If you are a fellow nature geek, you’re probably aware of the extensive (and growing!) list of benefits that correlate with time spent in nature. Want to decrease your stress levels and increase your resilience to stress? Get outside! Want to boost your child’s concentration and memory? Send her outside! Want to improve or protect your physical health in myriad ways, ranging from blood pressure to eyesight to respiratory health? Seriously, everyone, get outside! Such lists of benefits may not have a whole lot to do with why you or I actually choose to spend time in nature, though. As I contemplate what it is that motivates me to trade the comfort of a couch for decidedly less cushy amenities like mud and mosquitoes, I keep coming back to one realization: I am an awe addict. Seriously, I live for experiences of wonder and awe. Rather than bore you with something out of Merriam Webster’s, let’s see if I can show you what I mean, and let’s see if it resonates with your own experiences.
It was a cold morning in early December—a very cold morning by Kentucky standards. 25 degrees at best with no direct evidence that the sun even existed. And true to Kentucky winters, the muddy ground in the corn fields was stubbornly refusing to freeze. Our boots were heavy with caked mud, but my boys’ spirits were light. Dead corn stalks make excellent swords, and if you pull them with the mud-packed root systems intact, they even pass for spiked bludgeons. The only trouble was that my three-year-old still hadn’t grasped—or didn’t care—that such weapons are for pretend fighting, not actual assaults. After several savage attempts at fratricide, I was compelled to strip him of his corn stalks and carry him up the slippery slope. Enraged toddlers have a startling ability to double their weight in protest. In my son’s case, it seems that he does this for the express purpose of crippling my arms so that I’m unable to block his blows to my face. In any case, I wasn’t having fun anymore, and neither was my weighty, flailing human. You know that feeling where the blood is coursing double speed through your veins and your inner protests about why this moment should be something other than what it is are pulsing with just as much energy? That was both of us.
And then suddenly we all stopped, surprised, wondering. At the edge of the field, where corn stalks give way to grass, leaf litter, and ironweed, white balls of ice peeked out, incongruous polka dots on the brown landscape. It was curiosity that stopped us first, but curiosity broke open into awe. They weren’t balls of ice at all. They were delicate sculptures, dainty arches, ribbons, and curls. We dropped to our hands and knees and the more closely we inspected them, the more miraculous they became. “What are they?” my nine-year-old asked. I had no clue. “Woah, how does that happen?” wondered my seven-year-old aloud. Even the three-year-old was entranced. We touched a few of them, and the petals of ice shattered under our fingers. We oohed, we aahed, we crawled delightedly from sculpture to sculpture, admiring each one. We took pictures on my phone. We formed hypotheses. No one was crying anymore, and no one was protesting the present moment. We were too immersed in it for protest.
Later that day, I posted pictures to social media and learned from friends that those mysterious, awe-inspiring, tantrum-halting sculptures were frost flowers. When the air freezes rapidly over a still warm ground, the sap in plants like ironweed freezes and expands, cracking the brittle stalk. As water moves through these cracks and contacts the frigid air, it freezes, emerging from the cracks in dainty ribbons and delicate curls. Finding frost flowers is a matter of being in the right place at the right time. You need a cloudy day, one on which the ground is not yet frozen but the air is quite cold. Think gray, cold, muddy. You know, the kind of morning when you usually stay inside.
I’ve had these your-soul-breaks-open-and-all-the-trivial-things-that-seemed-to-matter-suddenly-don’t sort of moments more times than I can count. I sometimes had them in church as a child. I’ve had them in art galleries and at concerts. I’ve had them as a mother, holding my new baby in my arms, hearing the sounds of my children laughing together, or simply looking down at one of my boys as they sleep. Most often, though, I have these moments—these experiences of wonder and awe—in nature. I’ve been using the terms ‘wonder’ and ‘awe’ interchangeably here. As I understand them, they are different only by degree—wonder being a softer, subtler experience of opening to something beautiful or mysterious. Perhaps wonder could be thought of as ‘everyday awe’ for those of us who are lucky enough to have lives rich with such experiences.
This is where being an awe addict comes in. In my everyday life, it is easy to lose touch with my connection to the bigger world around me. When that connection breaks, I get overwhelmed by the seeming urgency, importance, and gravity of very ordinary things. My children’s bickering—besides being annoying—becomes terrifying proof that they will grow up to be rude, abrasive, and consequently miserable adults. A traffic jam, running late for this or that, an unexpected bill, an argument with my husband, an injury that keeps me from doing things I love; these all become a really big deal. I need awe because it is a jolt of perspective. I need awe because, as researchers from UC Berkeley have documented, it creates a positive feeling of “small self.” It’s as if I’m a Russian nesting doll. When I’ve lost perspective (which I do pretty much every day), I’m the outermost doll, the kind with no arms or hands and with painted on eyes. When wonder and awe break this outer doll open—this outer, self-important me—I become a smaller self, but this smaller self has eyes that can actually see and arms that can reach out to the world beyond her. This smaller self doesn’t mind being small because she’s not thinking about herself at all, she’s absorbed in connection to the mysterious, magnificent whole.
I’ve learned that I can open myself to everyday experiences of awe. I do it by walking barefoot to the compost pile, moving slowly, focusing on the feeling of the grass under my feet. I do it by sinking my hands into the dirt in my garden. I do it by gazing up into the tree canopy or running my hands along the bark of my backyard maple tree. I do it by opening the windows and letting the birdsong in. I do it by expecting to find small miracles in the natural world—and by taking the time to hunt them down. For me, awe sometimes comes as the simple but powerful feeling of this was here all along and I didn’t even notice it! There are still thousands such ‘thises’ in my backyard, waiting to crack open my self-important outer layer, so that I can open my little eyes and reach out my little hands to a world that is so much bigger than me.
What about you? Where do you experience wonder and awe? Have you found ways to bring it into your everyday life?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Lisa Thomas is the nature-lovin' mama of three nature-lovin' boys. In her free time, you'll most likely find her reading, writing, running (it's more of a waddle, really), or rock climbing