Every U.S President since James Madison has been a member or attended a service at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church across from the White House on Lafayette Square after it opened in 1816. Designed by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who also designed the U.S. Capitol, the “Church of the Presidents” features stained glass windows made by the French company, Lorin of Chartres. The Lorin window in the South Transept is a memorial to Ellen “Nell” Arthur who died of pneumonia, leaving President Chester A. Arthur, an active member of St. John’s, with two young children. The grieving President asked that the window be placed so that he could always see it from the White House.
Today, St. John’s is deeply engaged in social action in the Washington community, including a newly-formed Creation Care committee concerned with environmental issues such as global climate change. On November 4, RCC President & CEO, Dr. Robert K. Musil was the guest speaker at St. John’s where he spoke about “Rachel Carson’s Environmental Ethic and Environmental Justice.”
Musil was introduced by St. John’s member and Rachel Carson Council Board member, John More, a long-time environmental attorney. Musil told a large audience in the Parish House that as Episcopalians they should be proud of their environmental tradition that includes the Rev. Gilbert White, author of the 1789 book, The Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne, who was the first popular naturalist, ornithologist, and writer to describe various species and their ecological links. White, whose book was said to be the fourth most popular in English after the Bible, Shakespeare and Pilgrim’s Progress, also later expanded his work to include a Nature Calendar that traced the arrival of the seasons in England, and discussed the migration of species, which was not believed in at the time. Musil told his audience that White’s writing in praise of the importance of even the lowly earthworm was the epitome of the ethical and spiritual concern for the “other” – creatures very different from ourselves but linked to us through biology.
Rachel Carson was raised in this tradition by her devout Presbyterian mother, Maria McLean Carson, daughter of a learned minister, Rev. Daniel M.B. McLean, Musil said. Maria McLean had been a brilliant student, became a teacher, but was required to stop when she married. She poured all her learning, especially in science and literature, into her youngest child, Rachel. Using curriculum by Anna Botsford Comstock, a leader in the “nature study movement,” Maria McLean and Rachel roamed the woods and fields, observing, recording and learning to love even the smallest of creatures.
At four, Rachel Carson wrote a childhood book for her father, with drawings, that described the search for a home by Mr. and Mrs. Wren. Rachel declared, “Animals are my friends.”
This concern for the “other,” Musil said, is reflected in Carson’s very first book, Under the Sea-Wind (1941) which utilizes the latest science about the ocean and sea creatures, but draws the reader into the subject through luminous prose and by caring about the lives of the main “characters” like Scomber, the mackerel, and Anguilla, the eel. This ability to feel for, to have empathy even with a creature as distant and strange as an eel, Musil explained, is central to the ethic of Rachel Carson and the Rachel Carson Council that carries on her work today.
But Carson went beyond an ethic that simply cared about other species in nature and their connections through evolution and ecosystems, Musil said. Given the sense of social responsibility and caring for other people instilled in her at an early age by her mother, Rachel was drawn to a sense of justice for human beings, or what today we call environmental justice.
As a graduate student, Carson was the assistant at Johns Hopkins to two prominent biologists, Maude DeWitt Pearl and Raymond Pearl, who were among the first to denounce the racist theory of eugenics and join the NAACP. Carson’s close friend and literary agent, Marie Rodell, was also the literary agent for Martin Luther King, Jr. and his first book, Stride Toward Freedom, published in 1957, as Carson was starting Silent Spring.
This is why, Musil said, Rachel Carson writes in Silent Spring about the harm of toxic chemicals to farm workers, as well as to robins and fish. It is why she wrote a scathing denunciation of animal factory farming, efficiency and greed, in her 1964 Introduction to Animal Machines, and why she wrote about the injustice of American nuclear testing harming far off Inuit mothers nursing their babies in the Arctic.
The Rachel Carson Council is the group Carson, while dying of cancer as she wrote Silent Spring, asked her friends and colleagues to create to carry on her work after her death. Its mission and values derive from Carson’s ethic of environmental justice. It is why, Musil said, the RCC educates and organizes around the harm to people, animals, and ecosystems in places like North Carolina. In the TarHeel state animal factory farms, fracked natural gas pipelines and infrastructure, and the clear-cutting of forests to produce wood pellets to generate electricity are concentrated in only a few counties populated primarily by low-income communities with disproportionate numbers of African Americans, Latinos and indigenous people like the Lumbee Nation.
Musil urged his listeners to follow in the tradition of Rev. Gilbert White, of Rachel Carson and of Dr. Martin Luther King, to care for the “other” and to fight for justice – environmental justice. Quoting Dr. King, who drew on the words of the abolitionist minister Rev. Theodore Parker, that “the moral arc of the universe bends long, but it bends toward justice,” Musil ended with an emotional call to work for justice. The moral arc, Musil intoned, does not bend from principles of physics, but only by the commitment and work of those who choose to exert their power to bend that arc toward justice.
After his talk and discussion, Dr. Musil added dozens of members to the RCC, signed copies of two of his books, Rachel Carson and Her Sisters and Washington in Spring: A Nature Journal for a Changing Capitol, attended the Sunday service sitting not far from the pew where Abraham Lincoln would come to St. John’s in the evening to seek quiet and solace, and met for lunch with members of the Creation Care committee.