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.