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.

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Walking on Uneven Ground

by Steve Trombulak

At Feast of Lights last month, Deirdre invited me to participate in the Saturday morning plenary, called “Walking on Uneven Ground.”  The purpose of the plenary was to involve the entire community present for Feast of Lights in a common conversation about the recent earth-shaking shifts in our country’s social fabric.  For most of us, the results of the election in early November and the subsequent administrative appointments have fundamentally altered our sense of the ground upon which we walk.  The gains we have struggled to achieve over the last 100+ years for peace, justice, and the environment are now under assault at a level that we have not seen in decades, nor at a level that we thought we would ever see again.

Indeed, we now walk on uneven ground.  We are at a point in history, and in each of our own personal narratives, where each of us needs to answer the question, “how is it that I will now choose to walk?”

My life’s work is as a teacher, environmental scientist, and conservation advocate, and it was with the context that Deirdre asked me to participate in the plenary.  How does someone with my interests choose to walk now that everything I hold dear is threatened?SteveT

My response ended up coming in two parts, the first about science and the second about my own personal approach to the path forward.

How I choose to move forward as a scientist and in the domain of scientific inquiry is actually quite straightforward: Regardless of the issue, if it is affected by data, you need to (1) know what you are talking about, (2) speak your truth, and (3) repeat your truth, over and over again.  It’s that simple, and I can speak more about all of that at another time if any of you are interested.

What’s hard, however, is finding a way to maintain the strength and the courage to do this in the face of such resistance and outright evil.  Fundamentally, I have done it for myself by finding my anchors that allow me to translate spirit into action.  For what it is worth, these four questions have been my anchors … through Nixon, Reagan, and Bush the Lesser; through Vietnam, Iran/Contra, and the First Gulf War; through 9/11 and every market crash since I had to worry about a job; and through every environmental fight waged and lost, of which there have been too many to count.

My anchors are simple.  I continually ask myself four questions, reminding myself of my answers and thus reminding myself of who I am, moored firmly on the ground despite how uneven if may be, and what path I travel.

Where do I come from?  This keeps me connected to my past.  Where I come from has many dimensions: geographic, cultural, emotional, social, experiential.  We all come from somewhere, and if we lose sight of that, we not only risk losing a piece of ourselves, we also risk losing our real connections – our bonds – to others.  For example, I am the son of an immigrant.  If I ever forget that, I risk losing my ability to empathize deeply with any assault on the plight and rights of immigrants today.

 Where am I now?  This keeps me connected to the present.  Where do I choose to live now, and why?  How do I imagine that place to be beyond the labels that others may put on it?  For example, some would say that I live in the State of Vermont.  However, I tend to say that I live in the People’s Republic of Vermont.  Why?  Because it reminds me in a forceful way of how I conceive my landscape to be not just in terms of its geography but the social fabric that knits together the people there.  If I ever forget that, I risk losing my sense of true community.

Why am I here?  This keeps me focused on the future.  It is far too easy for me to go through each day trying to simply go through each day.  Demands of work, family, finances, health, and so forth can too easy consume every waking hour.  And with that comes a growing sense of powerlessness in the face of the evil that thrives when the social fabric is torn.  And with powerless comes resignation, fear, and withdrawal.  If I ever forget that I am here to honor, protect, and restore the diversity of life on this sacred Earth, I risk surrendering to the forces of evil and withdraw from the fight. 

Who do I speak for?  (Okay, technically this should be “For whom do I speak?” but that wrecks the symmetry of the four questions, so I tend to cut myself some slack on this.  After all, these are just questions that I ask myself.)  This keeps me focused on the world around me.  It reminds me that I am not alone.  It reminds me that my work and my actions are not just about me.  There are always others that are affected by what I choose to do.  If I ever forget that I walk on this ground with others and that I have a responsibility to consider them as well, I risk making too much of my life just about me, and thus risk losing my soul.  And this question has been so important for me in my life, that I have tattooed my answer to it on my body so that I will never forget.

So, these are my anchors that continue to give me the strength I need to walk on uneven ground, and I give them to you to use or ignore as you will.  So mote it be.


Looking for like-minded community as you walk this uneven ground?  Registration for Rites of Spring is now open!