Rachel Carson’s Childhood Ecological Aesthetic and the Origin of The Sense of Wonder

  • David A. GreenwoodEmail author
Living reference work entry
Part of the Springer International Handbooks of Education book series (SIHE)


From early childhood onward, Rachel Carson’s relationship to nature was both imaginative and scientific, involving both literature and firsthand investigations of her homeplace. Later in life, Carson shared in a speech that, “I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn’t assume I was going to be a writer. Also, I can remember no time when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature. Those interests, I know, I inherited from my mother and have always shared with her” (Carson, Lost woods: The discovered writings of Rachel Carson. Beacon Press, Boston, 1999, p. 106). Carson’s mother recognized her daughter’s gifts and surrounded her with opportunities to learn in two complementary directions: creative writing and nature study. This chapter examines the development of Carson’s famous “sense of wonder” through her own childhood immersion in the early twentieth-century nature study movement, as well as through her relationship with children’s literary magazines, particularly St. Nicholas. Like other exemplars of literary environmental history, Carson’s early childhood experiences nurtured the development of an artistic sensibility as well as a responsiveness to, and curiosity about, the more-than-human world. Carson’s aesthetic made her a best-selling author who catalyzed the modern environmental movement with Silent Spring. But her success as a writer and legacy as an activist were rooted in “the sense of wonder” – a phrase that would become the title of her last, posthumously published book. Today, The Sense of Wonder remains an ecological manifesto that summons learners and educators of all ages to keep alive this vital sense in our own lives.


Rachel Carson Nature study Literature The sense of wonder Children 

Introduction: The Past Is Not over

All history becomes subjective; in other words there is properly no history, only biography. – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1982, p. 153), from his 1841 essay, “History”

Why bother to look at the past? What can we learn from the elders – the ancestors of the environmental movement? Where, in the life of someone like Rachel Carson, was the meeting ground between the aesthetic and ecological imagination?

People who know of Rachel Carson most often remember her as the author of Silent Spring, her 1962 classic exposé of chemical pesticides, and the industry behind them, that helped launch the modern environmental movement. Silent Spring did in the 1960s what no one book had ever done before and will likely ever do again: it radically changed the terms of the conversation between people and nature in the public imagination, in media, in science, in business, and in government. It galvanized a massive public outcry about the impacts of technology on human and nonhuman health, it led to a series of national policy shifts around environmental regulation (in more than one country), and it became an enduring symbol of the need for citizens to both heighten our awareness of ourselves as environmental watchdogs and also to recover our sacred obligations and connections to the earth. Translated into many languages, Silent Spring quickly became an international best seller and signaled a new era of global environmental politics. Technological “progress” and the interests of business would from then on be questioned on a planetary scale by a growing group of concerned citizens, scientists, and policymakers who would become known as environmentalists.

What most people do not remember today, however, is that Silent Spring did not make Rachel Carson’s reputation as a writer and household name. She was already the beloved author of three best-selling, and largely apolitical, natural histories of the oceans. Carson’s popularity as a nature writer, her status as a much-loved observer, and scientific interpreter, of the natural world, put her in a unique position to become an international spokesperson for the environment. Her notoriety, and, from her publisher’s perspective, her marketability, ensured that Silent Spring would be published, publicized, and widely read and that its charges against chemical pesticides would be seriously considered.

It is hard to imagine the environmental movement as we know it without Silent Spring. And it is impossible to imagine Silent Spring without the success of her Carson’s previous three books: Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955). The most important of these was The Sea Around Us. Published over 10 years before Silent Spring, this is the book that changed her life and that made Carson’s reputation as a major nature writer. Sales from The Sea Around Us, along with the constant stream of requests for new writing and speaking engagements, gave Carson the financial freedom to quit her government job, build her cottage on the coast of Maine, and become a full-time writer – her lifelong dream realized. She benefitted from the massive publicity behind the book, which included serial prepublication in The New Yorker (Silent Spring would receive the same privilege), a Book of the Month Club selection (ditto for Silent Spring), the John Burroughs Award, and the National Book Award. The accolades and awards were the fruition of a long effort to write while holding down a government job as a scientist and supporting her extended family. But most of all, Carson’s success reflected her literary gift to communicate her own sense of wonder through poetic prose that somehow married imaginative vision with vivid natural history, unbridled enthusiasm, and the careful reasoning of science.

In today’s intellectual environment, postmodern, ecocritical, and critical humanist scholars are sometimes hasty to condemn the writing of canonical environmental thinkers. Often, writers such as Henry David Thoreau or John Muir are dismissed as expressing a narrow, white, male, and privileged view of romanticism that does not reflect the cultural diversity of thought and experience in today’s environmentalism. Though such critiques are of course sometimes warranted, they are less convincing when they become ad hominem attacks on personalities (often based on excerpted or “cherry-picked” passages) that lack careful engagement with an author’s biography and his or her larger body of work in its historical context. This is especially true with Thoreau, who was recently lampooned in The New Yorker in an article titled “Pond Scum” (Shultz, 2015). While this chapter does not seek to enter into a debate about the relative merit of canonical environmental literature in the context of today’s intellectual trends, it does explicitly focus on the biography of Rachel Carson as related to her writings that still resonate with large audiences. What does Carson still have to teach us that we might need to remember?

