🌎 "I love all the beautiful things of nature." - Rachel Carson
An Earth Day feature, part 1
It’s Thursday — and Earth Day!
Pittsburgh has a bridge and a trail with her name, but what do we actually know about Rachel Carson and her time in the city we call home?
For those unfamiliar, Rachel Louise Carson was a native Pittsburgher, marine biologist, author, and conservationist. She’s best known for writing “Silent Spring,” a book detailing the dangers of pesticides. The text went on to provoke the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Wilderness Act, and Endangered Species Act, as well as the development of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
Carson was a pioneer of the environmental movement and led a paradigm shift where Americans started looking at themselves as being a part of nature rather than outside of it. In other words, she helped advance the idea that humans may not be able to exert full control over nature, and may in fact actually be at its whim.
“She translated science into not just everyday language, but beautiful poetry,” Mt. Washington native Patricia DeMarco said. DeMarco is a Rachel Carson scholar and the author of the book “Pathways to Our Sustainable Future - A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh.”
“She is my hero. She was amazing as a teacher, and the lasting nature of her words is so relevant to what’s going on today,” DeMarco said.
📸: Rachel Carson’s year book photo, 1929. Photo courtesy of Chatham Archives.
The Incline decided to observe Earth Day by honoring Carson and her connection to Pittsburgh. We took a deep dive into the archives at Chatham University, formerly Pennsylvania College for Women, where she graduated magna cum laude in 1929. Thanks to Chatham archivist Molly Tighe for letting us dig through her files. Here’s what we found:
Her love of the natural world started along the Allegheny River.
📸: Carson with older siblings Marian and Robert along the beach of the Allegheny River with cows in the background. Photo courtesy of Chatham Archives, public domain.
The same river where her namesake bridge now hovers is also where she first dipped her toes into exploring nature. Rachel was born in 1907 and raised on a small farm in Springdale, Pa., where she grew up alongside two siblings and lots of animals.
“She didn’t grow up in a happy time,” DeMarco said. “Her family was poor, and she had a close connection to the outside world because people were overbearing in her family.”
As a child, Carson would take her dog for walks into the nearby woods and find nesting birds. She began writing stories about these adventures at eight and had her first story, “My Favorite Recreation,” published in St. Nicholas Magazine at age 14.
“She got paid $10,” Patricia said. “That was the start of her dreaming of becoming a writer.”
She first attended Pennsylvania College for Women as an English major.
📸: Rachel Carson’s poems “Triolet” and “March” published in The Arrow in 1928. Photo courtesy of Chatham Archives.
Carson had a knack for writing from a young age, which is why she began her education as an English major. She was really successful at it, too; The Chatham archives hold a variety of poems and articles of hers published in the school newspaper, The Arrow.
But when Carson became interested in science, thanks to her professor Mary Scott Skinker, she switched majors and had to double up during her junior year to meet graduation requirements, Chatham archivist Molly Tighe said.
“Her biology teacher was the coolest, most elegant person on campus,” DeMarco said. “She always wanted to write, but now she knew what she wanted to write about.”
Carson’s connection and deep love for nature was clear even from her earliest writings — even while working toward another occupation, her true calling was audibly beckoning.
In an essay titled “Who I am and why I came to PCW.,” she wrote:
“I am seldom happier than when I am before a glowing campfire, with the open sky above my head. I love all of the beautiful things of nature, and the wild creatures are my friends. What could be more wonderful than the thrill of having some little furry animal creep closer and closer to you, with wondering, but unafraid eyes?”’
However, Carson’s family didn’t share her enthusiasm and were disappointed when she changed majors.
“She had prospects of becoming an English teacher, but in biology, there were pretty much zero opportunities for women at the time,” DeMarco said. “She had to create her own space and make her way in a man’s world, and she did so brilliantly.”
Carson went on to earn a summer scholarship to the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts and got a scholarship from Johns Hopkins University for a M.A. in Zoology.
She loved sports, just like Pittsburgh does.
📸: Rachel Carson standing in the back row, second from the right, with the Honorary Field Hockey Team for Pennsylvania College for Women. Photo courtesy of Chatham Archives.
In the same essay where she professed her love of nature, Carson also touched on her appreciation of athletics. She wrote, “I am intensely fond of anything pertaining to outdoors and athletics...Although I do not excel in sports, I enjoy swimming, tennis, hiking, riding, and basketball. I am an enthusiastic spectator at football and other games.”
She was on the honorary field hockey team at PCW, as the school didn't offer intercollegiate sports at the time — only intramural. Whether or not she excelled at sports is up for debate; Carson was the goalkeeper for the “Navy” team (the junior class) in its final match and helped to defeat the “Army” team in 1928.
“I think this is just another example of her notable perseverance,” Chatham archivist Molly Tighe described Carson as someone who put herself out there for the sake of fun and love of the game.
➡️ For part 2 of our Earth Day feature on Rachel Carson, check your inbox tomorrow.
📽️ This Saturday, watch a special Earth Day screening of the film "The Power of One Voice: A 50-Year Perspective on the Life of Rachel Carson," and meet Producers Mark Dixon and Patricia DeMarco (PennFuture's Women in Conservation 2020 Lifetime Achievement Honoree), whom we had the pleasure of speaking with for this feature.