A Sense of Wonder ~ More Important Than Ever

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Child at Insect Zoo by David Lee, 1977, Smithsonian Archives

“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 . . .

If a child is to keep alive the inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, [s/he] needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him [or her] the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

~Rachel Carson, “The Sense of Wonder,” 1956

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I read Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s book about the dangers of the uses of chemicals in 1962, the year it was published. Carson opened her narrative with an ominous fable. A village had gone quiet. The inhabitants, even young children, died from no discernible cause. The birds had stopped singing and vegetation withered. What coated every surface, however, was white powder, a chemical residue from the sprays used to destroy unwanted plants and insects.

To me, the book presented a wake-up call. Carson’s fable was a cautionary tale, dangerously close to becoming reality. Besides the poisoning of our oceans, rivers and soil, we were systematically poisoning ourselves through daily small-scale sprayings of DDT and Chlordane on our clothes and in our gardens to kill unwanted insects and weeds. In 1962, innocent and optimistic, to me the answer seemed self-evident: for people, businesses, even nations, to condemn the sale and use of poisonous chemicals and drugs and make the world safe for all.

Carson understood that what was needed was a sea change in our attitude toward our planet. After the publication of Silent Spring, her focus was on children. What better way to preserve the planet than to encourage their fascination with the outdoors. She planned to create a much longer document about children and nature than the 1956 article in the Woman’s Home Companion. She was unable to complete the project before her death from cancer in 1964. Since then, the impact of Carson’s wisdom and research, while steady for several decades, has not had an appreciable effect in any of the key categories: acidified oceans, climate change, soil depletion, deforestation, mass extinction, and melting ice. Every problem has gotten worse, most very much worse.

Recently, misguided efforts to restore jobs and wealth by returning to poisoning the planet have taken hold. I am well into my 8th decade and I won’t live to see the longrange results of such actions. But my fears for my children and grandchildren run deep and reach forward to a dark future for life on earth.

In the photo, the child and the grasshopper share a moment of curiosity about one another, their gazes quiet but alert, a time of communing. The grasshopper’s stillness and the child’s expression of intrigue and confidence draw us, the onlookers, into the beauty of the exchange. Both of them have been amply christened with Carson’s sense of wonder, indestructible for that moment, and inspirational  in the respect they show for each other. How can we support Carson’s dream by making the communion of the child and the grasshopper become a way of sharing and preserving the life-giving forces of planet earth? How can we make these moments multiply? As indeed we must, no longer to avoid, but to cope with the challenges to survival that face life on earth now and in the years to come.