Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Radical Observation

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

Radical Observation

Article excerpt

Before Rachel Carson exposed the dangers posed hy chemical pesticides, she was a chronicler of the ocean. Raised far from any sea, Carson became one of its most famous environmental interlocutors. Born in rural Pennsylvania in 1907, Carsons mother inculcated in her a love of nature, and a mentor at the Pennsylvania College for Women-now Chatham College-steered her toward marine biology. The rest, as they say, is history.

In the early years of the twentieth century, the Marine Biological Laboratory at Woods Hole was one of the few scientific institutions that welcomed women and treated them as equal participants in science. There Carson pursued marine biology as a postgraduate before receiving her MA in zoology from Johns Hopkins University in 1932. (Gertrude Stein, another Pennsylvanian-horn woman hound for fame and notoriety, also studied at Woods Hole and then Johns Hopkins, some thirty years before Carson.)

Carson was a skilled writer; she entered college as an English major before her mentor, Mary Scott Skinker, lured her into the study of biology. Offering an unusual combination of skill in both science and writing, Carson was hired hy the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries to write radio scripts during the Depression, and she supplemented her income hy writing feature articles on natural history for the Baltimore Sun. In 1936 she began a sixteen-year career as a scientist and editor for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), eventually rising to the position of editor in chief.

For the FWS she wrote pamphlets on conservation and natural resources, synthesized field reports on fisheries, and edited scientific articles. She also continued her freelancing life: her first national-audience commercial success was "Undersea/' an article she wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in September 1937. Received to acclaim, this essay became the basis of Under the Sea-Wind (1941), a hook that garnered good reviews hut never sold particularly well. In 1951 she published her lyrical study of the ocean, The Sea Around Us.1 This hook leapt to the New York Times best-seller list where it remained for almost ninety weeks; it won the National Book Award, was condensed in Reader's Digest, and made Carson a household name. The Sea Around Us also gave Carson the financial independence she needed to resign from government service in 1952 and devote herself full time to her writing. In 1955 she followed the success of The Sea Around Us with a study of the coastal Atlantic, The Edge of the Sea-retrospectively, the third of a trilogy "biography of the ocean."

Carsons ocean trilogy established her reputation as a popularizing nature observer. Before Jacques Cousteau entranced audiences with tales of the mysteries of the deep, Carson was mapping the rhythms of the ocean for a wide and enthralled readership. Unlike her later hook, Silent Spring (1962), which was a hard-hitting exposé of human hubris in which Carson raised an overt challenge to business as usual in hoosterish America, The Sea Around Us (and, later, Edge) was primarily a descriptive, naturalist chronicle. Lyrical, beautiful, scientifically based, and "safe" writings of the wonders-of-nature genre, these hooks didn't advance a polemic or make explicitly political arguments. Carson herself carefully cultivated a public reputation as a reliable narrator of nature observation. Nonetheless, radical currents ran deep throughout her ocean trilogy.

Women in/of Science

Carson's positionality as a woman in the sciences was never far out of view-hers or others. The genteel art of careful nature observation has a long history as a socially acceptable avocation-and, at times, vocation- for women. Indeed, it was one of the few portals for women into science. Observing and writing about the "charms" of nature were considered suitable undertakings for women in early western scientific traditions (Shteir 1997; Jackson-Houlston 2006). Echoes of this association are evident in the reviews of The Sea Around Us. …

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