Rachel Carson grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. She and her dog, Candy, spent a lot of time exploring the woods and land that surrounded her home. Rachel was fascinated by the life that lived here – the plants, animals and insects. Her brother and sister were much older, so Rachel spent a lot of time alone. But she was happy. The creatures she interacted with were her friends. She would watch the birds in the air and the fish in the streams – she was happy just watching and learning.
In particular she enjoyed the streams that flowed through the land, but there was another type of water that she longed for and dreamed about – the great open ocean.
It was her mother who taught her to be respectful and have reverence for the creatures with whom we share the world. Rachel missed a lot of school and spent much of the time at home. But she was in good hands – her mother was a school teacher and nurtured her curiosity and passion.
She loved to read. Her favourite books were about animals like, The wind in the willows. She loved stories about how animals live in nature. Soon she was writing her own stories about animals and the wonder of nature. She entered competitions and won prizes for her stories. She began to dream that maybe one day she could be a real writer who made a living from her work.
After school she decided to study English in college. She loved nature but did not want to study science because the science she learned in school had bored her. In her second year in college she had to take a science course so she chose biology. It was taught by a woman called Mary Skinker who had the same passion for nature that Rachel did. The class included field trips to state parks. Rachel learned to love Biology.
In her class they learned to dissect animals in order to learn how wildlife lived and grew. She also discovered an old fossil with the imprint of a fish that lived in the ocean that covered the region a long time ago. These discoveries thrilled Rachel, lighting up her curious mind.
But, then came a time where Rachel had to choose between her two passions: English and Biology. As she pondered the question, she opened a book of poems and found the following line:
For the mighty wind arises, roaring seaward, and I go.
She had a sudden realisation. The sea was calling her. She knew her life would always be connected to the ocean. Her decision was made. She would be a scientist.
Many around her thought she was making a mistake. As a woman it would be hard to get a job as a scientist. But Rachel was determined. Whenever she made up her mind about something, she stuck it out, no matter what.
She got a scholarship to John Hopkins University. She was also invited to spend that summer at the Marine Biological Laboratory where she got to work with great scientists exploring sea life. It was a dream come true for her. She finally got to experience the awesome power and beauty of the sea. She worked hard, walked the sea shore and made lots of friends.
When she graduated though, Rachel could not get a job. No one wanted to hire a female scientist. Instead, she got a job as a teacher at a University. It wasn’t her dream but became a stepping stone on the way to fulfilling her purpose. After that Rachel got a job writing scripts for a radio programme in which she had to translate scientific terms into simpler language for the general public. Rachel made the stories easier to understand so the public could learn from it and enjoy the programmes. Rachel was nervous about taking the job but she took a leap of faith and backed herself. She knew she was a good writer and had a lot of knowledge about the sea that would stand to her.
Following on from that she wrote a booklet about fish. She wrote lots of articles for magazines and newspapers to make more money to help her family. It took her three years to finish her first book. In 1941, Under the Sea-Wind was published. It was filled with stories and facts about the sea. It also showed how the lives of all the creatures were connected. The book really helped the public to learn about sea life. This always drove Rachel’s work – she wanted science about the natural world to make sense to everyone.
After the destruction of WW2 Rachel wanted to help people understand that the decisions we make have a big impact on the natural world and all living things. We as humans must learn to protect the earth.
Over the next few years, she had a number of wonderful experiences. She went deep-sea diving, studying sharks, octopuses and other animals up close. She encountered Alligators in the swamps of the everglades and spent time on a boat doing research in the North Atlantic.
Rachel’s writing was beautiful. It was like poetry. She expressed things clearly and thoughtfully. She talked about ‘ecology’ – the relationship between a group of living things and their environment. Her next book, The sea around us became a best-seller. It won awards and was translated into twenty-eight different languages. Readers fell in love with the sea through Rachel’s passionate descriptions.
Her books brought lots of fame – something Rachel struggled with. She was shy and did not enjoy the attention. But with the fame came opportunity. She was able to quit her job and devote her work to writing about the natural world that she loved and cared for so much.
She spent the next while studying the shores along the east coast of the United States and soon finished another book, The edge of the sea. She poetically described the wonders that she found. The book explained how all the animals living on beaches adapted to the environment around them. Animals and plants developed into what they were because of their environment. She showed how they fit into those environments and helped make those places what they were.
As she was researching the book, Rachel had learned more about the effect of pollution on these natural places. Cities and factories were dumping waste into the rivers and oceans. Strong chemicals called pesticides were being sprayed onto crops. The farmers and corporations responsible claimed they needed to do it to kill the insects that damaged the plants. But spraying chemicals didn’t just harm the insects, but also the crops and the humans who ate them.
Throughout this time Rachel was caring for her aging mother and her nephew, Roger. Rachel’s health was also not good but she was driven on in her desire to help educate the public about the things she was discovering. She retreated to living on a piece of land on the coast of Maine. She and Roger explored the coastline together, studying moss and ferns. By night they examined the life in rock pools under flashlight, learning about the crabs and starfish by observing them. She wanted to teach her nephew about the wonder and beauty of nature. Her mother had passed this onto her and she was passing it onto Roger in turn.
The more Rachel learned about pollution and pesticides the more distressed she became. The pollution was killing birds, insects and fish. She knew also that humans too would get sick in the same way. Rachel saw that the government was doing nothing to protect people from these dangers. People around her warned her against going further with the work but she knew she must speak out against what was happening.
In 1960, Rachel was diagnosed with cancer but continued at her work despite pain and fatigue. She finally published her findings in a book called silent spring – so called because the earth would soon be silent if this trend continued. Huge numbers of people supported her; some criticised her. She didn’t want to ban the use of pesticides, she just wanted to learn more about them and understand the effect they were having on the whole environment. In the midst of the noise around her book Rachel grew weaker and retreated to her the quiet and peace of the sea and her home in Maine. This reminded her of why she dedicated her life to looking after nature. She listened to the sounds of the sea and watched the animals on the shore.
Soon, laws were passed that would slow down the damage people were doing to the world. She opened people’s eyes to these crucial issues. In April 1964, Rachel Carson died at the age of fifty-six. She was only one pioneering environmentalist but her impact on the world and her legacy are hard to measure. Like all great teachers it is hard to see where her influence ends.
In her life Rachel Carson was moved or motivated by her curiosity, wonder and passion for the natural world. She used her strengths of creativity and love of learning to become an agent for social change. Her values guided all of her actions, particularly when she was faced with difficult moral decisions. Those values were love for life and the desire to care for and protect the living earth. Through her determination she overcame challenges and followed her hopes and dreams. She lived with a deep sense of purpose in which she gave her life in service of a larger cause, to create a better world. The beauty of nature inspired her all her life.
How might the life of Rachel Carson act as an example and inspiration for us who follow in her footsteps? How can her life serve as a catalyst to ignite our passion to protect life and make a difference in the world? What might her life inspire you to do?