Pioneering Biologist and Writer Rachel Carson on Wonder, Parenting, and Why It Is More Important to Feel Than to Know
By Maria Popova
Our inborn capacity for wonder, Carl Sagan reminded us in his remarkable reflection on spirituality, is both the heart of worship and the soul of science — in fact, what more beautiful and true way to define science than “systematic wonder”? But wonder is also one of the most endangered human faculties, and we frequently forget just what’s at stake as we risk its extinction in adulthood — a risk that begins, though far from ends, with how our hopelessly unimaginative formal education system handles young minds, rewarding rote memorization over curiosity and measuring achievement by standardized tests scores rather than character-building.
Marine biologist, conservationist, and writer Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) is credited with sparking the modern environmental movement with her groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. A cultural message equally timeless yet timely came three years later, in the posthumously published The Sense of Wonder (public library), which Carson originally wrote as a 1956 article for Woman’s Home Companion. The book endures as a magnificent manifesto for the vibrant curiosity with which we are all born, and which we all risk of losing as we slip — slowly, imperceptibly, yet steadily — into our adult apathy and resignation. Above all, it extends a reminder that the faculty for wonder is our most precious natural resource and our greatest responsibility to conserve.
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 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.
Carson makes a wonderfully eloquent case for a particularly perilous pathology of the adult condition — the tendency to worship the intellect and scorn emotion — which Susan Sontag lamented two decades later in her poignant critique of cultural polarities, Ray Bradbury echoed in his exquisite meditation on emotion vs. intelligence, and Bertrand Russell presciently touched on in advocating for attaining “a high degree of intellectual culture without emotional atrophy.” Carson writes:
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 subject 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.
Pointing to nature as the greatest sandbox for exercising our sense of wonder, Carson reflects:
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 scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life. Whatever the vexation 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 night, and spring after the winter.
The Sense of Wonder is well worth a read, as well as a regular reread for mental and spiritual hygiene. Complement it with Jon Mooallem’s bittersweet exploration of our present relationship with nature and this fascinating read on the difference between curiosity and wonder, then revisit the inspiring story of how Carson awakened the modern environmental conscience.
UPDATE: For more on Carson, her epoch-making cultural contribution, and her unusual private life, she is the crowning figure in my book Figuring.
Published December 23, 2013