“It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility. ”
During my freshman year of college, I started visiting the Cuyahoga Valley National Park on a more regular basis. I loved finding new hikes, and being out in nature provided a space for reflection and solitude. I spent hours upon hours hiking all of the trails, identifying trees, looking for foxes. After a year or two of visiting, my enjoyment of nature began to fade—maybe I was preoccupied with school or other life happenings, but I started visiting less. When quarantine began this spring, it provided a pause, so I decided to pick-up wildflower and bird identification again—primarily as a way to rest and occupy my mind from the anxiety of everything going on.
Over the last three months of searching for birds and flowers though, I feel that God has given me an entirely new joy for the natural world. There is so much beauty that he is making during the summertime in Ohio. Living near a lake provides direct access to plants and wildlife that would normally take more time and effort to get to: the purple martins (some of which migrate as far as Sao Paulo, Brazil for the winter) and tree swallows as they chirp and swoop over the water lilies and pickerelweed on the edge of the lake; swimming beavers; the call of a red-winged blackbird; the flight of a great blue heron over the water. There are other wildflowers I typically don’t notice on my commutes, too: bird’s foot trefoil, chicory, day lilies, sweet clover, queen anne’s lace, red clover, or wild parsnip.
I recently listened to an audio version of Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder about introducing children to nature. Her thesis is that being in nature ought to be fun, and full of wonder, and that in turn this would lead children to want to learn about it—rather than going into nature with children to “teach” them. As a new parent it’s a profound essay, and one that I will surely return to often. I hope that as Arlo gets older, I'll be able to enjoy the wonder of nature with him. Already I see this inborn sense in him that Carson discusses—the desire to go outside, to explore our backyard, to run freely when we go to parks—there is a freshness and newness to everything he's experiencing. I remember for myself how quickly this dimmed as a child. There is one instance I remember in particular, probably before middle school, where I was angry at my mother because she wanted me to play outside rather than in our basement playing video games. In one sense this responsibility is invigorating, while in another, daunting. Who am I to teach Arlo about nature when I don't know very much myself? Anticipating this, Carson responds, “it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.” My hope that this time of childhood will be a time to prepare the soil for this sense of wonder.
There is a small thread which connects this sense of wonder and daily life. I have been reading Liturgy of the the Ordinary by Tish Harrison Warren, and in a chapter about savoring daily moments of beauty, she quotes G.K. Chesterton on the child-like wonder of God:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
As each flower blooms, I imagine God intricately making each one with care and craftsmanship with a deep sense of joy. I hope that I will learn how to more deeply appreciate these things as if a child. It is a deep privilege to “bear witness,” as Marcia Bonta calls it, to this beauty, and to approach nature as if knowing nothing about it—with a sense of wonder at the hands of a good maker. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, the use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Psalm 19: 2–4). I think that children might inherently know this, but maybe I have forgotten and need reminding. I have become impatient with what I deem monotony as an adult. I think it's no mistake that Carson ends the quote at the top of this post with the word humility. At first, it seems that there is so much to teach children about nature, but I think if we're careful and observant, there is so much for them to teach us, too.