No longer silent

A one-woman show explores the life of Rachel Carson, the mother of the modern environmental movement

Kaiulani Lee wrote and performs the one-woman show <i>A Sense of Wonder</i>.

Kaiulani Lee wrote and performs the one-woman show A Sense of Wonder.

Before we knew about ozone holes and global warming, we knew about the government’s use of chemical pesticides like DDT, which killed not only insects but also damaged wildlife in the affected areas indiscriminately. We knew about this travesty because before groups like Greenpeace and Earth First! there was a revolutionary book by a woman who, as Time Magazine puts it, “was not a born crusader but an intelligent and dedicated woman who rose heroically to the occasion.”

The woman was Rachel Carson, and the book was Silent Spring, which in 1962 thrust this shy marine biologist into the limelight and brought on the wrath of the chemical industry and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But despite its author being labeled a “hysterical woman” and threatened with lawsuits, Silent Spring became a runaway bestseller that is now considered the catalyst for the modern environmental movement.

Carson died in 1964, but her spirit lives on in A Sense of Wonder, a one-woman play written and performed by Kaiulani Lee. Lee, whom you may remember from her starring role in the 1997 film A Midwife’s Tale, wrote the play over a decade ago with help from Carson’s family and friends. Since then, she has performed it hundreds of times in the United States, Canada and Europe.

A Sense of Wonder opens at Carson’s summer cottage on the coast of Maine in September 1963. Carson already knows she’s dying of bone cancer and that when she leaves the cottage for her home in Maryland, it will probably be for the last time. The play depicts her struggles against the chemical industry, but it also shows us a side of Carson which was largely overlooked after the publication of Silent Spring; Carson was already an acclaimed author of several books about the sea, which many critics described as combining solid science with pure poetry.

Christopher Rawson, drama critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, said of A Sense of Wonder, “What Lee achieves in barely an hour is something rare and almost spiritual: She merges herself with Carson’s spirit, fervently voicing both halves of her great message—scientific-aesthetic-emotional testimony to the beauty of the natural world and a prophetic call to its defense.”

Not surprisingly, Lee’s performance at the Brewery Arts Center in Carson City March 15 is sponsored by the governmental body that knew Carson best: the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Carson worked there when it was the Bureau of Fisheries, and it was there that she established her reputation as a scientific writer with an elegant literary style. The performance is also sponsored by Spring Wings, an annual bird festival held in Fallon May 10-12.

“The Lahontan Valley wetlands in and around Fallon are widely regarded among the most significant wetland systems in the American West,” says Spring Wings director Janet Schmidt. “The bird watching is amazing, and over 280 species of birds have been sighted in the valley. We want to grow the participation in Spring Wings and let everyone know about the terrific birding in Fallon all year long.”

And perhaps those who see Lee’s performance will one day be inspired to fight against what Carson saw not far from her home: "On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of scores of bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh."