Janice P. Nimura is the Menakka and Essel Bailey ‘66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the Bailey College of the Environment for the 2023-24 academic year. She is a writer, finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in biography, and a member of this year’s COE Think Tank. Her work is based on groundbreaking 19th-century American women, and she is currently working on a project studying Rachel Carson and the women who came before and after her. Janice will be giving a talk on this subject, entitled Knowing Their Place: Rachel Carson and the Women Who Came Before Her, at the annual “Where on Earth Are We Going?” symposium on Saturday, October 28, here on campus. I had the pleasure of talking with her about her upcoming discussion.
Welcome to Wesleyan! What’s your role here at Wes?
Thanks! I am a Visiting Scholar in the Bailey College of the Environment, which means that I’m part of the COE Think Tank this fall, continuing into spring, and then in the spring I’ll teach a seminar on my research, which focuses on women looking at nature.
Rachel Carson is the first environmentalist people usually think of when they think of women looking at nature, but there are many, many women who came before her. I’m looking deep into the 19th century, because that’s my wheelhouse, and also at the women who flow from Rachel Carson, like Robin Wall Kimmerer and Terry Tempest Williams. Women who write about wonder and connection and ecology and responsibility and stewardship, because all those things are prerequisites for caring and taking action.
Tell us about your Where on Earth Are We Going discussion
My discussion will be a summary of my spring 2024 seminar, which is also my research. My two previous books are about overlooked 19th-century women, one in the context of 19th-century Japan, the other in the context of 19th-century medicine. I’m thinking now about women and ecology and women and environmental stewardship in the 19th century. None of these women are household names, and when they are mentioned, it tends to be as tributary streams for Rachel Carson. In my October 28th discussion, I’ll talk about encountering this group of figures and starting to look at them separately and together as a lineage. The course that I’m putting together for the spring includes readings in these 19th-century women, readings in Rachel Carson, and readings in some of the women who come after her. I want to discuss them and do some critical analysis, and I also want to give people some space to get outside, look closely, think deeply, and generate their own sense of wonder in their own writing, because that’s basically what all these women are doing. They’re generating wonder about the natural world in order to foster a sense of love, and therefore responsibility, because if you love something, you take care of it. Rachel Carson is especially interesting in this context. If I say Rachel Carson, what comes to mind?
Right, Silent Spring! That’s what you get, if the name checks at all. But Silent Spring was the last thing Rachel Carson did. She was extremely famous before she did it, for writing about the ocean. She wrote major bestselling, prizewinning books—one of them won the National Book Award and two of them were serialized in the New Yorker—that were deep dives into the ocean. This was in the 1950s, so pre-David Attenborough undersea video. The sea was a mysterious thing. And she wrote about it with both scientific detail, as a marine biologist, and with poetry. She wrote beautiful prose, and that intersection of science and poetry made her work powerful. The success she had in doing that is what gave her the platform to write Silent Spring. I didn’t know that part of her story, even though I studied Silent Spring in college. Her previous work really puts her in conversation with women who came before her. In the 19th century, science-minded women were marginalized, pushed aside by the male scientific establishment, forced into more appropriately domestic pursuits like botany. But they were still doing real science. And then because they couldn’t publish their work in scientific journals, they ended up often writing for general readers. They became some of the first science writers at a moment when natural history was making a huge transition, from moral hierarchy and “man’s dominion over nature” to a post-Darwin world in which humans are no longer at the top of that hierarchy. Moral responsibility in the context of the natural world suddenly meant something different. Women had hitherto been the moral stewards of the home, and women science writers began to widen the idea of home to our home environment, or even the home planet.
Yes, so the breakdown of that barrier of separation.
Exactly. Something I want to get at, and something I’m hoping to have really good discussions about in the spring, is the genderedness of that looking. There’s something inherent in the way women looked and wrote in this moment.
To that point, as our conceptions of gender have shifted over time, how do we reconcile this notion with the fact that women are no longer forced to occupy that caretaker role in the same way? How do contemporary women or even non-binary people fit into this?
Exactly what I want to talk about! The 19th-century idea of the angel in the house was that the woman’s role was to preserve the moral purity of the home. Then you start to build that out. There’s home as in my house. There’s home as in the natural world around me: my yard, my garden, the hills around my town. And then it keeps moving out. What Rachel Carson was doing in Silent Spring was finally saying, ‘We’ve got to do something, our house is in trouble.’ I’m very aware that even saying, “women in nature, women looking and writing about nature” is a category that now feels a little rigid. All of this is about breaking down categories and acknowledging connection, interdependence, and fluidity. I’m excited for this course because I’m excited to learn as much as I teach. I’ve spent a lot of time in the 19th century and I need to be reintroduced to now.
How did you come to this work? What led you to this path of academia?
Well, I’m not an academic. I have no PhD. I have the kind of career that only makes sense in reverse. I started out in publishing, was a book critic, and then moved to Japan with my Japanese husband and became part of his family there. I came back and earned a master’s degree in East Asian studies. I discovered the story that I told in my first book, Daughters of the Samurai, which is about three little girls, ages 6,10, and 11, who were sent here by the Japanese government in the 1870s. They grew up in America for ten years, and then they went back to Japan and helped promote women’s education. That was my first book, their story, and I fell in love with 19th-century women. So for my next book, The Doctors Blackwell, I looked at the Blackwell sisters, Elizabeth and Emily, who were the first and third women to get medical degrees here. Medicine is another passion of mine, my path not taken. And then, since I’d written two books about trailblazing 19th-century women, I wanted to keep going. I started looking at women and nature, and then ended up extending that through to Rachel Carson and beyond. This next project is a little different in that it’s more freestyle. This is not just one story, it’s a bunch of stories, and how they talk to each other. I’m hoping that whoever ends up in my classroom in the spring is ready to help me make this project, because there are so many connections that I can see and so many more that I can’t see. I’m looking forward to the collaboration.
What brought you to Wesleyan?
Fate! I happened to meet one of the current members of the Think Tank earlier this year. The COE always invites one outside person, who’s not necessarily an academic. He recommended that I apply. I’m so grateful for the chance to be part of the community this year. I can already tell it will feel too short!