The Sense of Wonder

By Ingrid Van Mater
Shall any gazer see with mortal eyes,
Or any searcher know by mortal mind?
Veil after veil will lift — but there must be
Veil upon veil behind. — Sir Edwin Arnold, The Light of Asia

What is the sense of wonder, so alive in children, only faintly evident in many of us, yet necessary in understanding the deepest levels of our humanhood? It suggests that there is something beyond the material world to wonder about, and a sense beyond the ordinary physical senses with which to ponder life's imponderables. In the 1950s Rachel Carson left a treasure for posterity in her book, The Sense of Wonder, in which she muses:

If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength. — pp. 42-3

The big question is how to keep the soul-promise of childhood from being discouraged or ignored, as frost nips an unopened flower. We are still suffering from the type of alienation Rachel Carson observed three decades ago, and the antidote in our mechanistic age would seem to be to maintain our inner ties with the natural world. And this must begin with our responsibility to children: to give their spontaneous ideas and feelings a warm reception and help them appreciate the wonder of life which they instinctively feel.

If ever we doubt our closeness to nature, we need but observe the light in a child's eyes as it gradually explores the world of living things: squatting down low to be near the flowers; pressing its face against the window to watch the dancing raindrops; delighting in all animals and insects, in water, and just plain earth. A child is a free spirit, responsive and ready to discover the world around it. It identifies with earth, sea, sky, sun and stars — friends from long, long ago. An ancient pilgrim, it has returned to its earthly home to begin life anew, bringing with it the essence of all it has learned on previous sojourns. Children are therefore at one and the same time wise and innocent. When a child asks, "Where was I before I came here?". . . can we really know what adventures the soul of that child, old in wisdom, has been experiencing before coming to earth again? Even the physical process of birth reveals unresolved wonders of the intelligence of cell life. And when the child questions, "What is rain?" we can explain the cycle — of moisture being reabsorbed into the clouds and returning to refresh and nourish all things — but it is the mystery of millions of raindrops falling from sky to earth that captivates a young imagination.

Whatever a child asks, it is important to keep the door open for its own fresh ideas, enabling it to continue reaching, growing, and probing more deeply to find answers. It requires so little to nurture a youngster's eager interest, as instanced by a three-year-old's response when his grandmother took him for a walk in unspoiled country, sharing with him her enthusiasm for the sun, clouds, trees, and grass, telling him they belong to him because he is nature. Immediately he ran around free as a bird, arms outstretched, shouting with excitement "I'm nature! I'm nature!" — the most wonderful discovery in the world. Such exuberance can only be a genuine response of the soul. Who knows what impact this memory may one day have on him?

Joseph Bharat Cornell, a nature-awareness instructor, has trained thousands of teachers, parents, and outdoor educators as part of his Earth Sky program. He emphasizes the heart and intuitive qualities, "to stimulate joyful, enlightening insights and experiences" in children, believing with Rachel Carson that it is more important for a child to feel than to know all about the natural world. He accomplishes his objectives through noncompetitive games in which nature is the teacher, bearing in mind certain principles such as respecting children and being receptive to what they are saying and asking by following the "grain of their own curiosity." Rather than simply enumerating facts which have little meaning when unrelated to experience, he shares with them his reverence for nature and his own deep sentiments concerning the oneness of all living things.

In his book, Sharing Nature with Children, Cornell gives a touching example of the results of imparting his feeling of veneration for a dwarfed mountain hickory tree: over two hundred years old and only eight feet high, it has struggled to remain alive between two huge boulders, its branches twisted by severe winter winds. Finding scant soil and nourishment it sent its roots down deep, suffered from lack of water in summer and too little, as it was often frozen, in winter. The children at once identified with this tree as a living being, and their compassion was aroused. In fact, their concern was such that on their hikes they went out of their way to empty their canteens on its roots, and ran to see it each year when they returned to camp.

An inside view of how nature works fosters greater sensitivity to her aliveness and mystery; enthusiasm mounts. Keener observation, and the desire to learn, intensify what is seen and heard, creating a joyous awareness of belonging. All these emotions and impressions prepare young hearts and minds for seeds of wisdom to take root and grow, enriching the maturing years with the wonder of continual discovery.

(From Sunrise magazine, October/November 1986; copyright © 1986 Theosophical University Press)


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