Courage for the Earth

On the one-hundredth anniversary of Rachel Carson’s birthday, my almost-four-year-old daughter and I set out to witness the migration of alewives as they climb a rock-and-pool fish ladder at Damariscotta Mills, Maine. En route to our adventure, I fumble trying to explain to such a young child who Rachel Carson was. I get many questions in return, most beginning with “Why?” For the adults I know — if not yet for my daughter — the essays in Courage for the Earth provide some answers.

This anthology about Rachel Carson and her impact on environmental thought, scientific inquiry, and social action reveals a person who reflects the complexity of the world she sought to describe in her writing. Using personal narratives interspersed with descriptions of the historical and biographical context of Carson’s work, writers share the diverse ways in which she made the mysteries of the natural world, particularly that of the sea and its surrounds, accessible to generations of curious readers. Carson’s writing not only deepened the contributors’ own relationships with the places they inhabited, but also called each of them to action — often in ways they, like Carson herself, would not have chosen but for the threats imposed on landscapes and creatures they loved.

Framed with an introduction by Peter Matthiessen and a reminder of Carson’s belief in humans’ “remembrance of life” in the final essay by biographer Linda Lear, this book builds a compelling argument for the necessary relationship of poetry, science, writing, and activism in shaping how we live. Essays by Sandra Steingraber and John Elder, in particular, stand out in this respect. And Janisse Ray’s exploration of the relationship between chemicals and endocrine disruption reminds us that Carson’s words are as relevant today as they were when her books were first published.

I don’t have any illusions that Carson’s legacy will be any less relevant when my daughter grows up, but I am certain that adventures that allow her to watch fish migrate upstream to spawning habitat, and conversations that impart the wisdom of Rachel Carson into small ears, will ensure that this intergenerational sharing of scientific knowledge and inspiration for action will continue far into the future.