Prove your humanity

 A new memoir traces a life inspired by environmental hero Rachel Carson, who wrote “Silent Spring.”

Patricia DeMarco

Michael Peeler Photography

Patricia DeMarco, Ph.D. has had a 50-year career in energy and environmental policy. She was the Executive Director of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association and Director of the Rachel Carson Institute at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, where she is now Senior Scholar and Adjunct Faculty. She is also vice president of the Forest Hills Borough Council.

In her book, In the Footsteps of Rachel Carson: Harnessing Earth’s Healing Power, DeMarco opens up about her career and personal life. The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with her about it.

Listen to the interview:

Holsopple: The first part of your childhood was spent in Pittsburgh’s Mt. Washington neighborhood. My mouth was practically watering at your descriptions of the figs and tomatoes that your extended Italian family grew there, and especially the meals your grandmother made. What did your grandmother and your mother give you in those years that you took into your life and your career in environmentalism? 

Patricia DeMarco: I always felt I was part of the garden. My earliest memories are of walking around in the garden with my Nona, figuring out what was ripe today. She’d say, “We’re going to go get some stuff for dinner.” I remember being knee high to her. We would pick the little zucchinis that were only a few inches long because if you let them grow to be gigantic, they’re tough.

I really took away from the experience of growing up like that a sense that you are part of the natural world and you carry that connection. So everywhere I went, I looked for what can I connect to. What is my ecosystem around me? What are the living things that I am amidst in all the different places that I lived?

Also, from my mother–using meals and that society around the table. Dinner parties are a great public policy tool. All of the problems of the family were settled at my grandmother’s table on Sundays. And my mother, because we were in the diplomatic service, I mean, threw dinner parties like you would not believe. So [I learned] the concept of using that gathering around food as a way of building community, as a way of building connection.

Holsopple: When you were 10, your father took a job in the foreign service, and you lived all over the world, including Brazil. What was your life like there, and how was it similar to the way Rachel Carson grew up in western Pennsylvania?

DeMarco: Her family was very protective of her and very possessive of her. So was mine. I mean, they controlled who we played with because we lived out in the middle of the jungle. Everybody else lived in town.

And then when you’re 12, 13, or so, you’re becoming bonded with your peers. Normally, your girlfriends are your most important people. That didn’t happen in our family because we moved every couple of years. And so, like Rachel Carson, I was a little apart.

Also, there are not many 12-year-old kids that are interested in the bugs. I know one time, this absolutely beautiful moth was injured on the playground at lunchtime, and I wanted to save it. So I picked it up, and I rescued it, and I put it over in the bushes. And, of course, it fluttered right back down because it had a damaged wing. One of the boys came running by and stomped it flat. And I just sat down and cried. I was so upset.

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Kids did not connect to things that I got excited about. So I felt a little bit like Rachel Carson in that that I found solace in connecting to the natural world because it didn’t criticize and it was abundantly rich in new experiences. I mean, getting a microscope for my birthday just opened a whole new world. I fell into my microscope and really never came out. I became really, really interested in probing those intimate little details of the natural world. 

Holsopple: When were you first exposed to Rachel Carson’s writing and how of her books intersected with different parts of your life?

DeMarco: We were on our way back home from Brazil on an ocean liner. It was in 1958, so they had just come out with The Sea Around Us, which had been published just a few years before — a big, highly illustrated coffee table book. It was in the lounge of the ship. And here I am on the ocean, and it says the “sea around us.” I said, “Wow.” I would go up and sit on the floor against one of the big plush couches and read, and then I’d go out and lean on the banister of the ship deck and watch the ocean.

I saw a school of flying fish go by one morning, and I wondered so much about what was under the water. And then here’s this book telling me what was under the boat. It hit me that this person wrote about the ocean so beautifully. A

Then I received Silent Spring as a present when I graduated from high school. You know, it had just come out. My father gave it to me, and I thought, “Wow, this is a woman who made her own way.” I mean, she had a big impact on really important things. I was a genetics student and so I was really very much impressed with her writing. 

Holsopple: You write about the negative reactions you got for staying in Pittsburgh to finish your Ph.D. in biology while your first husband worked on his internship in Connecticut after medical school. And then later, how having two small children sort of removed you from the academic tenure track in the 1970s. How did that change the trajectory of your career?

DeMarco: When you study to get a Ph.D. in a science, you’re expected trajectory is that you’re on a tenure track. You get tenure somewhere and your prestige is judged by the size of your grants and the number and successes of your graduate students. They don’t really prepare you for much else.

When the circumstances of my life intervened such that that course was not available to me, I was really, really depressed. I thought, “Oh man, I’ve studied all these years, and I have a prestigious post-doc.”

I had 17 publications I was associated with, so I was really well on my way. And then I had two children in close succession. In those days, if you fell off the tenure track, you don’t go back.

