Wondering

Isobel canoeby Isobel Arthen

On this day when so many people are celebrating science, I wanted to share some reflections I’ve made over the past couple months. When I was young I really thought science was the antithesis of spirituality. I didn’t put any faith in something that I thought tried to explain the unsolvable mysteries of the world around us, and I resented it for defining natural phenomena when, to me, something like fire is so much more than just a chemical reaction. In 9th grade when I started learning about ecological concepts like interdependence, food webs and cycles, I realized that science may not be in contradiction with spirituality. In fact, I discovered that it compliments it in some very potent ways.

Many of you know that I have spent my adult life immersed in the study of science, and specifically ecology. I have found that the more I understand the world around me, the more I can appreciate it. Since starting work as an educator at the Franklin Institute, I have had many opportunities to learn about how to best communicate science to museum guests, including one session about how the brain actually interprets and stores information.

This training left me with a lot to think about, but one thing especially stuck out. At the beginning, we were asked what we had always wondered about the brain. The group answered with a popcorn of questions that piqued my curiosity about every question someone else had asked. We were told, later on, that the question was specifically intended to prime our minds for learning—that inspiring inquiry, or wonder, releases dopamine in the brain, thus improving attention and focus.

After that activity I have been thinking a lot about that word, “wonder.” What a word. It is used to describe a state of inquiry and curiosity, a way of seeking new information— “I wonder why those ants walk in a line?” But it also describes a state of amazement. To stare “with wonder” is to perceive something so astounding that it is almost unbelievable. I have come to believe that “wonder” is that place, that liminal space between science and magic, and as a scientist and an animist, that is where I want to live.

To gaze with wonder at the night sky is so much more if you know that there are about as many neurons in one brain as there are stars in our galaxy, and that there are about the same number of galaxies in the universe. To handle soil means so much more if you know that it took hundreds upon hundreds of years to develop, and that it is home to billions of living beings right in the palm of your hand. What do you miss if you look at fire and just see a combustion reaction? What do you lose if you don’t notice its ability to transform and destroy, or the way gazing into a flame can transport you to a whole other place?

I am disappointed not to be at the science march, but like every day at work, I have spent today bringing science into people’s lives. I have asked guests to wonder with me, to come up with questions, to try and notice and discover new things about the world we so often take for granted. I share this with you so that maybe you’ll make a point to come up with a new question today (if you do, let me know what it is!). It seems to me there is no better way to celebrate science than to take some time to wonder.

Being Nature: Deer Clan at Twilight Covening

This entry is by Miriam Klamkin, who is a Glainn Sidhr Witch, professional astrologer, teacher, and spiritual coach.  She has been teaching at EarthSpirit events since 1993.

There is an intimate reciprocity to the senses; as we touch the bark of a tree, we feel the tree touching us; as we lend our ears to the local sounds and ally our nose to the seasonal scents, the terrain gradually tunes us in turn. The senses, that is, are the primary way that the earth has of informing our thoughts and of guiding our actions. Huge centralized programs, global initiatives, and other ‘top down” solutions will never suffice to restore and protect the health of the animate earth. For it is only at the scale of our direct, sensorial interactions with the land around us that we can appropriately notice and respond to the immediate needs of the living world.
– David Abram, Becoming Animal

After the rattling dies down and all is quiet…I float in a semi-trance state, half awake, half asleep, recalling the sound of the chainsaw earlier in the day, clearing our new sacred grove. The saw takes down a nearby sapling, then comes after one of my limbs… WAIT! THAT’S MY ARM!! Abruptly, I wake to full human-consciousness and the stillness of the circle around me.

Another time, in a different grove at gloaming-time…I watch quietly as misty gray beings detach themselves from the tree trunks and come out to play, walking the land, meeting and separating, dancing with dignified grace.

And yet another time, on a hilltop… I am treated to an indescribably glorious song and dance of the winds and the trees. I feelPhoto by Sarah Twichell I am this close to deciphering the meaning of the “words” of this song, but I don’t need a dictionary to interpret its overall intention.

And another, up at the stone circle… a new stone has been placed. Gently, respectfully, I place my hand on this massive, stationary being, and it is shaking internally. I withdraw and check in with myself: am I projecting my own nervous alarm onto the rock? Nope, it’s not me. I’m fine. I use some of the grounding techniques I’ve learned over the years – giving back to stonekind, usually so solidly there for us when we need to ground – and gradually the vibrations abate.

Experiences such as these are not all that hard to achieve; it’s a simple matter of clearing your mind of the expectations of a lifetime and paying attention in a particular way.

Okay, it’s hard. That’s why I developed Deer Clan.

Our culture has trained us to hold ourselves separate from the natural world, ignoring the fact that we are part and parcel of it and participate in “nature” with every breath we take. We inevitably interact with the nonhuman beings who live all around us, but we’ve learned to ignore our intuitive perceptions. Our fellow beings observe us as we observe them, and sometimes they choose to talk to us.  It’s just like the fairy tales, only it isn’t all about us: they have their own lives and their own agendas. And they don’t speak to us in plain English: they communicate through sound and movement, through
our own senses and emotions, through subtle energetic states for which we have no words. It is only by approaching our fellow beings with respect, sharpening those senses, observing those emotions, and noticing those energetic states that we even begin to understand our true place in the world.

The understanding begins not in an intellectual process of cataloging, comparing, or deciphering, but through using the empathic senses to feel what’s going on. Even if I never learn the words to that windsong, maybe the experience of wonder and connection it evoked is enough.

The word “deer” evolved from Old English “deor”, which referred not only to deer but to any wild animal. According to Ted Andrews, author of Animal-Speak, “There are many stories and myths of deer luring hunters or even kings deep into the woods until they are lost and begin to encounter new adventures.” In Deer Clan, we become “lost” to the civilized selves we know and invoke the wild being within us in order to become one with our world. In that state, we have access to the senses that touch that world and are touched by it.

Twilight Covening is a three-day institute of Earth spirituality held within a continual three-day ritual. It is a time for exploring ways to deepen Earth-centered spiritual practice and a time to develop our collective wisdom in a shared sacred space as we move into the dark time of the year.  Get more information or register now.

the most ordinary magic

by Sarah Twichell

I spent last week at my family’s cabin on the St. Lawrence Seaway. It has a tiny kitchen with an electric stove whose best quality is that it functions, and the running water isn’t potable, but it’s beautiful – for me, almost archetypically so. I woke up every morning to the boughs of a pine tree outside my bedroom windows, and they’re the same ones I’ve seen every morning up here since I was old enough to get a separate bedroom from my sister. When it is cloudy, as it is today, the water looks flat and grey in a particular way that is completely familiar to me. When it is sunny, I know exactly how it sparkles. Although I have no sense of direction normally, in this place, the knowledge of which way is north is as sure as a compass. In short, this place is one of my homes, a landscape so familiar that it feels burned into my heart.

From my office, I often take a walk at lunch, up behind an office building and past a river, then around to see a pond on the other side of the road. I count swans and kayaks. This, too, is familiar: the house with the gate like a tree branch, the spot where the men play chess on the hood of a car, the place where there’s a lilac whose blossoms hang over the road in May.

This is the most ordinary magic in the world: our feet cross a place over and over – whether it’s most days for a year or most years for decades – and slowly, we come to belong to that place. We don’t need any special techniques or well-honed skills, or any traditions other than those we make ourselves. In a world where things move quickly and it’s easy to feel adrift, this is how we make places where we feel rooted, connected, grounded. And as we return to these places, we return to our own inner quiet, to a measured motion as reliable as the turning of a clock or a monk praying liturgical hours. To ourselves.