Conservationist Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, exposed environmental problems caused by synthetic pesticides and spawned a grassroots movement that led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. The following is from The Sense of Wonder, © 1956 by Rachel L. Carson. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.
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.
A night or two later the storm had blown itself out and I took Roger again to the beach, this time to carry him along the water’s edge, piercing the darkness with the yellow cone of our flashlight. Although there was no rain the night was again noisy with breaking waves and the insistent wind. It was clearly a time and place where great and elemental things prevailed.
Our adventure on this particular night had to do with life, for we were searching for ghost crabs, those sand-colored, fleet-legged beings which Roger had sometimes glimpsed briefly on the beaches in daytime. But the crabs are chiefly nocturnal, and when not roaming the night beaches they dig little pits near the surf line where they hide, seemingly watching and waiting for what the sea may bring them. For me the sight of these small living creatures, solitary and fragile against the brute force of the sea, had moving philosophic overtones, and I do not pretend that Roger and I reacted with similar emotions. But it was good to see his infant acceptance of a world of elemental things, fearing neither the song of the wind nor the darkness nor the roaring surf, entering with baby excitement into the search for a “ghos.”
It was hardly a conventional way to entertain one so young, I suppose, but now, with Roger a little past his fourth birthday, we are continuing that sharing of adventures in the world of nature that we began in his babyhood, and I think the results are good. The sharing includes nature in storm as well as calm, by night as well as day, and is based on having fun together rather than on teaching. . . .
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 cleareyed 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. . . .
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 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 night, and spring after the winter.
I like to remember the distinguished Swedish oceanographer Otto Pettersson, who died a few years ago at the age of ninety-three, in full possession of his keen mental powers. His son, also world famous in oceanography, has related in a recent book how intensely his father enjoyed every new experience, every new discovery concerning the world about him.
“He was an incurable romantic,” the son writes, “intensely in love with life and with the mysteries of the cosmos.” When he realized he had not much longer to enjoy the earthly scene, Otto Pettersson said to his son: “What will sustain me in my last moments is an infinite curiosity as to what is to follow.”
The selections on the Dog-Eared Page come from works that have deepened and broadened our understanding of the human condition. Decades, or even centuries, may have passed since these words first appeared in print, but for us they’re still beacons.