Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2012/28 posted by hidden europe on

Wander through the industrial landscapes around Ajka and you'll see a Hungary that does not feature in the tourist brochures. Lake Balaton is just over the hills to the south. The lake stands for recreation and fun. Ajka stands for something quite different. Cast back a couple of years and an awful river of caustic red sludge poured down through Kolontár, an unsung suburb west of the centre of Ajka. Nine people died and over one hundred were injured, many of them seriously. Our capacity to meddle with landscape is legendary, although the adverse effects of our interventions were not so widely recognised a half century ago, when Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was first published.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

Wander through the industrial landscapes around Ajka and you'll see a Hungary that does not feature in the tourist brochures. Lake Balaton is just over the hills to the south. The lake stands for recreation and fun. Ajka stands for something quite different. Cast back a couple of years and an awful river of caustic red sludge poured down through Kolontár, an unsung suburb west of the centre of Ajka. Nine people died and over one hundred were injured, many of them seriously.

The Ajka incident, a legacy of the alumina industry in Transdanubia, is just one of a litany of environmental disasters that have afflicted Europe in the last fifty years. Our capacity to meddle with landscape is legendary, although the adverse effects of our interventions were not so widely recognised a half century ago, when Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was first published.

Prior to 1962, Rachel Carson was noted principally as a nature writer and a very good one too. Silent Spring was published in September of that year and catapulted Rachel Carson into the premier league of subversives. The book meticulously documents industrial malpractice. And it kick-started the environmental movement.

It is a book to reflect on as you walk through Ajka. And Carson's hard-hitting prose might echo in your ears as you explore Baia Mare in Romania, where in 2000 a dam holding 100,000 cubic metres of cyanide-contaminated water collapsed. For many years it stilled the song of the birds around the Somes River. Locals say that the fish still do not leap in the way they did prior to the disaster.

Silent Spring is lyrical and persuasive — a rare combination in one book. Rachel Carson's prime target was the pesticide industry, as she documented the chemical barrage that we have hurled at the very fabric of life. On our own journeys around Europe, we have travelled way beyond the regular tourist trails to communities that have had to endure their own peculiar silent springs. Each of these towns and villages is monument to the arrogance of industry or the stupidity of mankind. Seveso in Lombardy, scene of an awful dioxin incident in 1976, is one such community. But the tragedy is that Europe has hundreds of Sevesos. Rachel Carson wrote about quite specific environmental dangers, but her work raised wider issues about humanity's relationship with landscape that are still too widely ignored.

In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson wrote: "There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter." Too true, but across many parts of Europe, those whose lives have been wrecked by pollution and environmental disaster are still waiting for dawn. That's true in Kolontár near Ajka, and that's the way things are in Baia Mare. Chernobyl's long winter will not yield to any early spring.

Rachel Carson died prematurely in spring 1964 — some say she was exhausted by the wave of publicity and corporate aggression unleashed by Silent Spring. One last book was published posthumously. The Sense of Wonder reminded the wider world that Rachel Carson was first and foremost a nature writer. Yes, she was an accomplished biologist and a pioneering environmentalist, but she deserves also to be remembered as a weaver of wonderful words.

Her writing recalls the virtue and insight that defined Henry David Thoreau's Walden. The latter was a cry for simplicity, and there are echoes of Walden in much of Rachel Carson's writing: from her first book, Under the Sea Wind, in 1941 right through to her last, The Sense of Wonder, in 1965. Rachel Carson also presciently anticipated the observational detail favoured in recent years by a new generation of nature writers — such as Robert Macfarlane, whose capacity to link landscape and soul is deeply redolent of Rachel Carson.

A half century after Silent Spring, we recall Rachel Carson for her landmark book, but also as a writer of seductively beautiful prose whose words inspired a political movement which helped shape a generation.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.