17 June 2006

On Wonder: It Is What It Is

A couple of mornings ago, walking with Cocoa on the point, I witnessed a miniature drama at the edge of the bay. It was a brief but wonderful moment—"wonderful" in the original sense of the word—it filled me with wonder. Which then got me thinking about the concept of wonder itself, particularly in connection with nature.

A tiny hermit crab, maybe the size of a large pea, seemed to be trying to hitch a ride on a much larger hermit crab, about as large as a golf ball. But the Big Guy wasn’t having any of it. Little One climbed laboriously up onto Big Guy’s shell then just hung on, breathing heavily, I imagined, with the effort. Then Big Guy took a few steps, noticed something wasn’t right, and reached out a claw and knocked Little One off his back. Little One tucked and rolled, shook himself off, and renewed his assault, climbing once more to that precarious perch on Big Guy’s shell. A few steps, then the avenging claw reached out and shoved him unceremoniously to the sand again. And again—lather, rinse, repeat. On one try, Little One never even made it to the top, but when he was about halfway up, Big Guy simply rolled over, depositing him back on the sand.

Eventually, Little One decided to cut his losses and wandered off in search of another ride, or maybe breakfast. And Big Guy was free to go on his merry way, unaccompanied, a confirmed loner.

Thinking about this little drama reminded me of a Robert Frost poem:


I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth
Like a white piece of rigid satin cloth--
Assorted characters of death and blight
Mixed ready to begin the morning right,
Like the ingredients of a witches' broth--
A snow-drop spider, a flower like a froth,
And dead wings carried like a paper kite.

What had that flower to do with being white,
The wayside blue and innocent heal-all?
What brought the kindred spider to that height,
Then steered the white moth thither in the night?
What but design of darkness to appall?--
If design govern in a thing so small.

Frost is thinking about the question of whether there’s design in nature and, if there is, what its source and purpose are: is there some “design of darkness” meant to “appall”; or are there simply coincidences, and no design at work at all? A third possibility is not explicitly articulated by the poem’s speaker, but implied by the three white “players”: the spider, the moth, and the white flower (heal-all flowers, by the way, are usually blue, and only rarely white). White creatures in nature would be drawn to a white flower for the defense of camouflage, and in this sense, there is some kind of design at work, though it’s not a design of darkness to appall, but the innate will of all creatures to live and protect themselves from harm. That this defense here doesn’t quite work out for the moth, but does for the spider, while the flower behaves as part innocent bystander and part unknowing accomplice, is simply the way things sometimes happen, just as heal-all flowers are sometimes white rather than the customary blue. So the poem suggests that some kind of design does govern in things so small (and therefore in all things), but it's rather inherent design than design imposed from without, from beyond the natural creatures themselves. The spider, moth, and flower live according to their inborn tendencies and their will to thrive and flourish. No other design is necessary.

To put it another way, I offer a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

To “behold/Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”—this is often difficult for the close observer of nature, especially if she has strong religious training or poetic tendencies. And of course there’s nothing wrong with observing a spider holding a dead moth, or two hermit crabs on a beach, or a stand of ice-laden trees and making the leap from that observation to philosophical, even mystical, thoughts. But we ought to always remember the primacy of the initial event, that it is what it is—the spider about to consume the moth, the hermit crabs agreeing to disagree, the icy tree waiting for spring—and has its own import to itself and its surroundings, regardless of whatever significance we wish to assign it.

And that brings me back to the idea of wonder in nature. We often find wonder in nature only by finding some extended meaning in it, some proof of our own greatness (or smallness), some evidence of the truth of our cosmologies. But we need to occasionally stop and notice that there is much wonder in the world as it is, without our having to interpret it always as some reflection of ourselves.


Blogger faery-wings said...

That was very deep and enjoyable to read. I like the way you expressed yur thoughts. TFS!

12:53 PM  
Blogger Laura Lou said...

Oh my! I would LOVE to have you come and sit with me in my Garden ROom for a while. There are so many little bird, squirrel, and rabbit dramas! You could find some poems for my garden stories, I am sure. I will have to think about going that direction. For now I just think about Robert Lawson's Rabbit Hill.

6:01 PM  
Blogger Tink said...

Lovely post. Excellent expressive writing.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Karen said...

Great post Judy. I agree that we need to remind ourselves that it doesn't all exist for our benefit. Nature is what it is.
And if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, yes it does make a noise!

9:53 PM  

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