The noisy, messy, wonderful world of kids learning in nature

A Not So Silent Spring

by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

Rachel Carson, the legendary author of the watershed book Silent Spring, was once a young girl. It seems an obvious thing to say, but it’s worth thinking about where this environmental icon—who changed the course of history—came from. 

In one picture, at four or maybe five, she is sitting on high grass, trees and ragged fence line behind her, a magazine on her lap, a small dog at her side. She sports a blousy white frock and a raven, pageboy haircut that hangs high above her collar, straight bangs marching in lockstep across her forehead.

There are two remarkable things about the photo. The first: she isn’t looking at the camera, because she’s too engaged with what she’s doing. She’s outside. She has been reading. She’s looking at the dog, and the expression on her face is one of bemusement; it would be easy to think that she’s been reading aloud to her canine companion. In our current age of kindergarten admission angst and overscheduled, stressed-out families, it’s lovely to see a child being a child.

The second striking aspect is that she has been allowed to sit outside on the grass in her white clothing, and no one seems to care whether she will come home for dinner with mud on her sleeves or crickets in her cuffs. There is not a helicopter parent in sight. Whoever is behind the camera is in silent assent that this is how a child ought to be in the world.

Some biographies credit Carson’s mother with instilling in her a sense of wonder in the natural world as she grew up in Springdale, Pa. It was a valuable asset that she took with her to the Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) and to Johns Hopkins University, where she earned an M.A. in Zoology. Along the way, she studied marine science at Woods Hole Biological Laboratory. She was a lifelong researcher, government administrator, writer and educator. 

That a little girl in Pennsylvania dedicated her life to exploring and protecting the natural world so that others could revel in its wonder and bounty is not a happy accident. It is a deliberate consequence of being able to dirty her skirt hems while she explored the world around her and developed a sense of resiliency that she would need later in life; seen as an alarmist activist when Silent Spring was published, she endured crushing pressure from the petrochemical industry, withstanding their vicious attacks with a wall of facts standing sentinel around her.

Carson was also the author of The Sense of Wonder, a long personal essay that entreats adults to help instill in children the wonder of the literal and metaphorical woods. In it, she takes her nephew Roger tramping about as she did, meditating on what it means for him, and for her. For us.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement,” she writes. “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 alienation from the sources of our strength.” 

The journey from childhood exploration to lifelong environmental and community activism is one that we explore throughout our Education Issue, our first to focus on connecting kids to nature—and what it might mean for the future of our world if we don’t. The next Rachel Carson may be a kid in Philadelphia who is out hiking with Urban Blazers, connecting to climate change at the Zoo or growing food with PhillyEarth. 

They don’t know it yet, but we’re going to need them.

Heather Shayne Blakeslee
Managing Editor
heather@gridphilly.com