“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.” —Rachel Carson
I will always remember her eyes being wide-open whenever outside. No matter if walking a trail or along a coastline, she always brought along her child-like awe. Tide pools reflected her sense of wonder at the magic she saw. Her girlish laughter, her sheer enjoyment in seeing something for the first time made the experience truly memorable for us all.
A long time ago, on her first and only visit to Maine, my mother’s best friend Mary became a child again. Scampering across rocks, gazing into tide pools, her 50-something years retreated to a place we all experienced as children — that magical world of wonder.
When she saw something for the first time, Mary’s smile and joyous laughter came pouring out, ushering us all to gather around her, to see what she was seeing. During her visit, experiences like that — immense joy and serene quiet — took us to a better place if but for a moment.
By definition wonder is that feeling of surprise tinged with admiration brought on by something unexpected, unfamiliar. It is a feeling we all had when we were young, a wonderful sensation unfiltered and without guardrails. Wonder is that desire to be curious and to know something, But to know what? We only know that when we experience wonder.
The marine biologist and conservationist Rachel Carson spent many summers in Maine writing and sharing time with family and friends. In “The Sense of Wonder,” which began as a well-received essay in the years prior to the publication of “Silent Spring,” Carson captured many of these Maine moments. She continued expanding on it through the years. It was to be her last book, published posthumously in 1965.
In “The Sense of Wonder,” Carson focuses on the time she spent at her Maine home with her three-year-old grand nephew Roger. Together they would explore the woods and tide pools that surrounded her cottage, experiencing what only a Maine summer can offer. She also shares her belief that as we age our sense of wonder becomes muffled, an exiled prisoner with self-imposed blinders to a natural world that wants to have a conversation with us.
The child experiences wonder every day. Their open eyes and ears, their words of joy, speak directly to time spent in the natural world. As Carson points out, to walk within nature with a child or one who still has that child-like exuberance of seeing something for the first time makes that experience momentous for all involved — an experience that winds its way to the core of what makes us human.
Carson’s prose speaks to what we experienced with Mary together as a family — making moments miraculous.
A few years after her visit, Mary succumbed to cancer. Her legacy remains in the memories carried on by her friends and family each in their own way. For me, whenever I experience something new while taking a walk along the shoreline, through woods and fields, on the ocean or high up on a granite bluff, I think of Mary. I thank her for helping me know better this gift that is Maine. I can still hear her laughter to this day.
Carson’s wish was that everyone could keep that child-like sense of wonder intact forever.
“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of 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 boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength,” Carson wrote.
Though distractions can easily cause it to be misplaced, our sense of wonder is still within us and always a part of who we are, no matter the circumstance.
This world is forever changing and, like that carnival merry-go-round we all remember, it goes around so very fast. But we can slow it down with our child-like eyes and imagination. We can wonder at its immense beauty, stopping it in our thoughts just long enough to reach out and grab that brass ring.
RJ Heller is a journalist, essayist, photographer, author, an avid reader and an award-winning book critic who enjoys sailing, hiking and other outdoor pursuits. He lives in Starboard Cove.