The Wonder of Rachel Carson
This week, I’m letting somebody else speak for me - had the author been alive today, I like to think she wouldn’t have minded my sharing her work.
Below are excerpts from Rachel Carson’s poignant essay Help Your Child to Wonder, published in the July 1956 issue of Woman’s Home Companion (priced at the time at 35 cents; a bargain when you consider the immeasurable value of the words inside).
As a woman who’s approaching middle age (one’s 40's isn’t middle age yet, right?), I find Rachel Carson’s counsel inspiring; though time may be passing as inexorably as the decay of a fallen tree, it is never too late to “kindle the fires of amazement.”
As an increasingly busy, nature-loving mother of two children, her words are an important reminder “to keep alive their inborn sense of wonder”, to help them “feel”.
As a writer, I’m impressed by the passion and delight that shines through her humble prose. No pretentious preacher was she.
And as a conservationist who is sometimes overwhelmed with ecological grief, her insight, that “there is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter” is comforting and a source of hope.
You can find a (fashionably vintage) pdf version of the original, complete essay here.
(Thank you, Pete Morkel, for letting me know about Help Your Child to Wonder; I agree, it is very special).
“One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in the rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy – he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me.
As Roger passed his other birthdays, we continued that sharing of adventures in the world of nature that we began in his babyhood – a sharing based on having fun together rather than on teaching. I made no conscious effort to name plants or animals or to explain to him, but just expressed my own pleasure in what we saw. I think the results have been good.
We let Roger share our enjoyment of things people frequently deny children because they are inconvenient or because they interfere with bedtime. We searched the shore at night for ghost crabs, those sand- colored, fleet-legged beings rarely glimpsed in daytime, our flashlight piercing the darkness with a yellow cone. We sat in the dark living room before the picture window to watch the full moon riding lower and lower towards the far shore of the bay, setting all the water ablaze with silver flames. The memory of such scenes, photographed by his child’s mind, will mean more to him in manhood than the sleep he lost.
A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. For most of us that clear-eyed vision is dimmed or lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.
If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder he needs the companionship of an adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted with the eager, sensitive mind of a child. “How can I teach my child about nature – why, I don’t even know one bird from another!” they exclaim. I believe that for the child, and for the child seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. Once the emotions have been aroused – a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the unknown, a feeling of sympathy or admiration – then the wish for knowledge will follow.
Wherever you are and whatever your resources, you can still look up at the sky – at its dawn and twilight beauties, its moving clouds, its stars by night. You can listen to the wind, whether it blows with majestic voice through a forest or sings a many-voiced chorus around the eaves of your house or the corners of your apartment building. You can feel the rain on your face and think of its long journey, its many transmutations, from sea to air to earth. Even if you are a city dweller, you can find a park or a golf course where you can observe the mysterious migrations of the birds and the changing seasons, or ponder the mystery of a growing seed planted in a pot of earth in the kitchen window.
Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies around you. One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, “What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?” I remember a summer night when I went out on a flat headland all but surrounded by the waters of the bay. The night was so still that I could hear the buoy on the ledges out beyond the mouth of the bay. Once or twice a word spoken by someone on the far shore was carried across on the clear air; a few lights burned in cottages. Otherwise there was no reminder of other human life. I was alone with the stars: the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear. Once or twice a meteor burned its way into the earth’s atmosphere. It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages. An experience like that can be shared with a child, even if you don’t know the name of a single star. You can drink in the beauty, and wonder at the meaning of it all.
And then there is the world of little things, seen all too seldom. An investment of a few dollars in a good hand lens will bring a new world into being. Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake. A sprinkling of sand grains may appear as gleaming jewels of rose or crystal hue, or as glittering jet beads, or as a mélange of Lilliputian rocks. A lens-aided view into a patch of moss reveals a dense tropical jungle, in which insects as large as tigers prowl amid strangely formed, luxuriant trees. Pondweed or seaweed put in a glass container and studied under a lens is found to be populated by hordes of strange beings.
Senses other than sight can prove avenues of delight and discovery. Down on the shore early in the morning, Roger and I have savored the smell of low tide – that marvelous evocation combined of many separate odors, of seaweeds and fishes, of tides rising and falling on their appointed schedule, of exposed mud flats and salt rime drying on the rocks. I hope he will later experience, as I do, the rush of remembered delight that comes with the first breath of that scent, as one returns to the sea after a long absence. Hearing requires more conscious cultivation. I have had people tell me that they had never heard the song of a wood thrush, although I knew the bell-like phrases of this bird had been ringing in their backyards every spring. Take time to listen and talk about the voices of the earth and what they mean – the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf.
No child should grow up unaware of the dawn chorus of the birds in the spring. He will never forget the experience of a specially planned early rising in the predawn darkness when the first voices are heard. Perhaps a few cardinals are uttering their clear, rising whistles, then comes the song of a white throat, pure and ethereal, with the dreamy quality of remembered joy. Off in some distant patch of woods a whippoorwill continues his monotonous night chant, rhythmic and insistent. Robins, thrushes, song sparrows, add their voices. In that dawn chorus one hears the throb of life itself.
On a still October night when there is little wind, find a place away from traffic noises, then listen. Presently your ears will detect tiny wisps of sound – sharp chirps, sibilant lisps and call notes. They are the voices of bird migrants, apparently keeping in touch with others of their kind scattered through the sky. I never hear these calls without a sense of lonely distances, a compassionate awareness of small lives directed by forces beyond volition, or denial, a surging wonder at the sure instinct for route and direction that so far has baffled human efforts to explain it.
What is the value of preserving this sense of awe and wonder? Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood, or is there something deeper? I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant. Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations of their personal lives, their thoughts can find paths that lead to inner contentment and to renewed excitement in living. Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts. There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring. There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature – the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after winter.
In my mail I once found a letter from a reader who asked advice on choosing a seacoast spot for a vacation, a place wild enough that she might roam beaches unspoiled by civilization, exploring that world that is old but ever new. Regretfully she excluded the rugged Northern shores. Climbing over the rocks of Maine might be difficult, she said, for an eighty-ninth birthday would soon arrive. As I put down her letter I was warmed by the fires of wonder and amazement that still burned brightly in her youthful mind and spirit, just as they must have done fourscore years ago.”