Over the last few weeks I’ve listened to the wisdom of trees and mused on the way writing open us to the myriad perspectives from which to apprehend our beautiful but challenged earth.
Something that emerges constantly from this thinking is just how unlikely, amazing and wonderful it is that any one of us is here at all. And not only us, but every creature, plant and feature of this fragile and astonishing world is a miracle from which we create meaning in our lives. We are a meaning-making species, particularly those of us who tell stories, whether in poetry or prose or pigment…
finding the wonder
Finding and holding on to wonder can be a challenge when the news assails us with the latest Covid statistics, wildfires in France, Spain, outer London, Wicklow, Greece… with floods in Seoul, melting ice caps, record heat waves and the rising costs of fuel and food. We can’t return to our childhoods and in any case we need a world of adults who refuse to be infantalised and who are not in denial, but we can nonetheless reach back to the gifts of a child’s perspective that enrich our lives. This is G K Chesterton, from his autobiography:
What was wonderful about childhood is that anything in it was a wonder. It was not merely a world full of miracles; it was a miraculous world. […] At the back of our brains… [is] a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life [is] to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder; so that a man sitting in a chair might suddenly understand that he is actually alive, and be happy.
Chesterton felt that his challenge as a writer was to find a way to help people “realise the wonder and splendour of being alive” in a time that he felt veered between pessimism, escapism and nihilistic decadence. And he found it in a dandelion.
I had from the first an almost violently vivid sense of those two dangers; the sense that the experience must not be spoilt by presumption or despair… I asked through what incarnations or prenatal purgatories I must have passed, to earn the reward of looking at a dandelion [… ] sunflower or the sun…
holding the paradox of wonder
Finding the wonder that allows us to make meaning is vital, but it’s not done as a way of ignoring what is happening to the world. Wonder is not a means of turning our backs on climate change, social injustice or the daily causes of suffering that we are all prey to. Rather it is a way of holding the tension between lives that are inevitably complex, full of both joys and sorrows; a way of negotiating the path of paradox. This is something that the essayist Michael Pollan appreciates in his book The Botany of Desire:
Our experience of flowers is so deeply drenched in our sense of time. Maybe there’s a good reason we find their fleetingness so piercing, can scarcely look at a flower in bloom without thinking ahead, whether in hope or regret. We might share with certain insects a tropism inclining us toward flowers, but presumably insects can look at a blossom without entertaining thoughts of the past and future — complicated human thoughts that may once have been anything but idle. Flowers have always had important things to teach us about time.
Time is the substance we are made of, Jorge Luis Borges insisted in his book Labyrinths. And time always presents us with paradox, we constitute our lives by it, yet struggle to live in its moment. We realise that the past is often carried with us in the present, that the present moulds the future and that, far from being linear, it slows and speeds, loops and echoes and always reminds us of our mortality. And the flower, even a common dandelion, symbolises our complex relationship to time—as Pollan goes on:
Look into a flower, and what do you see? Into the very heart of nature’s double nature — that is, the contending energies of creation and dissolution, the spiraling toward complex form and the tidal pull away from it. Apollo and Dionysus were names the Greeks gave to these two faces of nature, and nowhere in nature is their contest as plain or as poignant as it is in the beauty of a flower and its rapid passing. There, the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature. There, somehow, both transcendence and necessity. Could that be it — right there, in a flower — the meaning of life?
Wonder and paradox, if not the whole meaning of life, are certainly fundamental to it, and to creating stories that elucidate it. Moreover wonder, although it doesn’t change the facts of all the ecological and social wrongs that we live amongst, allows us the agency to choose how we will create these stories; where we will focus our attention.
wonder as the lens of attention
In the beautiful parable of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the prince spends a great deal of his time attending to a single rose who insists she is unique in all the universe. He takes his responsibility for this single flower, who is delicate and borders on the narcisistic, very seriously and is shocked and saddened when he comes across a whole field of roses and realises she is not the only one her kind afterall. Yet he also comes to see that his listening and attention were not futile. That there may be other roses, but she is still unique precisely because of his attention and love. The fox that the Little Prince has befriended helps him to see this, saying:
It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.
Re-igniting our capacity for wonder is a way of choosing what to give our attention to, choosing what meaning we will create as writers. It is not blind optimism but it protects us from pessimistic despair. Wonder is the lens through which we see our way to writing and becoming a different story.