Ecofeminism and The Sense of Wonder

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 disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

            Rachel Carson’s essay “Help your Child to Wonder” first appeared in the journal Woman’s Home Companion in 1956.  As the title suggests, Carson aimed to encourage readers to cultivate a sense of wonder in their children by taking them into nature.  The article was later published in book form as The Sense of Wonder and included nature photography that brought Carson’s descriptions of the natural world to life.[1]  Carson emphasized the need for adults to share experiences with children in nature that are “based on having fun together rather than teaching” and to focus on feeling rather than knowing.[2]  She compares these felt experiences of early childhood to the cultivation of rich soil, necessary for any seeds of knowledge that are later planted there.  She counters the common worry among adults that they don’t know enough about nature to guide their children through its many complexities with the idea that adults, too, will benefit from rediscovering their sense of awe and wonder that comes from paying attention to the natural world.

Carson ends the essay by posing the following questions: “What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the bounds of human existence? Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is it something deeper?”[3]  Given her later book Silent Spring, which critiqued the use of pesticides due to our limited understanding of their effects on the environment, and several indications that they were harming ecological systems in alarming ways, it is interesting that her responses to these questions in The Sense of Wonder are so spiritual.  She writes about how a sustained sense of wonder in early childhood leads to “inner contentment” and “renewed excitement in living” among adults, as well as “reserves of strength” and even “healing.”[4]  Although Carson intended to expand on the article, her life was cut short by cancer as she struggled to finish Silent Spring, and we are left questioning the extent to which Carson also imagined a sense of interconnectedness established in early life that would lead adults to form relationships of communion rather than domination with their natural environment.

The spiritual results of communion with nature at an early age do seem to lend themselves to an attitude towards nature that would mitigate against the domination and destruction of modern societies.  This attitude is also apparent in the motivations behind Karen Warren’s Ecofeminist Philosophy,[5] in which Warren centers her philosophical approach to ecofeminism on the notion of “woman-other Human Others-nature interconnections.”  Despite the efforts of environmentalists since Carson, the relationship between humans and nature can still be characterized as largely one of dominant-subordinate.  Warren’s goal is to draw parallels between these relationships, particularly as women, other human Others, and non-human Others (nature) play the subordinate role to the dominate male (white, first-world, corporate, etc.)  Putting Carson’s focus on children in conversation with Warren’s philosophical motivations for ecofeminism, there are a few interesting questions that come to light.

Carson’s audience for The Sense of Wonder was largely composed of white, middle-class housewives.  While Carson speaks to the importance of experiencing wonder in the natural world for our spiritual needs, there is an utter absence in her article of our dependence on the natural world for sustenance and survival as a species.  The empirical cases that Warren addresses in her first chapter, which motivates her ecofeminist position, are in stark contrast to this.  Her example of the protest of Chipko women in India indicates an important step in environmental thinking which highlights that humans are part of the natural environment.  The tree-hugging movement was a clear shift from thinking about preserving natural resources for the sake of humans towards preserving natural resources for the environments’ sake, although humans are indeed part of that environment.  However, the experiences of the Chipko women from early childhood to adulthood are vastly different from the experiences of most first-world Westerners.  Their connectedness to the trees in their environment is material in ways that The Sense of Wonder just does not capture: trees provided food, water, shelter, firewood, and artisan products.  The same is true for the Yanomani population and deforestation in Brazil.

Chipko

Chipko women, from Wikimedia

In discussing the eucalyptus controversy, also in India, where broad swaths of indigenous forests were felled to build eucalyptus plantations, Warren asks: “Which needs and whose needs are important?” When the answer to this question is the dominant member of a dominant-subordinate relationship, there are multiple subordinate groups who suffer.  “The environment” thus comes to incorporate woman-other human Others-nature interconnections, both material and spiritual, that are destroyed at the hands of the dominant.  This then leaves us with the question of how to better teach both spiritual and material interconnectedness to our children.


[1] Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder, (New York: Harper & Row, 1956).

[2] Carson, Sense of Wonder, 10.

[3] Carson, Sense of Wonder, 88.

[4] Carson, Sense of Wonder, 88.

[5] Karen Warren, Ecofeminist Philosophy: a Western perspective on what it is and why it matters, (Lanham: Rowman & Littleman Publishers, Inc., 2000).

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