nimura explores women writing about the natural world

In spring 2024, Janice Nimura will be teaching ENVS272/Knowing Their Place: Two Centuries of Women Generating Wonder in the Natural World, exploring the history of women writing about the natural world. The course runs in conjunction with Professor Nimura’s newest book project.

This year as part of the 20th Annual Robert F. Schumann Where On Earth Are We Going symposium, Janice Nimura, this year’s Menakka and Essel Bailey ‘66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar and finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Biography, delivered the opening talk entitled, “Knowing Their Place: Rachel Carson and the Women Who Came Before Her.” The talk was inspired by a book Nimura is currently researching that will dive deep into the life and thinking of Rachel Carson and explore the 19th-century women naturalists who preceded her. 

Nimura began her talk by discussing Rachel Carson, who is widely and best known for her book Silent Spring. In telling Carson’s story, Nimura noted that Carson had been interested in nature writing from a young age and wrote her first story at the age of 10. Carson later became a biologist and went on to work for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries before translating her writing skills into her first book, Under the Sea Wind, published in 1941, followed by The Sea Around Us, which won the National Book Award in 1951, and The Edge of the Sea. The creativity and nuance with which Carson wrote about and observed nature helped her build an audience that proved open to and interested in the topic of conservation when Silent Spring was released in 1962—a moment in time considered by many to be the beginning of the modern environmental movement.

Professor Nimura then explained the importance of the women who came before Carson and the gendered nature of how they worked. She explained that during the 19th century, women were unable to work in natural sciences in the same way, unless alongside their husbands or if they did so within the domestic sphere. This idea of observing nature from the home was central to the women she discussed, including Susan Fenimoore Cooper, daughter of James Fenimoore Cooper, and author of Rural Hours which describes a year-long observation of nature within the property in which she lived; Mary Treat, who wrote articles about botany and insects and would later go on to write her own book, Injurious Insects of the Farm and Field; Mabel Osgood Wright, who studied birds and founded the Connecticut branch of the Audubon Society; and Anna Botsford Comstock, the first female professor at Cornell, until she was removed, and author of Handbook of Nature-Study, written to teach children, and their teachers, about nature.