Rachel Carson and the power of wonder

#22: The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson; photographs by Nick Kelsh (1996)

It isn’t often that I get to read someone else’s love letters. But read Rachel Carson’s work and you’ll see that’s just what she’s writing. She writes of the sea with a profound, abiding love.

When I spent time with Carson along the edge of the sea a few weeks ago in Maine, I came across references to a Carson book I’d not heard of before. I had already added one extra Carson book to my reading list, and worried about the possible tangent a second might take me on, but in the end, her work resonated with me too strongly to pass it up. The title was too alluring to pass up: The Sense of Wonder.

A sense of wonder, I tell my students, is the first step in exploring the world and finding worthwhile stories to tell. Be curious. Ask questions. Engage in wonder.

“Wisdom begins in wonder,” Socrates said.

Carson’s book, The Sense of Wonder, could very well be a primer for all freshman writing students.

The premise behind the book is deceptively simple: Teach children to appreciate nature. Don’t overwhelm them with species names but, rather, unlock their sense of wonder. “[I]t is not half so important to know as to feel,” she says. “Once the emotions have been aroused—a sense of the beautiful, the excitement of the new and the unknown, a feeling of sympathy, pity, admiration or love—then we wish for knowledge about the object of our emotional response. Once found, it has lasting meaning.”

Exploring nature is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies around you, Carson says.

[W]herever you are and whatever your resources, you can still look up at the sky—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…and in the listening, you can gain magical release for your thoughts. You can still feel the rain on your face and think of its long journey, its many transmutations, from sea to air to earth.

Such things might be so commonplace that we take them for granted. We literally lose sight of the wonder right in front of us. “[B]ecause they could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it,” she laments.

Originally written in July 1956 as an essay for Woman’s Home Companion, Carson dreamed of expanding the essay into a longer piece. “I want very much to do that Wonder book,” she said. “That would be Heaven to achieve.” She died—at age 56—before she was able to complete the project.

In 1998, photographer Nick Kelsh resurrected Carson’s dream. The result is gorgeous. Carson’s essay, artfully laid out with generous leading and wide margins on high-gloss, parchment-colored pages, is interspersed with pages of Kelsh’s nature photography. The photographs loosely illustrate the settings and landscapes Carson mines for wonder. Kelsh’s work enhances Carson’s while remaining respectful of it, too. Carson’s writing, and her love of nature, remain at the heart of the book.

It’s easy to reveal in her language. Take, for instance, a sentence like this, capturing an image like this: “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.” Carson makes me feel like I’m there with all the emotional richness of the moment. I want to close my eyes, cross my arms, and smile at the breath of sea spray misting my cheeks.

While I found great delight in Carson’s writing, it’s her vision that I found most remarkable, most alluring.  “If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children,” she says, “I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as 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.”

Carson’s unabashed love of the natural world represents a way of seeing that we could all benefit from. The world would benefit from it, too. How could we rape and pillage the land if we treated it with reverence, respect, and awe.

What an amazing gift we could pass on to future generations if only we awakened their sense of wonder. What amazing power that wonder would hold.

2 replies »

  1. Because of Rachel Carson 3 billion africans have died from Malaria. How can anyone love and support someone whom has killed so many. Anyone who bans the use of a chemical that kills a disease is a murderer. Ms. Carson is one of the worst murderers to ever walk the Earth. The chemical DDT was never even tested nor were scientist brought to state otherwise during Ms. Carson’s testimony. It was just banned.

    • When DDT was banned mosquitos and related disease carrying pests had already developed resistance to it due to massive overuse. This means that banning DDT would have resulted in insects becoming entirely immune, instead of remaining a useful pesticide when used carefully today.

      DDT wouldn’t have saved those 3 million Africans (if in fact your number is correct – do you have a citation for it?) if it hadn’t been banned, but the environment would have been destroyed too.