“Awe is the moment when ego surrenders to wonder.”
By Maria Popova
In his stirring meditation on what makes life worth living, Walt Whitman asked: “After you have exhausted what there is in business, politics, conviviality, love, and so on — have found that none of these finally satisfy, or permanently wear — what remains?” He answered simply: “Nature remains.”
But between Whitman’s day and our own, as we have poured our business and politics onto nature, nature has ceased to be the inexhaustible constant Whitman took it to be. This is what marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson intuited when, a decade before she catalyzed the modern environmental movement, she quit her government job in a grey Washington office not far from where Whitman had once lived and cautioned in a prescient letter as she watched a heedless administration assault nature for commercial gain: “The real wealth of the Nation lies in the resources of the earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, and wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.”
The sanctity of that wealth and the urgency of its stewardship is what Terry Tempest Williams, a Carson of our time, explores from the singular intersection of the personal, the political, and the ecological in The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks (public library) — an elegy, in the proper dual sense of lamentation and celebration, for the wilderness; a lyrical clarion call for reexamining the complex interleafing of our ecological relationships and our responsibilities as politically wakeful citizens and creatures among creatures; an invitation to reckoning and a roadmap to redemption.
Contemplating what draws 300 million visitors a year to America’s national parks, Williams writes:
Perhaps it is not so much what we learn that matters in these moments of awe and wonder, but what we feel in relationship to a world beyond ourselves, even beyond our own species.
Two centuries after Alexander von Humboldt pioneered the notion that the natural world is a web of intricately entwined elements in constant dialogue with one another and asserted that “in this great chain of causes and effects, no single fact can be considered in isolation,” Williams paints these vital and vitalizing preserves of wilderness as a supreme sanctuary of that awareness:
I see our national parks as our ongoing struggle as a diverse people to create circles of reverence in a time of collective cynicism where we are wary of being moved by anything but our own clever perspective… The nature of our national parks is bound to the nature of our own humility, our capacity to stay open and curious in a world that instead beckons closure through fear.[…]
Our national parks are blood. They are more than scenery, they are portals and thresholds of wonder, an open door that swings back and forth from our past to our future.
As Williams visits a dozen of these precious boundary-worlds, as varied as the Gulf Islands seashore, Glacier National Park, and Alcatraz Island, she reflects on them as a kind of observatory for discovering the largest dimensions of existence in the splendid smallnesses that constellate it. From Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, she writes:
To watch spring arrive on the wings of a pair of red-tailed hawks as they circle each other in amorous display is not a small thing, but a source of amazement at how they find their way back to the same nest each year.
To see the yellow fritillaries burst forth after the deep snows of winter and know that the bears are soon to follow is to be attentive to wild nature’s seasonal fugue of infinite composition and succession. The great gray owl sitting on a snag near Sawmill Ponds is not simply a bird but a heightened intelligence with golden eyes behind a mask of feathers.
And yet, as shaped as these wild refuges may be by our intentions and policies, they remain — and must remain — wildly beyond our control. In a sentiment that calls to mind poet Jane Hirshfield’s insistence on the life-expanding value of threshold spaces, Williams writes:
No matter how much we try to manage and manipulate, orchestrate, or regulate our national parks, they will remain as the edge-scapes they are, existing on the boundaries between culture and wildness — improvisational spaces immune to the scripts of anyone. Wildlife in wildlands appear without notice. Awakened is what we become in their presence. Curiosity leads us forward on an unknown path, even if it is a path of well-placed steps made out of pink granite here in Acadia. For a precious moment we touch and taste life uninterrupted. Awe sneaks up on us like love. We surrender to the ecstatic outpouring of life before us.
Photograph by Maria Popova
In consonance with trailblazing Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd’s assertion that “place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” Williams considers the ceaseless dynamic interaction between our interiority and our physical surrounding:
To be situated in place is to be engaged in a reciprocity where survival, both physical and spiritual, depends on our understanding of gestures. I believe necessity drives us to improvisation where improbable and sustaining gestures create moments of grace that take care of us. We continue to evolve and transform who we are in relationship to where we are. We do not live in isolation from the physical world around us. Nature beckons our response. It is in the doing, the being, the becoming that meaning is made. What becomes sacred is the act itself — not what remains. Something inexplicable is set into motion.[…]
Our fate, like the fate of all species, is determined by chance, by circumstance, and by grace.
