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October 21, 2017

Rachel Carson's Sense of Wonder

On this day in 1907 Rachel Carson was born in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Her homestead is now a museum and educational center, though it includes only one of the sixty-five acres upon which Carson grew up and learned the life-lesson that she would teach the world: "The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky, and their amazing life" (The Sense of Wonder). It was Carson's mother who taught both the wonder and the sense, by not only taking her children on daily nature hikes but by not allowing them to collect or disrupt the natural treasures they would find, nor to become jaded to their splendor. Beyond her specific delight in ocean life (The Sea Around Us, etc.), and her forewarnings about contamination (Silent Spring), Carson's legacy is this urging of daily awe:
    We lay and looked up at the sky and the millions of stars that blazed in darkness. The night was so still that we could hear the buoy on the ledges out beyond the mouth of the bay. Once or twice a word spoken by someone on the far shore was carried across the clear air. A few lights burned in the cottages. Otherwise, there was no reminder of other human life....
    It occurred to me that if this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century or even once in a human generation, this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it. (The Sense of Wonder)
Carson was shaped by her mother's influence in other ways. Though too poor to have indoor plumbing, her mother subscribed to the children's magazine, St. Nicholas, whose mission included the "protection of the oppressed, whether human or dumb creatures." Like many other later-famous writers -- William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. E. Cummings, Samuel Eliot Morison, Edna St. Vincent Millay, E. B. White, Eudora Welty, Ring Lardner, and more -- Carson published stories in St. Nicholas while still in her pre-teens, and early on became as committed to writing as she was to nature.

When Mrs. Carson died in 1958 her daughter was already deeply committed to the work that would become Silent Spring, published in 1962. While spending the last hours by her mother's bedside, Carson wrote a friend, "...occasionally I slipped away into the dark living room, to look out of the picture window at the trees and the sky. Orion stood in all his glory just above the horizon of our woods, and several other stars blazed more highly than I can remember ever seeing them." A later letter (this one to Marjorie Spock, sister of Benjamin and active in the environmental movement) makes the full legacy clear:
    Her love of life and of all living things was her outstanding quality, of which everyone speaks.... And while gentle and compassionate, she could fight fiercely against anything she believed wrong, as in our present Crusade! Knowing how she felt about that will help me to return to it soon, and to carry it through to completion.

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