Honoring Rachel Carson

Today would have been the 108th birthday of Rachel Carson. She was a lover of nature, a writer, an ecologist. Born 1907 and died in 1964, she is best known for her highly influential book Silent Spring. This book, which called the alarm on the use of chemical pesticides and eventually helped get DDT banned, has been touted as the start of the grass-roots movement to protect our environment.

It was a spring without voices. On the mornings that had once throbbed with the down chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays and wrens…there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh. No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves.

I was first introduced to her during my college Environmental Literature class where I read Lost Woods and later Silent Spring. As I read more of her writing and learned more about her, I immediately felt a connection to her and began to see her as a role model. As a kid, I never looked up to astronauts, baseball players or movie stars, but instead filled the need for a mentor with admiration for Ms. Carson.

What I loved so much about her was that she was an outsider in the scientific community and faced great adversity, but still maintained such passion and dedication to the natural world. She was an ecologist and a naturalist, combing beaches and writing to teach people about the wonder and beauty of the living world. She wasn’t a chemist or a nuclear physicist, the “important” scientists during the atomic age she lived in. As a women, she was often disregarded. When writing Silent Spring, she was routinely attacked by the chemical industry and the government called her an alarmist. She was called a “bird and bunny lover, a woman who kept cats and was therefore clearly suspect. She was a spinster who was simply overwrought. Simply, she was a women out of control”. Yet she persevered on, courageously speaking out and taking action to remind us that we are all connected to the ecosystem.

rachel carson

While she lived decades before me, I feel we had lots in common. We both grew up without affluence, and spent childhood observing nature- her in Pennsylvania and the shoreline of New England, me the redwoods and beaches of California’s central coast. From an early age, she loved to read and write, just as I do. But she also possessed characteristics that I admire and wish I possessed, yet struggle with. She never gave up and wasn’t afraid of trying. She was one of only 2 women to work for the Bureau of Fisheries (now the US Fish & Wildlife Service) in the late 1930’s, showing that women are equally smart and important in the scientific field. She continued to write even though she feared she wouldn’t be taken serious because of her sex, and she became known as a trusted voice. When she sensed something was wrong, she researched and wrote and deliberately challenged the popular thought that chemicals in our environment were safe. She questioned the right of the government to expose the public to such substances, and called that such arrogance would only end in the destruction of the living world.

While writing Silent Spring, Ms. Carson was dying of cancer. Yet despite this hardship, she did not give up, and published the book in 1962. The public’s uproar after its release caught the attention of the president and investigations were launched to test the validity of her claims. Communities organized against the use of the chemicals and pesticides. Legislation was passed. Earth Day and the EPA was established. But sadly, she was not around to see the difference she made, as she passed away shortly after the book’s publication. Yet she left behind a wonderful gift, and compels us all to reevaluate our relationship with the natural world.

Happy Birthday, to Rachel. I know I’m not alone in those who admire and honor her. Think of how different our world would be today if there were more people who had the strength that she did, or what our world would be like if there were those who didn’t.

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