Julie Dunlap is the author or coauthor of award-winning children’s books including John Muir and Stickeen and Parks for the People: The Life of Frederick Law Olmsted.” Her current projects include co-editing, with Susan Cohen, an anthology of young writers’ nature essays, fiction, and poetry, as well as teaching about pesticides, wildlife ecology, and environmental management for the University of Maryland University College.
Stephen R. Kellert is Tweedy Ordway Professor Emeritus of Social Ecology at Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He is the author of many books including Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World and Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection.
Adapted with permission from Companions in Wonder: Children and Adults Exploring Nature Together, edited by Julie Dunlap and Stephen R. Kellert, MIT Press, 2012.
One of the most haunting images in environmental literature is the opening fable in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In an unnamed village "in the heart of America," pesticides have stilled the lowing of cattle at daybreak, the afternoon droning of bees, the splashes of fish in the streams. Carson wrote, "On the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins, catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh." Her tragic tale of poisoned hopes in a once-harmonious natural and human community is compounded by a bitter irony. "The people," Carson writes, "had done it themselves."
Carson’s allegory of an unseasonable hush prefaced a 1962 book that sparked public outrage over toxic chemical pollution and galvanized the modern environmental movement. But her blighted town suffers another silence rarely noted: the absence of children’s voices. A few youths in the story have been stricken and died after playing outside; the rest must be locked indoors, saved from the corrupted environment by being separated from it. Carson’s concern for children’s health imbues Silent Spring in discussions of birth defects, childhood cancers, and chromosomal damage from DDT and other persistent synthetic chemicals. In addressing the subject of children, the author opened herself to sexist attacks; one critic dismissed her scientific claims by saying, "I thought she was a spinster. What’s she so worried about genetics for?" But Carson refused to stand mute when faced with a moral imperative to speak out for the future.
The "Wonder" essay is replete with such mild adventures, as Rachel leads Roger through the garden in search of insect songsters or joins him chasing ghost crabs across the sand. Parents are offered a few practical tips on initiating their own explorations, such as investing in a hand lens to reveal miniature worlds within forest moss or a drop of pond water. "With your child," Carson advises, "look at objects you take for granted as commonplace or uninteresting." But the purpose of such close observation is greater than "a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood." Rather, it is to awaken the child’s senses, expand her definition of self and community, and open his heart—in other words, to develop a receptivity to nature that Rachel Carson poetically deems the "sense of wonder." The capacity to wonder is so elemental to Carson that she professed an oft-quoted wish, "If I had the 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."
Similar concerns expressed in Richard Louv’s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, have sparked a growing movement to save our youngest generation from "nature deficit disorder." But decades earlier, Carson presaged the prospect of indoor childhoods in Silent Spring and enumerated solutions in the posthumously-published The Sense of Wonder. "A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful," Carson wrote, "full of wonder and excitement." Daily, intimate sensory experience is essential to keep that wonder bright for a lifetime, Carson asserted, and the early companionship of a responsive adult is the best way to make that happen. "By suggestion and example," she told parents, "I believe children can be helped to hear the many voices about them. Take the time to listen to the voices of the earth and what they mean—the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf or flowing streams."
Philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore sees Carson’s sense of wonder as a moral virtue that compels us to honor and celebrate the earth. As Moore avers, "The same impulse that says, this is wonderful, is the impulse that says, this must continue." As a walk in the woods can be an antidote for a child’s nature deficit disorder, sharing that walk between generations is a prescription against pesticide bioaccumulation, biodiversity decline, climate change, and other ills afflicting our planet. Leading a child to nature seems an elemental step we can all take each day. As Rachel Carson wrote, "Wonder and humility are wholesome emotions, and they do not exist side by side with the lust for destruction."