Home People In Remembrance Rachel Louise Carson: May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964

Rachel Louise Carson: May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964

Rachel Louise Carson: May 27, 1907 – April 14, 1964

Right from the start, Rachel Carson wanted to become a writer. She grew up on a small farm outside of Pittsburgh. The woods and hills around her home were her playground, her mother and her nature guide. Young Rachel wrote stories full of owls, frogs and robins. Several were published in children’s magazines. Courtesy:Cornischong/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

My hero came alive 20 years after she died. I sat spellbound. Rachael Carson was speaking out her closest thoughts to me, her voice floating out of the dark, as her love of Muir Woods, the sea, of nature itself, carried gently across the room. Every word resonated with my innermost feelings.

Decades ago, when accepting the National Book Award for her 1951 publication, A Profile of the Sea, she said:

If there is poetry in my book about the sea, it is not because I deliberately put it there, but because no one could write truthfully about the sea and leave out the poetry.

She was like that. And I will forever be beholden to actress Kaiulani Lee for gifting me the nearest thing to a living, breathing Rachel Carson. There was pin drop silence in the Experimental Theatre, NCPA, Mumbai, where Kaiulani was performing ‘A Sense of Wonder,’ the one-person theatre production she researched and wrote, in which she plays Rachel Carson with the quiet dignity that personified the woman who took on the world and forever changed our lives.

Once I took in the dim lighting, the sparse stage with its wooden table and boxes waiting to be packed, I listened with my eyes mostly shut to ‘Rachel Carson’ resurrected. The first act was set in her summer home in Maine, where you gather she was packing to leave for Silver Spring, Maryland, unsure of ever returning. A terminal cancer had her in its grip and the irony was not lost on anyone. Carson’s whole life was spent fighting the chemical industry, which she meticulously skewered to a wall, pointing out how their chemical pesticides were impacting human health and the life of virtually all other species that came into contact with the toxins.And now those very chemicals had laid her low.

Rachel Carson not only influenced my attitudes towards the natural world and towards chemicals and pesticides, she influenced my entire being. In her words:

The aim of science is to discover and illuminate truth. And that I take it is the aim of literature. My own purpose was always to portray the subject of the sea with fidelity and understanding. I never stopped to consider whether I was doing it scientifically or poetically. I wrote as the subject demanded. The winds, the sea, the moving tides, and what they are. If there’s wonder and beauty, majesty in them, science will discover these qualities. If they’re not there, science cannot create them.

She reached Maryland in the centre of a storm triggered by her book Silent Spring. In addition to the big boys in the chemical industry, the government, too, began to discredit her. That the criticism was motivated was clear as day. Less obvious was the fact that misogyny was openly used as a weapon against her by the men who had taken it for granted that a woman’s place was in the kitchen, or the bedroom, certainly not in the elevated halls of science. Robert White-Stevens, a scientist with American Cyanamid, referred to her as a “hysterical woman and a nature nut.” The attacks were ugly. A Federal Pest Control Review Board official stooped so low as to respond to her concerns about pesticide-caused genetic mutations this way: “I thought she was a spinster. What’s she so worried about genetics for?”

By the time she reached her home in Maryland, weakened by the cancer that had advanced rapidly, the hysteria reached fever pitch in the corridors of the chemical and pesticide industry. But the more they called the book a hoax, and the more they tried to belittle her, even going so far as to suggest she was mentally unstable… the more the public began to believe her. By the end of 1962, only three months after it was published, Silent Spring’s sales exceeded 100,000 copies. But here she was, with no financial means to speak of, no lobbies to back her, virtually no support from her fraternity of scientists (most of whom depended on the largesse of the very industries that she was pulling down) and still this trained marine biologist managed to use truth and storytelling so effectively that her legion of supporters continues to grow, even today. And those in the chemical and pesticide industry who tried to discredit this courageous woman, using spin doctors, bribes and closed-door conspiracies… they themselves stand discredited.

A marine biologist, Rachel Carson changed the very way that humans looked at the planet. Her books explored ocean life from the shore to the depths and highlighted how human actions were poisoning ecosystems. Here, she is seen along the Atlantic Ocean shore in 1952, together with Bob Hines, a biologist and illustrator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.Courtesy: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain.

Rachel Carson has been responsible for saving more plant and animal species than science will ever be able to count. She is a wildlife hero of gargantuan proportions, an adventurer who overcame the twin biases of her time against women and against environmentalists. And with the passage of each day, the veracity of her fears, her teachings and the validity of her battles is proving to be prophetic.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, April 2013.


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Jennifer Scarlott

January 28, 2014, 04:45 AM
 Rachel Louise Carson: if you knew what a magnificent legacy yours is, I imagine it would give you real pride. But our world is in worse trouble now than it was when you died, and we need women like you more than ever.
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