By Marguerite Jill Dye
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts . . . there is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter,” wrote Rachel Carson.
It’s hard to believe that it’s taken me decades to discover my new American hero. I’ve always admired Amelia Earhart and hoped to learn to fly one day. But little did I know of the brilliant, gentle, yet determined woman who is recognized as the mother of the environmental movement, Rachel Carson. I was thrilled to discover a PBS documentary on her life on “The American Experience” on pbs.org.
Acclaimed scientist, marine biologist, environmental advocate, and gifted writer, Rachel Carson understood, revered, and beautifully revealed the interconnectedness of life.
Throughout her life she overcame daunting obstacles, including leaving her doctoral studies at Johns Hopkins to support her extended family. She worked in the Department of Fish and Wildlife, writing press releases and reports. But she also gathered a plethora of scientific field reports that helped her build her greatest and final work.
What struck me most was Rachel’s love and wonder in nature which began as a child in Pennsylvania with her Presbyterian mother. As an adult, she shared earth, sea, and sky with her young nephew Roger. They studied tide pools along the coast of Maine. Each walk in the woods became an adventure. I was thrilled to find “The Sense of Wonder” while looking for her most famous book. In it she shared her passion for introducing children to nature’s joy and wonder.
It was uncanny that I discovered Rachel Carson and her sense of wonder at this time. My niece Laura just visited us from Virginia and reminded me of a childhood experience together. When she was little we went on “safaris,” searching for animals in her back yard. I carried her from shrub to tree as we looked for elephants, tigers, and bears. I was amazed she remembered so vividly the delight we shared when she was just two. It made an indelible impression on her mind of a love of animals and imagination.
Rachel Carson believed in the responsibility of nature writers to share the awe and wonder of the natural world with those who had hadn’t “been introduced.” A cross-section of Americans wrote her letters that they’d nearly lost their faith in man. But she’d opened their eyes to the earth’s history of millions of years, which had given them hope.
Rachel Carson was awarded the 1952 John Burroughs medal for nature writing for “The Sea around Us,” the last of her great ocean trilogy that included “Under the Sea Wind” (1940) and “The Edge of the Sea” (1955).
“There has never been a greater need than there is today for the reporter and interpreter of the natural world,” she said during her acceptance speech. “Mankind has gone very far into an artificial world of his own creation. He has sought to insulate himself, and his cities of steel and concrete, from the realities of earth and water and the growing seed. Intoxicated with a sense of his own power, he seems to be going farther and farther into more experiments for the destruction of himself and his world. … The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race. Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side-by-side with a lust for destruction.”
Technological advances since the 1900s have led to our two greatest 21st century challenges: climate change, the direct result of fossil fuel combustion which has been the main system of worldwide energy production since the 1900s, and pollution of the biosphere with synthetic chemicals that have carcinogenic, mutagenic, and endocrine damaging properties. Following a 10,000-year period of physical and biological stability, the earth was becoming destabilized by the damage of fossil fuels and pesticides.
DDT was widely used and sprayed from trucks and airplanes over fields and crops, in neighborhoods and cities; it killed malaria-causing mosquitoes, fire ants, gypsy moths, and myriad other creatures. “DDT is good for me-e-e!” was marketed to housewives for use in the home.
People knew nothing of its neurotoxicity and devastating effects until the publication of “Silent Spring” in 1962. Carson was determined to reveal the truth to the world and completed her masterpiece while secretly battling cancer.
Rachel Carson’s bestselling controversial book educated President John Kennedy, America, and the world about the dangers of DDT (contamination of food, cancer, genetic damage, and the death of entire species) and the vulnerability of nature to man’s intervention. At that time, as now, science had become politicized and was under attack. She was also attacked, discredited, belittled, and insulted by the chemical industry. But her book received wide acclaim, raised global awareness, and launched the environmental movement.
Rachel Carson believed that the arrogance and lack of restraint in technology would lead humanity to disaster if not guided by spiritual values and environmental ethics: to live in harmony with nature; preserve and learn from the natural places of the world; minimize the impact of man-made chemicals on natural systems; and consider the implications of all human actions on the global web.
The Rachel Carson Council, founded in 1965 after her death, “seeks to inspire a reverence for life and build a sustainable, peaceful and just future … through faith, science, and action.” Under the leadership of Dr. Robert K. Musil, the RCC’s president and CEO, 45 college campuses, a cross section of interested citizens, and diversity of communities continue her work addressing public policy and uniting environmental, health, and social issues under the umbrella of sustainability.
I heard Dr. Musil speak about Rachel Carson’s life and work at the Sarasota World Affairs Council. He directed the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Professionals’ Coalition for Nuclear Arms Control. He hosted NPR’s “Consider the Alternatives” and has launched safe drinking water, clean air, toxic pollution, and global climate change programs.
He described Rachel Carson’s studies on the outcome of nuclear testing with atomic bombs dropped in the Bikini atoll islands, and how nuclear waste, fallout, and radiation accumulate in organisms faster than they can eliminate them. He described Carson’s mission of climate justice and work to create global change, and how critical it is to work with all nations.
We can’t do it alone. We need to elect a president and Congress that believe in science and climate change. Ignoring the facts and undoing the progress won’t make the problem go away. We need young people to come on board to vote and join efforts on the earth’s behalf like the RCC and Citizens’ Climate Lobby, according to Rachelcarsoncouncil.org and citizensclimatelobby.org.
In “Lost Woods,” a posthumous collection of Rachel Carson’s unpublished writings edited by Linda Lear, I discovered her still-timely 1952 letter titled “Mr. Day’s Dismissal” to the editor of the Washington Post. Eisenhower had just won the election and Republicans began implementing policies favoring big business over the environment. Rachel Carson revealed and protested the firing of the highly trained, skilled, and experienced secretary of the interior and other very competent professional staff, who were being replaced by non-professional political appointees preparing to plunder public resources. Miss Carson alerted Americans to the “proposed giveaway of our off shore oil reserves and the threatened invasion of national parks, forests and other public lands … as a politically minded administration returns us to the dark ages of unrestrained exploitation and destruction. … It is one of the ironies of our time that, while concentrating on the defense of our country against enemies from without, we should be so heedless of those who would destroy it from within.”
Isn’t it uncanny how history repeats itself?
Marguerite Jill Dye is an artist and writer who divides her time between the Green Mountains of Vermont and Florida’s Gulf Coast.