From the Vineyard Gazette edition of April 11, 1958 by Elizabeth B. Hough:
Edgartown had a brief sample on Saturday of total war — war from the skies. Perhaps others of the Vineyard towns had the same experience, but I can only speak from what I saw and heard and smelled and felt, and what my fellow townspeople have told me. If this be a sample of what the heavens may have in store for us, when the fallout which is said to have reached a peak this spring, is joined with a rain of death from atomic bombs and guided missiles, all one can say is, is life worth living?
Humankind was not particularly the objective of Saturday’s war fare, which was said to be planned simply against the elm tree beetles. There have been murmurs about its effect on woodticks, too, but all self respecting woodticks are sleeping long this cold, hard spring, and are not available for killing. The same applies to the Japanese and Asian beetles which some residents felt were under attack. They all got off scot-free.
The real victims of the attack, which came from a helicopter whose pilot soared, doubled and twisted and turned over the defenseless town and its unsuspecting inhabitants, were the birds and the humans. If the humans had ever taken in the article in the town warrant which later authorized the town tree warden to employ this method of protecting the elms, they had long forgotten it. And none comprehended that a casual warning to Tisbury folk, who are inured to airplane spraying against moths, or so the objective is said to be, meant that the elms in Edgartown were in for it.
The first I knew was when I heard a loud and unsteady sound overhead, as I was eating breakfast, and uneasily wondered if a plane were losing altitude and thinking of coming down close by. When the sound was repeated and repeated, I began to think vaguely of a “whirly-bird” and looked out the door. Indeed it was, and helplessly I watched its antics over MY land, MY trees.
Back and forth it flew, swooping down over the trees, running along over the Behr property farther up the street, hurrying away, dashing back, and each time squirting fluid over the trees. The water substance lay glistening beneath them when it finally turned its attention elsewhere. I learned later from the tree warden, Allen Gelinas, that the fluid contained a 25 per cent solution of DDT, which he admitted was an exceedingly heavy dose. “If we do it again later, when the foliage is out, it won’t be more than 12 per cent,” he said.
But they won’t do it again, if the selectmen still have control over the town as I evidently no longer have over my own property, whose elms are carefully sprayed from the ground each year at my expense and at my instructions. For the selectmen are up in arms, too. Their lives have been made miserable by the outraged complaints which have poured in to them from all around the town, their cars have been marred by the attentions of the low-flying monster from the sky, they have had a long second thought about the situation, and their thumbs are turned straight down.
Once the enemy had left my place I heedlessly drove downtown, never dreaming that the lethal smell which had vitiated the finest and freshest April day you could want, would go with me, in the car and on my coat, and grow stronger and stronger everywhere I went. I stopped first at the Gazette office and when I saw the helicopter headed for me on Davis Lane, I stood my ground and it held its fire. I was canny enough by then to put my car in the waterfront parking lot before I started shopping, and so I got off with no real damage.
But in addition to the scores of cars whose paint will never be the same — “They say it will wash off,” one business man told me, “but I washed mine three times, and I think the only thing that will work is Lestoil and elbow grease.”
And in the avian world, there were the birds unlucky enough to be directly beneath the spray when it landed, that soon began to sicken. I was told that it induces pneumonia among them, but I know from reading Robert Cushman Murphy on the subject, that it also induces a lethal palsy.
It was not the nesting time, and it is certain that most birds escaped, not from good management on the part of the humankind but because the time was not ripe for their slaughter. That comes when they begin to raise their broods, harvest the bugs which have been poisoned, and eat buds and leaves which have been sprayed. Another time — but the selectmen promise that will never come.
The end result of the glorious victory? Problematic. Many of the experts feel that it is impossible to pin-point the objectives from the air, and others believe that aerial spraying is quite ineffective, save for its effect upon wildlife.
Compiled by Hilary Wall