At a time when “nature writing” is sometimes critiqued for not being critical enough to address the enormity of today’s cultural and ecological crises, it is worth remembering that the transformative power of Carson’s Silent Spring had its origins in an aesthetic, rather than a political, genre. In both academic and political contexts, aesthetic experience and expression are often marginalized in favor of discursive and rational argumentation. From the perspective of the arts and humanities, such marginalization limits the possibilities of what it means to be an imaginative and creative human being, just as it frequently excludes imaginative thinking from politics. The life of Rachel Carson – as artist and activist – demonstrates the vital necessity of aesthetics to political life and to the environmental movement. What made Carson’s nature writing unique was not her politics, but her rare ability to combine the skills, gifts, and discipline of a scientist with those of a literary artist. While she developed this ability throughout her life and career, it started with a childhood steeped in both natural history and literature. Examining the confluence of these twin passions in Rachel Carson’s early life illustrates what kinds of learning experiences undergirded Carson’s celebrated environmentalism. It also serves as a reminder that literature and nature study remain valuable ends in themselves and that they are essential to children’s learning as well as to contemporary environmentalism.

Rachel’s First Teachers

I can remember no time, even in earliest childhood, when I didn’t assume I was going to be a writer. Also, I can remember no time when I wasn’t interested in the out-of-doors and the whole world of nature. Those interests, I know, I inherited from my mother and have always shared with her. – Rachel Carson (1999, p. 106), from her 1954 speech, “The Real World Around Us”

Born in 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania, Rachel Carson’s early childhood was guided by two of her most significant teachers, her mother Maria McLean Carson, and a 64 acre rural property that featured orchards and gardens, groves and fields, hills and hollows, and plenty of room to roam. Linda Lear (2009), Carson’s principal biographer, offers this description of the famous naturalist’s mother:

Maria was an avid reader and believed in using her leisure time to improve the quality of her children’s lives as well as her own. One of her keenest interests was natural history. She was not alone in this passion, for botanizing, bird-watching, and nature study were interests avidly pursued by amateur naturalists all over the country at the turn of the century, particularly among middle-class, educated women. (p. 13)

Maria McLean was highly educated for her time. The daughter of a Presbyterian minister, she attended the elite Washington Female Seminary, excelled in music, and was trained in a classical curriculum which included Latin. After taking advanced courses at Washington College, Maria taught school and gave music lessons until she married Robert Carson, as marriage was then taboo for female teachers. Robert was neither rich nor well-educated, and the family always struggled financially. But with their initial purchase of the property in Springdale, Robert and Maria were able to provide Rachel and her siblings with an expansive homeplace filled with daily wonders. Eventually, the young naturalist would learn to study her immediate environment systematically with her mother and discover that she had a passion for writing about it for herself as well as for other young readers (Lear, 2009, pp. 8–20).

The Nature Study Movement

Maria Carson and her daughter Rachel wandered the woods and fields around their home at a time when nature study had become one of the country’s chief recreational and leisure activities for people of all ages. When considering the history of environmentalism and environmental education, the nature study movement in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries stands out as an extraordinary phenomenon. It enjoyed enormous popularity among ordinary citizens, and it had deep impacts on children through the widespread adoption of nature study curricula in schools. The movement emerged and flourished during a time when naturalists – from Louis Agassiz to John Burroughs – were highly respected people and when the knowledge of the natural world, including a basic acquaintance with local flora and fauna, was considered fundamental to a proper education (Pyle, 2001). Historically, the popularity of the nature study movement owed much to nineteenth century Romanticism and the cult of nature that followed the American Renaissance. The difference was a departure from the mere idealization of nature by elites to firsthand experience of it for the masses, as a subject of both aesthetic appreciation and scientific inquiry (Armitage, 2009).

As a former schoolteacher herself and as a parent actively involved with the schooling of Rachel’s older siblings, Maria would have been familiar with the many books then available to teachers to help guide their students in nature study. The most famous of these was Anna Botsford Comstock’s, the Handbook of Nature Study, first published in 1911, 4 years after Rachel’s birth. Like the larger movement and its advocates, such as Comstock’s Cornell University colleague, Liberty Hyde Bailey, the Handbook encouraged not just curiosity for natural objects, but immersive experiences, as well as emotional and spiritual connections, which combined recreation, environmental learning, and an ethic of reverence toward the natural world. The subtitle of Liberty Hyde Bailey’s 1909 book communicates the humanistic agenda for a nature study movement focused on school-aged children: The Nature Study Idea: An Interpretation of the New School-Movement to Put the Young into Relation and Sympathy with Nature. For Bailey and other advocates of nature study, the point was to connect the learning of the science of natural history to the experience of excitement, joy, and wonder. Later in her own life, as we will see shortly, Carson would restate this precise goal with its most memorable expression in her writings on “the sense of wonder.” Well before she wrote about it as an adult, however, she experienced it as a child through the everyday contexts of family, home, and turn-of-the-century educational culture.

