A Sense of Wonder

“A child's world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.”
Rachel Carson

Wonder is a beckoning. A come-hither. A lure that pulls us onto a path of knowledge. Wonder is the deliverance from a staid adulthood and a wrapped-up existence.

Wonder is best felt not explained.

Wonder is as simple as watching cows.

Each new day, when they come out from the far side of the barn, it is like the next act, or the start of an entirely new play. They amble into view from the far side of the barn with their rhythmic, graceful walk, and it is an occasion, like the start of a parade.

[…]

So often they are standing completely still. Yet when I look up again a few minutes later, they are in another place, again standing completely still. Now, in the heart of winter, they spend a lot of time lying around in the snow. Does she lie down because the other two have lain down before her, or are they all three lying down because they all feel it is the right time to lie down?

Short-story writer Lydia Davis fills pages with observations of neighbor cows. Pages propelled by wonder. By a desire to learn, to know. What are they thinking? What motivates them? What do they think of me? She asks indirectly, seeking to cross what divides animals and us.

Wonder is communion. What else can it lead to?

Natural History Museum, London. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
Britain’s Natural History Museum was designed to house the enormous collection of natural specimens overflowing at the British Museum. It was conceived by Sir Richard Owen a creationist, who wanted a “cathedral to nature.” Owen had to lobby Parliament to remove items from the British Museum. In 1881 the British Museum (Natural History) opened. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

“The wonder is,” observed Annie Dillard, a pioneer of nature wondering, “—given the errant nature of freedom and the burgeoning of texture in time—the wonder is that all the forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all[…].”

Why is there beauty at all?

German economist and humanist E.F. Schumacher believes that curiosity is the name for that which expands our world beyond what is essential, beyond our biological constraints. Into a state of being rather than having.

It is, Schumacher continues, what separates us from the unyielding despair of met biological needs and nothing more.

Writer and biologist Rachel Carson develops a lovely case for wonder in our young years, perhaps because child eyes are closer to the earth?

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.

Although she spent her life connecting humans to the environment, Carson’s most beloved project, “The Sense of Wonder,” contains line after line of the simplest, purest wonder as she takes her infant nephew into wild scapes.

One stormy autumn night when my nephew Roger was about twenty months old I wrapped him in a blanket and carried him down to the beach in a rainy darkness. Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy[…].

Photo of Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
The museum’s first director, Sir William Flower, was a supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Flower created the main “Hall of Wonders” that featured dinosaur skeletons designed to surprise and inspire the visitors. In 2017 the dinosaurs were removed and replaced by “Hope” a blue whale who died off the coast of Ireland in 1891. Learn more. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

I walk around the garden at night with my bundled baby. Oh the things we get up to in the wakeful hours. Does she sense the outdoors? Does she too feel joy?

Schumacher argues that an indescribable factor “x” separates us from animals, minerals, and everything else that is not divine or human. It seems to me, that “x” is ignited by wonder. It is encapsulated by wonder.

More than curiosity, wonder is an entrance to the possible. And impossible.

Gaston Bachelard—the wonderfully imaginative man whose 1958 The Poetics of Space transformed concepts like nests, corners, even roundness into psychological spaces and existential boundaries—writes: “The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration.” Like begonia leaves, snail shells, and ammonites, some transcendent cosmic pattern knights them.

The surest sign of wonder is exaggeration. And since the inhabitant of a shell can amaze us, the imagination will soon make amazing creatures, more amazing than reality, issue from the shell. […] When we accept slight amazement, we prepare ourselves to imagine great amazement and, in the world of the imagination, it becomes normal for an elephant, which is an enormous animal, to come out of a snail shell. It would be exceptional, however, if we were to ask him to go back into it.

Did all of art, all of poetry, all of beauty, all of everything made originate from wonder directed at cosmic patterns and incongruous forms?

Photo of Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
Darwin speculated whales might have evolved from land mammals (he guessed bears) later it was proven they share common ancestors with pigs and hippos. “Hope” is positioned in a feeding dive during which she would shallow mouthfuls of plankton. It is the largest feeding event of any single animal. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

Certainly, science pulses with wonder. I love this passage from geneticist Paul Nurse when he describes how he was lured into biology.

It may have been a butterfly that first started me thinking seriously about biology. It was early spring; I was perhaps twelve or thirteen years old and sitting in the garden when a quivering yellow butterfly flew over the fence. It turned, hovered and briefly settled—just long enough for me to notice the elaborate veins and spots on its wings. […] Like me, it was so obviously alive: it could move, it could sense, it could respond, it seemed so full of purpose. I found myself wondering: what does it really mean to be alive?

Our minds can contemplate the universe if we let it.

If you are a bit foggy on wonder, start with Annie Dillard, the naturalist, novelist, and all-around brilliant observer, who inhales the universe:

I wonder how long it would take you to notice the regular recurrence of the seasons if you were the first man on earth. What would it be like to live in open-ended time broken only by days and nights? You could say, ‘it’s cold again; it was cold before,’ but you couldn’t make the key connection and say, ‘it was cold this time last year,’ because the notion of ‘year’ is precisely the one you lack. Assuming that you hadn’t yet noticed any orderly progression of heavenly bodies, how long would you have to live on earth before you could feel with any assurance that any one particular long period of cold would, in fact, end?

It is a sticky thing, wonder. A viscous thing. It is flying your way all the time like cosmic spitballs.

Should it hit you, stick to you, it might not leave. It might keep pulling you in. To cows. To stars. To cells. To anything above biological needs.

Davis continues to watch cows:

The third comes out into the field, from behind the barn when the other two have already chosen their spots, quite far apart. She can choose to join either one. She goes deliberately to that one in the far corner. Does she prefer the company of that cow or does she prefer that corner?

Photo of Blue whale skeleton in the Natural History Museum. Featured in "A Sense of Wonder" in the Examined Life.
The Hall’s cathedral structure allows visitors to walk around the diving whale, wondering at her size, the way her bones support one another, what it takes to create and sustain such a giant. Learn more about this wonderful place or take an audio-tour with David Attenborough. Photograph by Ellen Vrana

Wonder is the sticky thing that pulls us onto the threshold of comprehension and pushes us over the edge into what Carson calls a “renewed excitement in living.”

Find something to wonder about. Better yet, find something to keep wondering about.