A Sense of Wonder: On Rachel Carson and Shooting Stars

WASHINGTON, D.C.—On a late-night walk home from the train, I looked up at just the right time. Like a bug on fire, a shooting star darted across Orion, winking out near the three bold twinkles marking the hunter constellation’s belt.

“Oh wow!” I thought, tickled to witness such a light show in an urban setting with less-than-dark night skies. “Rachel Carson would have relished that.”

It was early November, and Carson was on my mind because I had toured the author’s childhood home in Springdale, Pa., a month earlier while attending a conference for environmental journalists in nearby Pittsburgh.

Carson will forever be linked to ushering in the modern environmental movement after she exposed the horrors of rampant pesticide use in her groundbreaking wake-up alarm “Silent Spring,” published in 1962. But, just as importantly, the marine biologist and writer should be remembered for nourishing a sense of reverence and wonder about every layer of the natural world.

After all, her acclaimed “The Sea Around Us” (1951) and “The Edge of the Sea” (1955) put her on the literary map as an intrepid inquisitor eager to share her joy of discovery. The former won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

Her last book “The Sense of Wonder” was published in 1965, a year after she died of breast cancer. That volume expanded on a magazine article with a similar title that Carson had written almost a decade prior for Woman’s Home Companion. In that seven-page July 1956 gem, she relayed magnificent on-the-ground stories about examining rocks, stars, birds and insects with her young nephew, Roger, as a guide to her philosophy of nurturing a children’s inborn outdoors curiosity.

“Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper?” she asked in the text.

Not only is there something deeper, but also lasting and significant, she eloquently responded:

“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.”

Carson wrote those words decades after she was born in that plain, four-room Springdale farmhouse as the third child of Maria and Robert Carson on May 27, 1907. But growing up on those rural acres overlooking the Allegheny River no doubt shaped those insights.

Carson’s house in Springdale, Pa.

Jeanne Cecil, who grew up “a few hills away,” remembers being “thrilled and intimidated” when she initially visited the Rachel Carson Homestead in 1980. She returned as a volunteer several years ago and now serves as the non-profit organization’s unpaid executive director.

Like her, Cecil knows that many visitors approach the house as hallowed ground where they can tread where Carson walked, and imagine that living there imbued her with the passion and fortitude that defined her as an adult.

What’s it like to be a guardian of such a legacy?

It’s on par with being a civil rights champion in Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Cecil tells Renewal News.

“I’m in awe of her because of her accomplishments,” she says. “She was both courageous and visionary.”

Cecil is guiding a fundraising effort to bolster the homestead’s slim budget and make her organization a stronger platform for “Rachel’s messages, which are just as pertinent today and maybe more urgent than they were in her time.”

The Rachel Carson house in Pennsylvania has regional and national landmark status.

Indeed, Carson’s subtle wit and trademark dauntlessness and intelligence shine brilliantly in a recording Cecil played for visiting journalists in October. It featured excerpts from the author’s gripping address in the nation’s capital at the National Women’s Press Club in December 1962—just months after “Silent Spring” was published.

Opponents—whether or not they had read her book—pilloried her by claiming she advocated the complete abandonment of chemical control, Carson explained. But they misrepresented her research. She actually called for a more scientifically sophisticated approach to chemical control that is efficient and without dangerous side effects.

To capture the essence of what she humorously described as an “unquiet autumn,” Carson relayed a news story in The Bethlehem Globe-Times that detailed harsh reactions to “Silent Spring” from Farm Bureau representatives in two local Pennsylvania counties. The reporter noted that nobody he interviewed had read the book but that “they all disapproved of it heartily.”

“I think this sums up very neatly the background of some of the noisier comment,” Carson continued, adding that the attacks followed a pattern that deployed devices such as refuting statements that were never made.

“One obvious way to weaken a cause is to discredit the person who champions it,” she said. “And so the masters of invective have been busy. I am a bird lover, a cat lover a fish lover, I am a priestess of nature and I’m a devotee of some mystical cult that has to do with laws of the universe which my critics somehow consider themselves immune to.”

Carson and her family left Springdale in the 1930s for Baltimore after she graduated from college, but long before she achieved iconic status.

Retired teacher Evelyn Hirtle George, one of four founders of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association, tells stories in the back yard of the house in Springdale.

Her childhood house might have been left to the dustbin of history if not for the foresight of a handful of locals. The English teacher who bought the Carson family house, and lived there for decades, was intent on preserving it when she sold it in the 1970s.

In stepped Evelyn Hirtle George, one of four founders of the Rachel Carson Homestead Association in 1975. The quartet convinced the Springdale government to purchase the home with money dedicated for recreation and education.

“We all realized the importance of having a place where people can come,” George, a retired high school environmental science teacher, says in an October interview at the house. “(Carson) was a grateful person. I think she would be happy.”

The home no longer has an outhouse, a springhouse or a packed dirt floor. But it is still the place where Carson wrote her first stories for St. Nicholas, a children’s magazine. And it’s where her mind awakened to melodic thoughts later published in her Help Your Child to Wonder magazine article in 1956.

“There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds, the ebb and flow of the tides, the folded bud ready for the spring,” she wrote. “The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for … scientists, but available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky.”

Carson’s article appeared in Woman’s Home Companion in July 1956.

It turns out that November meteor I witnessed was the leading edge of the Leonids, visible through early December each year. And even though Carson emphasized that you don’t have to be able to name a natural phenomenon to appreciate it, research yielded that the Leonids’ cosmic debris is from Comet Temple/Tuttle.

Next up? This month’s Ursids meteor shower. It radiates near Ursa Minor from Comet 8P Tuttle and peaks several days before Christmas. You can bet I will be staring skyward on the winter solstice—and thinking of Rachel Carson.




Editor’s note: The Rachel Carson stamp featured here is a photo of the enlarged one in the homestead.

Elizabeth McGowan

Elizabeth H. McGowan is a Washington, D.C.-based, award-winning energy and environment reporter. As a staff writer for InsideClimate News, her groundbreaking dispatches from Kalamazoo, Mich., “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You Never Heard Of” won a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. An e-book version of the narrative won the Rachel Carson Book Award from the Society of Environmental Journalists. Elizabeth, who started her career at daily newspapers in Vermont and Wisconsin, has served as a Washington correspondent for Crain Communications, Penton Media, and most recently, Energy Intelligence. Her freelance news reports and features have also appeared in E/The Environmental Magazine; Washingtonian magazine; Intelligent Utility magazine; Outdoor America (magazine of the Izaak Walton League); the journal Appalachia; Capital Community News; the Gulf of Maine Times; Mizzou, the alumni magazine for the University of Missouri; Lore, the magazine of the Milwaukee Public Museum; and Nature Conservancy magazine Elizabeth’s latest reporting venture is Renewal News, a start-up that explores the intersection of nature, labor and energy. The idea is to tell stories about how U.S. communities are evolving as climate change forces all sectors to re-examine their relationship with a fossil-fuel dominant economy.

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