One of the loveliest aspects of Williams’s prose and her orientation to ecological responsibility is the unflinching critical thinking with which she approaches the subject, at the same time refusing to perpetrate one of the great cultural crimes of our time — the tendency to mistake cynicism, that toxic calcification of the soul, for critical thinking. Her rhetoric is rigorously reasoned and passionately uncynical, precise yet poetic. Writing from Big Bend National Park in Texas, she reminds us that nature itself is our mightiest antidote to cynicism:
Big Bend is no place for cynics. There is too much at stake. A bedrock pragmatism refutes sentimentality through the beauty of the unexpected. What we mistake as sentimental is in fact a generosity, a willingness to stay open and acknowledge the miraculous.
Cynicism flourishes in air-conditioned rooms. Like any true place, the desert is a risk. Back into a barrel cactus and you may get hurt. But touch its yellow flowers with petals like wax and the pain from its needles lessens. Our fear of being touched removes us from a sensate world. The distant self becomes the detached self who no longer believes in anything. Awe is the moment when ego surrenders to wonder. This is our inheritance — the beauty before us. We cry. We cry out. There is nothing sentimental about facing the desert bare. It is a terrifying beauty.
Photograph by Maria Popova
Standing on the Atlantic shoreline of Acadia National Park, Williams echoes the biological and poetic truth Rachel Carson so memorably articulated nearly a century earlier in her pioneering essay on the life of the ocean — “Against this cosmic background the lifespan of a particular plant or animal appears, not as drama complete in itself, but only as a brief interlude in a panorama of endless change.” — and writes:
Each breaking wave, each rush of the sea on the slope of sand, reminds me why these places of pilgrimage matter. They matter to me because in the long view, I do not. I am driftwood. I am rockweed. I am osprey and the mackerel in the clutch of her feet. I am a woman standing on the edge of the continent looking out.
Just as we cope with the disorientation of living in a relative universe by grasping for artificial absolutes — a maladaptive coping mechanism that seems to be a bug of human consciousness — we cope with this awareness of our smallness and finitude by grasping for control and domination of the expansive natural world that lies beyond us. Decades after the theologian Thomas Merton wrote in his fan letter to Rachel Carson we suffer from a civilizational sickness leading us to believe that “in order to ‘survive’ we instinctively destroy that on which our survival depends,” Williams writes:
The irony of our existence is this: We are infinitesimal in the grand scheme of evolution, a tiny organism on Earth. And yet, personally, collectively, we are changing the planet through our voracity, the velocity of our reach, our desires, our ambitions, and our appetites. We multiply, our hunger multiplies, and our insatiable craving accelerates.
Consumption is a progressive disease.
We believe in more, more possessions, more power, more war. Anywhere, everywhere our advance of aggression continues.
My aggression toward myself is the first war.
Wilderness is an antidote to the war within ourselves.
Photograph by Maria Popova
A century and a half after Thoreau celebrated nature as a form of prayer, Williams adds:
How do we find our way back to a world interrelated and interconnected, whose priority is to thrive and evolve? What kind of belief systems are emerging now that reinforce and contribute to a world increasingly disconnected from nature? And what about the belief — my belief — in all that is wild?
I return to the wilderness to remember what I have forgotten, that the world can be wholesome and beautiful, that the harmony and integrity of ecosystems at peace is a mirror to what we have lost.
Williams considers the questions facing us — as individuals, as a nation, as a civilization — and the decisions we are called to make in the name of wholeness, beauty, harmony, and all that makes our Pale Blue Dot such a precious improbability of cosmic chance:
We are at a crossroads. We can continue on the path we have been on, in this nation that privileges profit over people and land; or we can unite as citizens with a common cause — the health and wealth of the Earth that sustains us. If we cannot commit to this kind of fundamental shift in our relationship to people and place, then democracy becomes another myth perpetuated by those in power who care only about themselves.[…]
The time has come for acts of reverence and restraint on behalf of the Earth. We have arrived at the Hour of Land.
The Hour of Land — throughout which Williams maps the frontiers of hope and resistance through the noble work of artists, activists, and other emissaries of Thoreau’s ethos of civil disobedience as a force of justice — is a requisite, electrically rousing read in its entirety. Complement it with the story of Rachel Carson’s culture-shifting courage to speak inconvenient truth to power and Henry Beston — one of Carson’s great heroes and inspirations — on reclaiming our relationship with nature.