Sense of Wonder: Back to Basics

In celebration of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge 50th anniversary, the US Fish and Wildlife Service is honoring the Refuge and its instrumental namesake former USFWS employee through a series of blog posts on Medium with the theme “A Sense of Wonder”, inspired by the title of one of Carson’s books. To check out my original post and to read more Sense of Wonder blog entires from others who hold the Refuge near to their heart, click here. Last, please be sure to visit and like The Friends of Rachel Carson Facebook page. This helps support fundraising efforts for the Refuge and improves outreach and volunteer opportunities for the community. Enjoy!

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To evoke a sense of wonder, you must think like a child. Children are naturally curious and fascinated by the things they experience in the world. Usually, it’s because they are experiencing something for the first time. Gradually, as we get older and have repeated the same experiences, our senses begin to dull, and we become used to the way things are. This is natural and, evolutionarily, a good thing! Either through experimentation, or by watching and learning from our caregivers, we learn that paying attention to certain things keeps us alive─ or at least saves us from an unpleasant experience─ and that ignoring some things is totally inconsequential, leaving more room in our brains to pay attention to the things that could hurt us. This method of processing information is thanks to our amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped part of the brain that sends messages of fear and stress, which has been very successful at keeping humans vigilant enough over hundreds of thousands of years to survive predators and evolve into the modern humans we have become. We have engineered our own ecosystems, built exactly to our liking, ever decreasing our threshold for tolerating discomfort.

Who says there is an age limit on playing in the mud? Former Refuge Outreach Coordinator, Marlie Perkins, squishes the mucky marsh peat between her fingers. Photo by Rachel Stearns/USFWS.

But, hey… Where are all the predators? What are we supposed to be afraid of now? Well… a lot, actually. Our modern world is every bit as stressful as our days before cellphones, computers, and indoor plumbing. But what if we decided to quiet our amygdala, just for a moment, and started to notice our benign, non-threatening surroundings? What if we stared at the clouds for a minute and felt the cool breeze on our skin, taking a deep inhale and smelling the crisp, dry air? What if a smile crept onto our faces as we closed our eyes for a moment, listening to the rustling leaves and the song of the chickadee that stuck around all winter to keep us company? Tapping into these senses brings us out of our busy minds and plops us right back into our childlike sense of wonder. For me, the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge is one of those special places that brings me back to that innocent time in life when everything was a glorious mystery, waiting for me to discover its secrets.

As we become aware of our bodies and all the fascinating things they are capable of, we learn to experience the world through five basic senses: smell, touch, sound, taste, and sight. At the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, these senses are easily stimulated… if we pay close attention.


As the strongest sense associated with memory, smell is the first thing I notice even before I arrive at the Refuge. The smell of the sea is in the air as I drive along any one of the coastal routes between Cape Elizabeth and Kittery. If it’s a warm day, the windows are down so I can breathe it all in, building the anticipation. Approaching the entrance of a trail such as Timber Point, the delightful aroma of beach rose (Rosa rugosa) diffuses into the air, creating an intoxicating mixture of salty and sweet. Here, the rose bushes cluster along the marsh edge in the dry sandy soils, safe from the tide.

Closer to the edge, I am sure to inhale the subtle, yet pungent, smell of sulfur. Even stronger when the tide is out, the smell is caused by the slowly decaying organic material that comprises the spongy, nutrient-rich soil of salt marshes called peat. Because these soils so often experience hypoxic (low oxygen) conditions due to high tides, the bacteria that thrive in these conditions slowly turn dead organic matter into soil, creating hydrogen sulfide gas as a byproduct of decomposition!

If I have the fortune to wander further into the marsh, I might encounter a plant known as seaside arrowgrass (Triglochin maritimum). When crushed, the aromatic stems smell just like cilantro. Don’t be fooled though. As refreshing and familiar as this scent is, Triglochin maritimum is toxic to humans!

Beach rose (Rosa rugosa), an invasive plant especially aggressive in New England, in full bloom over looking the ocean. Photo by Rachel Stearns/USFWS.


Salt marsh hay (Spartina patens) meadows produce smooth, flat mats that look like cowlicks in the high marsh platform. This is a specific part of the marsh that the tide regularly floods, but does not saturate the plant roots as thoroughly as those of the low marsh found closer to the banks of the tidal channel. These extensive hay mats are soft and comprised of thousands of thin, flexible stems that lay down flat in dry spots in the marsh, providing a perfect resting place for a hip wader-clad field technician like myself on a hot summer day─ possibly even dozing off for a quick nap.

