Stamp Stories: Rachel Carson

Just for Kids!
Stamp featuring portrait of Rachel Carson

Explore the life of celebrated environmentalist Rachel Carson with the National Postal Museum and Smithsonian Gardens. Educators read a children’s book on Carson’s life, highlight elements of the Smithsonian Gardens Habitat exhibit, and share postage stamps related to these topics.

Rachel Carson stamp

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Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.

Cindy: And I’m Cindy from Smithsonian Gardens.

Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps.  New stamps come out every year on a wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about Rachel Carson, who made it her life’s work to raise awareness of the importance of protecting the environment. Cindy, do you want to tell us a little more?

Cindy: Sure, thanks Maureen! I’m so happy to be here today. Thank you for inviting me. We’re going to talk about Rachel Carson, who was an author and a scientist and passionate about protecting habitats. The work that she did is directly related to the mission at Smithsonian Gardens.

Maureen: First we’re going to read a book to tell us a little more about Rachel Carson’s life. Then we’ll look at some exhibit and museum objects that are related to her story.

Spring After Spring: How Rachel Carson Inspired the Environmental Movement, by Stephanie Roth Sisson.
In nature, nothing exists alone.
It was dawn when the chorus began. Cheerily! Cheerily!
Rachel didn’t want to miss a note. Caw, caw!  Cheerily, cheerily! Peep, peep, peep, peep, peep!
As the midday sun warmed the earth, other musicians chimed in. Chirp, chirp. Buzzzzz. Peep, peep, peep, peep.
Life and music were all around. And wonders big…and small.
Spring was Rachel’s favorite time of year. As the sun set, she could hear the first bubbles of frogsong.
Crickets began their nighttime tune and bats squeaked a lullaby.
At home there was a warm supper and a big family. Mom played the piano and Dad sang songs and read stories.
Rachel’s favorites were those about the sea.
As the days grew longer and warmer, the chattering, chirping, and hooting got louder.
Until the gathering calls from migrating birds meant that it was autumn. They were coming together for their long journey through the ocean of air to their wintering homes.
But not everyone left.
Snuggled under a warm blanket, Rachel drew pictures and wrote about the life she experienced all year. She read books about animals and imagined what their lives were like.
Spring after spring, year after year, the birds arrived.
Every season Rachel watched, listened, and wrote, and like the nestlings, she grew quickly.
Then one autumn, it was time for her to go off to college. She was sure she wanted to be a writer until…
…she looked through a microscope and saw a small world in a drop of water – tiny sea plants and animals. Rachel was amazed and in love.
She wanted to know more about the very small world made visible by a microscope. She had never been to the ocean and was scared to go in the water.
To learn about the creatures in tidal pools, marshes, and the sea, Rachel decided she would study biology. She put her writing aside.
After she finished school, Rachel worked as a scientist and compiled information about the ocean. Now for her job she wanted to know what it was like to actually be underwater. She was still scared. But she went anyway.
In the fish world, many things are told by sound waves…
Rachel began to write books about the sea. They were so full of scientific detail and vivid descriptions of the lives of sea creatures that people could imagine those worlds.
Rachel became a famous author. But there was something wrong.
All around, nature’s voices were going quiet.
So Rachel did what she did best. She watched closely, listened carefully, and learned as much as she could about what was happening.
Rachel put together scattered facts and found the answer.
People wanted to kill bugs that ate their plants, bothered them, and sometimes even made them sick.
Chemists created new poisons to solve the insect problems that seemed to work and seemed to be harmless to other creatures and humans.
These poisonous chemicals were quickly used everywhere in huge amounts because people thought they were safe.
But Rachel found evidence that the poisons were not safe.
Rachel wrote a book to tell people what she had learned. Silent Spring created a huge ruckus. Some people were inspired to change, but many didn’t believe Rachel.
Eventually President Kennedy took notice and began an investigation to find out what was true. Rachel was asked to come to Washington, DC, and defend her book.
She was scared, but she went.
Rachel’s testimony in Washington and her writing in Silent Spring made people see that they have an effect on the environment and the other creatures that they share the world with.
People were inspired to speak up, congress passed new laws so that nature was treated with more care, and some of the most harmful chemicals were banned.
Spring after spring, year after year, people celebrated the Earth and the environment because Rachel showed them how beautiful and precious it is.
As human beings, we are part of the whole stream of life…

Cindy: Rachel Carson inspired many people to be stewards of nature, including Smithsonian Gardens staff. We want to have a positive impact upon the environment and share what we’ve learned with the millions of visitors who come to our gardens. We want to show people how to help the plants and creatures we share the world with.

