Re-experiencing Awe: Rachel Carson's "The Sense of Wonder" by Moderator Dr. Linda Tate

This week, we return to coastal Maine, where environmental writer Rachel Carson spent her summers from 1952 until her death in 1964. In fact, so compelling was Carson’s study of the Maine coast that the Fish and Wildlife Service's wildlife refuge in Wells, Maine, was renamed the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in honor of the great naturalist.

Most people know Carson from Silent Spring, her 1962 indictment of pesticides, or from her studies of coastal, Under the Sea Wind, The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea.

Less well known, perhaps, is her wonderful book, The Sense of Wonder, which celebrates children’s awe as they experience the natural world around them.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a children’s book – it’s not a book most children would read themselves. Rather, it’s a book for adults who want to nurture “the sense of wonder” in children – and who perhaps want to reinvigorate that sense of wonder in themselves.

The book began as “Help Your Child to Wonder” – a 1956 essay for Woman's Home Companion magazine. After Carson’s death in 1964, the essay was published as a book and dedicated to her nephew, Roger, the child who inspired her reflections.

Near the middle of the book, Carson defines the “sense of wonder”:

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. . . .

Carson believes that, while this sense of wonder is innate, a birthright for every child, adults can and should play a key role in nurturing this delight at the natural world. She describes her outings into the natural world with Roger – and it is clear that, even as a seasoned naturalist, she perhaps gains as much from these outings (perhaps even more so) than Roger does. Both are (re)connected with the profound experience of being alive.

“If a child is to keep alive is inborn sense of wonder,” writes Carson, “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.” How to be such an adult is the lesson of this wonderful book.

So powerful is this book – and its invitation to share multigenerational wonder about the natural world – that the Environmental Protection Agency runs an annual “Rachel Carson Sense of Wonder” contest, in which a team of two or more persons – one a young person, the other an older person – submit a poem, essay, photo or dance video that expresses the sense of wonder the contestants share. The deadline for this year’s contest just passed (it was Friday, June 10), but it’s not too late to share your stories here.

How have you nurtured a child’s sense of wonder? What stories can you tell about rediscovering the “joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in”? Share your tales!


Anonymous said...

One of my earliest memories is of lying on our porch with my mother, listening to rain as it hit the tin roof. She told me how she loved the sound as I snuggled up next to her. So I loved the sound of rainstorms and shared that love with my children. We all love a good thunderstorm and snowstorm, especially if we are warm and cozy in our homes and no one is harmed.


Matt said...

To me, Carson's seminal essay layed the foundation for meaningful, impacting place-based environmental education. Getting kids out into nature synergistically leverages the power of all the senses in the direction of creating life-long, heart-resonating connections to the natural world. To experience is to know and feel. To do so with the doting attention of a loving companion - parent or other - is simply icing on the cake. What a magical piece of writing...of testimony. Bravo.

Matt Poole

Anonymous said...

Hi, I am an Art Ed and an Environmental Ed student. My idea to make a book for my final project was rejected by the Env.Ed. Prof. I am not sure what to do, there is a block there. I need advice from science backgrounds on how to get approval for something other than a six inch binder of curriculum suggestions. Thanks!

Jan Hummer said...

What is your topic or theme for the project you are doing?

Are you available to work with students and be an intern/volunteer at a park or natural setting in your community.

The first thing that came to mind was to become an intern or volunteer somewhere with children in your community and do a study through personal art journals of your experience.

Document what environmental science curriculum you choose to do with them over a 4 to 8 week period of time and write a paper through interviews with the students, documenting their connection to science/nature.

Also take a picture of each child after one of your activities and create an art show naming each portrait after the activity they were doing before the picture was taken. Or have them create collages, they are always fun and informative.

Of course the curriculum you have done with the children needs to be documented somewhere in the paper or attach a booklet.