As some of you know, I have had the great good fortune to have grown up spending summers on Vinalhaven. When I was two, my parents bought an old farmhouse, overlooking Seal Bay, on the island’s northeast corner. As we grew up – I have two siblings – our horizons expanded. The fields and granite ledges around the house were our early playground. As we grew older, we wandered farther afield. We explored the woods and spent as much time on the water as we could. We covered every inch of our little cove, then the bay, eventually camping on the uninhabited islands.
We took it all for granted, of course, as children do. It was impossible to imagine that it could possibly change. But change it did.
Returning to the island every May, we were greeted by the familiar calls of birds with whom we shared that special place – gulls, crows, warblers, sparrows, and the very, very occasional osprey. Hearing one of them would elicit whoops and hollers. Everyone would come flooding out of the house to catch a glimpse of the speckled bird, screeching in self-congratulation above its prey. Gradually, over the years, these sightings became more common, but no less exciting. Until finally in my late teens, a family nested somewhere on the bay. I even named one of the adults, Xerxes (for some reason), who was identifiable by a missing wing feather.
Now, several nests dot the bay, including one on our property. Not a day goes by that we do not hear their call, watch them dive, and marvel at their grace. The return of the osprey has been a miracle and a remarkable journey that I now realize how lucky I have been to witness.
Even more remarkable has been the return of the predator one notch above the osprey. In the 60s and 70s, bald eagles were so rare that to see one, we had to hitch a ride one someone’s boat that was big enough to make the hour’s journey around the east side of North Haven to Burnt Island, one of countless islands by that name. Burnt was well known locally as the only island with an active eagles’ nest. If an osprey sighting garnered excitement, an eagle created hysteria. Like the osprey, eagles gradually returned to our part of the coast. A family now regularly nests on one of the islands in our bay and we see the young grow up and move off.
The return of the osprey and bald eagle has been a miracle that I – and many others – have been blessed to witness.
That miracle is owed to a lot of people and a lot of hard work, but if it has one source, it is this: Silent Spring and the remarkable person who wrote it – Rachel Carson. It was published a month before I was born in 1962. Far from an hysterical rant by some wild-eyed fanatic, Silent Spring is a methodical, coherent, and scathing volume that outlines the devastating impact of one chemical, DDT, on humans and wildlife, particularly birds. DDT accumulates up the food chain, like so many bio toxins, so it concentrates in birds of prey. One of its impacts is to weaken eggs to the extent that they can’t withstand the weight of the parent sitting on them.
Eagles and osprey were on their way to extinction when Carson wrote Silent Spring. 10 years later, DDT was banned in the US. Over the course of my lifetime, osprey and eagles have returned to healthy numbers. We all owe a huge debt to Rachel Carson for the courage it took for her to write this book – she was vilified by the chemical companies. She not only exposed this threat, but taught us that one person can indeed make a difference.
Jonathan Labaree, April 22, 2012