Wonder and Death: Why only adults can really appreciate nature

Wonder and Death: Why only adults can really appreciate nature July 10, 2013

“To recognize death and mortality and to live fully with that awareness is to know the only true idea of the holy available to man in this or any other century.”

 — John Vickery, The Literary impact of The Golden Bough

We’ve just come back from our family vacation to Utah — which means I’m back from my blogging vacation as well.

We drove out from Indiana, which is a two day trek across Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, and Utah.  I believe I-70 west of Denver offers one of the most beautiful stretches of scenery available from an Interstate in the U.S.  For someone raised east of the Mississippi, driving through the Rockies can be a religious experience in itself.  (Unfortunately, you’re driving at 65+ mph and the driver has to negotiate both the speeding traffic and the tight turns, which makes appreciating the view nearly impossible.)

When we arrived in Utah, my father-in-law took us to the top of the mountain range in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, which my wife’s hometown lies at the foot of.  There were still patches of snow on the ground.  And there were several small lakes reflecting the summer sky, which seemed much closer standing on the top of the mountain than when we were in the valley.

My wife and I at Snow Lake

I was surprised to find that, even in a drought year, the land was bright green, unlike in the valley.  Like Hildegaard of Bingen, I associate my experience of God with greenness (Hildegaard called it “veriditas”).  I grew up in Kentucky, West Virginia, and southern Indiana, all very green places.  I’ve never resonated with the desert, despite the best efforts of my BYU geology professor.  But there are pockets of greenness in Utah.  And as I climbed the densely forested mountain slopes, I felt like I had come home.  I had a strong sense that I was my truest self in that place.  I felt that same feeling very strongly not too long ago among the redwoods in Muir Woods in California.  No experience that I have ever had in a formal religious context has ever compared to the feeling of rightness that I consistently feel when hiking in a forest.

But it wasn’t just Utah that I enjoyed.  The drive out was special too.  I even enjoyed the long stretches of green pastures and fields in Kansas.  In fact, I especially enjoyed Kansas this time.  I used to hate driving through farm country.  As a child, the hour drive from one grandmother’s home in Indianapolis to another grandmother’s home in Lafayette, Indiana felt like the Bataan Death March.  Being strapped into the backseat, unable to see over the rows of corn on both sides was a special torture.  But I now find myself enjoying that same stretch of highway and the many others like it.  My spirit soars whenever I am able to get out of my office and into “nature”, even if that nature is a cultivated field, and even if I am witnessing it from inside a motor vehicle.  It’s not as powerful as when I am hiking in a forest, but it is something nonetheless.

I find myself wondering what has changed between my childhood and now that I enjoy these drives.  The contrast is all the more acute since I have children of my own.  This past weekend, I hiked with my family up a mountainside to show them a beautiful meadow and a vista I had happened upon.  My kids, now 11 and 14, enjoyed the view for all of 10 seconds before becoming distracted.  The same thing happened on the drive through Glenwood Canyon west of Denver.  It was a struggle to tear them away from their electronic devices to appreciate the magnificence all around them.  I could blame it on the technology, but I know it is more than that.  Parents have been dealing with this phenomenon long before there were iPads (although I’m sure the technology exacerbates the situation).  How many parents have driven their children across the country to see the Grand Canyon, only to hear them say, “Wow! … Can we go home now?”

Manti-La Sal National Forest

Recently my son expressed delight at seeing a sunset by exclaiming that it looked like a picture.  Shouldn’t it be the other way around?  For me, and I think for most adults, there is a significant qualitative difference between experiencing a sunset first hand and seeing a picture of one.  But I don’t think my kids really appreciate the difference.  Again, I could blame it on the new technology, but I don’t think I was all that different as a child.  I have often heard people speak about the innate sense of wonder that children experience at the world around them.  Two nature writers in particular come to mind: Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard.  Rachel Carson writes in Silent Spring:

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood.  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 artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

And Annie Dillard writes in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

“An infant who has just learned to hold his head up has a frank and forthright way of gazing about him in bewilderment.  He hasn’t the faintest clue where he is, and he aims to learn.  In a couple of years, what he will have learned instead is how to fake it: he’ll have the cocksure air of a squatter who has come to feel he owns the place.  Some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from out original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover at least where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, if we can’t learn why.”

