Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

Rachel Carson as a Model For a Purpose-driven Life

Patricia M. DeMarco

23 February 2023

Presented at Chatham University, Mellon Administration Building on the occasion of the formal book launch for In the Footsteps of Rachel Carson – Harnessing Earth’s Healing Power.

Thank -you to President David Finegold, Dean Lou Leonard and Rev. David Carlisle to my friends, colleagues, students. Thank you for joining me today to formally launch my second book.

I begin with a Land Acknowledgment recognizing the people who lived in this place for generations before colonial times, and whose influence remains here, interwoven with our own history in many ways.  We stand on the ancient tribal lands of the Haudenosaunee, Lenape, Osage, and Shawnee Peoples of the Iroquois Federation. We honor their legacy.

We are gathered here on the campus of Chatham University, called Pennsylvania College for Women when Rachel Carson attended here, graduating in the class of 1929. It is an honor and an obligation to follow the footsteps of Rachel Carson.  She has been a formative force in my life from childhood, when I read The Sea Around Us as my family traveled back to the US from Brazil on an ocean liner.  Awed and daunted by the vast mystery of the sea over which the boat traveled, I discovered Rachel Carson’s poetic descriptions of what lay under the waves, beyond the horizon and into the depths where only my imagination could penetrate.  

Her book Silent Spring came to me as a high school graduation present, and inspired me to study to be a biologist, but with a sensitivity to contaminants in the environment.  Her prescience in urging precaution in the production and dissemination of chemicals without knowing fully their effects on living systems stands as a challenge to us today.  We cope all the time with spills, leaks, production pollution so that pollution from man-made toxins has become ubiquitous to the ends of the earth.

Now in my late life, as I have engaged four battles with various forms of cancer, I realized that Rachel Carson’s greatest triumph and manifestation of her courage and strength was in her own silent battle with cancer. Only as a scholar of her life did discover that as she wrote Silent Spring, she was in a life-or-death battle with breast cancer.  What drove her to finish that book in the face of her daily misery?  Why did she persist even when others had to read her words back to her and type her dictation?  Rachel Carson lived every day to complete her mission, her moral obligation to speak out in the face of what she knew to be a clear path toward destruction.

In one of the last public speeches of her life, she spoke “On the Pollution of the Environment” to the Kaiser Permanente Foundation. She said, “Underlying all of these problems of introducing contamination into our world is the question of moral responsibility – responsibility, not only to our own generation, but to those of the future…to those who have no voice in the decisions of today, and that fact alone makes our responsibility a heavy one.” (Lost Woods. P 242.)

For my own perspective, I know I live on borrowed time.  But for the wonders of modern medicine I would have been overcome by cancer long ago.  I take my life as a gift to be spent in the service of the mission I share with Rachel Carson- to do all I can to make this world a place where our children, and their great-grandchildren- may thrive. A place where living in harmony with Nature is the mainstream. Where we are organized around renewable and sustainable energy systems; regenerative agriculture and food systems that restore the fertility of the land and sequester carbon too; where we value quality and legacy and make things to last with a circular system for managing materials.

I wrote this book to share what got me through my battles with cancer- connecting with Nature and opening myself to the healing power of the Earth. The essays in this book were condensed from a ten inch stack of hand-written journals.  I did not speak of my misery while I was going through cancer treatments, but wrote out my fear, my anger, my sense of frustration and despair.  And I wrote of the observations of the natural world around me and gathered joy from the intimate views of Nature, or the grand sweeping phenomena I encountered along the way.  I did not give Cancer my words, and I kept my conviction that we are each on this world to make it better for those who come after.

The first part of the book draws vignettes from my childhood, motherhood and early life. Here I found the close grounding and connection to Nature as a part of myself, as a source of strength and a source of endless wonder in the intricacies of the living Earth around me. 

The second part written during my time in Alaska reflects the time I spent healing from chemotherapy and surgery, absorbing with fascination the grandeur of the scenery and the intimate interactions with the wildlife that I live with, even in the city.

The third part is set here in Pittsburgh, in the experiences of my cancer battles in 2017 and 2018. I sheltered in the care of the two 100-year old pin oaks that preside as the elders of the neighborhood. Their wisdom and strength sustained me.