The nature study movement was the earliest example in the United States of widespread environmental education. By 1939, in its 24th edition, Comstock’s Handbook had been adopted in schools throughout the country and had introduced two generations of children to natural history through the direct experience of their local environments. Before World War II, mainstream American culture included within it a strong affirmation of nature study as both a societal good and as a benefit to the education of the nation’s children. Today’s environmental movement is deeply indebted to the success of the earlier nature study movement. And some of the current movement’s inadequacies, such as the diminishment of natural history within a broadly diffuse mission fractured by specialization, reflects the earlier movement’s demise (Pyle, 2001). But in the second decade of the twentieth century, nature study flourished. Maria Carson devoted herself to mentoring the young Rachel in the wonders found in the family woods, hillsides, and orchards and made full use of the Comstock readers that her two elder children brought home from school. Rachel was surrounded from birth by birds, insects, fruit trees, vegetable gardens, wildflowers, hedgerows, woodlots, and meadows. She was mentored from an early age to experience nature and her own backyard, as a vast laboratory for learning about life’s miracles. While many rural children of Carson’s era had open access to natural environments, few had the encouragement of committed college-educated parents like Maria Carson, whose persistent tutelage would help to fuse Rachel’s experience with her developing senses of curiosity and wonder.

Maria Carson’s guidance, like the nature study movement itself, went well beyond the taxonomical naming of the diverse creatures she and her daughter would regularly encounter on their property and the surrounding landscape. According to Lear (2009):

Maria impressed her respect and love for wild creatures on all her children. When they returned home from their woodland adventures with treasures to show her, Maria instructed the children to return them to where they had been found. This kind of care for the natural world had a spiritual dimension that at least her youngest daughter [Rachel] embraced and would practice all her life. (p. 15)

However Rachel Carson experienced her own spirituality, her writings are alive with expressions of love, care, wonder, and awe – emotions that kindled her aesthetic imagination and enthusiasm. In her biography, Lear (2009, p. 8) describes how Springdale residents recount the story, “perhaps true, perhaps apocryphal,” of Carson’s early fascination with the ocean. As local lore has it, 1 day Rachel found a large fossilized shell in the rocky outcrops of the hillsides surrounding the Carson property. She wondered where it had come from, what kind of creature had made it and lived in it, and what finally happened to the animal and the sea in which it lived. Whether myth or fact, one can easily imagine these kinds of questions coming up regularly on Rachel and Maria’s many rambles on their land and during Rachel’s adventures with other Springdale children, who collected many fossilized shells on the Carson property. Later as an adult, Carson would write of her love of the sea: “Even as a child – long before I had ever seen it – I used to imagine what it would look like, and what the surf sounded like” (Carson, 1999, p. 54).
Her mother Maria, the family land, and the nature study movement helped to nurture in Carson an acute awareness of her imaginative powers, her sense perceptions, and her powers of expression. The nature study movement promoted reverence for nature’s wonders and a reverence for nature’s beauty. In his history of the nature study movement, Kevin Armitage (2009) emphasizes the importance of aesthetics to many of the movement’s advocates:

The nature study movement provided thinkers… with a working model for using education to inculcate the public with aesthetic sensibilities and a consciousness for conservation. One result of sympathetic contact with nature was to bring beauty into people’s lives. Nature study advocates disavowed the idea that the experience of beauty should be a distinct and specialized component of a well-rounded education. They preferred to see beauty as continuously integrated into all parts of life. Sympathy with nature and the aesthetic pleasure derived from it affected every part of being. Rather than existing in things, aesthetic pleasure arose from human experience – especially experience with nature. (pp. 150–151)

So prevalent was the idea that the aesthetic experience in nature was a valued educational aim in itself that in 1902 the Nation magazine would opine that nature study and artistic seeing “have the same enemy – lazy and abbreviated habits of vision; both fight the same battle – to intensify the powers of observation” (cited in Armitage, 2009, p. 152).

The nature study movement had many advocates and practitioners. Dignitaries such as Harvard University President Charles Eliot promoted a new education for public happiness through the experience of the beautiful in nature (Armitage, 2009, p. 148). John Dewey’s theories of learning and aesthetic experience provided theoretical support for new ventures into the field. Dewey’s ideas of education and art were that they depended primarily on experience or forms of communication that were not reducible to subject or object. That is, experience, or art, is to be conceived as the continuous interplay between subject and object, between the viewer and the viewed, and between children and their environment (Dewey, 1997, 2005). It is this interplay that the nature study movement sought to enhance through direct contact with nonhuman phenomena and with opportunities for reflection and expression – key components of experience, according to Deweyan theory. Scientists, naturalists, writers, and photographers such as Liberty Hyde Bailey, Anna Comstock, and Gene Stratton-Porter inspired young people and their mentors to experience nature directly, out-of-doors, as a basic part of what it means to be alive in the world. All of these themes would become central to Carson’s identity as a writer and environmentalist. Whatever Carson’s innate gifts were as a child, it is hard to imagine the path she followed without the influence of the nature study movement and her opportunity to experience its credo daily, on the land, with her mother as her enthusiastic guide.