So Smithsonian Gardens created an outdoor exhibition called Habitat! The exhibition explains how protecting habitats protects life. Habitats are homes, they are interconnected and fragile, and they need to be protected.

Smithsonian Gardens staff built giant nests – homes for different kinds of birds. Did you know that birds make nests out of mud, twigs, branches, grasses, and sometimes, even trash?

Insects are everywhere and they need homes too. Insects may be pests, but they also help us. Did you know that without insects we wouldn’t have any food? Smithsonian Gardens created giant, wooden bug structures for insects to use to nest, raise their young, and live in the winter.

We filled the structures with leaves, twigs, pinecones and other materials to mimic their natural woodland homes and we called them Bug B&Bs.

We created a special exhibit in the fountain garden that looks like a coral reef. Coral is a foundation species in the ocean. Anything that threatens their well-being is likely to harm other ocean creatures.

Dr. Mary Hagedorn is a marine biologist just like Rachel Carson was. She and her team study coral to help protect its biodiversity. Did you know that coral is an animal, and not a rock or plant?

We also had artists help us create giant dragonfly sculptures. Look how big they are compared to our horticulturists who designed the dragonflies.

We placed the sculptures in the Moon Gate Pond in the Smithsonian’s Enid A. Haupt Garden. Dragonflies need clean water to thrive. If they are sick, it indicates that the water is not healthy.

Here are two giant house sculptures in the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden. Your home garden, just like our gardens, can help creatures great and small by providing water, food, and shelter – the homes for wildlife. Smithsonian Gardens has 15 gardens. Most of them surround the museums on the Mall, but one is inside a museum.

The Kogod Courtyard inside of the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery improves the habitat for our museum visitors with tropical plants and trees. Like all of our gardens, it is a wonderful place to visit.

Maureen: Cindy, thanks so much for sharing all of that about the work of the Smithsonian Gardens. I’ve been lucky enough to visit the Habitat exhibit, and it’s got some really eye-catching and engaging pieces that do a wonderful job teaching about the importance of protecting habitats.

Now let’s take a look at some postage stamps from the National Postal Museum’s collection that also focus on habitats.

This is the postage stamp honoring Rachel Carson, issued in 1981. She is considered by many to be one of the best nature writers in history, and she used her background in science to write books that explain why it is so critical for humans to take care of the earth.

Rachel Carson started her career in science as a marine biologist, which means she studied life in the ocean. This set of stamps shows a coral reef scene in the Pacific Ocean, like the reef sculpture Cindy showed us from the exhibit. Do you notice how many different kinds of animals make their home on the reef? Life in the ocean can only truly thrive if reefs stay healthy, and Rachel Carson worked hard to teach people the importance of protecting habitats like this one.

The Smithsonian Gardens Habitat exhibit also does a great job of showing why it’s so important to protect the environment. The exhibit includes six different kinds of nests, all larger than life. Birds need nests as a place to raise their young. This is a stamp dedicated to wildlife conservation, and it shows whooping cranes with their chicks. You can see grasses around them in their wetlands habitat that they can use for building nests.

Remember the large dragonfly models Cindy showed us? Here we have a dragonfly stamp, where you can see some of the fascinating details on the insect’s body and wings. When you look up close at small things you can get a better idea of how complex they really are. From the time she was very young, Rachel Carson spent a lot of time carefully observing nature, down to the tiniest creatures.

Here is another dragonfly stamp, but this one shows the insect in a small part of its habitat. What do you notice? I see several types of flowers and plants, and also a log from a tree. These are all important parts of a dragonfly’s habitat.

And this set of stamps shows us the scene of the whole habitat. Just look how many plants and animals there are! They all depend on a clean earth and a healthy natural space to survive. Can you spot the dragonfly we saw on the stamp? You have to look closely!

Humans have habitats too! We live in all different kinds of homes, and a lot of those homes have outdoor spaces we can take care of too. Humans can plant gardens that help us live in balance with the plants and animals around us. These stamps show us the beauty of flowers and gardens that humans can grow and protect. And if you don’t have an outdoor space for plants, you can also grow them inside your home! Rachel Carson taught us that we should appreciate the natural world, and all the habitats that are part of it.

Cindy: Isn’t it wonderful how museum exhibits and objects can help us understand the importance of protecting the earth? If you’d like to learn more about the work that Smithsonian Gardens does, and the Habitat exhibit, you can go on our website and see.

Maureen: Thank you so much, Cindy, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. You can learn more about nature and habitat stamps by visiting the National Postal Museum’s website, and you can also learn about stamps on all kinds of topics there. We encourage you to just keep exploring!