The fourth part is a selection of my blog posts written during this time and more recently.  Here my writing urges pathways to a just transformation of our society to live in harmony with Nature. I continue on this journey through teaching, so I may keep my ideas fresh through interaction with curious minds; through my work with ReImagine Appalachia to give voice to the people who see a better way forward than plastic and hydrogen hubs that mire us in another thirty years of fracking; and I write for reflection on the wisdom of Rachel Carson in a look back at Silent Spring after 60 years.

I dedicate my work to the children of the 21st century, in honor of Rachel Carson with the hope that they will thrive in a beautiful, bountiful Earth for generations to come. 

I see so many of you gathered here this evening, from such different parts of my life.  I urge you to step away from the people you came here with and to meet and speak with three people you did not know before.  Share you own stories and expand this community of caring. It is by extending the hand of friendship beyond our own circle of comfort, and by knowing that the living parts of this Earth are part of us too that we will find common ground to heal the hurts in our world.

Blessed Be

Out of the Shadows and Into the Light: 2022-2023

On this Winter Solstice, I reflect on a time of closure, and a time for planning new beginnings.  I have shared my life for the last 15 years with my partner, Tom Jensen as we had adventures to other countries, explored the places of his ancestors, and significant historical places.  We found spontaneous dancing happened at any time, especially when we were both working at home. We took on several construction and reconstruction projects – and we laughed a lot…until he fell to a long and valiant battle with cancer.  Chronic terminal illness challenges the character and erodes at the very soul of a relationship, but in lucid moments between bouts of delirium and rage, we were as close as ever.  I will treasure those few precious times and remember the wonderful experiences we shared, and let the pain and sadness recede slowly into the past. I know I will miss Tom every day of the rest of my own life.

He was always there to cheer me on and encourage my work. It is ironic that my second book came to print the week of his passing. Writing “In the Footsteps of Rachel Carson- Harnessing Earth’s Healing Power” captured my own struggle to recognize my mortality.  I am acutely aware that as a four times cancer survivor I am living on borrowed time. So, I make the most of every day.

All of the crises of the world have continued swirling around me as I have been in a cocoon of slow grieving and caregiving as Tom receded into the clutches of the tumors that consumed him over 18 months.  I have swatted at them like irritating flies, keeping focus only on the most immediate and pressing needs.  Now, I reflect on what is ahead, and set my priorities for this coming year.

Recognizing the amazing accomplishments of our collective action over the last year sets the stage for what comes next.  Much of the ReImagine Appalachia Blueprint is now incorporated into law! (See ) Climate action policy, recovery of abandoned mine lands, broadband expansion, assistance for neglected communities, support for regenerative agriculture, requirements for community benefit agreements attached to federal grants, and many more actions now have the force of law.  The tools for creating a more just, equitable and sustainable future are at hand.  Now comes the challenge of implementing with intent and keeping the goals in the forefront.

The success story of ReImagine Appalachia needs to be celebrated, and documented.  This is the subject of my next book, to be published through the Association of Environmental Studies and Sciences. ReImagine Appalachia is quite a testament to the power of the people. It began with 45 listening sessions in which 1,500 people contributed ideas, concerns, life experiences, hopes and dreams – all on zoom because of COVID-19. With only a few paid staff and with amazing leadership from Amanda Woodrum, Stephen Herzenburg, Ted Boetner and Dana Kuhlein, and Natalia Rudiak, teams of working groups sorted the issues and ideas into issue papers, documented policy proposals and case studies illustrating the need for new laws. Visionary leaders like Rev. Marcia Dinkins inspired us to act. Fifty collaborating organizations across four states- Ohio, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia – worked together to brief critical members of Congress, and their key staff. We were at the table when the laws were being crafted, when the budgets were being set, and we turned out hundreds of engaged citizens at all stages for comments, support, and intervention when things got sticky. Faith communities, people of color, local government officials came together to press for changes that would heal the land and empower the people.

