Lessons of a Starry Night
A Rachel Carson essay teaches a new mother how to imbue her growing child with an awe for nature
By Kelly McMasters
A few months after my son was born in August 2009, I read Rachel Carson’s essay “The Sense of Wonder.” Written in 1956 and published in Woman’s Home Companion magazine in July of that year, the essay offered suggestions for fostering connections between children and nature, something I hoped to do with my son, and I looked forward to hearing more from a woman and writer I so admired. Carson never had any children of her own, but in “The Sense of Wonder” she shares memories of time spent with her young nephew: a nighttime visit to the ocean, a rainy walk in the woods, listening to soft whispers of wind and insects. She designed the work to be a kind of instruction manual for parents, assuring them that even if they didn’t know the difference between a sandpiper and a plover, they could work to instill an appreciation for nature in their child. As with most of her writing, a discomfort lingers just beneath the surface, a warning. I hadn’t expected a sunny children’s story, but the darkness was unsettling.
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Kelly McMasters is the author of Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town, which inspired the documentary The Atomic States of America, a 2012 Sundance Film Festival selection.