By Mark Peterson, SOEI Executive Director
For the Duluth News Tribune
Socrates wrote over 2,000 years ago that, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” But wonder gets short shrift in our world today, and the sense of wonder dims in many people as they grow older. Thus, to all of this year’s graduates — whether from high school, vocational school, college, or another institution — as you examine where the future may take you, hold on tight to your ability to see, and feel, wonder in this world.
What is wonder? Wonder may be the closest thing to magic. Wonder is discovering those “ordinary miracles” that surround us each day and cause us to be amazed.
Class of 2017, your studies likely provided you opportunities to wonder in the classroom or outdoors. Think back. When was a moment you caught yourself silently exclaiming, “Wow!” That was wonder.
Scientist Rachael Carson believed there is value to search for wonder in nature. Before she would write “Silent Spring” — a bestselling book that exposed the impacts of DDT, leading to its ban — and would launch the environmental movement, she published an essay that explored the sense of wonder.
She wrote: “For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?'”
She concluded: “It is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow.”
Oftentimes, wonder grabs us unexpectedly, such as happened to Sigurd Olson on a canoe trip in Quetico Provincial Park. One evening he climbed a ridge. He would write about his experience 30 years later in his book, “The Singing Wilderness.”
“When I reached the bald knob of the peak the sun was just above the horizon, a flaming ball ready to drop into the dusk below,” he wrote. “As I watched and listened, I became conscious of the slow, steady hum of millions of insects and through it the calling of the white throats and the violin notes of the hermit thrushes. … Gradually they merged one with another, blending in a great enveloping softness of sound no louder, it seemed, than my breathing.
“The sun was trembling now on the edge of the ridge. It was alive, almost fluid and pulsating, and as I watched it sink I thought that I could feel the earth turning from it, actually feel its rotation. Over all was the silence of the wilderness and that sense of oneness which comes only when there are no distracting sights or sounds, when we listen with inward ears and see with inward eyes, when we feel and are aware with our entire beings rather than our senses.”
Sig’s experience demonstrates that wonder has multiple insights.
Author Gary Ferguson studied more than 1,000 nature myths from around the globe, spanning centuries. He found that nearly every tale had at least one of three intangibles that people considered essential for living life well: finding beauty, discovering mystery, and feeling a sense of community.
Beauty may be the easiest to experience because it’s all around us. We’ve been blessed that our planet home is such a stunning place. In 1972, Apollo 17 beamed to us the first photograph of the full earth from 18,000 miles in space. It was a moment when millions collectively were reminded how beautiful and fragile our home is. It is one of the most reproduced images in history.
Like beauty, the mysterious is also ever-present. There’s simply so much that we don’t understand. And yet as we find answers to the mysterious, mystery multiples, we always have more questions within this vast, unbounded universe.
Finally, there is community. In writing about his experience, Sig identified “oneness” to describe his feeling of community. Oneness is a reality of our existence, although we tend to emphasize differences and don’t often think of our kinship with all of life.
Beauty, mystery and community: these elements of life surround us, but we pay little attention. For we live in a time when our politics are filled with division, and cynicism abounds. We hear all too frequently of tragedy from our global village and can’t help but be impacted by the sadness and suffering. And it is the age of the sixth great extinction, when every living system is declining and the rate is accelerating. Some people tell us the world will never be more beautiful than it is today.
Make the effort to pay attention and be astonished at the wonders all about us. Be open to wonder and experiences that frame our love for this planet, and use them as inspiration for its care.
Mark R. Peterson retires June 30 as executive director of the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland. This is from a baccalaureate address he gave in May as part of Northland College’s commencement ceremonies.