St. Nicholas Magazine

While art and writing were central to the nature study movement – Comstock’s (1967) Handbook of Nature Study included correlations with drawing, story, and “language work” (p. xv) – Maria Carson also subscribed to several children’s magazines to support her daughter’s enthusiasm for reading and the art of writing. Rachel’s favorite was St. Nicholas. Lear (2009) writes, “No other juvenile magazine of the period adopted the values of the nature study movement more completely than St. Nicholas” (p. 18). While St. Nicholas reflected the turn-of-the-century nature study movement, it also inspired other young writers who would eventually help shape American literature. William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edward Estlin (e. e.) Cummings, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and E. B. White, among other notables, all contributed to St. Nicholas as child authors.

Like the bounty of resources produced for schools, teachers, and families during the nature study movement, St. Nicholas was geared toward children. First published in 1873, the magazine emphasized beautiful illustrations, high-quality writing, stories, poetry, and a section on letters from readers. The magazine was also designed to motivate its young readers toward intellectual achievement and high ideals. In 1889 it began publishing work by children themselves and holding contests for the best poems, stories, essays, drawings, and puzzles. Each month, winners were awarded prizes and inducted into the St. Nicholas League; the highest achievements were for honor members who were awarded cash prizes. Before she was thirteen, Rachel submitted four stories to the magazine, all of which were published. This early literary success, which twice included actual payment from St. Nicholas, inspired Carson to think of herself as a writer of some ability, and it commenced what would later in her life become an assiduous business practice of identifying potential publishing opportunities and submitting work for review – usually with the expectation of remuneration (Lear, 2009, pp. 18–26).

Rachel Carson sent the magazine her first story contribution at age ten. It was immediately published and given a prize, as were several other articles, the last of which described her “favorite recreation” – which was a special section in the magazine devoted to the subject. Carson’s story of going birds’-nesting (her favorite recreation) with her dog, Pal, is worth quoting here at length as it illustrates the convergence of her skills as a sensitive young naturalist and writer of some accomplishment:

The call of the trail on that dewy May morning was too strong to withstand. The sun was barely an hour high when Pal and I set off for a day of our favorite sport with a lunch-box, a canteen, a notebook, and a camera. Your experienced woodsman will say that we were going birds’-nesting – in the most approved fashion.

Soon our trail turned aside into deeper woodland. It wound up a gently sloping hill, carpeted with fragrant pine-needles. It was our own discovery, Pal’s and mine, and the fact gave us a thrill of exultation. It was the sort of place that awes you by its majestic silence, interrupted only by the rustling breeze and the distant tinkle of water.

Near at hand we heard the cheery “witchery, witchery,” of the Maryland yellow-throat. For half an hour we trailed him, until we came out on a sunny slope. There in some low bushes we found the nest, containing four jewel-like eggs. To the little owner’s consternation, we came close enough to snap a picture.

Countless discoveries made the day memorable: the bob-white’s nest, tightly packed with eggs, the oriole’s aërial cradle, the frame-work of sticks which the cuckoo calls a nest, and the lichen covered home of the humming-bird.

Late in the afternoon a penetrating “Teacher! teacher! TEACHER!” reached our ears. An oven-bird! A careful search revealed his nest, a little round ball of grass, securely hidden on the ground.

The cool of approaching night settled. The wood-thrushes trilled their golden melody. The setting sun transformed the sky into a sea of blue and gold. A vesper-sparrow sang his evening lullaby. We turned slowly homeward, gloriously tired, gloriously happy! (Carson, 1999. p. 10)

In these few short paragraphs, we can witness several of Carson’s attributes, so early embodied, that would develop throughout her life and work. The first sentence reflects the pull of the trail felt by so many nature lovers. This particular adventure was not a special occasion, but a daily experience for Carson. She would embark alone or with her dog for an entire day prepared with food, water, and the tools of her nature study craft: a notebook and camera. Her language may seem somewhat cliché to today’s readers, yet it is quite descriptive for a girl of thirteen. And while any decent young writer might pen the phrases “majestic silence,” “rustling breeze,” and “distant tinkle of water,” Carson’s prose is most evocative when she describes the birds’ nests she finds in closer detail: the “four jewel-like eggs” of the yellowthroat, the oven birds’ nest, “a little round ball of grass,” and the extended list: “the bob-white’s nest, tightly packed with eggs, the oriole’s aërial cradle, the frame-work of sticks which the cuckoo calls a nest, and the lichen covered home of the humming-bird.” That Carson even knew how to identify the nests and birdsongs of these local breeding birds reflects a process of learning the natural history of her homeplace, a process that had evolved over time to the point where she is clearly very confident and capable. That sense of confidence and ability is, likewise, reflected in the sure-footed phrasing and description of a talented writer. St. Nicholas was the perfect outlet for young Rachel. It was a public place where she could test and display her aptitude as both naturalist and writer.

