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Weis: Arbor Day

04/30/12 7:55AM By Russ Weis
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(Host) Friday is Arbor Day in Vermont, and while thinking about this upcoming day devoted to the planting of trees, environmental educator and commentator Russ Weis branches out to consider the impact two intrepid female environmentalists have had on our world.

(Weis) I like the fact that Vermont's Arbor Day falls midway between the birthdays of two inspiring women who, each in her own way, tremendously advanced the cause of environmentalism.

Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya on the first of April, 1940. She was the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Upon her death last fall, the New York Times called her one of the most widely-respected women in Africa. Environmentalist, feminist, human rights advocate and founder of the Green Belt Movement, she spearheaded the planting of trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to provide firewood for fuel and jobs for women. She once said, " It's the little things citizens do...that make the difference. My little thing is planting trees."

Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907. She was a renowned nature writer and a former marine biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Her enormously influential book, Silent Spring, published fifty years ago this coming fall, shone a spotlight on the serious problems created by the use of synthetic pesticides in the early ‘60s. Carson's work led directly to a nationwide ban on DDT, and indirectly to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In so doing, she contributed mightily to the rise of the modern environmental movement.

In the course of their work, both women encountered fierce resistance from the entrenched patriarchal forces of their places and times. After Silent Spring came out in 1962, Carson was vilified by the chemical industry and the Department of Agriculture. Her detractors called her "hysterical and unqualified," and her careful scientific data was described as "oversimplified and filled with scary generalizations." Time magazine even wrote that Carson had used "emotion-fanning words."

Maathai also was denigrated simply because she was female. The Kenyan Parliament once called her Green Belt Movement a phony organization and its members "a bunch of divorcees." This was perhaps not all that surprising. During Maathai's divorce proceedings a few years earlier, her husband had described her as being "too strong-minded for a woman," and said that he was "unable to control her." However, despite jail time, eviction from her home, and even the wrath of the President of Kenya, the future Nobel Laureate's spirit remained strong. " African women...need to know" she said, "that it's okay...to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence."

For her part, the author of Silent Spring once mused that "those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts."

And by speaking truth to power when they did, Carson, first-world scientist, and Maathai, third-world activist, sowed the seeds for a more enlightened future.

Their legacies remind us just how important it is - for both women and men - not to remain silent in the face of threats to our planet.
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