I love these quotes, but I am skeptical about their facticity. I don’t think either Carson or Dillard actually had children at the time they wrote these words. Carson and Dillard had this sense of wonder, as adults, and it is evident in their writing. But I think it is dubious whether they had the same sense when they were themselves children. I have seen my children fascinated by the natural world on occasion, but not consistently so. In my experience, adults are more able to experience awe and wonder of nature than children, and I wonder why.

I asked my wife about it, and she said she thinks it takes a kind of contemplative aptitude to appreciate nature. I also asked my 10 year-old daughter about it, and she said she thinks that it requires patience, which adults have and children lack.  I think the two answers are related and close to the mark.

I also think that the experience of wonder requires a certain knowledge.   The scale (temporal and spacial) and complexity of nature which science reveals to us can bring adults to their knees (figuratively and literally), but is often lost on children.  One geology class turned my wife into a lifelong lover of rocks.  A little bit of amateur astronomy and my experience of the night sky is transformed.  One night in Utah this past week was particularly clear, and it was spectacular.  I’ve lived most of my life in the Midwest, where the humidity acts as a film which blocks the light of all but the brightest stars.  I remember the first time I went out into the desert in Utah at night.  It was like I had never seen the night sky before.  Of course, one need not know anything about biology, botany, geology, etc. in order to marvel at the magnificence of the universe.  But it helps.

I do think, though, there may be one item of knowledge which may explain the difference between how adults and children experience the natural world.  It is something that children really do not know and that only slowly comes into the awareness of adults as we age.  It is the knowledge that we are going to die.  Standing under the night sky, staring up to stars so thick I feel like a could scoop them up into my hands, my awareness of my own mortality transforms my experience from a purely aesthetic one to a spiritual one.  I am no longer just seeing something beautiful; I am changed, humbled by the vastness of the universe manifest before me.  Hiking up a mountain trail and cresting the peak to look down into the valley, I am not just exercising my limbs.  I am throwing myself up against the mountain, straining against the limits of physicality, limits which foreshadow the Limit which is placed on every life.  Driving through Glenwood Canyon along the Colorado River, knowing that this beauty existed long before me and will continue to be long after I am gone, fosters in me a sense of gratitude for the brief but magnificent opportunity that is my life.

These are experiences that are lost on my children.  They are lost on them because they do not yet know how fleeting life is.  They do not really know yet that they will someday die.  As we move from childhood into adulthood, we don’t leave an Edenic garden where there is no death.  Rather, we come to see the death that we were previously blind to.  But this “fall” is a felix culpa or “fortunate fall”, for in coming to the awareness of our mortality, we gain the beauty of the world.  In the movie Troy, Achilles tells his lover:

The Gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal,
because any moment might be our last.
Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed.
You will never be lovelier than you are now.
We will never be here again.

So I rest content with my children’s distractedness, knowing that their innocence is what stands between them and them beauty of the earth, and also knowing that one day they will come to know it as I have.

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  • Glad you had a good vacation, John – it’s good to have you back.

    I think you’re right that children don’t experience awe. They experience the wonder that comes from discovering things for the first time, but because they have no frame of reference, they simply assume that’s the way things are supposed to be. It’s not just a lack of understanding of death – they can’t truly appreciate beauty because (hopefully, anyway) they haven’t yet encountered true ugliness.

    The wisdom of childhood is acceptance without skepticism. The wisdom of adulthood is the perspective that comes with experience.

  • Tybult

    I don’t completely agree.
    I think the quality of my experience has changed, sure, but I feel like I first woke up to the natural world around fifth grade. I remember walking under aspen trees in the fall, looking up at a perfectly blue sky, just stunned at the vibrancy I was seeing there.

    In my memory lot of that has to do with reading the Secret Garden – something about the characters’ love of growing things woke me up to what was around me.

    But yes, that relationship has become more complicated as the years go by – and (when I’m lucky) more profound.

    • I probably overstated my point above. I agree with you that it is more a matter of a different kind of experience as we mature.

  • I suspect there are multiple variables here — the personality of the child, the family upbringing, the role of technology in the family. Some children seem to experience the natural world as living, animate, and communicating without much guidance. Others dive headfirst into their iPads and show little interest in other people, let alone plants and animals.

