By : Prithwij Sinha
America in the 50’s and 60’s wasn’t exactly a haven for anyone who deviated from the standard issue model of an “American”- a cis white man. Minorities and LGBTQ+ people faced systemic persecution at every step of their lives.
FBI and local law enforcement kept lists of LGBTQ people, who were treated at the same level as criminals. A gay person was considered a stain upon society, and they were publicly harassed, jailed, humiliated, beaten, sent to conversion camps that stamped on their sense of being, telling them they were nothing but an abomination. However, the horrors of this time period are well documented, and I am not here to dwell on the pains of the past.
I’d like to speak about one of the shining lights that shone through America’s murky and dark history. A light that shines on today, desperately trying to convince our race of slightly intelligent apes not to destroy the little mud ball we live on.
I speak of Rachel Carson, a founding figure of the modern environmental conservation movement, and a queer icon.
Rachel Carson was born May 27th, 1907, on a family farm near Springdale, Pennsylvania. She completed a major in Biology, from Pennsylvania College for women; she graduated magna cum laude. She studied zoology and genetics at Johns Hopkins University.
The Great Depression hit America, and Rachel dropped out of college to support her family. She worked at a temporary position, writing radio copies for a weekly educational broadcast called Romance Under the Waters. She wrote 52 7 minute segments about aquatic life on the radio, and generated a massive positive response to the show, something that none of the writers before her were able to accomplish.
The success of the radio show helped Carson get a full time job at the bureau; and upon answering the Civil services examination, she outscored all other applicants, and in 1936 became the second woman ever to secure a full time professional position, as a junior aquatic biologist.
Carson continued her work in the field, and wrote in newspapers and in 1941, published her first book, Under the Sea wind. She continued to write, and rose to the position of chief editor of publications.
Her second book, “The Sea around us” won the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s George Westinghouse Science Writing Prize. It stayed on the New York times bestseller list for 86 weeks!!
Despite her myriad of achievements, her most important work was yet to come.
A book that rewrote society’s attitude towards the subject of environmental conservation.
The book wrote about the effects of pesticides upon the environment, and its effect on the food chain. While Carson was not the first person to speak about the dangers of DDT, her captivating writing style combined with her plethora of knowledge was instrumental in getting the message out to the public. The book received widespread praise from the scientific community and the general public. However, one major obstacle remained. The chemical industry itself, who were more concerned with a drop in profits over the major loss of life they were causing. Ah, good ‘ol capitalism at its finest.
American Cyanamid biochemist Robert White-Stevens and former Cyanamid chemist Thomas Jukes were among the most aggressive critics, especially of Carson’s analysis of DDT. According to White-Stevens, “If man were to follow the teachings of Miss Carson, we would return to the Dark Ages, and the insects and diseases and vermin would once again inherit the earth.” Others went further, attacking Carson’s scientific credentials (because her training was in marine biology rather than biochemistry) and her character. White-Stevens labeled her “…a fanatic defender of the cult of the balance of nature,” while former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, in a letter to former President Dwight D. Eisenhower, reportedly concluded that because she was unmarried despite being physically attractive, she was “probably a Communist.”
The academic community, by and large, backed the book’s scientific claims; and public opinion soon turned Carson’s way as well. The chemical industry campaign failed, as the controversy brought pesticides into the public eye. Pesticide use became a major point of contention, especially after the CBS Reports TV special The Silent Spring of Rachel Carson that aired April 3, 1963. The program included segments of Carson reading from Silent Spring and interviews with several other experts, mostly critics (including White-Stevens); according to biographer Linda Lear, “in juxtaposition to the wild-eyed, loud-voiced Dr. Robert White-Stevens in white lab coat, Carson appeared anything but the hysterical alarmist that her critics contended.” Reactions from the estimated audience of ten to fifteen million were overwhelmingly positive, and the program spurred a congressional review of pesticide dangers and the public release of a pesticide report by the President’s Science Advisory Committee. Within a year or so of publication, the attacks on the book and Carson had largely lost momentum.
However at this point, Miss Carson had already been diagnosed with cancer, and her radiation therapy failed to keep up with the rapidly growing tumor. She struggled through it all, attending dinners and events where she could promote her message. Her work was recognized, as she was showered with laurels: the Audubon Medal (from the National Audubon Society), the Cullum Geographical Medal (from the American Geographical Society), and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1953, Carson met Dorothy Freeman in Southport Island, Maine. It was the beginning of a 12 year long friendship, during which they corresponded with over 900 letters. They would spend time with each other every summer till Carson’s death.
Commentators have said: “the expression of their love was limited almost wholly to letters and very occasional farewell kisses or holding of hands”. Some believe Freeman and Carson’s relationship was romantic in nature. One of the letters from Carson to Freeman reads: “But, oh darling, I want to be with you so terribly that it hurts!”, while in another, Freeman writes: “I love you beyond expression… My love is boundless as the Sea.” Carson’s last letter to Freeman before her death ends with: “Never forget, dear one, how deeply I have loved you all these years.” Carson carefully guarded the depth of her relationship with Freeman, to avoid bringing attention to her personal life as the Chemical companies were ready to use anything to discredit her work.
In the spring of 1964, Dorothy received half of Rachel’s ashes in the mail sent to her by Robert Carson. In the summer of that year, Dorothy carried out Rachel’s final wishes, scattering her ashes along the rocky shores of Sheepscot Bay in Maine.