Together, the nature study movement and the literary opportunities presented by St. Nicholas magazine created a rich milieu in which Carson’s aesthetic sensibilities could be awakened. Nature’s mysteries inspired Rachel on a daily basis, kindled her imagination, and led her to learn more about the plants, animals, and places of her home range. St. Nicholas offered a space where her voice could be seen and heard and where she could begin to identify herself as a serious writer with a publication record – all before entering high school. And perhaps most important to Carson’s learning was the near constant presence of her mother, Maria McLean Carson. Maria recognized her daughter’s gifts and made it her business to nurture them. The nature study movement and children’s literary magazines provided them both with plenty of resources. Yet it was also more than that. These two pillars of Carson’s childhood – nature study and literature – were highly visible and valued expressions of culture at the time; among the educated classes, reading, writing, and nature study were respected activities for everyone’s self-development. Maria and Rachel Carson must have felt that support. They flourished under its influence.

The Sense of Wonder

If we were to examine Carson’s major publications in reverse order, we would need to begin not in 1962 with Silent Spring, but in 1965 with her posthumously published, essay-length book, The Sense of Wonder. This may be her most timeless book: the one that, because of its brevity and broad appeal, may be the most widely read today and the one that will still be read for its freshness decades, perhaps centuries, into the future. Unlike her other books, which, though poetic, dramatic, and profound, depend largely on a science that may seem outdated, The Sense of Wonder captures a profound human experience that the environmental movement and all of its advocates consistently need to return to for sustenance.

As we have seen, Carson’s professional success as nature writer was nurtured in childhood through intensive exposure to natural history and the craft of writing. Long before environmental educators would begin researching, writing, and discussing the impact of “significant life experiences” on environmental attitudes and behaviors (e.g., Tanner, 1980; Chawla, 1998), Rachel Carson wrote a powerful literary manifesto advocating childhood experience in nature. Just as the politics of Silent Spring sprang from an imaginative writer rather than a seasoned political activist, the pedagogical wisdom of Carson’s book, The Sense of Wonder, arose not from formal research into childhood learning, but from the perceptive reflections of a naturalist and literary observer. Carson was, of course, well trained as a biological researcher, but her writing about childhood was biographical and imaginative. The Sense of Wonder describes her relationship with one child – her grandnephew, Roger. Today the phrase “the sense of wonder” is probably better known than “silent spring.” Both phrases are iconic to the environmental movement; both emerged from a now historical figure whose primary identity was that of a writer. In a research handbook such as this, it is worth noting the value of imaginative writing as a legitimate form of knowledge production. The marginalization and exclusion of aesthetic expression from many academic conversations privileges one way of knowing over others and severely constricts the possibilities for human communication and understanding. The limits of space restrict elaboration on this point. Suffice it to say that an emphasis here on Carson’s literary achievements, and their impact on environmental education and the entire environmental movement, points to the need to revalue literary and artistic contributions in every field of study.

The Sense of Wonder was first published in 1956 as a feature article in the popular magazine, Women’s Home Companion, under the title, “Help Your Child to Wonder.” Carson never had children, but she was very close to her grandnephew, Roger Christy, who she would eventually adopt when his mother, Rachel’s niece, died. Carson’s biographers and her own letters tell us of her struggles with her maternal role. Throughout her adult life, she had been the chief caretaker – and breadwinner – for her entire extended family, including Roger and his single mother. The burden, in terms of time and money, that this placed on so ambitious a writer as Carson was significant, and it forced her early in her career to develop strict work and business habits. Hard pressed to find space and time to write, she also always wrote with the aim of making as much cash as she could from her efforts. As mentioned earlier, Carson’s blockbuster success with The Sea Around Us lessened the financial burden and also allowed her to build a cottage, a sort of writing retreat, on Southport Island on the coast of Maine. Even so, adopting 5-year-old Roger at age 50 added pressure to a host of family obligations she had begun to refer to as “the emergency” (Lear, 2009, p. 300). But even before she adopted him, Carson was very fond of her little nephew. Her relationship with Roger and their adventures near the sea at Southport are what inspired “Help Your Child to Wonder” and gave the public a closer look at the private, feeling life of the best-selling author.

This world of feeling, the intense world of sense perception and wonder at even the smallest parts of creation – this has always been the cornerstone of American environmentalism and its nature writers. Walt Whitman may have said it best in Leaves of Grass when he exclaimed, “and a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels” (Whitman, 1980, p. 73). English romantic poets like Wordsworth and Blake and American transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau all celebrated the mysterious forms, energies, and relationships between each part of the living earth and the entire cosmos, as did dozens of other writers Carson admired. From its earliest beginnings, American environmentalism was promoted and shaped by its nature writers. Intimacy between people and nature, however, and the meaning one makes of it, depends largely on place and time, on the conditions that either invite or inhibit the development of such a relationship. In their seaside adventures in Maine, Rachel witnessed Roger’s bond with the world develop; her observations and reflections stand up today as a poignant plea on behalf of all of us to protect and reclaim our own sense of wonder.

The Sense of Wonder: A Brief Textual Analysis

This chapter views Rachel Carson – both her biography and her writings – as a necessary part of contemporary environmental education, especially with respect to aesthetics and children’s learning. Examining the significance of Carson’s own early learning experiences was the subject of earlier sections. This section aims to demonstrate, through close reading, how The Sense of Wonder (Carson, 1965) functions as a literary text imbued with particular pedagogical, ecological, and aesthetic insight – for children and adults.