But I found out that what you learn when you get a doctorate in a science is how to frame a problem, how to organize an inquiry to find out the answers and how to communicate that. I found there was a tremendous need for people who could translate between the lawyers, the engineers, the scientists and the general public.

Rachel Carson was a wonderful model for that because that’s what she did. She was in Reader’s Digest; she was in the local newspaper. It was a very practical, pragmatic translation of all that science into something useful for everyday people.

Holsopple: You’re very frank in the book about the four bouts of cancer–kidney cancer and breast cancer–that you’ve gone through over the last 20 years. You write that, like Carson, who was dying from breast cancer when she wrote Silent Spring, you decided not to let people outside of your family really know about your illness. Why did you make that decision?

DeMarco: When you’re in a public position, if you have something that people consider a weakness, it compromises your ability to function. When I had my first round of cancer [living] in Alaska, I was a sitting commissioner on the Regulatory Commission of Alaska. We were actually in hearings on the challenge to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline tariff.

The last thing I needed was to give the seven major oil companies who were the plaintiffs in that case an excuse to disqualify anything that I said or wrote on the record. And what it did was it made me look inward for strength instead of looking for support outward.

So I started writing. I wrote down the things that got me aggravated or scared, or just mad. But I didn’t talk about it. And it worked because I didn’t give cancer my words. It is normal in nature — like when you have galls, a tree will make a callus and surround it, isolate it, and protect itself from the invasion. You have all kinds of things in nature that show you how to be strong, how to be resilient, and how to survive assaults. 

Holsopple: There’s some really lovely nature writing in the book, and I’m thinking of your time at the shore with your children examining those little crabs and insects there. And your descriptions of the ecosystem of your yard in Pittsburgh, where you would lie on the ground as you healed from cancer. Could you read a little section from that description? 

DeMarco: Oh, sure. Thank you for asking. I had a section called “The Gifts of the Healing Trees.” Just to give you an idea, I have a backyard, not quite a third of an acre, and it has two 100-year-old pin oaks on either side. I would lay on the grass under those trees, and I would take my nap there on a little quilt. I’ll just read a little paragraph.

“I closed my eyes and felt the embrace of the elder pin oaks extend to me. These great trees form the connection between earth and the sky, each one, an engine of carbon sequestration as their leaves turn sunlight into sugars and starches and cellulose. The miracle of photosynthesis happens here on a grand scale in this summer of rain and warm weather. The air so close to the ground holds an earthy fragrance laced with clover blossoms and the stargazer lilies in the nearby garden border. My senses are dulled by the chemicals coursing through my body in the attempt to stifle the tumor growing in my breast. But saturating myself in all of this pulsing life lends me a sense of calm and confidence in the enduring resilience of Nature. I listen to the soft gurgle of the pond fountain and receive the gift of healing sleep.”

Holsopple: It’s very Rachel Carson-esque. 

DeMarco: I practice daily meditation, just sort of sitting in the garden or walking slowly in the garden or around the neighborhood–the act of just noticing the minutia of the nature around you. And [I’m] very aware this year of the very different winter that we’ve had compared to many winters. I mean, we’ve had a total of four inches altogether of snow, none of which lasted more than two or three days.

I’m not just alarmed, but sad, to see the complete progression of things that have been predicted and warned about, even as far back as Rachel Carson’s time. Her concern was to take precaution in what you do when you’re disrupting the natural cycles of the world. And we have had complete oblivion to her warnings. And I reflect a lot on how much of my very strange cancer story has been caused by the environmental exposures over the course of my life. I still contemplate how the consequences of our actions today will be affecting future generations. 

Holsopple: Who did you write this book for, and what do you want them to take away from it?

DeMarco: I wrote this book partly because I was so inspired by Rachel Carson’s fortitude in dealing with a really brutal treatment for cancer. In her day, it was much worse than it is today. And she persisted, even when she was suffering iritis in her eyes, and had to have people read to her. And even when she was so weak, she couldn’t type.

The purpose-driven life gets you through the most adversity you can imagine. Rachel Carson is my model in doing that because I read many of her letters during the end of her life. She wrote voluminous correspondence with her close friends, and she shared what she did not display in public.

And I felt like, “Okay, what you need to do is to focus on your purpose.” I continued writing a blog every month during the whole time I was sick. I gave, I think, 35 speeches the year that I was in chemo.

I find that when you’re dealing with something as invasive and disruptive as cancer, and the treatment of it, whether or not you survive the end of it, if you have an internal sense of purpose to your life that gives you a reason to get up every morning, then you’re less likely to be destroyed and devastated by the experience of having a disease. And I wanted to share that with people. 

The book launch of “In the Footsteps of Rachel Carson: Harnessing Earth’s Healing Power” is on Thursday, February 23, from 6-8 p.m. in the Mellon Living Room at Chatham University. R.S.V.P. by February 20 to de*******@gm***.com.