Rachel Carson - Whole Earth Hero

Posted by Whole Earth | 09.09.2019


Rachel Carson – Whole Earth Hero


Today Rachel Carson is primarily remembered for sounding the alarm on DDT. The pesticide was devastating wildlife, birds and bees. Carson documented its dangers in her book Silent Spring and faced ferocious opposition from the chemical industry and its supporters. But her case was built on scientific evidence and was able to withstand tough questioning and public scrutiny. She is now considered one of the founders of the American environmental movement that blossomed in the 1960s and 1970s. 


Carson was doubly gifted as a biologist and a writer. Her books on life in and near the ocean were beautifully written and bestsellers. However, we’re going to focus on a lesser known work – The Sense of Wonder. Originally written as a magazine article, the essay was expanded into book form, accompanied by beautiful photographs of the natural world. 


At the heart of The Sense of Wonder is Carson’s belief that adults have a responsibility to nurture and protect a child’s growing sense of wonder about the natural world:


If I had the 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 in the world would 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.*


Lacking a good fairy, Carson believed that a child needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share their inborn sense of wonder, rediscovering the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. For adults who would love to share in these experiences with their child but who think that they don’t have the requisite knowledge, Carson has this advice. 


I believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The early years of childhood are the time to prepare the soil. 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. It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.*


Carson says that exploring nature with your child is primarily becoming aware of what lies around you by using your senses: eyes, ears, nose and sense of touch. She offers a few simple suggestions to help you get started. 


Sight is often our primary sense with which we understand the world. Carson suggests taking a small magnifying glass on your walks. Looking closely at the world beneath the lens can alert us to worlds beyond our human scale. Flowers, moss, insects, snowflakes and rocks are just a few of the objects to shift our awareness. A trip to a dark sky location like Enchanted Rock can awaken a different sense of scale as we watch the Milky Way slowly progress across the night sky or count “falling stars” during a meteor shower. 


Our sense of hearing is another way to explore the natural world. Carson wants every child to have the experience of hearing the dawn chorus in Spring when many birds who are otherwise silent rise to greet the day and one another. And on almost every day of the year, one can hear the early morning calls of Cardinals, Wrens and Jays and Doves. At night during Fall and Spring migration, Carson suggests listening carefully for the calls of migrating birds. If the Moon is full, pull out your binoculars and study the Moon. If you’re patient, you may see migrating birds passing across the face of the Moon! Another idea for nighttime is going out after dark and listening to the night calls of frogs, crickets and other creatures. Using a flashlight, see if you can find the night caller. 


Your sense of smell can be activated all year long. Wood smoke and the impending smell of snow in Winter; the spicy, intoxicating smell of a field of Bluebonnets in Spring; the smell of freshly mown grass, rain that has fallen nearby and is heading your way, and the smell of tomatoes on the vine in Summer are just a few of the scents of the seasons.  


Our sense of touch is receptive to the feel of fresh running water in a stream; the warmth of rocks on a hot summer day; the soft touch a rose petal on the cheek; the rough feel of the bark of an Oak tree; and the prickly head of a dried Purple Coneflower. And don’t forget the pleasure of oozy, messy mud!


Rediscover your sense of wonder with your child in your neighborhood, local park or on a family field trip. You’ll be enriching your life together, making wonderful memories, and creating an indestructible sense of wonder for your child. 


The PBS series American Experience broadcast this in-depth documentary on the life and work of Rachel Carson.



The Sense of Wonder, Rachel Carson, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1998. page 54.

*Ibid, page 56.


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