It starts with astonishment, then you want to know more: What is it? How does it work? What stories does it tell? Why is it so astonishing? Now you’re not just in wonder of the world, but you wonder about it. You are curious. Week Four’s lecture is about wonder as curiosity.
To be curious about the world is to be interested in it, to give attention to it. To admit you are not an expert who knows everything, but a beginner, who wants to learn new things, or learn old things in new ways. To see the familiar as strange and explore its mysteries. To look to others for help in understanding. To ask questions, imagine possible answers, generate more questions. To want to learn more, but also be willing to let go of a need to know everything. To stay for a while in a space of uncertainty and see what happens.
Lucille Clifton describes this willingness to stay in a space of uncertainty as the foundation for poetry: “it’s not about [answers], it’s about questions. So you come to poetry not out of what you know but out of what you wonder. And everyone wonders something differently and at different times.”
Mary Oliver suggests it could be a life goal: “Still, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled – to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world. I want to believe I am looking into the white fire of a great mystery.”
And, Aimee Nezhukumatathil (neh-ZOO / KOO-mah / tah-TILL), argues that it offers a way for us to connect with the world and each other: “What if we wrote about what we wondered, no matter our age or our education? What if we allowed ourselves to admit we don’t have all the answers, that we depend on someone else’s experience and knowledge? A humbling of ourselves. What if we shared the abundance of what we wondered about, what we’re curious about? This reminds us that we’re all interconnected. We need each other to help us grow in our understanding of each other. Because when you make wonder a habit, you feel less alone.”
question: What do you wonder about?
Being outside and in motion is an excellent chance to be curious about the world. Moving opens us up and makes us more able to wander with our thoughts, to be creative, imaginative, willing to explore all sorts of answers without settling on just one. While we’re moving, it’s harder to look things up and find “the ANSWER” — if one answer is even possible, or if the answer you find online is accurate or trustworthy. Instead, we can remain in a state of mystery and possibility. And, when you’re outside, even if it’s a space you regularly move through, there’s so much to wonder about! So many strange and marvelous things happening! So many stories we haven’t yet heard! So many ways to connect with the world!
In the video, “Gifts of the Land,” Robin Wall Kimmerer offers a guided nature tour of Clark Reservation State Park in Jamesville, NY. She says: “A place like this is really an opportunity to listen to the land and to really slow down and watch and engage with the life unfolding around you.”
As she walks through the woods, she finds stories everywhere, like the small evergreen patch on the ground, the nuts in a tree, or the many mosses on a limestone ledge:
One of the reasons I love to bring my students here are these beautiful mossy ledges. All of this limestone was scraped bare by a glacier and without any soil on it, for the most part, the rooted plants can’t grow. So then it makes these gorgeous habitats for all of the mosses. And you might at first just look around and say, okay, there’s a green carpet on the rocks. But when your eye starts to become attuned and you use all of your senses, you realize there’s no such thing as just moss. It’s mosses. There’s all these different kinds of moss. The thousand shades of green: the bright lime green, and the rusty orange green, and the brown-y green, the bright grass green, the shiny ones, the dull ones, and every one of them is a different species. And it starts to just draw you in closer and closer to see how they live their lives.”
Her discussion of moss, which she wrote a book about, reminds me of a beautiful poem by Jane Hirshfield. While this poem isn’t about moss, but lichen, it speaks to how wonder, especially of those nearly invisible, unnoticed things, can expand our understanding and transform us:
Back then, what did I know?
The names of subway lines, busses.
How long it took to walk 20 blocks.
Uptown and downtown.
Not north, not south, not you.
When I saw you, later, seaweed reefed in the air,
you were grey-green, incomprehensible, old.
What you clung to, hung from: old.
Trees looking half-dead, stones.
Marriage of fungi and algae,
chemists of air,
changers of nitrogen-unusable into nitrogen-usable.
Like those nameless ones
who kept painting, shaping, engraving,
unseen, unread, unremembered.
Not caring if they were no good, if they were past it.
Rock wools, water fans, earth scale, mouse ears, dust,
Transformers unvalued, uncounted.
