A Memory of Paradise

Rachel Carson—biologist, wri­ter, conservationist, Presby­ter­ian, and founder of the modern U.S. environmental movement—never lost her sense of wonder and awe in the natural world. She instinctively rooted for life and was ferocious in its defense. She sought out suppressed narratives in nature, such as the silencing of songbirds by industrial pesticides described in her 1962 classic Silent Spring. She cultivated an affectionate ethic for the natural world and the humans who worked most closely with it. Carson was driven by some “memory of paradise,” as playwright Eugene Ionesco put it.

Carson understood that human dignity was protected by social justice and had its own kind of natural beauty. Though Silent Spring focused on songbirds, Carson also flagged the danger pesticides posed to farm workers. Her research, along with immigration policy changes, gave Chicano leaders Dolores Huerta and César Chávez the climate they needed to mobilize for the rights and safety of farm workers, leading to the formation of the United Farm Workers union.

In a 1963 letter to Carson, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that Silent Spring contributed an “essential piece of evidence” for diagnosing the ills of our technological civilization. “The awful irresponsibility with which we scorn the smallest values,” wrote Merton, “is part of the same portentous irresponsibility with which we dare to use our titanic power in a way that threatens not only civilization but life itself.”

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Sojourners Magazine May 2009
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