The essay opens with the image of Carson wrapping up a small child to introduce him to the sea for the first time (citations are from the original 1956 version titled, “Help Your Child to Wonder” though both titles will be used):

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. But I think we felt the same spine-tingling response to the vast, roaring ocean and the wild night around us. (p. 25)

“Help Your Child to Wonder” was Carson’s first magazine publication after the runaway success of The Sea Around Us (1951). Readers of the Women’s Home Companion (1956) were excited to learn more about the private life of the famous author. Lear (2009, p. 280) reports in her biography that the original commission from the magazine was for Carson to write more of a personal profile of herself for admiring readers. But Carson gave readers something that even more women, as well as men, could relate to: the image of a motherly figure introducing a child to the all-encompassing embrace of Oceanus, Carson’s mythopoetic name for the subject of her three previous books.

With the opening paragraph, Carson establishes several themes developed throughout the essay: the importance of sensory impressions, emotions, a sense of mystery, and the shared experience of adventure. The night is stormy; the ocean is roaring; the waves are thundering: “I think we felt the same spine-tingling response,” Carson writes. She describes an emotional scene of laughter and “pure joy,” as she shares her “half a lifetime of sea love” with her nephew. But it is not just the sheer physicality of the sea throwing “great handfuls of froth” that produces the emotional response. This prelude paragraph is also steeped in a sense of mystery – the unknown. They go “down to the beach in the rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of the where-we-couldn’t see,” where “dimly seen white shapes…boomed and shouted.” On this dark and “wild night,” the child meets for the first time the “wild tumult of Oceanus.” This is far from a tame nature walk. Carson introduces the child to creation itself and imaginatively invokes the gods. And suffusing the entire scene is the image of intimacy and togetherness. The adult guide is there with the child to share the joy, wonder, and awe of the experience.

Throughout “Help Your Child to Wonder,” Carson describes diverse experiences in nature as enchanted “adventures” capable of producing deep feeling. She emphasizes the significance of the adult-child relationship in these adventures and insists that they are “based on having fun together rather than on teaching” (p. 26). She also points out that a natural outcome of such shared experience is a growing curiosity and knowledge of nature’s parts and how they work together. Of Roger’s developing ecological literacy and his ability to identify individual species, Carson remarks, “I am sure no amount of drill would have implanted the names so firmly as just going through the woods in the spirit of two friends on an expedition of exciting discovery” (p. 26). Such a reflection echoes Carson’s own natural history exploits around Springdale with her mother and her dog Pal.

The heart of the essay communicates a profound sensitivity to the child as a person to be respected. In this, Carson shows herself to be a child-centered pedagogue in the tradition of Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, or John Dewey. For Carson, this was not the result of formal educational training, but an extension of her sensitivity, as an artist and naturalist, to the experience of another being. Bridging the usual divide between the child and adult world, Carson (1956) writes:

We have let Roger share our enjoyment of things people ordinarily deny children because they are inconvenient, interfering with bedtime, or involving wet clothing that has to be changed or mud that has to be cleaned off the rug. We have let him join us in the dark living room before the big picture window to watch the full moon riding lower and lower toward the far shore of the bay, setting all the water ablaze with silver flames and finding a thousand diamonds in the rocks on the shore as the light strikes the flakes of mica embedded in them. I think we have felt that the memory of such a scene, photographed year after year by his child’s mind, would mean more to him in manhood than the sleep he was losing. He told me it would, in his own way, when we had a full moon the night after his arrival last summer. He sat quietly on my lap for some time, watching the moon and the water and all the night sky, and then he whispered, “I’m glad we comed” [sic]. (pp. 26, 46)

Not only does the prose here reflect a respectful attitude toward children, but it flickers with the aesthetic beauty of “silver flames.” Just as she approached nature with amazement as a child and felt compelled to write about it, the mature writer makes the natural world shimmer with the imminent presence of some miracle.

After focusing on her relationship with Roger for the first half of the essay, in the second half, Carson begins to generalize about the nature of experience and learning. Although these general insights about learning are the most frequently quoted passages from The Sense of Wonder, it is worth remembering that they were nurtured in a relationship with Roger at Carson’s cottage by the sea. In other words, her profound philosophy of environmental learning, which resonates with many diverse people today, originated in relationship with a specific place and a specific child. One of the lessons of the essay, therefore, is that environmental learning depends first of all on establishing and nurturing such relationships.

The following three paragraphs are the most famous passages from The Sense of Wonder. They are worth quoting at length because of their continued relevance and because of how they present a challenge to environmental learning programs for children that may not measure up to Carson’s vision:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even 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 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.

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one 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 on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge. In a mood of self-defeat, they exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature – why, I don’t even know one bird from another.”

I sincerely 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 the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow. The years of early 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. (p. 46)

Preserving “one’s instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring” is Carson’s primary pedagogical concern. The urgency of this concern is made more poignant in the first paragraph by her modernist acknowledgment of widespread adult boredom, disenchantment, and sterile preoccupation with what alienates us. She also claims that a dimmed adulthood can be avoided by keeping alive our sense of wonder. Carson’s comments on adult life are instructive to educators whose curricula and programs focus only on children and youth and rarely recognize, at least publically, the reality of adult challenges and the impact that adult affect can have on young learners. The sense of wonder, she claims, is something that must be kept alive in children. In order for that to happen, she implies, adults must also keep it alive in themselves as an “antidote” to what robs us of the sources of our strength. Carson’s vision here is for lifelong learning though lifelong immersion in, and lifelong appreciation of, nature’s wonders.

