The Sense of Wonder

By Celia Coates

It’s rare that the introduction to a book is as fine as the book itself, but the one written by Linda Lear for Rachel Carson’s THE SENSE OF WONDER is a lovely equal to the text.
Lear wrote,
Carson urges us to explore nature with feelings and emotions, to use all our senses, and to abandon the impulse to teach or explain. Arouse the emotions, Carson admonishes, for the foundation of learning is in what we love.


Carson loved the vast serenity of night and the mystery of nocturnal space and sound, but nowhere so much as on her rocky beach in Maine. There she deepened her own spiritual understanding of the tenacity of life. … Ultimately Carson believed that the value of contemplating the awe and beauty of nature was in spiritual renewal, inner healing, and a new depth to the adventure of humanity.

Last week’s post was about the human senses that help us perceive both the material and non-material realities around us. This post is about Rachel Carson’s celebration of the physical senses that can open us to wonder and awe when we view nature. Carson was a biologist and conservationist who wrote several books, the most well-known and influential was SILENT SPRING, a warning about the dangers of pesticides. But this, THE SENSE OF WONDER, was the project closest to her heart. It was originally published in 1956 as a magazine article, but Carson died in 1964 leaving her hoped-for book unfinished. This version was published in 1998 and accompanied for the first time by photographs: Nick Kelsh’s images bring to life the beauty Carson wanted us to know through using our senses.

She’d learned to love the natural world with her mother and she wished that many other people could have that kind of shared experience. The focus of THE SENSE OF WONDER is to encourage adults to introduce the play and pleasure of discovery to the children in their lives.
She wrote,
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. For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind.

 She went on to describe using a hand lens to look at what is very small, to see more than the whole scene,
Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake.


Senses other than sight can prove avenues of delight and discovery, storing up for us memories and impressions.

She named the smell of wood smoke and the smell of low tide, the sound of the wood thrush, the sound of thunder or a flowing stream, and the spongy feel of moss underfoot or in your hand. I don’t remember if she mentioned discovery through the sense of taste, but surely that could be part of this too – the taste of a  honeysuckle flower or a bite of fresh mint.

Carson asked,
What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the boundaries of human existence? Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper? I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant. Those who dwell, as scientist or layman, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.

 She met the concern of people who doubted their ability to introduce children to nature this way,
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 the  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 you are a parent who feels he has little nature lore at his disposal, there is still much you can do for your child. … Wherever 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 or the corners of your apartment building 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.

Carson makes it clear this is not about accumulating knowledge but about becoming fully alive to what surrounds us,
I think the value of the game of identification depends on how you play it. If it becomes an end in itself I count it of little use. It is possible to compile extensive lists of creatures seen and identified without ever once having caught a breath-taking glimpse of the wonder of life.

My children are grown and my own childhood lies in the far past, but I found myself caught up by this book. Carson’s words and Kelsh’s photographs drew me full-sensed into the world of nature. Carson’s passion and wisdom continue to be great gifts.

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THE SENSE OF WONDER: A Celebration of Nature for Parents and Children, By Rachel Carson, Introduction by Linda Lear and Photographs by Nick Kelsh, 1998, Harper Perennial/Harper Collins Publishers

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