Restoring a Sense of Wonder

3,123 total words    

12 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: "Northern Parula" by Chrissy McClarren & Andy Reago

One hot and humid summer day, my partner Andy and I drove up alongside a large pond at a local bird preserve, got out, and set up our spotting scope. We gazed eagerly at the Least Terns and their boisterous youngsters flying about a small barge that had been created to sit in the middle of the pond and give these endangered terns somewhere to breed and a chance at life. Each time I set eyes on a young one, I gushed to Andy, “There’s another baby!” 

As I continued to watch and gush, I noticed out of my peripheral vision a very large insect flying in my direction. The insect landed on our car, which was directly behind me. Curious, I turned and discovered the largest, most decorous long-horned beetle I’d ever seen. Grabbing my reading glasses out of my cargo pants pocket, I moved closer, only a foot away from this checkered black and gray beauty. 

“Andy,” I blurted, “you have to come see the most f’in awesome long-horned beetle ever!”

Andy, busy photographing the terns, didn’t immediately respond, so I said, “Now! You gotta come now!” 

“Okay, okay!” he said, rushing over, drawn to the urgency in my voice. Since our love affair with the wild first began in 2009, this had become our way of being with each other—gushing and sharing. 

“Wow!” he exclaimed and took a photo. A split second later, the beetle flew slowly upward, hovered and flew horizontally, then carefully descended to some rocks nearby. We followed, still under his spell. Andy took more photos as the beetle explored the rocks and then he took flight again, landing this time on Andy’s crotch. Andy remained calm. A second later, the beetle flew a short distance and landed on my sleeve, crawling up toward my shoulders. I waited to see what he’d do. He suddenly soared off as quickly as he’d arrived. 

Photo credit: Chrissy McClarren & Andy Reago

Andy and I stood awestruck. If this had happened ten years ago, we both knew we’d have probably freaked out, screamed, and looked for something to swat the “pest” away with. Instead, thanks to our love affair with the wild, we knew right away this was a species of longhorn beetle and nothing to be alarmed about. This knowledge allowed us to cherish and be present for this marvelous encounter—and receive, once again, the gift of living a life with our sense of wonder restored.

*     *     *     *

As a child, I’d grown up cut off from nature, aka the wild, in the city of St. Louis. I played outdoors as a little kid on Pennsylvania Ave, but my outdoors was made up mostly of mowed green lawns, asphalt, and concrete, with a few trees sprinkled here and there, and the huge Mississippi River, only a block away, obscured by numerous industrial polluters. Our front yard had a large locust tree, which hinted at mysteries when I found a cicada shell upon its trunk. Otherwise, animals were things in cages at the zoo. 

Insects were things to be scared of, like the wasp that stung me while I played on the swings. Birds were what sang in the early mornings when I couldn’t sleep, mysterious but off limits. I learned that nature was something to fear, to kill, to control, to be used for entertainment. Rachel Carson once wrote in The Sense of Wonder, “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” I had no such companion as a child, nor most of my adult life. Carson also wrote, “If I 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 boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things artificial, the alienation from our sources of strength.” I had no such good fairy, no such intact sense of wonder, except that which I garnered through voracious reading and the occasional visit from Santa or the Easter Bunny. 

As a young and then middle-aged adult, things did not fare any better for me and my sense of wonder. I had a few profound encounters, but these were exceptional experiences. Or so I thought then. It was as if my eyes opened for a few moments but then shut again for years at a time—busy with human-centered activity, the only kind I was familiar with. I was tragically ignorant of the wild all around me. 

Even though I worked for environmental organizations at various points, and started some of my own, I still I had no idea just how impoverished my life and my imagination really was during my 30s. I knew that the first and most primal form of oppression humans suffer is being cut off from the source of where they unfolded, the marvelous matrix of the wild, but it had never occurred to me to attempt to restore that relationship, let alone how. I was one of those imaginative sorts who didn’t need to see all the species dying to be devastated, but my experiences were ones of abstraction. Everything seemed at a great distance, out of reach, gone, or worse, dead. I’d never heard of field guides, oddly enough. I hadn’t even watched a nature documentary outside of those about the horrors of factory farming, which is a far cry from “nature.” I’d always heard that the wild was full of unbounded beauty, had even seen a little of it, yet I’d never immersed myself in it. It never even occurred to me to do so. 

It wasn’t until I was 44 years old that the miracle of the restoration of my sense of wonder occurred. (Even now, I shudder when I think of all that I could have missed in my life, had this miracle not occurred.) Upon reflection, I see now that a unique set of circumstances converged to make this possible. 