The second two paragraphs rephrase, highlight, and refine some of the themes illustrated earlier in her anecdotes about Roger. First, she reasserts the importance of adult guides: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” Second, she stresses the primacy of the emotions over the intellect alone: “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 the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” As a creative writer tuned to the aesthetics of experience, Carson reveals herself as an early champion of “affective experience” in environmental learning. Here it is helpful to remember that Carson’s own education, steeped as it was in the nature study movement and in literature, was saturated with affect and creative expression. She knew from her own experience of learning that “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” (p. 46).

For Carson, facts, knowledge, and, most importantly, the desire to learn are nurtured through experiences of adventure, discovery, and curiosity, rather than from some predetermined educational curricula. The remainder of the essay, however, provides adults with specific guidance on how to help children wonder. Her message is simple: enliven the senses and focus on the living things found in one’s home environment, whether that environment be rural or urban: “Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils and finger tips, opening up the disused channels of sensory impression” (p. 47). For her mostly female readers in mid-twentieth century America, Carson provides vivid, everyday examples for awakening sensory perception for both adults and children. Recreating the sense of wonder through her prose, she reflects on a multisensory experience stargazing with an adult friend:

It was a clear night without a moon. With a friend, I went out on a flat headland that is almost a tiny island, being all but surrounded by the waters of the bay. There the horizons are remote and distant rims on the edge of space. We lay and looked up at the sky and the millions of stars that blazed in darkness. The night was so still that we 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; my companion and I were alone with the stars. I have never seen them more beautiful: the misty river of the Milky Way flowing across the sky, the patterns of the constellations standing out bright and clear, a blazing planet low on the horizon. Once or twice a meteor burned its way into the earth’s atmosphere. (p. 47)

Other examples include Roger honing his sense of smell for the wood smoke and sea air that surround their experience at Carson’s cottage and listening with her nephew as “the sound of the insect orchestra swells and throbs night after night” (p. 47).
Near the end of her essay, she also shares for her readers her enjoyment, as a scientist and naturalist, of using simple technologies, such as binoculars or a magnifying glass, to enhance outdoor experience. Carson herself made frequent use of a microscope at her cottage, often carrying home specimens from her beach for closer examination. But again, her emphasis in this essay is not primarily taxonomical or even descriptive, but rather to use the simplest equipment of nature study to deepen the experience of wonder. In a passage evocative of the theme of mystery that opens the essay, she suggests sitting together with a child, binoculars trained on the moon to observe the wonder of night migration:

Seat yourself comfortably and focus your glass on the moon. You must learn patience, for unless you are on a well-traveled highway of migration you may have to wait many minutes before you are rewarded. In the waiting periods you can study the topography of the moon, for even a glass of moderate power reveals enough detail to fascinate a space-conscious child. But sooner or later you should begin to see the birds, lonely travelers in space glimpsed as they pass from darkness into darkness. (p. 47)

Finally, after providing adults with a host of ideas for easily accessible and aesthetically rich nature excursions with children, Carson concludes The Sense of Wonder with a memory of her friend and mentor Otto Pettersson. When he knew that he had little time left on earth, the 93-year-old Swedish oceanographer revealed, “what will sustain me in my last moments is an infinite curiosity as to what is to follow” (p. 47). Carson’s faith in a sense of wonder was bolstered throughout her life with fellow scientists who shared it. And as she herself faced an early death from cancer and related ailments, Carson never lost the ability to be amazed and enlivened by her perception of the natural world. As if prefiguring her own decline and the eventual passing of everyone, even children, Carson departs The Sense of Wonder with an abiding love for a mysterious world in constant flux:

Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexations or concerns 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 nights, and spring after winter. (p. 47)

Always the poet scientist, Carson’s ecological aesthetic embraces the power of nature to teach, to heal, and to transform.

Conclusion: Wonder in Life and Death

Rachel Carson’s sense of wonder endured to the end of her too short life. Throughout the writing of Silent Spring and especially in the aftermath of the sensation it caused, Carson struggled with cancer, surgeries, and the debilitating effects of multiple illnesses. The peak of her literary success in 1962 corresponded with suffering and physical decline that would lead to an early death in 1964 at the age of 56.

During her final 2 years, with her limited energy for work, she had more requests from publishers for writing projects than she could handle. But there was one project that she consistently voiced her commitment to complete. She called it “the Wonder book.” Contracted with Harper and Row, this was to be an expansion of the 1956 essay, “Help Your Child to Wonder.” When her illness worsened in 1963, she wrote in a letter to her close friend, Dorothy Freeman:

Oh, I don’t deny there are periods of depression and of dark thoughts. There is still so much I want to do, and it is hard to accept that in all probability, I must leave most of it undone. And just when I have attained the power to achieve so much I feel is important! Strange, isn’t it? And there are times when I get so tired of the pain and especially the crippling that if it were not for those I love most, I’d want it to end soon. But I seldom feel that way.

