The Day Rachel Carson Invented Environmentalism - Chapter 1
Number Three in the AHA! series The Day Rachel Carson Invented Environmentalism Bryant Wieneke
This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
1. Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania along the Allegany River, fourteen miles northeast of Pittsburgh. She lived with her parents, sister and brother in a clapboard house without electricity or indoor plumbing. They were poor, but made ends meet.
As soon as she was old enough to read, Rachel not only imagined going to all the exotic places described in the books she was constantly reading, but imagined writing about her adventures in these faraway lands. Neither her sister or her brother finished high school, but Rachel found an identity in learning and an affinity for the world around her.
From her earliest memory, she loved nature. She would walk around their parcel, watching the birds and other animals, feeling at home.
She graduated high school and continued her education at the Pennsylvania Women’s College in Pittsburgh, where she lived on campus in a mansion converted to a dormitory. Her mother visited on weekends to talk about how things were going and to type Rachel’s English papers. As she became more comfortable at PWC, Rachel began to write pieces for the campus magazine. She also played goalie on the field hockey team. While she was a quiet and unassuming student, no one could doubt either her intelligence or her work ethic.
Rachel declared English as her major. However, in her sophomore year, she took a biology course from Professor Mary Scott Skinker, and her perspective began to change. Biology offered an introduction into the details of plants and animals that inspired her. She took another course and then another, fascinated by the beauty and order of the natural world, and seeing the world as if with new eyes thanks to Skinker’s holistic view of life.
Recognizing her passion and talent, Mary Scott took Rachel under her wing. In a way, it was an odd fit because the two had such different personalities. In her mid-thirties, Mary Scott was the most compelling figure on the small campus, a dashing, independent and charismatic role model for all the young women at PCW. She was also a respected scientist in a field dominated by men.
At first, Rachel was confused by the attention, but Skinker seemed to see potential in Rachel that she did not see herself. In the end, submitting to nature, Rachel decided to switch her major to biology.
Asked by her English professors why she had abandoned them, Rachel replied apologetically that she still loved literature, but biology gave her something to write about.
So, Mary Scott Skinker became Rachel Carson’s mentor – that is, until she left in Rachel’s senior year to pursue a doctorate at Johns Hopkins University.
“You’re going away?” Rachel asked incredulously. “But this is my senior year.”
“In a way, it’s my senior year, too,” Mary Scott replied. “I’m not getting any younger, and if I don’t get my doctorate now, I never will.”
“What does that mean?” the younger woman asked innocently. “I mean, to get your doctorate?”
“It means I’ll be among the elite biologists. I’ll be a certified researcher and a specialist in my field. It will be a dream come true for me, and I can be a role model for all women who think they can’t compete with men at the highest levels of science.”
Rachel thought for a moment.
“But you’re already that,” she said pensively.
Mary Scott smiled and put her hand on Rachel’s shoulder.
“To you, maybe I’m already there, and thank you for saying so. But I need this degree to prove it to the rest of the world.”
As a result of Skinker’s departure, Rachel’s senior year at PCW was lackluster. Nonetheless, she continued to excel in academics and graduated magna cum laude, receiving a full scholarship for graduate study at, not coincidentally, Johns Hopkins. Thanks to Mary Scott, who had remained in contact, Rachel also received a summer fellowship at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, one of the country’s leading marine research facilities.
After a tearful goodbye to her family, especially her increasingly delicate mother, Rachel left for Massachusetts in the summer of 1929. On her way to Woods Hole, however, she planned to visit Mary Scott in Skyland, a rustic mountaintop resort in rural Virginia.
It was a happy Rachel Carson who set out on her first big trip. She was surprised to see that cars were not allowed up to the resort, but the horseback ride up the mountain seemed appropriate to meet her former biology teacher. Mary Scott met her at the top, and they had a delightful time together: riding horses, playing tennis, and talking by the fire in their cabin in the evenings.
As usual, the future was one of the main topics. Now that Rachel had graduated, their teacher-student relationship evolved into a friendship, but Mary Scott had much more experience, including at Woods Hole.
“What’s it like?” Rachel asked. “I mean, really. I’ve read about it, but you’ve been there.”
