As I reflect on Earth Day in this 50th anniversary year, I cannot help but remember and honor Rachel Carson. She was its impetus. In the imaginative and poetic prose of Silent Spring, she articulated the danger we would be facing with the indiscriminate use of pesticides.
If one is unaware of her personal story, it is one of love of family and the natural world.
Carson was raised during the time of the “nature study” movement, which believed that, by studying nature, “the intricate design of the Creator would become visible.” The adherents believed nature was holy. Carson’s mother was involved in the movement and as an avid lover of nature, taught her daughter to experience and identify with that world. Rachel also loved writing about it. At the age of 10, she was published in a prestigious children’s magazine.
She always thought of herself as a writer. However, while taking a biology class in college with a beloved teacher, she switched her major to biology and later earned a master’s in marine biology. Her two loves would complement each other when she became editor-in-chief of U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife Publications. With the encouragement of her supervisor, she sent an essay to the Atlantic magazine. This was the beginning of her influence on a much larger readership. She became a well-known and respected author prior to Silent Spring. Her three previous books were award winners acknowledging her integration of scientific knowledge and imaginative storytelling.
The devastation of song birds was the reason she began doing the research for Silent Spring.
As she struggled to finish her book, she kept secret the fact that she was dying of cancer. Her struggle with cancer demonstrated her self-sacrifice and determination to get the message out about the dangers of pesticides.
Rachel’s books always framed the creativity and beauty she found in nature. She uses the words “wonder” and “awe” to describe what she saw and felt. They are the same words Thomas Berry and others have used to describe their experience of the sacred.
And what about our present reality?
As we struggle with the crisis caused by the coronavirus, I am grateful for Rachel Carson’s lessons, which teach us to live within the rules of nature and not against them. We must learn to value nature’s wisdom and make policies that are written with this wisdom in mind. Some scientists believe, as we venture into uninhabited areas of the world, that disrupting the ecosystems there will continue to bring forth unknown viruses. Rachel saw that the integration of all living things needed to be understood as a whole system. If we do so, perhaps we will no longer blindly make decisions in disparate ways, with monetary profits being the primary value.
Let us remember everything is interrelated. Everything fits into the mysterious whole that is still unfolding. This energy of life, this energy of the Cosmic Christ, this evolving movement of existence is always evolving.
Living in a democratic society, let us be reminded of the courage and persistence of Rachel Carson. She lived out her convictions despite attacks attempting to discredit her. She defended her research in the world of politics where she spoke at Senate hearings and other political events.
It is in the political arena where we have a voice in prioritizing what values we wish all levels of our government to represent. We vote so they will act on those values and pass laws that execute those values. We cannot be bystanders in this process.
So as we celebrate this special Earth Day, may we remember and be inspired by the spirituality of Rachel Carson — her awe and wonder of the natural world and the active role she took in protecting it.
Peggy McGrath is a longtime Oak Park resident and Founder of Go Green Oak Park (firstname.lastname@example.org). This piece originally ran in The Well, a blog for The Well Spirituality Center, LaGrange.