I want very much to do the Wonder book. That would be Heaven to achieve. (Freeman, 1995, p. 490)

In what she knew would be her final project, Carson made the very conscious decision to focus her energies on what she thought was most important: keeping alive the sense of wonder that had animated her passion for the natural world and her gift as a writer. At the very end of her life, with whatever power she had left, she wanted to return to this theme as a final act of service to all people, especially the children she knew would inherit a very uncertain environmental future.

The uncertainty of life, and the certainty of death, is part of what makes the sense of wonder such a universal experience. Wonder is the natural human response to the mysterious, the unknown, and the miraculous – the unfinished business of the universe. Unfortunately, Rachel Carson died before she was able to expand “Help Your Child to Wonder” into a longer book on the theme. But her wonder book – The Sense of Wonder – a reprint of the original essay with new photographs by Charles Pratt, was published in 1965. It was dedicated to her grandnephew, Roger Christy (Lear, 2009, p. 483).

The Sense of Wonder is among Carson’s shorter works. Originally published in a popular magazine as a guide for women, it was not at first intended as the ecological manifesto it has become. But in this brief masterpiece, we can see the influence of Carson’s own ecological education: the development of an “indestructible” sense of wonder. Like Carson, the nature study movement advocated not simply for a scientific stance toward children’s learning, but for one steeped in the spirit of discovery, where the whole child – emotions, spirit, body, and mind – would be drawn into a relationship of intimacy with the natural world. The movement steered adults toward experiences, activities, and resources and encouraged mentors to become the kind of guide that Maria Carson was to Rachel and that Rachel would become with Roger. Rachel’s early exposure to literature in magazines like St. Nicholas motivated the young creative writer to publish at an early age and to develop a lifelong identity as a writer. Over time Carson would hone her skills as a naturalist and her craft as a writer, eventually producing four best sellers. The last of these, Silent Spring, significantly changed the political environmental landscape. But it was her sense of wonder, and her ability to express it with poetic prose, that positioned Carson to catalyze the new environmentalism.

At a time when children are often over-scheduled with educational activities and overloaded with media, Rachel Carson’s early life, and her essay The Sense of Wonder, can serve educators as a touchstone for educative experiences in nature. The lessons for today are deceptively simple. One: children thrive when they can share the joy of discovery with adults who feel and express that joy and who do not rush to put children on a “diet of facts” they are not ready to assimilate. This precept presupposes something that cannot be assumed: that is, a joyful adult who gives children room to roam and who is eager to share the experience. Two: children whose emotional and aesthetic faculties have been sparked in relationship with nature should be given a chance to express that relationship in some creative form. Again, this is not so simple to achieve, especially in formal educational environments where individualized learning is often more rhetoric than reality. Maria Carson, however, regularly provided Rachel with opportunities to explore both of these powerful avenues of learning. All of us are their beneficiaries.

In the age of digital media, direct aesthetic experience with the natural world may seem like a simplistic, or even unrealistic, educational touchstone. Many educators today are encouraged to engage children with the wonders of technology rather than the wonders of nature. It is also true that the imagination and aesthetic sensibility even of today’s preschool learners is often mediated by interactions with computers rather than oceans or forests. For many children, as well as adults, computerized attention is the dominant mode of experience in the development of their social and ecological awareness (whether this is an evolution or devolution is the subject of another essay). Gone is the day when a child waited impatiently for the new issue of St. Nicholas to appear in the mailbox. Steeped in the technological milieu and bounded by urban environments and regulated green spaces, children may seem to lack access to the everyday wonders of field, forest, and ocean that surrounded Maria, Rachel, and Roger.

In “Help Your Child to Wonder,” Carson reminds parents and other adult mentors of some fundamental experiences still available to everyone: the sensory experience of sunrise, dusk, and dark; the revelations of the limitless night sky; the near or faraway voice of one particular bird waiting to be found and named; the power of a thunderstorm and other weather events as they move through and transform a place; the mystery of seasonal migration just overhead or in the distant horizon; the intricate beauty of a snowflake, or a grain of sand, or the wing of a housefly under a magnifying glass; the odors of the seasonal change as organic matter photosynthesizes or decomposes; and the music of insects on a summer night. Of the thrill of these everyday discoveries, Carson (1956) writes, “the game is to listen, not so much to the full orchestra, as to the separate instruments, and to try to locate the players” (p. 47).

Finally, whatever one’s opportunities are for direct experience with flora, fauna, and the always changing physical environment, Carson reminds educators of our most potent resource with respect to the development of children’s sense of wonder:

If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder…he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in. ….I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the [adult] seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. (p. 46)

However we imagine best guiding children, Carson insists that an indispensable part of the program is preserving and cultivating our own sense of wonder. This, the great naturalist and writer contends, is the most precious and educative gift we can offer those who will follow.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Lakehead UniversityThunder BayCanada

Section editors and affiliations

  • David Rousell
    • 1
  • Dilafruz Williams
    • 2
  1. 1.Manchester Metropolian UniversityManchesterUK
  2. 2.Portland State UniversityPortlandUSA

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