The Poetry and Environmental Activism of Rachel Carson

Poetry as a Cultural Shaper

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson would have been 108 years old today (b. 1907), had she surpassed her allotted 51 years (d. 1958 of metastatic breast cancer). If you aren’t familiar with her poetry, then you have missed out on a truly gifted celebrant of nature. Carson was an early environmentalist whose sense of wonder infused her best known works: The Sea Around Us revels in her love of the ocean and the life aquatic; Silent Spring warns of the abuse of pesticides. In The Sense of Wonder she remarked that,

“The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky, and their amazing life.”

It’s a particularly poignant observation given her full-time profession as a scientist – and in particular, as a woman in a male-dominated field. Still, in the midst to of an intensely rigorous logical/linear environment, she never lost the right-brained wonder she had come to experience as a child. Connie Lasher, in an excellent 2012 article on Carson notes the important influence of her childhood experience of the natural world:

What is the spiritual, developmental, and moral significance of the childhood experience of the natural world? The manifesto [Carson] left to us was the unfinished manuscript for a small book which was published posthumously and based upon the 197 essay entitled “Help Your Child to Wonder.” But in a 1954 invited address to the Sorority of Women Journalists, Carson felt compelled to speak her convictions before this audience of nearly a thousand women: “I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth….[T]here is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.” (http://www.iop.or.jp/Documents/1222/193-205.pdf)

Her childlike wonder was the product of a mother who devoted herself to taking Rachel and her siblings on nature hikes as children, encouraging them to protect and revel in the beauty of their discoveries. As Steve King notes in his excellent Today in Literature blog:

Though too poor to have indoor plumbing, her mother subscribed to the children’s magazine, St. Nicholas, whose mission included the “protection of the oppressed, whether human or dumb creatures.” (http://www.todayinliterature.com/today.asp?Search_Date=5/27/2015)

Carson’s themes will remind you of Whitman (Leaves of Grass), and Carl Sandburg, (Theme in Yellow), and of the amalgam of scientific precision and creative expression in the superb, Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek; Living by Fiction, etc.). Carson’s religious humanism emerged in the context of an inherited Calvinism (her grandfather was an ordained Presbyterian minister), with its theological understanding of the immanence of God in nature and in the individual Christian. She was explicitly influenced by the American Transcendentalists (e.g., Emerson, Thoreau), and by the Progressive Movement in which John Dewey’s philosophy played a prominent role.

She was a woman of strong integrity, withstanding virulently misogynist attacks on her competence as a scientist, and on her character because of her opposition (most keenly felt in her poetry!) to abuses in the petrochemical industry. Despite her tenuous (to put it kindly) embrace of the Christian faith of her youth, she remains a beacon to those of us to take our biblical mandate seriously to be careful stewards of the environment that has been entrusted to us by God, in whose image we are made (Gen. 1:26—28; 2:8—20; 9:6 ff.; Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10)

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