On the other hand, Spartina alterniflora, a low marsh plant, does not provide a suitable resting place for humans. Aside from being wet during low and high tide, it has a deceptive common name. If you run a blade of smooth cordgrass between your thumb and index finger in an upward direction, your fingers will glide smoothly toward the tip as the blade tapers. However, if you start from the tip of the blade and work your way down, you may get stuck. Tiny, stiff teeth on the underside of the blade curve upward, creating a rough texture when brushed against in the opposite direction. This characteristic in plants is described as having scabrous leaves.

Salt marsh hay (Spartina patens) offers a comfortable place to rest between surveys. Photo by Rachel Stearns/USFWS.

One thing these two plants do share is the soil in which they grow. As mentioned before, peat is a spongy, yet dense soil built from the bottom up as plants grow and decompose. Each soil layer is a time stamp, revealing different geological and biological events over thousands of years, marked by soils of various colors and textures. When salt marsh soil cores are examined, words like peaty, sandy, clayey, and silty are used to describe each layer in history. I often take a moment to wonder at the feel of the different layers; whether they crumble apart in my hands or squish between my fingers, each one tells a story.


I must be still to hear the near silent, raspy call of the secretive saltmarsh sparrow (Ammodramus caudacutus), or else the crunch of smooth cordgrass (Spartina alterniflora) beneath my feet in the low marsh will mask their song. Hidden in the tall grasses are tiny nests and busy mothers working around the clock to stave off the relentless hunger of their offspring. When it comes to staying dry however, the infant birds are on their own. Many chicks perish if they cannot climb the grass high enough to avoid the tides; and with climate change making water levels higher and more unpredictable, fewer birds successfully fledge each year. Hearing their song is even more precious knowing that it may disappear from the marsh soundscape forever in the near future.

A least tern (Sternula antillarum) swoops overhead to ward off invaders of the colony.

Over on the beach, commotion from a least tern (Sternula antillarum) colony masks the rhythmic sound of waves crashing on the shore. Above the high tide line in the dunes, up to 200 terns are noisily tending to their offspring. They retrieve meals from the ocean by hovering around 30 feet above the water and diving for small fish like hake and herring. If I stroll the beach during this time, the terns are also likely to dive for my head. They are aggressive parents and will do anything to ensure the survival of their chicks, which means my head may be deliberately pooped on as well. Beaches on the Refuge are a safe haven for the colony, but with threats from sea level rise, development, human disturbance, and predation, this cacophonous species is at risk.


The taste of the Refuge is unsurprisingly dominated by the essential ingredient of all civilizations: salt. The salty ocean water travels up the tidal channels and mixes with freshwater, gradually losing its potency. If I spend any time in the marsh or ocean and get my clothes wet, they are sure to form salt crystals when they eventually dry.

But the salt doesn’t stick to waterways (and my clothes) alone. It permeates certain salt marsh plants as well. If my mouth were ever parched while doing field work, I always know that if I needed to, I could pluck a small stem off common glasswort (Salicornia europaea), a succulent marsh plant. Also referred to as a pickle grass, the jointed stems are safe to consume and are crunchy and salty like the name suggests.

Salicornia europaea “pickle grass” growing in a salt marsh mudflat.


At the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, sight is a sense just as transient as the other four. Twice daily, tides fill the marsh channels with water that spills over the banks, flooding the grasses. Hours later, the water is gone, leaving swaths of thick, brown mud exposed. In summer, I see expansive green meadows meeting the blue horizon. High above are puffy white clouds, building taller and taller as the afternoon humidity threatens to produce a thunderstorm. Some days the fog rolls in so thick, I can barely see ten feet in front of me. In fall, everything from the trees bordering the marsh to the Salicornia in the mud flats changes color, following suite with the rest of New England as the days grow shorter and cooler. The marsh becomes a white landscape in winter where the tidal channels are filled with jagged chunks of ice that jam against the banks. Persistent emergent vegetation poke their heads up through the snow to remind me that spring will faithfully return. Every year it seems like an overnight transition, but one day I will look out into the marsh and see nothing but delicate, bright green grass.

A foggy day in the marsh at low tide. Photo by Jessalyn Benson/USFWS.

Getting curious with my senses reminds me that no matter how many times I visit the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge, every moment offers a unique experience─ each imbued with its own sense of wonder!

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