The path began on packed, dun-colored soil leading into a grove of eucalyptus trees, winding along the edge of a suburban development and then into a narrow ravine. As we hiked, we looked into the trees and occasionally spotted a bit of fluttery motion up in the highest branches.
But it wasn’t until we reached a kind of glen at the center of the grove on the edge of the ravine and sat quietly on the trunk of a fallen tree that we really began to see them. Clustered on branches and flitting lazily between them, hundreds of Monarch butterflies came into view. They were soundless as they dived and soared or simply perched in the cool shade of the massive trees, redolent with their primal perfume.
Debbie and I had spotted the Coronado Butterfly Preserve, just north of Santa Barbara, California, one of the largest wintering sites for Monarchs on the west coast, in our guidebook, but we had no idea what to expect. What we found was somehow both less and more than what we expected.
We had watched those nature specials on TV about the Monarch wintering sites in Mexico where millions of butterflies coat the branches of trees, and experienced butterfly exhibits at museums where dozens of butterflies dance in the air around you and even land on your clothes.
This was nothing like either of those. The butterflies, to be honest, had no interest in us at all, and their numbers were far from overwhelming. And yet, I found I wanted to hold my breath, not quiet believing I was seeing what I saw.
In fact, I think that the fact that this spectacle hadn’t been ginned up for our benefit – other than the town choosing to preserve the space and blaze a trail into it – added to its magic. The human impulse to wonder, we know, is easily tripped. Entertainers across the ages have perfected many ways of making that happen, and we play along. It feels good to experience a “Wow!” every now and then.
But we also learn to calibrate our responses when that impulse is stirred. In the movie theater, the chase scenes and special effects may make our blood race, but in the end we know we’re being manipulated. We’re careful, though, because there is something credulous in our impulse to wonder, something in us that unconsciously wants to believe what we have just seen.
Parents often are surprised to find that a film they remember as heart-warming and fun contains a scene that strikes terror in their child. I, too, have learned to avoid certain kinds of films that I feel are likely to contain images that I would just as soon not have imprinted on my memory.
But in our increasingly visual culture we seem to be going the other way – with more and more graphic and heart-racing images being thrust into our field of view. Some people seek shelter from this assault on the senses, while others increasingly seek it out, finding in the stimulation a way of enlivening the dull routine of day to day. Whatever our response, it takes its toll on our impulse to wonder, something our culture teaches us either to distrust or exploit.
So, into this maelstrom comes Mary Oliver with her musings on a summer day. She begins her poem with these questions – “Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear, and the grasshopper?” These are the questions not of catechism with foreordained answers but of credulous wonder. They are open and opening – they set the mind meandering – and they are specific, at least the last one, because it is addressed with an eye to the grasshopper that Oliver has lured into her hand with a few grains of sugar, the one who – Look at that! – is moving her jaws back and forth, instead of up and down, the way that we do. I wonder why that is. And, huh! It has these enormous and complicated eyes. I wonder what that must be like. And then, those pale legs that so thoroughly wash its face, and wings that, zzt! carry it away.
She says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” but then she goes on to offer a suggestion – strolling through the fields, falling down into grass, lying idly, and paying attention.
Jeffrey Lockwood knows a bit about grasshoppers. A member of a UU congregation in Laramie, Wyoming, he is also an entomologist – expert on insects – at the University of Wyoming. In his book, Grasshopper Dreaming, he notes that grasshoppers are a topic of great interest for the farmers of the west, primarily because they want to kill them. Grasshoppers, after all, can decimate crops.
So, Lockwood tells of a project he undertook shortly after arriving at the University of Wyoming to learn more about how grasshoppers behave.
His strategy was not very different from Mary Oliver’s: he sat in a short-grass prairie not far from Laramie and simply videotaped a particular species of grasshopper – and not just on a summer afternoon, but for hundreds of hours from June through September. As you might imagine, spending that much time with grasshoppers gave him a keen insight into how they spend their time – their behaviors, their interactions. In the scientific paper he wrote afterward, he was able to conclude categorically that the main thing that grasshoppers do each day is – nothing! That’s right – nothing!
For 43 minutes out of every hour, Lockwood found, grasshoppers did not appear to be “doing” anything. They simply sat there – perhaps taking in the scenery, perhaps digesting their food, perhaps in Zen meditation – who knows! In his paper, he called this “resting.