As I sit in my 76th year of life, I recognize the need to mentor and coach successors in my path as a compelling drive. All of my activities and engagements align to build a better future for the coming generations.  The legacy of the Baby Boomers has been a mixed bag, and I feel a responsibility to show a vision forward that corrects some of the mis-steps.  I think our civilization is ready for a renaissance of attention to cultural and spiritual values reflected in care for the natural capital of the Earth – fresh air, clean water, fertile ground and the vast diversity of species that constitute the great Web of Life.  Restoring our life support system ties so many conflicting factions together.  Seeking common ground and shared purpose in building a better future for our children and for their grandchildren allows us to rise above the petty conflicts that impede progress.

I am honored to be drawn in to the efforts of my colleagues and friends in the Mon Valley- Tina Doose, Lisa Franklin-Robinson, Chad FitzGerald, Lori Rue, and Derrick Tillman. Rather than moaning with horrors hidden behind a veil of nostalgia for the “heyday of Steel,” we are working for a new vision for the Mon Valley. Rising from the ashes of the extractive industries of the past, we are creating a future built around renewable resources, non-toxic production systems that are compatible with healthy neighborhoods, and circular supply chains that conserve resources and build local and regional resilience. We are developing major projects with community benefit agreements, and including workforce development pathways to careers that include returning citizens, high school students, and recovered addicts. People will not move to a vacuum.  But they will embrace a movement that meets community needs and builds on the endurance, resilience and determination of people long ignored and suppressed. The Mon Valley will rise like a phoenix from the ashes of the past and soar to a finer future.

For this New Year of 2023, we step out of the dark shadows and into the light.


The Triumph of Life

June 20, 2021

Patricia M.DeMarco, Ph.D.

Facing a life-threatening illness forces focus on what is truly important.  Every person faces such crisis-induced inflection points differently. As I have coped with four different challenges to my health over a span of twenty years, I have made decisions to live each day to the fullest, with purpose and intention. One day at a time, I rejoice in the wonder and beauty demonstrated everywhere through the gifts of the living Earth. I seek ways to use my voice and my personal power to move the world around me to a more sustainable and resilient place through local political action as an elected official, through regional collaborations with like-minded colleagues, and through writing and focused contributions to national and international efforts.  But all of this fades away in the face of a truly life-threatening reality. When the diagnosis comes to a person close to my heart, the precious fragility of our existence surfaces.

When the days ahead are numbered to a few hundred at best, it is the relationships, the personal connections with a caring community of family and friends, that make the difference.  All of the time spent on causes and external concerns disappears in significance compared to spending an hour in lucid conversation with a dear loved one. Memories of shared joys lift the pall of pain and fear. Simple pleasures enhance the sense of being connected and not alone in the darkest of times.  Just holding hands and smiling through internal tears and broken-hearted grief gives comfort.

All together- May 2021

Interface with the institutionalized medical system makes personal connections absolutely essential.  When you become a patient, with a chart and a Care Team, personal connections become critical.  Who is the person who can understand the jargon and translate information into meaningful communication?  Who can see through the doctor’s shield that comes down over demeanor when the diagnosis is a condition without cure, just a “management plan”? In this situation, it is the inner strength of each person that sustains life with dignity and quality as long as possible.

The ability to connect with the healing power of the living Earth makes an enormous difference in the experience of coping with a critical illness.  Whether the condition will abate sufficiently to allow many years of living, or whether the condition is so acute that there are few options for prolonged life, living each day becomes either a gift or a burden, depending on the attitude and mental and spiritual support system of each person.  I remember my grandfather Pop in his late years when he was living with my parents.  His Parkinson’s disease had advanced too far for him to live alone, and he resented his loss of independence.  He would sit on the bench in the patio under the pear tree and talk to my Nona who had died years before.  He would say “Well, Pasqualine, the Lord forgot me again today.  I am still here, and you are with Him.  How long must I wait to be free of this world?” And yet, when I came to visit with my two small children, his great-grandchildren, he would smile and sing them the same little songs he sang to me as a child. He would give them a ride on his foot, holding their little hands and bouncing them up and down. For those moments, he was alive and sharing experiences with another generation.  They have not forgotten him, and the memories have crossed through generations.

