Rachel Carson

The Sense of Wonder

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”

Rachel Carson (1907 – 1964), one of the most important environmentalists of the 20th century, spent her life reminding us we are part of—not apart from—the natural world, in all its minutiae and marvels.

A Sense of Wonder is Carson’s most personal project. In her own intimate space, like the coastline of Maine, Carson takes our hand and teaches us how to see. Or, rather, reminds us of how we saw when we were young.

There is the world of little things, seen all too seldom. Many children, perhaps because they themselves are small and closer to the ground than we, notice and delight in the small and inconspicuous.
Garden snails. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.
Beautiful garden snail shells. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

With Silent Spring, Carson reinforced our connection to nature by demonstrating the harm of pesticides and insecticides. Wonder is something more intimate, more personal. Carson invites us along as she ventures out with her young nephew Roger finding harmony in the dark night silence.

Our adventure on this particular night had to do with life. We were searching for ghost crabs, those sand-colored, fleet-legged beings which Roger had sometimes glimpsed briefly on the beaches in daytime. But the crabs are chiefly nocturnal, and when not roaming the night beaches they dig up little pits near the surf line where they hide.

“Senses other than sight,” Carson reminds us, “can prove avenues of delight and discovery.” The smell of leaf mold in autumn, the sound of snow, the words we speak to name flowers. Carson believed a full-sensory perception enabled a stronger emotional response.

I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant. Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote he felt joy to the point of sadness while gazing at the sky, and poet Pablo Neruda wrote of an instant uplift while smelling violets. Our senses are indeed conduits through which a universal pulse echoes. Carson coaches us to a state where that pulse is most clearly felt. (Read here my own study of the meaning of touch).

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 building, and in the listening, you can gain magical release for your thoughts.

Science isn’t the only way to arrive at knowledge,” wrote physicist Alan Lightman, who, like Carson, contemplated our magical existence while staring up at the Maine sky.

Rachel Carson - The Sense of Wonder
Fibonacci sequence in begonia leaves. One of the most beautiful mysteries of life. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

The Sense of Wonder was Carson’s most treasured project, but she never saw it published, inundated as she was by the response to the 1964 publication of Silent Spring. We are so lucky that she wrote it at all; our children more so. Hold it dear, think of her, and live in wonder of what isn’t known but is deeply felt.

Rachel Carson