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18 May 2022

Why we must fight the threat of a “silent spring”

My sleepless hours are filled by birdsong, but it's a solace that may soon be lost.

By John Burnside

It was hot in my room, even though my hotel was on the edge of Zürich, just a stone’s throw from the tree-lined park at Lindenhof – and, naturally, I couldn’t sleep. A lifelong insomniac, I have lain awake in all kinds of places, but there is no worse combination, for me, than sleeplessness and a free minibar crammed with potato snacks, wine and extravagant quantities of Swiss chocolate.

Now, I was sitting in the corner, as far from temptation as I could manage, with the window wide open. Across the street, behind a stone wall, a row of trees stood eerily still and windless – and, till around 3am, quite silent. Then, suddenly, a bird began to sing. It might have been due to my insomniac state, but it seemed that I had never heard birdsong so inventive, so musical. I had been praying for a distraction; instead, I got a concert. That nightingale sang almost constantly for the next three hours and when it left off I fell asleep in my chair.

It is one of the tragedies of industrialised life that we forget what the other animals mean to us. We see conservation as a principle – something that ought to be done, like putting archaeological finds in a museum, or hanging Old Masters in national galleries – but we take little account of what the other animals do for the human spirit, whether individually or communally. This applies not just to birds but to every living thing, from polar bears to hawk moths.

We know (and do little) about the melting of the Arctic ice, but in Britain the number of flying insects has dropped by almost 60 per cent since 2004, which is one (though only one) reason why our bird populations are also in dramatic decline. By now, it seems that the time is fast approaching when a sleepless hotel guest can no longer hope for the solace of a random nightingale. The deadly hush that Rachel Carson predicted in her 1962 environmental classic Silent Spring will be upon us.

What brings all this to mind is a compelling new book by Patrick Galbraith, In Search of One Last Song: Britain’s Disappearing Birds and the People Trying to Save Them, in which, as the title suggests, the author travels around these islands to meet people who are involved, in any number of ways, with safeguarding and conserving birds. It is a book filled with beautiful moments, amazing and sometimes rather surprising characters, and, if we could only learn from them, reasons for hope.

Galbraith’s book foregrounds the knowledge and wisdom of ordinary people: ex-soldiers and schoolmasters, fishermen, and even retired gamekeepers, who know all too well how our present dilemma has come to pass and have practical, constructive ideas about how to reverse the tide. It is a treasury of a book, because these are the people we should be listening to, not the politicians, landowners, energy companies, and for-hire “experts” whose funding is rarely as transparent as it ought to be.

We have lived with Carson’s threat of a silent spring for 60 years now and, for the most part, the threat has always been downplayed – a situation reminiscent of Benjamin Franklin’s complaint, in 1786, about how casually the dangers of lead poisoning had been ignored, in spite of over half a century’s worth of incriminatory data about its effects. “You will see by it, that the opinion of this mischievous effort from lead is at least above 60 years old,” he wrote to the radical politician Benjamin Vaughan, “and you will observe with concern how long a useful truth may be known and exist, before it is generally received and practiced on.”

Most of the reasons we are losing birds are known to us, yet the devastation continues. Why? Because our political systems heap power and favour not on the folk who have the knowledge and the will to foster abundance and diversity, but on those who have long abused, exploited and degraded the Earth.

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[See also: Why access to nature is broken, not the millennials who trespass]

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This article appears in the 18 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Nato