Courtesy of New York Public Library
I think that perhaps my first encounter with the word “wonder” was in the context of “the wonders of the world”: the natural and manmade spectacles that I imagined couples used their life savings to visit in their old age. I saw some of these important places in my childhood–Yosemite Valley, the giant sequoias, the Golden Gate Bridge, Haleakala volcano–and fantasized about many more. I looked with longing at the glossy photos of the Great Barrier Reef, the Everglades, the Taj Mahal, and the pyramid of Khufu in my books, imagining riding across the Sahara on a camel, or watching lazy alligators and flamingos from an airboat in Florida.
What I didn’t realize until I was older was that you cannot understand the idea of a world “wonder” without also having experienced the state of “wonder” that these places and objects imbue in their spectators. What is Yosemite Valley, for example, without the rapt, quasi-religious exultations of John Muir, who stood in awe of the sheer granite and vastness of geological time? What is an ancient Eqyptian ruin without the awe of age and the insistent questions of “how?” and “why?”
This “sense of wonder” is often attributed to childhood; adults are entreated to “preserve” this quality to have a more fulfilling, mindful existence. But in my experience, this is not necessarily the case. I certainly experienced interest, shock, and even fascination in wondrous things in childhood, but it was the commonplace sense of wonder that comes from learning new things about the world every day, and being generally interested in them, without being touched in a deeper place by them. I would sit and watch snails for hours, feeding them bits of leaf and letting them slime up my arms, without ever marvelling at the symmetry of their shells, or pondering the ages-old process by which they acquired such an unusual mode of locomotion. A long attention span and general interest are not the same things as wonder.
I think it is difficult to truly experience wonder until you are older and the world has lost a little of its newness. Wonder involves a certain amount of surprise–such as being presented with something in the world that you cannot quite comprehend or explain–and that surprise is hard to achieve when you are used to questioning and learning about your world. You don’t truly “wonder” at the building of the pyramids when you still believe that your dad could easily lift up a car and set it on the neighbor’s lawn. As a child, you assume you know little about the world, and so the surprise necessary for true wonder is hard to come by. When you have begun to assume that you have a certain amount of true knowledge about the world around you––that is when true awe and wonder strike their hardest.
As a child, my family often visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park, a preserve of Giant Sequoia forest on the Western Slopes of the Sierra Nevada. It was a favourite playground of my brother’s and mine, with enormous, hollow, fallen trees that you could walk straight through without hardly ducking your head. There were chickarees, delightful little squirrels that chuckle as they dart in spirals around the trees, and lots of woodpeckers to listen for and try to spot a hundred feet in the air. We went to Calaveras about twice a year throughout my childhood; in spring, for the dogwood blossoms, and in fall for their colour. But it wasn’t until I was in the eighth grade or so that I experienced, in this place that I had so often come, the sense of wonder that drives artistic and scientific inspiration and leaves you breathless with awe; it took me years of knowing the place to be surprised afresh by the quaking, flaming dogwood leaves under a spattering of sunbeams filtered through the canopy of the giant sequoias. Wonder only visited when, after outgrowing the rudimentary curiosity of childhood, I could comprehend the true smallness of my own experience compared with the vastness of time, history, and the universe.
Courtesy of NYPL
As an adult, I have learned to chase wonder as some chase thrills or highs. Wonder drove my education as a child (homeschooling allowed me a certain amount of say in the curriculum) and in college. But it is still somewhat enigmatic to me, disappearing for months at a time, leaving me feeling dry, anxious, and predictable, and then reappearing where I hadn’t the slightest intention of finding it (in breadmaking, the Bible, or algae, for example). As an experience, I find it somewhat related to the Sublime; but if the Sublime is supposed to alloy fear with beauty, perhaps wonder mingles beauty with incomprehension. Rather than the anxiety that accompanies recognizing the unknowable, wonder induces a curiosity that comes from believing that something is knowable (whether or not it truly is). For this reason, I think that wonder is a state that occurs somewhere at the intersection of science and aesthetics, with implications of beauty, curiosity, metaphor and the creation of meaning, as well as pattern, truth, and intricacy.
In an article on wonder for Aeon, Jesse Prinz adds a third element to this mixture of science and aesthetics: religion. Nowadays, I think the sense of religious wonder is often conflated with aesthetics and scientific wonder (perhaps the subject for another post), and so I don’t necessarily include it as a separate element. But it is a topic that comes up often in the field of ecology and religion as well; in Grounding Religion, for example, Lisa Sideris argues that “Wonder at nature can help to engender a host of related ‘environmental’ virtues – generosity, humility, simplicity, farsightedness – that enable us to flourish and allow future generations a chance of flourishing as well.” Part of this goes back to the role of wonder in reminding us that we still know very little about our world; when we wonder at something, we get a whopping sense that our perspective is small, our time is limited, and the universe is keeping most of its workings a secret. In a best-case scenario, this sense of smallness and incomprehension should inspire us to the virtues that Sideris describes, even if only because they are the qualities that help us preserve wonderful things for the generations that proceed us.