*     *     *     *

In the first few months of 2009, three things happened simultaneously. Andy and I came through the first harrowing twenty years of our relationship into a sort of wedded bliss usually reserved for romance novels. I will only say this: I had an addiction the first twenty years of our relationship that I finally gave up cold turkey. This changed everything between us. I was lucky he stayed by my side. Most partners would have left long before. Our years since have been ones of intense depth, love, and closeness. Second, I left behind 25 years of activism around peace, justice, and sustainability. The burnout had set in so severely by 2009 that I wanted to give up on life. Despite my training in despair and empowerment work, human brutality had come to be all I knew. I was walking around traumatized and shell-shocked. I had to do something, and I knew that something was nothing. A friend and mentor, John Seed, co-author of the book Thinking Like a Mountain, taught me long ago that sometimes you need to wait for a new calling when you find your spirit withering—sometimes for years—and in the meantime: do nothing. So thirdly, I chose to stop filling up my days with activity and leave my life completely open. This was only possible due to Andy’s financial support and a huge leap of faith on my part. Giving up all work, volunteer commitments, and many toxic relationships, my days became blank slates, invitations for something totally new to enter. And so it did. 

One spring morning, my mother called me on the phone. “Chris, my friend Judy called and told me about an owl family in Tower Grove Park. Let’s go see them!”

Owls? You can just go see owls? In the city? Wild and free? We ventured off together to be in the presence of owls surviving and raising young in the middle of a bustling urban park. These majestic wild beings were alive and well and potent. I fell madly in love. 

I returned day after day, keeping a respectful distance. Gazing at the parents, so large and still and patient as they spent hours sitting in a tree all day, waiting for night, I watched them go off, hunt, and return to feed their voracious young. I was mesmerized. I lost myself in them and found myself in them at the same time. I am not a religious person, but I am deeply spiritual and have gleaned much over the years from spiritual wisdom, one thing being that often when we find our attention riveted on the divine, on beauty, on the marvelous, or on the wondrous—something that captivates us so much that we forget ourselves—space opens up inside for a kind of peace to enter. This happened as I gazed up at Mama Owl in the pine tree. 

Breathtaking is a perfect word, but quickly that gave way to feeling like I could breathe more deeply and calmly than ever before. Their presence, their eyes—deep and penetrating, fierce, yet gentle when closed—their powerful talons, the layers of feathers that could suddenly expand and make them appear twice their size, their silent wings, their serenity, their slow breathing, their awareness of me, all this brought me present, touched me with that thing only mystery seems capable of, if we are fortunate: excitement that the cosmos that created this awesome being created me, too. 

Photo credit: Chrissy McClarren & Andy Reago

I came back day after day that early spring, like other owl worshippers, who casually mentioned things about other birds: hawks having young, spring migration, and how many of the migrating birds liked to gather nearby for water and rest in a spot in Tower Grove Park called Gaddy Garden, where a bubbler (water fountain) provided bathing and sustenance for their journeys. I began to take breaks from watching the young owls and their parents and sat on a bench in front of this bubbler, where I was wowed over and over again as I noticed so many different birds—some big, some tiny, some fantastically colored, and some super cryptic. This was a whole new world of magnificence. I followed many of them out of the little sanctuary into the fields nearby where there were even more birds in the trees. They were everywhere! I began spending hours every day wandering the entire park, following songs, following movement, my eyes dazzled, my ears abuzz. At home, I’d sometimes look them up in the first field guide I’d finally bought, The Sibley Guide to Birds. I fell in love with every bird I met and everything they did. Their world, my world, was all new. I swooned to kinglets, warblers, tanagers, and grosbeaks—the list goes on and on. A love affair had begun and was expanding exponentially inside me, even as it had always been there outside me. Andy eventually came with me and found himself equally enraptured. We became joined in this affair. 

*     *     *     *

Giving my life over to the birds, I let them lead me into the entire world of the wild. Dragonflies zipped past. Trees came alive, their leaves and limbs dancing in the breeze. The moon was out during the day and peeking at me! There were tiny flowers under my feet, hidden in the grass. A skunk peered out of a drainpipe. I felt seasonal changes more keenly, as I did changes in the weather. The birds were eating all kinds of interesting lifeforms, such as caterpillars, moths, beetles, katydids, berries, and seeds of plants I’d never noticed before.

