June 20, 2021

In honor of Sunday, the summer solstice, and Father’s Day, we took the day off and did a ten-mile kayak trip along the coast. 

I did not look at the news, or my email, or my messages, or Twitter, or anything. I don’t remember the last time I did that. Maybe 2014?

I did, though, think of my father while we were on the water, not because of Father’s Day, but because of the ospreys.

Dad was profoundly affected by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, showing the devastating effects of people on nature by documenting the effect of pesticides on the natural world. A marine biologist, Carson explained how the popular pesticide DDT, developed in 1939, used to clear islands in the South Pacific of malaria-carrying mosquitoes during World War II, and deployed as an insect killer in the U.S. after the war, was poisoning the natural food chain in American waters.

DDT sprayed on vegetation washed into the oceans. It concentrated in fish, which were then eaten by birds of prey: in Maine, that meant ospreys. The DDT caused the birds to lay eggs with abnormally thin eggshells, so thin the eggs cracked in the nest when the parent birds tried to incubate them. And so the osprey began to die off.

When The New Yorker began to serialize Carson’s book in June 1962—likely where Dad first read it—officers of chemical companies were scathing. “If man were to faithfully follow the teachings of Miss Carson," an executive of the American Cyanamid Company said, "we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth." Officers of Monsanto questioned Carson's sanity.

But other Americans were willing to listen. Silent Spring inspired the fledgling environmental movement. In 1967, the Environmental Defense Fund organized to protect the environment; in 1970, President Richard M. Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency. In 1972, the U.S. banned the use of DDT.

And the ospreys began to come back. 

In 1981, Dad’s last summer, if he spent the entire day in the boat, he knew where to find 13 nests.

Today, forty years later, the osprey were over us all day long. And, unthinkable in Dad’s day, there were plenty of bald eagles, too.

When I watch the osprey, I think of how, for all the many disasters the last forty years have brought, there are at least a few triumphs. 

Happy solstice, everyone, and happy Father’s Day to dads and to those who fill the role.