This, of course, makes no sense under our present day theories of ecology. After all, he said, he discovered that the daily mortality rate of these insects was 2%. That means that only about a third of those born in the spring will survive to reproduce as adults. Wait a minute. Isn’t survival supposed to be the prime instinct? What are they doing just sitting around? Shouldn’t they get at it: you know, eating, mating . . . whatever? Time’s a’wastin’! But, no. As Lockwood puts it, “grasshoppers are incredibly blasé about reproduction or feeding.” No big fight for survival. Hey, chill, dude!
Where Lockwood goes with this is not to rewrite Aesop’s fable – maybe the grasshopper had it right over the ant to begin with – but to invite the move to wonder. In looking over the landscape, we humans can become so intoxicated with our ability to define and describe that we can fail to acknowledge how much mystery and randomness surrounds our lives. As he puts it, “unable to manifest humility or reverence, we conquer the void by dint of language and faith.”
Lockwood explains this by pointing to our proclivity to assign names to things. As in Genesis when God invites Adam to name the creatures he has made, we fit what we experience into a framework we create, which enables us to explain it. This certainly has some utility, but we fool ourselves if we miss the circularity of that process and what it leaves out.
Like Meg Barnhouse’s uncle, in our reading, who assigned the hand of Providence to every event, we can tie ourselves into knots when we insist on jamming all that we experience into a box of our own creation. The fact remains that every explanation we make is limited by the information we have and the imagination we can bring to the task – both of which are always finite and incomplete. In the end, most of us learn to hold our conclusions lightly, aware, even expecting that they will be adjusted if not contradicted in time.
I have always felt that Isaac Newton made this point best. “To myself,” he said, “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
It occurs to me now that Newton’s observation really is not a lament of all he hasn’t uncovered but a declaration of wonder at the beauty and mystery of the world. Jeff Lockwood, too, finds a great sea of wonder in the resting grasshopper, remembering, as he puts it, that in the great scheme of things, the grasshopper exists for no particular purpose. It just is, he says, “and that’s enough.”
So Mary Oliver would say, and so I found myself saying about the Monarch butterflies tracing loopy flights over my head. The sun at high noon, the stars in dark space, from the hymn we sang earlier: they exist for no purpose. They simply are. The glad joys that heal, the tears in our eyes, the longings we feel, the light of surprise – they exist for no purpose, but to enliven us, to awaken us.
I have been intrigued in the last year or so to follow the emergence of a group that has chosen to promote wonder as one of its founding principles. The Sunday Assembly, which describes itself as “a global movement of wonder and good,” has been gathering what it calls “godless congregations” mostly in Britain and the U.S.
The group was started by a pair of British comedians, and it convenes what they call Sunday “events” that include talks and music that, they say, “celebrate life” and seek to “make the world a better place.” Their motto: live better, help often, wonder more.
The group’s debt to Unitarian Universalism is easy to see – we’ve been using the phrase “celebration of life” to describe worship since the 1950s – though they also offer the twist, at least when its founders are leading, of merging worship with improv together with pop songs. It’s a fascinating thing to watch.
I’m not especially concerned with The Sunday Assembly as a potential competitor – organizing congregations, its founders will discover, is challenging work whatever your grounding. But they do have some interesting ideas and perhaps a few things to teach us, so let a thousand flowers bloom!
Beyond that, though, I appreciate how they are joining us in holding up wonder as a religious value. Thirty years ago, when our association came together to identify the sources of the rich and living tradition from which we arose, we began here: “direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.”
The move to wonder is essentially the first step in our spiritual or religious lives. It is that in us that steps away for a moment from the quotidian details of our daily comings and goings and reaches for a vision of the whole, that opens to us a sense of the larger context in which we live.
And the thing about wonder is that it doesn’t take diligent work to achieve it. In fact, the opposite is usually the case: strolling through a New England meadow on a summer day, or a grove of eucalyptus trees in a California suburb. It’s the kind of thing we don’t always give ourselves permission for – good ants that we are, busily checking things off our lists.
But Mary Oliver doesn’t let us get away easily. Tell me, she says of her romp through the meadow, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Do we have time, maybe, to wander and wonder a little more? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?