On Earth Day we remember Rachel Carson, environmental trailblazer and best-selling lesbian author

This week, the 50th Anniversary of the first Earth Day, we remember Rachel Carson, widely credited with launching the modern environmental movement with her book Silent Spring.

A woman standing by a pond with binoculars

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

The New Yorker Radio Hour has a wonderful episode in honour of Earth Day exploring the writings and impact of Rachel Carson. I listened in awe to the writing and career of this impressive woman who, I’m afraid to say, I had never heard of. This was despite my keen interest in climate activism and the fact that the work she did in her short life had such a massive impact on modern environmental thought.

Upon further research and fervent googling, I learn that Rachel Carson is regarded as perhaps the finest nature writer of the 20th century, and is remembered today as the woman who challenged the notion that humans could obtain mastery over nature by chemicals, bombs and space travel, and for her studies of ocean life.

Her best-selling book, Silent Spring, published in 1964, warned of the dangers to natural systems from the misuse of chemical pesticides such as DDT, and questioned the scope and direction of modern science. It initiated the contemporary environmental movement.

If you’ll allow me, dear reader, to share a brief but consequential tangent – as I was listening to this episode with interest and awe, I started to ponder  whether Rachel Carson was a member of the LGBT+ community. “Gaydar” can sometimes take on an almost magical quality and I was delighted that my sense was right. Carson was a lesbian.

Queerbio.com states that “she began a life-long intimate relationship with Dorothy Freeman in 1953. Although Freeman was married at the time, they both acknowledged the deep personal relationship that lasted until Carson’s death. Carson chose to destroy all of her personal correspondence just prior to her death to avoid publicity on their relationship – nevertheless, it is well known today, although there is no certainty of the extent of its sexual nature.

“Rachel Carson’s work was the starting point of the environmental movement as we know it today. Government entities sprung up around the world to study the issues and regulate them, such as the US EPA. Prior to her publications, few individuals concerned themselves with the environment. 

“How do activists choose their causes? In Rachel Carson’s case, her battle was against an entire industry at a time when any criticism of it or its governmental policy was highly risky. Her approach was based on a stubborn and remorseless presentation of scientific facts. Her critics labelled her as hysterical and unscientific, coming from a spinster with no children and no social life, and worst of all a woman.

“This explains why she chose not to reveal her intimate sexual preference to the public – it would provide more personal ammunition for the detractors at a time when homophobia was rampant. In the end, Rachel Carson was forced to make a choice between her cause and her sexuality.”

Earth Day was founded in 1970 as a day of education about environmental issues, and Earth Day 20 occurs on Wednesday, April 22—the holiday’s 50th anniversary. Today, the Earth Day Network collaborates with more than 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries. The theme of Earth Day 2020 is “climate action”.

It will be celebrated with The Great Global Cleanup, a day dedicated to removing trash from green spaces and urban centres alike. EarthDay.org hopes it will be the largest volunteer event in history.

We know well in our diverse LGBT+ community that queer folk have so often been on the vanguard of social change and societal advancement. Our otherness allows questioning of the world that can have a profound impact on our lives, our communities live and our planet.

Some Carson biographers de-sexualise her relationship with Freeman, and while we must be careful not to retrospectively label someone, I think the selective erasing of her identity speaks to the misogyny that prevails until this day. So, on this, the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, let us celebrate and honour the instigator of our modern movement of environmental activism and queer pioneer, Rachel Carson.

You can find out more about Rachel Carson’s legacy here and you can read last year’s GCN Global issue here.

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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