The great philosopher Van Morrison once asked, “Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder?” Besides listening to his music music, there are many ways to wonder. Wandering the Te Araroa prompts a questioning of the many senses of the term, as the relation between a single alphabetical differential–wander/wonder–brings out. Although they are, I think, etymologically distinct, the two words share one important valence–comfortable uncertainty. Wandering is purposive but not directed, and wondering is encounter with circuitous speculation.
People often associate wonder with childhood. To be young and in the big outdoors is to be filled with wonder. In the last chapter of Landmarks, a book on disappearing place-names, Robert MacFarlane describes the activities of children exploring their version of the Hundred Acre Wood. He examines the language they invent to mark out their daily wonders. One child became obsessed with watercourses, speculating that much of it disappeared by flowing beneath the ground, a phenomenon he called “secret water.” Since reading that chapter, I’ve have found myself in many boggy places on the Te Araroa hearing a deep gurgle and saying (usually out loud, as I have no social censor in the bush) secret water! The resonance of this particular wonder-word is its fluidity. The boy’s phrase grants access to a concept without limiting its possibilities.
The most frequent moments of wonder I have in my wandering are the landscapes in morning or evening light which are often wild yet still domestic. Pastoral in the most literal sense as the hills are covered with sheep, but rough and rugged in their jagged steepness. Then there are the old forests. Walking the trail requires focus on the surface–a root can break an ankle and end the trek–along with rapid scanning for orange triangle blazes as the woodland path is easy to lose. Breaking this concentration is the sudden recognition of what has probably been present for many a step: trees in fantastical twisted shapes, covered with moss, itself covered by layers of other moss until all is an intense green surge. Or perhaps a single tree of such girth as to have come from an illustrated children’s book. The Totara seems straight from the imagination of the author of Swiss Family Robinson. Another is the pissing wonder. Camping far from light-polluted urban areas inevitably includes that moment in the middle of the night when you crawl out of the tent to urinate. You rub the sleep from your eyes speculating about the creatures that might be lurking in the dark, and then, almost inadvertently, you look up and see the sweep of stars. Here in the Southern Hemisphere the only familiar form is Orion, but no matter. It is not constellations you see, but instead innumerable points of pure light set in the darkest dark.
To wonder is to be in a state of arrest, pausing to process. As a noun it denotes something unusual, even cosmic as in the biblical “signs taken for wonders.” As a verb it means to ponder in a non-linear or wandering fashion. Wonderful is a word that has perhaps lost its power of wonder, reduced now to describing something “good” or “beautiful.” But wonder brings something much different. It is not ethical (good) nor aesthetic (beautiful); it is epistemological. The sense of wonder is a way of knowing, speculation without rigor, a joyful non-cognitive understanding. In that sense, wonder is pre-Kantian. It resists categorical reduction. “Secret water” opens up the wonderer to a form of speculative understanding that is not just hydrology. I remember a class on the literature of walking where one day we talked about trail lore, the natural history that springs up amongst those walking the big outdoors. One student with open computer and turbo-charged browser fact checked each story, effectively ending the discussion with specific determinations of accuracy. A bright and engaging person, but someone who lives in a world without wonder, what Weber called the disenchanted world. I’m not saying that there is not a place for fact-checking, particularly in contemporary politics. Rather, I’m suggesting that there are other forms of knowledge that do not depend on categorical determination. Instead they are tentative probings into a world that continues to amaze.
There is a kinship between this sense of wonder and what Keats called “negative capability,” which is to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” With this concept, Keats describes a way of living. Wonder, while it can be that, is more often a moment of fairly short duration prompted by an event. The experience of awe is also one of arrest, of being overwhelmed (even to the point of nausea, e.g., Thomas Jefferson peering over the edge of Natural Bridge), but, as an aesthetic phenomenon, it is experienced all as that moment. With wonder, the perceiver is further prompted toward speculation–wondering–a series of somewhat random intellectual wanderings toward an engagement with or understanding of that moment.
We can feel wonderlust, but perhaps just as often we experience wonderguilt. I find myself walking rapidly through forests or over mountains without pausing. Occasionally I upbraid myself for gliding past what I think I should be feeling deeply and examining closely, but that also highlights the temporality of wonder. It is, as I have been saying, a moment of arrest which is followed by speculation supported by non-reductive observation. It is a turning loose of the mind to speculation that knows no bounds apart from the material circumstances of wonder itself, and that process is exhausting. It’s much easier to google than it is to wonder.
Early on as a parent, I thought hard about what sort of traits to foster or celebrate. There are the standards– honesty, rectitude, respect– but wonder exceeds them all, which raises the question, can you cultivate wonder? It seems to be something we are born with and lose, but my wager is that it is less about maturing than it is a hardening of the categories. The material world is much easier to process when there is a precise term available for all the parts, an articulation that enables you to stop thinking about how all those parts fit, or indeed, what constitutes a part. Speculation without strict categories is hard work, so it is no wonder that we embrace simple answers–facts and reason. But ultimately to really live in the world, you must bring to it a sense of wonder.
T. Hugh Crawford