“You’ll be fine,” Mary Scott replied reassuringly. “It’s all business, and the old hats can be fuddy-duddies. They’re mostly men, of course. But there are interns and young researchers there, beginning their careers just like you. Everything moves so fast, it’s like a kind of whirlwind, but the researchers are so caught up in their own projects that you’ll need to be very disciplined and just focus on your own.” She cast a sidelong glance at Rachel, her features partly lit by the fire in the hearth. “But self-discipline has never been a problem for you, so you should get along fine.”
Rachel could not help a smile from stealing across her lips.
“Yes,” she said, returning the smile. “They’re absolutely fuddy-duddies, and you can never let them get the best of you. Never take a step back because you’re a woman! You’re young and will need to learn the ropes, but you’re no less capable than any of them, and more capable than most. Remember that, Rachel. Always remember that.”
When it was time to go, Rachel was sorry to leave Mary Scott and the relaxed atmosphere of the resort, but Woods Hole beckoned. She rode her horse back down the mountain and caught a train for New York City, which was an experience unto itself. She enjoyed the buzz of activity and all the cultural offerings, but after a few days, she was not sorry to board the boat out of New York harbor.
As soon as she was aboard, the twenty-two-year-old headed for the bow instead of the passenger seating area. It was her first time on the ocean, having dreamed of this moment since she was a child, reading sea tales by Melville and Dafoe and Conrad. A member of the crew asked her if she would be more comfortable inside, but she replied with a shy smile that she was fine where she was. He nodded, as if he understood and offered her a life jacket, which she willingly slipped over her head and buckled.
The boat moved very slowly through the harbor, and Rachel loved the feel of the fresh, briny air against her face. Crafts of every size, from skiffs to huge cargo ships, were moving this way and that in the harbor. When they exited onto the full expanse of the Atlantic Ocean, the boat picked up steam and Rachel closed her eyes, the sea spray more invigorating than anything she had ever known.
When she opened her eyes, the sun was peeking between clouds and sparkling on the water. A pod of dolphins came alongside the boat, jumping out of the water at regular intervals as if playing some sort of deep-water game.
After an hour or so, Rachel climbed down the steps to the seating area, where the other passengers stared at her curiously. She was soaked through but had not noticed. The same member of the crew who had given her the life jacket brought a towel, and she did what she could to dry her face and hair. There was nothing she could do about her sopping clothes.
Later that day, Rachel arrived at the Marine Biology Lab at Woods Hole, one of the most prestigious oceanographic research institutions in the United States.
But it turned out to be somewhat less than the uplifting experience she had hoped for.
While Woods Hole expanded her world and allowed her to see how a truly professional research operation was run, Rachel felt a bit like a fish out of water. It was not because she was a woman – though she did sense that she was treated differently at times, maybe even condescendingly on occasion – but the heart of the problem was her research focus, or lack thereof.
Even though Woods Hole was renowned for research into marine life, and even though Rachel was very interested in that area, she chose land animals for her initial research. After all, it was what she knew. But it was not a good choice. She delved into the habits and characteristics of lizards and snakes, and she was conscientious in her methods, but she still always felt as if she was on a train heading nowhere. Another part of the problem was her preparation for such a high-powered, professional environment. Despite Mary Scott’s solid instruction and mentorship, Rachel’s academic training at PCW and the small college’s limited lab facilities had not prepared her for the complexities and pace of Woods Hole.
She left at the end of the summer, feeling like a failure. She felt as if she had let her mentor down. In her letters, Mary Scott scoffed at the idea, but Rachel made a promise to Mary Scott and to herself that she would never again be as directionless and unproductive as she had been that summer.
In the fall, Rachel enrolled at Johns Hopkins. She could only pursue the master’s program part-time because she needed to work to pay her tuition. She secured a job in the lab of the well-known biologist, Raymond Peral, working with bats and fruit flies, though she decided her research focus would be in the development of organs in fish. One thing she had learned from her summer at Woods Hole was that she should work with research subjects she wanted to learn more about and had passion for, not those she had the most experience with.
That meant she would work with marine life, and she steered her master’s program in zoology in that direction. Her final research topic was the study of pronephrons, or the first stage of kidney development, in catfish. It was a longer than expected and often arduous journey toward her master’s – in large part because she was working half-time to pay tuition – but Rachel Carson earned her master’s degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932.
Having learned a lot, and at the same time realizing how much she still had to learn, Rachel was eager to continue on to her doctorate.