late, the earth was screwed no matter what we did at this point. An aeronautical engineering student agreed and said that’s why we need space exploration; our species will eventually need to relocate to another planet altogether, having irrevocably trashed our own like drunken frat boys at a kegger.
When I presented my worm experiment fiasco at the 1973 science fair, I reframed it to show the unintended consequences of scientific experimentation, hoping that at least my honesty would be rewarded. It wasn’t, any more than Rachel Carson’s was. I never did find out if worms could be trained. What I should have learned instead was that I was asking all the wrong questions, drawing on a flawed model of life.
Much of Rachel Carson’s vision rested on the idea that species don’t exist as separate entities. Species are so connected to their environments that it makes as little sense to study them outside of it as to study the rook moving across a chess board without regard to any of its fellow pieces. Other researchers would further develop this vision in the 1970s, as the idea of nature shifted from a collection of distinct species to a system, an ecosystem. Ecologists drew on the work of Aldo Leopold, whose Sand County Almanac taught us to “think like a mountain,” not like an individual predator. Research into animal behavior shifted too, away from behaviorist psychology (of which my worm experiment seems, in retrospect, a sick parody) to “ethology,” that anti-anthropocentric model of animal behavior as environment-specific. Rather than study primates in cages performing contrived human-centered tasks, researchers like Diane Fossey, Biruté Mary Galdikas, and Jane Goodall studied gorillas, orangutans, and chimpanzees (respectively) in their own habitat. This generated much more meaningful information about nonhuman primate behavior and cognition.
Similarly, Carson cautioned against relying solely on laboratory testing of decontextualized organisms. When pesticides were assayed on individual organisms in clinical laboratories, they may seem safe in theory. Within the laboratory of life, however, these chemicals travel up the food chain, and fat-dwelling chemicals, in particular, may concentrate to dangerous proportions within each transfer. Earthworms, for example, were known to be “biological magnifiers”; they ingested and concentrated the chemicals intended to kill mosquitos, so when the birds ate the worms they faced much higher concentrations of insecticide than were tested for. The earth and its living creatures were an intricately balanced system. In the vocabulary of today we might think of it as a network. And we know from our digital networks—the current human habitat—how even the most mild disturbance at any one point can disrupt the whole system.
My father was formed by a world before Silent Spring, but I could have listened to Carson. Instead of studying earthworms in an artificial, human-made setting, I could have gone out to the yard and observed worms in their natural habitat. Instead of unearthing them, I could have grounded myself. “There are few studies more fascinating, and at the same time more neglected, than the study of the teeming populations that exist in the dark realms of the soil,” Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring. She invoked Darwin’s book on the earthworm (The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits) to sketch out a picture of their world, “a picture of surface rocks being gradually covered by fine soil brought up from below by the worms, which ingest earth in building burrows and as food and eject it near the surface in annual amounts running to many tons to the acre…” Eleven years later, I could have studied the amazing capacities of earthworms in their ecosystem, could have thought about the world from a worm’s-eye view, starting with what it means to “see” without eyes, or to breathe through your skin, or to have five hearts. Instead, I treated them as a distinct species separable from their environment and measurable in my own. I missed the whole point of earthworms—their instinct to make earth even as we destroy it—and instead became, quite literally, a pesticide.
1973 was a year of world-changing events. In the U.S., Roe v. Wade made abortions legal. The U.S. military withdrew from Vietnam. AIM occupied Wounded Knee in a 71-day stand-off. The U.S., France, and the U.S.S.R. all tested multiple nuclear bombs. In the Middle East, the Yom Kippur War led to the OPEC oil embargo. In the final days of that year, Richard Nixon, who had earlier declared, amidst the escalating Watergate scandal, “I am not a crook,” signed the Endangered Species Act into law. But none of those events touched me where I lived. All I remember of that year is the den of worms, the cleanness of the worm experiment diagram in my father’s hands, and the feeling of a life splitting in half under my fingers from what I thought was the gentlest of tugs.
Author Bio: Deborah Thompson is a Professor of English at Colorado State University, where she teaches literature and creative nonfiction. A Pushcart prizewinner, she has published creative essays in venues such as Briar Cliff, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Kenyon Review Online, Passages North, and Upstreet. She has won the Missouri Review and Iowa Review awards in creative nonfiction, among others. Currently, she’s working on a book project on relations between humans and other animals.