When Thursday’s first heavenly white snowflakes entered this earthen world of muted golds and reds, I was nearing the end of a woodland walk with Hudson the Wonder Dog. Oh, how I wanted to pretend we had just arrived so we could walk the afternoon away amongst the quiet soft flakes. That evening, my eyes frequently went to the window, captivated by the still falling snow in the glow of a nearby streetlight.
Still, after half a century of life, falling snow fills me with wonder.
In my recent conversation with Paul Hai, Program Coordinator for the Northern Forest Institute for Conservation Education and Leadership Training of the State University of New York, College of Environmental Studies and Forestry, and co-founder of Children in Nature, New York (CiNNY), he referred to Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder. First appearing in the July 1956 edition of Woman’s Home Companion under the title Help Your Child to Wonder, it was published posthumously in 1965 (Harper & Row). A special edition of the book was released in 1998 (Harper Collins).
In The Sense of Wonder, Carson shares her belief that we enter this life with a sense of wonder about the world. Sustaining that wonder through life requires at least one adult who can share and nurture it.
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 disenchantment 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 from the 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 (pages 54-55).
Carson stresses that it is more important to feel than to know. Facts will likely be lost; wonder will remain.
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. With him, 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. … 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 (pages 66-67).
The adults I know, or have known, who have managed to hang on to this sense of wonder hold onto it with ferocity. They cultivate it and treat it lovingly, for it feeds them. And, it radiates from them.
A dear friend of mine has survived several types of cancer with a spirit that lives, loves, and laughs. Recuperating from a procedure that, happily, will not be followed by chemotherapy, I visited her the other day. After talking and laughing for abit, she suggested we go for a walk in the woods near her home. She, clad in flannel pajamas adorned with bright orange and pink hearts, put on shoes and jacket and headed for the door. Along our walk, she pointed out the things she loved, the colorful leaves, ferns, mosses. She stopped at a stream and, together, we took in the fallen leaves and golden white pine needles resting in a pool, and we marveled.
My mother-in-law was another such person. Ill and in pain for far too long, she reveled in the beauty and magic of nature. While I dare not speak for her, I believe it gave her an inner hope, peace, and joy. Indeed, her presence was comprised of those feelings; it was her aura.
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 (page 100).
My mother-in-law, Barbara