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New book hammers home a historical truth: Rachel Carson didn’t act alone

By: Leo Horrigan

Robert K. Musil has done us a service by illuminating a historical thread that encompasses Rachel Carson’s intellectual and moral inheritance as well as her legacy. In his new book, Rachel Carson and her Sisters: Extraordinary Women Who Have Shaped America’s Environment, the “sisters” do not merely orbit around Carson but join her in a constellation of environmental advocates with scientific expertise.

Musil will deliver the keynote address at an event called “Distinguished Women in Environmental Health Sciences,” to be held Friday from noon to 5 p.m. at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The event is co-sponsored by The Center for a Livable Future Polly Walker Ecology Fund and the Department of Environmental Health Sciences Grand Rounds.

Musil’s talk will open the event, followed by a luncheon held, appropriately, in the Anna Baetjer Room, named after a pioneer in the fields of occupational health and industrial hygiene. Baetjer was a faculty member at the public health school when Rachel Carson began graduate studies at the Homewood campus. There will be a symposium from 2 to 4 p.m., featuring several female Hopkins graduates who will discuss their exploits in the field of environmental health.

Like so many of our historical icons, Carson has often been portrayed as some kind of lone voice in the wilderness who had neither historical antecedents nor heirs to her legacy. Musil brings alive the women who inspired – directly or indirectly – Carson’s interest in conservation and environmental health, who “somehow defied the cinched circumstances and enervated expectations for their gender to become extraordinary leaders.”

He introduces us to compelling characters such as Susan Fenimore Cooper, who “heads the long line of those women whose work explains why so many Americans were upset when Silent Spring revealed that DDT and other pesticides were killing robins and other birds,” referring to Carson’s seminal 1962 book.

The ornithologist/nature writer Florence Merriam Bailey helped ignite a bird watching obsession in America with her 1889 book Birds Through an Opera Glass. Merriam had “caught the contagion of the woods” while part of a Smith College undergrad contingent touring nearby Mount Tom under the influence of renowned nature writer John Burroughs.

One of Bailey’s predecessors in the conservation movement was Cooper, whose nature diary Rural Hours, published in 1850 and reprinted for four decades, made her as influential in her day as Carson was in hers. Mostly forgotten now, Cooper’s ideas in Rural Hours sound like they could have been gathered from a modern-day guide to sustainable agriculture and forestry, but for the Victorian language she employs. She encourages landowners to plant riparian buffers, not leave soil without vegetative cover or plant on steep slopes, and to thin forests instead of clear-cutting them. She also laments the “man whose chief object in life is to make money [by turning] his timber into bank-notes with all possible speed.”

While Carson is often remembered best for her defense of wildlife – and particularly birds – the author reminds us that she evinced an equal concern for human health, and that’s why this historical thread runs easily through the likes of Sandra Steingraber (Living Downstream: A Scientist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment) and zoologist Theo Colborn, who popularized the science of endocrine disruption as co-author of Our Stolen Future in 1992.

What the “sisters” have in common is that they were women with both scientific training and a track record as published authors who “successfully bridged the sciences and the humanities.” Musil points out there have been myriad women involved in the conservation and environmental movements during their histories – including numerous women of color – but he chose to focus on a small subset of them who fit this scientist/author profile.

Musil says Steingraber, a biologist/poet, “combines field observations and feelings, science and spirit … along with a talent for making scientific studies come alive through anecdote and astonishingly poetic prose.” Earlier, he describes the writer/naturalist/activist Terry Tempest Williams as “a trained scientist who believes that science without feeling is never enough.”

One of the themes that emerges in Musil’s book is the need to break some of the silences that surround the impacts of our industrialized economy on the environment “around us and inside us.” Despite increased scientific knowledge about the dangers of synthetic chemicals to the environment and human health, many people remain ignorant of these truths and we continue to produce these chemicals in enormous quantities and release them into the environment. Steingraber – and Musil, too – ask the painful question “Why is this so?”

No doubt there is plenty of blame to go around – recalcitrant industries, bribed politicians, a partially apathetic public. But Steingraber also highlights “the silence of scientists themselves, their failure to speak out publically about what they’ve found.” Carson once quoted Abraham Lincoln as saying that “to sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards out of men.”

The saddest parallel among many of the “sisters” – including Carson, Steingraber and Williams – is that environmental cancers have struck them all. Carson died of breast cancer in 1964, less than two years after Silent Spring appeared. Because of the social conventions of her time, she had kept an ironic public silence about her illness.

Since Carson’s time, the women’s movement has opened political space for someone like Steingraber to write openly about her bladder cancer, and trace the potential environmental causes. She also minces no words about the paucity of big-picture thinking in the medical field: “[In] all the years I have been under medical scrutiny, no one has ever asked me about the environmental conditions where I grew up, even though bladder cancer in young women is highly unusual.”

While Musil sometimes channels the anger of these women at various environmental harms and official failures to address them, he also wields his pen with gratitude for the contributions they have made to our understanding of these issues and social and political progress on these fronts. He would like to count himself among the male allies these women sometimes found – an occasional counterweight to those men who would deny them an equal standing in academia.

Despite their marginalized status within the academy, it has often been women scientists who have “crossed the line” into environmental advocacy or (heaven forbid!) writing for popular audiences instead of restricting their output to scientific journals. Both pundits and some fellow scientists will habitually excoriate such mavericks and portray them as less-than-serious scientists (or much worse). Instead, Rachel Carson and Her Sisters celebrates the courage of these women, and calls for more such courage in an age of climate catastrophe and an entrenched, fossil-fueled status quo.

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