Wendy R. Leibowitz is a lawyer in Washington. Stephen A. Morris is a historic preservation advocate.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts,” wrote Rachel Carson, the biologist and federal employee whose books helped launch the modern environmental movement. Great reserves of strength will be needed for those of us who admire Carson’s books, her career in the federal government and her personal life as an adoptive parent of an orphaned relative.
At a time when, according to a United Nations report released May 6, 1 million species are on the verge of extinction, honoring Carson seems especially appropriate. As we fight to erect a statue of Carson here in the nation’s capital, we face three main obstacles.
First, there is the question of statues in Washington generally. “Where’s his horse?” the daughter of one of us asked when we passed the statue of Artemas Ward, a Revolutionary War general standing — gasp — on his own two feet in the middle of Ward Circle.
Her belief that statues consist mainly of men on horseback is reasonable for those raised here. Even the nearby statue of John Wesley, a theologian who helped found the Methodist church, portrays him as a man on a horse. Most of these equestrian statues were erected long ago, and depicting a man on horseback was a way of honoring him. It’s as if statues today honored people by showing them all in luxury cars.
Second, there is the question of her sex. There are more than 100 statues in the District. They are overwhelmingly of white men, including one, Albert Pike, who was a general in the Confederacy. Almost 30 are on horseback. About a dozen are statues of actual women. Yes, that means there are double the number of statues with horses than statues of women.
Recognizing the narrow spectrum of those honored in our nation’s capital, D.C. Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie (D-Ward 5) has called for eight new statues to be built, one in each ward of the city, representing women and people of color who were born and raised in the District. And that raises the third obstacle.
Rachel Carson was not born in Washington. She was born and raised on a farm outside the town of Springdale, Pa., on May 27, 1907. A zoologist by training, she outscored all other applicants on the civil service exam, and in 1936 she became only the second woman hired by the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. She remained there for years, rising to become editor in chief of all publications for what is now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her first two books, “Under the Sea-Wind” and “The Sea Around Us,” became award-winning bestsellers, as she was able to clearly and beautifully describe the oceans and the dangers of marine pollutants.
But it was her third book, “Silent Spring,” about pesticides, particularly the insecticide DDT, and their effects on wildlife as well as their possible link to cancer in humans, that revolutionized the public consciousness and helped form the modern environmental movement. In the face of heavy industry opposition, the book and its author galvanized ordinary citizens and their congressional representatives to action. She wrote that book in a modest house at 11701 Berwick Road in Colesville near Silver Spring, where she lived from 1957 to 1964. Her house was declared a National Historic Landmark in recognition of her influence.
We applaud McDuffie’s vision in seeking to commemorate women and people of color who have strong ties to Washington and deserve our recognition. Carson, a longtime federal civil servant, is such a person. She died in Silver Spring of breast cancer two years after the publication of “Silent Spring.” Some of her ashes are buried at the Parklawn Memorial Park cemetery in Rockville, near her mother’s grave.
Carson was an inspiring local hero and a national activist for a cleaner world for all. In these times, she would be recognized as a global figure. She deserves a statue in our city. No horse required.