Cell by cell, word by word, making a world they could live in.
Almost every time I go out for a run or a walk on the trail that I’ve traveled on for thousands of miles, I come up with new questions about the river, or the birds, the trees, the histories of the land, the people who frequent the trails, the sounds, the smells, the textures. Here’s a list of a few of them:
List: More than 10 Things I’ve Wondered About While Running Beside the Gorge
- Why are cicadas so loud, and how long do they live?
- What’s is in the dirt that I travel over when I run on a dirt trail?
- Why do trees grow through other objects, and what’s that process called?
- What are the different layers of rock in the gorge?
- What happened to bridal veil falls?
- How was the Mississippi River Gorge created and how long did it take?
- What are the names of the boats that rowers use? What are the names of the rowing positions in a boat?
- Why did this tree fall? How loud was the crack when it hit the ground? Did they hear it across the neighborhood?
- Who is the big statue just past the trellis at Minnehaha Falls honoring?
- What is the essence of a “bird,” what bird flies the highest, the longest, the slowest, what bird can’t fly at all?
- Why do gnats fly into the whites of my eyes?
- Why do birds circle the sky?
- Why do some trees have holes that look like eyes, and what are those eyes called?
- Who is Winchell and why is there a trail named after them?
- How long does it take asphalt to crumble, and what is the asphalt on this part of the trail made from?
- What is that paved path below me on the east side of the river, and where does it go?
- How did the Mississippi River Gorge become part of the National Park System?
- Why is it that when I see one glove, forgotten on the trail, it’s always black?
- Why do I love shadows so much?
- Why is being able to see the other side so important to me?
I’ve written about these questions in my running log. Some of them appear in only one log entry, others I return to again and again for several days or months, or even years. All of them are part of what the runner/teacher/poet Thomas Gardnerdescribes as an ongoing conversation with the landscape and myself. This ongoing conversation has enabled me to develop a relationship with/to a place. To learn more about it, and to learn from it.
Sometimes my curiosity is about finding specific answers and sometimes it’s just about gesturing towards other possibilities. Always, it’s about opening the door to attention in order both to learn from the world and connect to it. Here are 3 different ways I practice my curiosity when I’m moving and outside:
one: When I’m curious about something I’ve encountered, I try looking it up online after I return from my run or walk. The internet gets a lot of well-deserved criticism, but it isn’t all bad — it isn’t all distraction or misinformation or the only reason we feel disconnected or alone. There’s an abundance of sites that can help fuel and sharpen your curiosity. Online journals with amazing lyric essays about rocks or fossils or fungi (some of my recent interests). Regional Park sites that can help you figure out the difference between a brook, a stream, a creek, and a river. And online education centers that can help you identify that 2 note birdsong that you’ve been hearing forever. These sites can lead to more wonder and better questions.
two: I spend some time speculating, then I return to the place/the thing that the question is about and try to find an answer. Here’s a recent example. Reading up on the north entrance of the Winchell Trail, which I run above on my regular route, I read something that mentioned a boulder with a plaque dedicated to the geologist Newton Horace Winchell near that entrance. But, where was this plaque? The article seemed vague and I had never noticed a plague in my hundred (or more?) runs near this trail. In my next run, I searched for it, and there it was, right before you reach the Franklin Bridge. How many times had I run past this plaque and ignored it? Now I notice it (almost) every time. And, I’ve started to notice more of the signs and markers and info kiosks that tell some of the history of the place I run through.
three: Not all of my wondering involves specific questions to be answered. Sometimes I notice something and wonder how others have noticed this same thing and written about it. I like to look the wonder up on a poetry site, like Poetry Foundation, and find a poem that features it. After reading the poem several times, and making note of words and images I especially like, I post it as part of my log entry. This practice has become such a habit that it’s a regular feature of my log. I return to these poems to reread them and/or do fun poetry experiments with them.
If you are out of practice with curiosity, you might feel a bit overwhelmed in the beginning. Aimee Nezhukumatathil has some advice.
Find its Name.
