Two exceptional women who loved Nature

Janine Kitson, Member of the National Parks Association of NSW

Based on the NPA course presented to the WEA, Sydney on 15 October, 2016

With special thanks to Anne McLeod, author of The Summit of Her Ambition, The spirited life of Marie Byles 2016

US writer, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring is claimed to have heralded in the modern environment movement.  Australia’s Marie Byles is recognised as NSW’s first practicing woman solicitor as well as a leading woman bushwalker, mountain climber and conservationist. This NPA/WEA, Sydney course compared these two outstanding conservationists – an American and an Australian – and explored how these two indomitable and fearless women contributed so much to the development of the modern environment movement.

Both Marie Byles and Rachel Carson were highly intelligent, hard working women who faced enormous challenges in asserting their respective professional careers in law and science. Both women were published authors but Rachel Carson was juggernauted into international fame with her acclaimed Silent Spring (1962) that launched the modern environment movement.  In post WW2 USA agriculture was awash with highly toxic and dangerous chemicals — particularly the use of DDT.  Rachel Carson raised the alarm and warned how the misuse of chemicals would irreversibly poison life on the planet.  Chemicals poisoned the waterways, air and soil and harmed living things as the toxification intensified up the food chain harming insects, birdlife, wildlife, marine life and ultimately human health.  Rachel Carson’s eloquent writing described the beauty and wonder of these complex interrelationships and how humans were utterly dependent upon a healthy environment.

Although Marie Byles did not achieve the international fame that Rachel Carson did, Marie travelled the world at a time when few people did. First, as a young woman adventurer in pursuit of climbing mountain peaks around the world during the 1920s-30s, then in later years to India, Burma and Japan where she pursued her spiritual search of Buddhism and meditation. She was ahead of her time and developed pioneering concepts about sustainability and peace. At a time when post WW2 society was embracing affluence, economic growth and rampant consumerism, Marie was advocating for a vision of living with a ‘light footprint’ that did not harm the Earth. Her home ‘Ahimsa’ at Cheltenham, Sydney – that she bequeathed to the National Trust (NSW) – is a living testimony to this vision.

Both women were nourished by rich experiences with Nature as young children. As a young child Marie Byles would tramp the English countryside and then, when her family migrated to Australia, she went on epic bushwalks with her brothers and friends. Their family holiday house at Palm Beach had views to Maitland Bay which later inspired her to campaign for its protection for what is known today as Bouddi National Park.  Rachel Carson was an avid birdwatcher and as a young girl won a prestigious prize for her nature writing.

Tragically, both women experienced assaults on their health—Marie was brutally attacked as she lay sleeping on her verandah one night.  Ironically she had called her home ‘Ahimsa’ the word for ‘non-violence’. Rachel was dying from breast cancer as she wrote and talked about the dangers of chemicals to human health, and was vilified by a concerted campaign from the chemical industry.   

Both women felt strong emotional connections to Nature—Marie was inspired by mountains; Rachel loved the sea.  Both women understood that Nature was about complex ecological interrelationships.  Marie understood this in a spiritual way through her study of Buddhism and the need to live in peaceful co-existence with Nature. Rachel expressed this through her writing that celebrated the profound beauty of Nature.