Happy Birthday, Rachel Carson

Thank you, Rachel Carson.


For me, personally, Silent Spring had a profound impact. It was one of the books we read at my mother’s insistence and then discussed around the dinner table. . . . Rachel Carson was one of the reasons why I became conscious of the environment and so involved with environmental issues. Her example inspired me to write Earth in the Balance. . . . Her picture hangs on my office wall among those of political leaders. . . . Carson has had as much or more effect on me than any of them, and perhaps than all of them together.

—Vice President Al Gore, “Introduction,” Silent Spring, (1994 edition), xiii

silentMy mom was a grade school teacher. During a brief period where she stayed at home with children, she became an environmentalist. It all began with the book Silent Spring. My mother read about chemicals used in farming post-World War II and the decline of birds, and that was it; she had to take action. She remembers going to her parents’ house, and my grandfather was going around the yard, spraying DDT without protection, as his grandchildren played. He had a big bottle of DDT in the garage that had gone unnoticed until then. My mother could not believe what was happening and stopped him immediately. She had her dad throw out all pesticides. My grandfather didn’t realize there was any danger, as these chemicals promised a beautiful, American-dream green lawn. I remember at family gatherings, our family kept saying to my mother, “Elaine, what are you so worried about?”

PHOTO: Mom holds her smiling baby daughter in the air.
My hero, my mother

We became a family that ate whole wheat bread, and got the 1970s equivalent of CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) boxes. I would say that this book changed my childhood.

Some highlights:

  • My mom baked organic whole wheat bread every week; it was not commercially available yet. (Imagine going to middle school with a sandwich of PB&J on badly cut homemade whole wheat bread, surrounded by kids eating bologna on Wonder Bread white. My brother and I felt so out of place at the time. (And now it would be so accepted, wonderful, and charming.)
  • We did not have a microwave.
  • No pop. No junk food. No candy.
  • Our suburban lawn had dandelions. Mom used a dandelion knife.
  • We used nonphosphate detergent.
  • We went to weird hippie health food restaurants in Chicago. For her birthday, my mom knew she would get her requested restaurant so she would pick the only organic one in town.
  • There were no TV dinners (and we could watch one hour of television a day).
  • We all got transcendental meditation mantras.

But I digress…

She was the co-founder of S.A.V.E.: Society Against Violence to the Environment. “When Zion’s nuclear power plant was being built, we felt that it was so close to a large city…I put a full-page ad in Highland Park News, and I wrote an article about nuclear waste and terrorists.”

PHOTO: Dandelion knife.
A classic tool I still use today: the dandelion knife

When my mom wasn’t lying down in front of bulldozers, or arguing with the Park District of Highland Park or Highland Park High School about spraying grass that children played on, she was going door-to-door, stopping the spraying of mosquitoes in our town.

After we moved to San Diego, I remember lugging many heavy grocery bags filled with organic oranges and flour from San Diego State University’s co-op parking lot, ½ mile each way every week (several trips each time).

Later, when she got cancer,  she endured the remark, “Oh, you with your organic food, you got cancer?”

Now you can find organic food everywhere. Who doesn’t meditate?

Teach your children well…

New times and different challenges…now we are concerned with global warming.

As Rachel Carson said:

“We stand now where two roads diverge. But unlike the roads in Robert Frost’s familiar poem, they are not equally fair. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one less traveled by—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth.”

PHOTO: Baby robins chirping; a sign of spring's arrival.
Baby robins chirping; a sign of spring’s arrival

Thanks, Mom. You taught me about Mother Earth. I still don’t have a microwave. I eat organic food, grow some my own, and am lucky to work at a garden that cares about the environment. :)


©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

True or false: There’s a spider 3 feet away from you right now.

PHOTO: a female cross orbweaver spider, dorsal view
The (female) cross orbweaver spider, named for the cross on the top of her abdomen.

First things first: Mark your electronic calendar for June 1! That way you won’t miss out on the Garden-wide celebration of World Environment Day.

It’s a day to meet our scientists and horticulturists, to see the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center in action, and to check out senior ecologist Jim Steffen’s very cool display table on native spiders, which promises to be a kid magnet (live specimens, a big model spider, lots of good spider stories). 

After you’ve saved the date, work this quiz with every kid you know:

1. Spiders can fly. TRUE. Some spiders travel through the air by “ballooning”—sending out a thread of silk with a clump like a parachute at the end that carries them up into the air, where they swing along like Spider-Man! Spiders have been found as high as 10,000 feet in the air and 200 miles out to sea.
2. Spiders can fish. TRUE. There’s a group called fishing spiders that can capture everything from tiny water insects to fish as big as a minnow!
3. Spiders can eat their own webs. TRUE. Webs get damaged all the time, so web-weaving spiders recycle their own silk by simply re-ingesting it. (It’s full of valuable nutrients.) Then they rebuild their web—sometimes every day!
4. Spiders have two eyes. FALSE. Almost all spiders have EIGHT eyes, the better to watch their prey while holding completely still. Some spiders have two bigger eyes, like binoculars, up front so they can focus on moving prey.
5. Spiders have stingers, like Shelob in The Lord of the Rings. FALSE. Spiders inject their prey with venom through fangs at the end of their jaws, which are called chelicerae. They don’t have stingers.
6. Spiders mummy-wrap their prey, like Shelob did in The Lord of the Rings. TRUE. That’s how they keep it from escaping.
PHOTO: a female cross orbweaver spider, ventral view
A female cross orbweaver spider (Araneus diadematus) wraps a bee snack for later.
7. Daddy Long Legs are spiders. FALSE. A Daddy Long Legs isn’t a spider; although it is in the Arachnid family, it’s in a separate order from spiders. All spiders have two body segments—a thorax and an abdomen—but a Daddy Long Legs only has one round body part (and just two eyes, see #4).
8. Spider silk is always sticky. FALSE. Spiders can control the feel of the silk they produce—some is sticky, some is non-stick, some is thick and heavy, some is airy and light.
9. Scientists have identified all of the spider species. FALSE. There aren’t enough spider scientists! New spiders are being discovered all the time—in fact, our ecologist, Jim Steffen, found a sheet web-weaver last year that might be a new species! Ask him about it on World Environment Day.
10. There’s a spider 3 feet away from you right now. TRUE. But you’ll have to come to the Plant Science Center on World Environment Day to get the full story! See you June 1!

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Tips to Save Money and The Environment

Ecologically friendly gardening isn’t as tough a commitment as you might think. In fact, you won’t just be saving the planet, you’ll be saving time and money. Watch Eliza Fournier’s video for tips on how easy it can be or read on for the highlights.

  1. Repurpose packing materials by filling the bottoms of large pots with leftover styrofoam and packing peanuts. You’ll reduce the amount of potting soil needed, and make your pots lighter and easier to move around. 
  2. Replace chemical herbicides with a natural mix. Boil 1 gallon of white vinegar with 1 cup of table salt, then cool. Add 2 or 3 drops of liquid dish detergent and pour into a sprayer.
  3. Reuse! Instead of buying cheap tools every year, consider investing in quality tools and maintaining them properly. Your tool-sharpening kit should include WD-40, a rasp, coarse sandpaper, and a clamp.
  4. Recycle garden pots at garden centers or at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s World Environment Day on June 4, 2011.
  5. Reinvent your garden to include native plants and organic vegetables. Native plants attract pollinators to make your veggies more productive. Natives are also low-maintenance.

Visit www.chicagobotanic.org for more information.