“Start small. Find something you are utterly besotted with from the outdoors. Something that you love. Find out its name. Learn everything you can about it. Once you have named it, it’s hard to not want to fight for it.”
Find something you love — anything, Aimee Nezhukumatathil starts with a firefly — then find its name. In the last part of this lecture, I’ll explore some ideas around the value of getting to know the world by learning the names of the various creatures that inhabit it. First, I’ll read a few passages on the importance of names, then I’ll recite a few poems that are about naming.
These poems and passages aren’t all in agreement about what it means to name something, or why it’s important. I’m putting them beside each other as a way to end this lecture with curiosity and more questions: what does it mean to have a name? who does the naming? what does naming do to a sense of mystery and wonder?
from Robin Wall Kimmerer: Knowing the name is a form of respect.
Deep attention calls us inevitably into deep relationship, as information and energy are exchanged between the observer and the observed, and neither partner in the exchange can be anonymous. They are known; they have names. There was a time, not so long ago, when to be human meant knowing the names of the beings with whom we cohabit the world. Knowing a name is the way we humans build relationship. It is a sign of respect to call a being by its name, and a sign of disrespect to ignore it.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil: What is lost when you grow up not knowing the names of fireflies?
What is lost when you grow up not knowing the names for different varieties of fireflies? When you don’t have these words ready to pop on your tongue: Shadow Ghost, Sidewinder, the Florida Sprite, Mr. Mac, Little Gray, Murky Flash-train, the Texas Tinies, the Single Snappy, the Treetop Flashers, a July Comet, the Tropic Traveler, Christmas Lights, a Slow Blue, a Tiny Lucy, the mischievous Marsh Imp, the Sneaky Elves, and — in a tie for my personal favorites — the Heebie Jeebies and the Wiggle Dancer?
J Drew Lanham: The birds know who they are. They don’t you need to tell them.
There’s no shame in not knowing the name of a bird. If it’s a redbird to you, it’s a redbird to you. At some point, as a scientist, it’s important for me to be able to identify birds by accepted common names and Latin names and those things. But then I revert frequently to what my grandmother taught me, because, I say, the birds know who they are. They don’t need you to tell them that.
But over time, when we relax into a thing and maybe just being with a bird, then your brain kind of relaxes, it loosens, and things soak in. And I think that’s the key with a lot of learning. But not getting the name right immediately does not in any way diminish their ability to appreciate “the pretty,” as Aldo Leopold talks about. And so seeing that bird and saying, “Oh my God, what is that? Look at it,” and you’re looking at it, and you can see all of these hues, and you can watch its behavior, and you may hear it sing — well, in that moment, it’s a beautiful thing, no matter what its name is.
Sometimes, what I try to get people to do is to disconnect for a moment from that absolute need to list and name, and just see the bird. Just see that bird. And you begin to absorb it, in a way, in a part of your brain that I don’t know the name of, but I think it’s a part of your brain that’s also got some heart in it. And then, guess what? The name, when you do learn it, it sticks in a different way.”
Goldenrod/ Maggie Smith
Goldenrod/ Maggie Smith
I’m no botanist. If you’re the color of sulfur
and growing at the roadside, you’re goldenrod.
You don’t care what I call you, whatever
you were born as. You don’t know your own name.
But driving near Peoria, the sky pink-orange,
the sun bobbing at the horizon, I see everything
is what it is, exactly, in spite of the words I use:
black cows, barns falling in on themselves, you.
Dear flowers born with a highway view,
forgive me if I’ve mistaken you. Goldenrod,
whatever your name is, you are with your own kind.
Look–the meadow is a mirror, full of you,
your reflection repeating. Whatever you are,
I see you, wild yellow, and I would let you name me.
Forsythia/ Ada Limón
At the cabin in Snug Hollow near McSwain Branch creek, just spring, all the animals are out, and my beloved and I are lying in bed in a soft silence. We are talking about how we carry so many people with us wherever we go, how even simple living, these unearned moments, are a tribute to the dead. We are both expecting to hear an owl as the night deepens. All afternoon, from the porch, we watched an eastern towhee furiously build her nest in the wild forsythia with its yellow spilling out into the horizon. I told him that the way I remember the name forsythia is that when my stepmother, Cynthia, was dying, that last week, she said lucidly but mysteriously, More yellow. And I thought yes, more yellow, and nodded because I agreed. Of course, more yellow. And so now in my head, when I see that yellow tangle, I say, For Cynthia, for Cynthia, forsythia, forsythia, more yellow. It is night now. And the owl never comes, only more of night and what repeats in the night.
