Just Wondering

It may say more about me than it does about Crow Planet but the chapter entitled “Seeing: The Monk, The Professor, and the Sense of Wonder” is my favorite chapter in the book, perhaps because it helps me justify the Pollyannaish tone of this blog. After seven years of college English classes it’s difficult not to see life is “ironic,” as Haupt notes:

It is difficult to say sense of wonder in this millennial moment, when sleek, cynical, pop-nihilistic writing seems to be a sign of intellectual rigor and rightness. Wonder, as a quality of intellect, has fallen from favor. Too often the word wonder is preceded by one of two rather dopey descriptors. We have childlike wonder, or we have wide-eyed wonder, as if wonder entails a suspension of our intellect. As if, to wonder properly, we have to stand with our mouths agape, waiting for the flies to come in and the drool to ooze out. Grown-up wonder can be just as worthy of the title as that exhibited by a three-year-old. Wonder feeds our best intelligence and is perhaps its source.

I have become a dedicated birder because birding constantly re-creates a sense of wonder. Nothing I’ve done as an adult has recaptured my sense of childlike wonder better than birding. In fact, paying attention while birding has even rekindled my love of butterflies and dragonflies.

Linda Haupt is absolutely right when she declares the importance of creating a sense of wonder in children

In 1956, Rachel Carson wrote an article for the Woman’s Home Companion titled “Help Your Child to Wonder.” In it she both inspired an appreciation for wonder as the primary basis for understanding the natural world properly, and expressed the essentiality of protecting and cultivating this quality as children grow into adulthood:

If l 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.

One of my favorite things to do as a grandparent is to inspire that sense of wonder in my grandkids, even if they sometimes think we’re trying to torture them by taking them on three mile long walks where nothing happens.

Perhaps the hardest part of instilling that sense of wonder is teaching them to slow down and really see what’s there.

We practice wonder by resisting the temptation to hurry past things worth seeing, but it can take work to transcend our preconceived standards for what that worth might be. In the disturbed urban landscape, this is particularly challenging. Unless we happen into a zoo, or unless something goes badly, we are not normally going to be seeing bears, cougars, or even deer. Without the hope of a megafaunal sighting to keep uson our toes, our watching must delve one layer, or several, deeper. This is one of the blessings of the urban nature project: without the overtly magnificent to stop us in our tracks, we must seek out the more subversively magnificent. Our sense of what constitutes wildness is expanded, and our sense of wonder along with it.

I’m always amazed by how much I didn’t see before I took a birding. I am constantly discovering birds I never knew existed before, despite how long I’ve lived here. I’m still surprised when I look up now and see eagles and terns fly over my house, birds I’d never noticed before. A few years ago while trying to capture pictures of hummingbirds in the front yard, I was amazed at the number of birds in the woods across the street.

Most birders I’ve met, certainly the best birders I’ve met, thrive on this sense of wonder:

On the lookout for wonder in modern students of natural history, I was struck by a line in Robert Michael Pyle’s recent Sky Time, where he spoke of the “certainty of wonder in all places.” Though this is a lovely sentiment, perhaps it is not quite right. Surely there is the certainty of the wondrous in all places. But wonder is a response, an attitude of mind and heart, a graced completion of a circle between observer and observed. Wonder is not a given; it is contingent on the habit of being that allows it to arise in the face of the wondrous. This habit is not an accessory for the naturalist, but an essential. When I spoke with Thomas Eisner, the renowned Cornell biologist (also one of the earth’s Finest naturalists and dearest humans) about his course The Naturalist’s Way, I asked him why he had decided to grade the class Pass/ Fail. If part of his goal was to bring natural history back into academic favor, then shouldn’t the students receive traditional grades? Dr. Eisner, who has had more papers grace the cover of the rigorously academic journal Science than any other scientist dead or living, responded simply, “How do you grade wonder?”

This sense of wonder is perhaps birding’s greatest reward. Although it has driven me to far away places, it seems even more magical when it occurs in my own backyard.

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