Pasqualina and Patty 1948 in the garden at 556 Southern Ave, Pittsburgh

We all live but a moment in the stream of time. It is our privilege and our duty to make the most of our time on this Earth.  We cannot know how many hours we have to spend, but we can commit to celebrate every opportunity for joy.  We can weave ourselves into the tapestry of our time and immerse ourselves into the life-giving force of the living Earth. We can stand in defiance of the sadness, pain and evil that rises around us. We can be a beacon for those who follow, triumphant in living in harmony with Nature.

Blessed Be

“Laying Down Thread” A Reflection for troubled times

by Patricia DeMarco

As we are all adjusting to the pandemic of COVID-19 as it spreads through our communities closer and closer, I find myself in a reflective mood. I am among the highly vulnerable population because of my age and my compromised immune system from my recent bout with chemotherapy. So I have been thinking about making productive use of this time in self-imposed isolation.

My forthcoming book “DEFIANCE! The Triumph of Life” seems more urgent than even in this time of threat. I have decided to focus on finishing this manuscript and sending it off to some potential publishers this month. I am also finishing the Alaska Wildflowers quilt I started in 1997 as a way to deal with my fear of flying. I share an essay from DEFIANCE.

Laying Down Thread

I learned embroidery from my Nona when I was six or seven years old.  She taught me to sew by hand doing the hems of the flour sacks turned into dish towels or aprons.  The flour was purchased in 25 -pound cotton sacks.  These were emptied into the flour hopper in the kitchen, with a sifter at the bottom to sift flour into a bowl when needed.  In Nona’s house, bread happened once a week in a large batch to serve the working men of the house with lunches, and the rest of us with nourishment. The empty sacks were washed and taken apart to lie flat, and I learned to draw a thread for a straight seam, and hand-turn a hem.  Of course, nothing was sent to use without embroidered embellishment- a prayer or blessing in white thread on white cloth at the minimum, or freehand flowers trailing along the edge. Counted thread work and smocking decorated aprons.  And of course, there was the endless darning of socks, turning of shirt collars and cuffs, and mending.  Such routine household tasks occurred in the evening after dinner over rich conversations. 

A square from Alaska Wildflowers quilt

In one of my earliest memories, I recall a Saturday afternoon in summer on my Nona’s back porch.  The grape vines are so thick that the sun is shaded through the heavy leaves.  I sit on a little stool at my Nona’s foot with my embroidery hoop working on a set of pillow cases to be embroidered with flowers spilling from a basket.  Mrs. Nichola, Comare D’Alessandro, Aunt Bernice and Aunt Matilda are there, each with some hand work, all talking and laughing over stories they share.  It is a mixture of mostly Italian and some English, I am oblivious of the content of the conversation, but remember that I deeply connected to these ladies who could laugh and be happy in spite of the hardships and separations from their families. I would show my Nona my work, and sometimes she would be pleased and give me the next color to add to the design, or sometimes she would tell me to take it out and start over.  The back had to be pretty too!  No tangled messes were tolerated. Sometimes she would send me to look at a flower growing to see the shape and the detail of leaf and flower form. The embroidery came from the mental image to the cloth.

As I grew older, I came to treasure these Saturdays with my Nona, mending, embroidering, and sharing time.  We talked of problems and fears and hopes.  I marveled that she had so much wisdom and so much strength.  Bare root grape vines and fig trees came to America in Pop’s pockets now grown to shade the second-floor porch and offer fruits to eat with cheese and bread and wine as we talked.  Nona listened to my struggles for independence from my Father’s rules, from the unfairness of women’s place in the world.  She was wise in many ways. She told me “The men may rule, but the women govern.” I watched at the family gatherings over Sunday dinner where all major decisions were made.  Pop would declare the outcome, but the discussion and arguments were guided by Nona, sometimes with force, but most often with a well-placed question or observation.  And it was Nona who executed the logistics and the details.

I think about the many embroideries I have done over the course of my life. They are mostly given away as presents to other people, or on children’s clothes long dispersed to the winds. When I embroider the flowers where the forms evolve from mental images through thread laid down one strand at a time, I think about my Nona and all she endured to make her family a better life.  Embroidery captures the sadness, loneliness or fear and makes it beautiful. I lay down thread and remember my Nona. 

I hope this small excerpt of DEFIANCE offers comfort in this difficult time. It is really the simple things that give us solace and transform trouble into treasures.

Be safe. Be well. I hope to see you again soon.