I expanded beyond my backyard and city parks. Bitterns and egrets led me to wetlands; bobolinks and upland sandpipers drew me to tallgrass prairies; pileated woodpeckers and winter wrens tempted me to hike through forests; cormorants and pelicans restored my faith in rivers; sandpipers and terns had me entranced by mudflats; gulls and geese turned my gaze to lakes. The night came alive as well. I discovered the moths that birds were eating by day came out after dark, and I sought their company, too. The entire Earth was opening herself to me, as I opened myself to her. Something was healing inside me; I was restoring my sense of wonder. I began to live life in the way Abraham Heschel extolled: “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement—get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible. Never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” 

Photo credit: Chrissy McClarren & Andy Reago

But there was guilt and confusion, too, in living this way. I’d lived with low self-worth and self-loathing for years. I’d never allowed myself much time to “dilly-dally,” believing others might disparage my activities, particularly if “dilly-dallying” became my way of life. I had internalized the oppressive idea that my life had to be productive or useful or meaningful to the dominant culture in some way to stay safe. On top of that, as a woman, I’d internalized the sexist notion that I was supposed to be self-sacrificing. Wasn’t this new life of mine selfish? Activists would have frowned upon this, I was sure, as they would see it as serving no cause. At times, it felt terribly hard for me to give my life over to this calling, to keep trusting some inner knowing, but the calling was strong and I was determined. The gifts of the birds were unfathomable; the gift of living life in “radical amazement” astounding. Dare I be joyous? Dare I live a life of rejoicing? I had a hard enough time giving myself small gifts, let alone something the size of infinity. 

Doubt crept in every time someone asked me seemingly simple, innocuous questions, like “What do you do for living?” or “What did you do today?” I was afraid to tell them the truth and unsure myself what I was doing in the beginning. I was trusting a hunch, an instinct, my intuition, following what inspired me, following what felt right, what made me want to get up in the morning, what freed me, what kept me feeling spectacularly alive! It seemed subversive and surreal, as though I was defying every rule in my head about how I was supposed to live. 

*     *     *     *

It wasn’t until some years into what I was doing that I realized I was walking around restoring my sense of wonder and that this had become a return “home”—not just for me but for Andy as well. A wild return. I didn’t know I’d hungered for this, or even missed having a “home,” until I found it. I’d often respond to those innocuous questions with “Oh, I’m working on a book” or “I’m collecting data” to justify myself. I did write articles, draw, collect data, share what I was discovering with others. Andy had started taking photographs at some point as his way of sharing his joy—and I became his editor, putting the photos out into the world, free of copyright—but this still did not feel right in regards to describing what I was really doing. This was not a pastime or hobby. It was a calling, a sacred pilgrimage and hermitage all wrapped up in one.  

I’d gaze lovingly at a Northern Parula—all tiny and lush with blues, turquoises, whites, yellows, olives, blacks, exquisitely layered feathers—whose eyes would gaze my way on occasion, too, full of innocence, hunger, curiosity and vibrancy; a tiny little fairy, flitting here and there, along with others. The world of my childhood fairy tales had come alive, magic indeed real and every tiny magician a revelation, every flutter my salvation. How could I explain this?

As I watched a Black and White Warbler search the crevices of bark and suddenly pull out a moth to eat, I was full of joy and surprise, a joy that this little one was finding food to eat, a joy in the skill, the particular movement of this particular bird, joy in the existence of moths, joy in the bark, joy in my noticing what I’d never noticed before, my attention engaged, thrilling to each and every wild being, every wild action. This drama was my drama, the drama of the cosmos. As a human being, I’d unfolded alongside these beings, out of these beings. I was a wild thing, of this wild world. And here was the wild still alive, very much alive—and bringing me back to life. Again, how could I explain this?

I’d become a celebrant—and so had my partner. 

And we continue to live our lives that way to this day, as the wild beckons us to rise up in the morning, alive and joyous and grateful, to come commune, come what may, all in this together. How had we ever lived without this?

Photo credit: Chrissy McClarren & Andy Reago

One particular day when the doubts about this new way I’d chosen to live pounded away inside my head, I sat very still on a bench in front of a little spit of water at Carondelet Park, journaling without making much movement, so as not to frighten any birds that might come near. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a Hermit Thrush walking towards me. Then I noticed another coming, and another, until I was surrounded by a group of six, all within a foot or two of me, comfortable, bathing, drinking, being. Hermit Thrushes are not flashy birds, but they have a way of moving slowly and sometimes giving you a nod with their tail—a very slow, deliberate nod, an up-and-down rise and fall. A sort of whispered, “Yes.” 

Some may say this is simply a habit of balancing themselves. I prefer to believe they were validating me that day, all six whispering, “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” “Yes.” Until I heard them. 

Most of the time, we humans don’t really know why most wild things do what they do. I choose to take my cue from the humble Hermit Thrush and quietly go about my way now, saying “Yes” to the wild, “Yes” to my calling, “Yes” to wild me, accepting that I may not ever have more of an answer for others about my choices than that I, too, am part of an infinite mystery. I find comfort and solace in that. At this point, I have restored both the things Rachel Carson wished for us humans—an indestructible sense of wonder and the companionship to keep it alive. And like her, I wish this for us all. May you, too, find yourself answering the call of the wild.

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