Naming the Heartbeats/ Aimee Nezhukumatathil
I’ve become the person who says Darling, who says Sugarpie,
Honeybunch, Snugglebear—and that’s just for my children.
What I call my husband is unprintable. You’re welcome. I am
his sweetheart, and finally, finally—I answer to his call and his
alone. Animals are named for people, places, or perhaps a little
Latin. Plants invite names for colors or plant-parts. When you
get a group of heartbeats together you get names that call out
into the evening’s first radiance of planets: a quiver of cobras,
a maelstrom of salamanders, an audience of squid, or an ostentation
of peacocks. But what is it called when creatures on this earth curl
and sleep, when shadows of moons we don’t yet know brush across
our faces? And what is the name for the movement we make when
we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying
to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams.
And, finally: Group Think: New Names for Plural Birds. This poem is a great example of how poetry can help you exercise your curiosity. When I first read this poem, I had to look up a lot of birds and bird terms to understand it!
GROUP THINK: NEW NAMES FOR PLURAL BIRDS/ J. Drew Lanham
A Hemorrhage of cardinals
red-staining the backyard
A Consideration, Council
or Congress of crows;
call them anything but murderers, please.
A Whir of hummingbirds
A Riff (or Mood) of any bird that’s blue
A Thicket of sparrows
A Mine of goldfinches
A Skulk of thrashers
A Cuddle of chickadees. (Cute is a definite field mark.)
A Thuggery of jaegers (yay-gers)
A Piracy of skuas (skyoo ah)
A Crucifixion of shrikes
A Mattering of Black birds—
Lives ignored, hated and dissed.
How did darkness become so despised?
A Melody of thrushes
A Palette of painted buntings
An Audacity of wrens—
finding every crevice ever created
and signing loudest about that fact.
A Vomitus of vultures.
A Swarm of flycatchers—
Empidonax “spuh” be damned.
A Tide of shorebirds—
rising more than falling,
wishful thinking on past abundance;
knots, whimbrel, peeps, plovers, curlews
darkening salt marsh skies.
A Privilege of all birds white—
though it’s not their fault
for almost always being given the benefit of doubt or being
mostly respected; usually liked.
An Immigration of starlings,
loved to tears in distant murmuration
but deplored to legalized killing on the street.
Deprived of breath without penalty or cause.
A Herd of cowbirds. Given the gift of never parenting.
A Flurry of snowbirds;
juncos my grandmother claimed she pitied
and threw them handfuls of grits.
A Wandering of warblers
An Envy or swallow-tailed kites
A Front of waterfowl
—forecasting gray winter days to come.
A Cache of nuthatches
A Wheeze of gnatcatchers
A Throne of kinglets (or court if you please).
A Missing of Carolina parakeets,
too smart for their own good.
An Echo of passenger pigeons
—billions dwindled to none.
A Memory of ivory-bills
in praise of the Great Lord God
maybe not all gone.
An Inclusion of mixed migratory flocks,
hopefully integrated by choice
and not forced to co-mingle
in whatever gulfs they must cross.
Wondering what they would call themselves?
if there is disagreement over plumage color, wing bar width,
leg hue, call tone or habitat of origin?
How would they name us? Would the tables turn?
Am I a greater Southern Black-backed two-legged thing?
You perhaps a common White-fronted human being?
Someone else named after a passerine of respectable fame
or raptor of murderous infamy?
Here in gratitude of everyone there ever was—
Whatever the name.
A Love of birds. My collective label.
In ending this lecture, I’ll leave with you these questions:
question: Aimee Nezhukumatathil advises us to start small and see where it leads us. What will you wonder about today and where could it lead you?