    I remember, at about age ten or eleven, being in a pre-confirmation church class where the minister took the group outside to a wooded area. He asked us to separate and spend a little time listening for God. I think I was the only child who wasn’t running around and screaming within about three minutes — and probably the only one who was sad that the other kids had shattered the peace of the woods. It’s one of many childhood memories where I felt so different from other children that I wondered if I was an alien. I don’t mention this to sound superior, only to say that I think a combination of temperament and regular experiences of being alone outdoors as a child probably gave me a different attitude — and also, that that attitude is one that can be deliberately cultivated. I definitely recall that, when I did find other children who were similarly contemplative and noticed things in nature, they tended to come from highly religious families with an emphasis on simple living and outdoor activities (like Mennonites — there were many families like that in the area where I spent the first years of my life).

    • I distinctly remember lying on the earth as a child with my arms spread out and
      marveling that I was spinning around in the universe. I will never
      forget the sensation of the awareness of the whole world stretching out,
      round below me, and I consider it my first “spiritual” experience. When I was a kid, I spent hours and hours outdoors. I had a special, secret, magic place in the woods underneath a big tree that I could “unlock” with a magic key and it became a special, invisible kingdom. I had another special place by a creek where I could “see” fairies. I built houses for my toys using rocks and sticks. I buried mice that died in a little graveyard in a pond basin. I gathered my trolls together and they had elaborate rituals on the large, flat sandstones in the same dry pond bed. I pressed flowers and made cards out of them. I played in puddles. I hid in tall grass. I made dollhouse dishes out of acorn caps. I devised a “Brave” test for myself and my friends that involved climbing trees, fording creeks, and scaling large limestone rocks. If we passed the tests, we were “Braves.” I *lived* in the natural world. It was my home, not something “other” that I visited.

      also remember standing with my sons in the moonlight and my older son
      (then about seven) saying, “I know what happened! First there was a
      monkey and then it gave birth and gave birth and gave birth and gave
      birth and gave birth and gave birth and gave birth until finally Mamoo had Baba” (Baba is my mom and
      Mamoo was my grandma). Pause: “either that, or the Goddess shot everyone down to earth using a big rocket cannon…” 😉 I think that was a transcendent moment of sorts, in which he was, in fact, contemplating the smallness of his thread in the universe and figuring out how he, in fact, came to be in that moment standing with his mother in the moonlight.

    • Christine: I think you must be right. And I suspect that a higher than average percentage of those exceptional children like yourself end up Pagans.

  • rhyd wildermuth

    Alison Leigh Lilly wrote an incredible post regarding this, a bit of a playful rebuttal that had me practically in tears: http://alisonleighlilly.com/blog/2013/nature-and-the-awe-of-childhood/ (I apologize if it’s inappropriate to link elsewhere…the beauty of the piece compels me…)

    • As usual, Alison is insightful and on the mark.

    • I liked this especially:

      “Yes, there is contemplative appreciation — that which takes root in silence and patience, which blossoms only with time and age, and which pries open our hearts with its gentle but persistent fingers until the walls of busy-ness, purpose and control that we have built up are eroded away and return to the soil of our uncultured souls. There is the appreciation that gives us back to the world as a river gives itself back to the ocean, and the ocean gives itself up to the sky beneath a warm sun, and the sky too eventually pours itself out over the land and returns to the rivers again. We watch this cycle from the warm, dry comfort of our make-shift shelters, knowing that one day we too will give ourselves up to the land, the sea and the sky. Knowing that we stand aside from this endless movement through life and death only for a moment, seeing the whole spiraling dance in all its beauty. Yet we do stand aside. We watch.

      “But there is also a kind of appreciation that is active and curious and immersive. It is self-forgetful and inarticulate, but that does not make it any less real. It is the appreciation of skipping across hot concrete in soft, bare feet. It is the appreciation of wriggling your limbs in falling rain just to see the spray, just to participate in the movement of falling and splashing, just to feel your skin go rough with goosebumps. It is the appreciation of someone who has not yet spent a lifetime building up walls, and so has no use for sitting around with such sad wisdom contemplating their dissolution. An appreciation that, in the face of old ruins reclaimed by weeds on the edge of town, would rather build a clubhouse among the crumbling walls, baking mudpies and gathering leggy bouquets of dandelions, than think quietly about the grim reality of decay and neglect. It is the appreciation that builds sandcastles for the singular pleasure of kicking them down and watching the waves reclaim them — and that, if scolded and told to sit still and “just enjoy the beach,” bristles at the self-contradiction of such a command! It is the appreciation that cramps like an unused limb after too many hours in the car. It does not simply look, but feels the tides and rhythms of the natural world in blood and bones and breath. It would rather chase the river, ride the ocean waves, and soar before the storm than merely sit back and observe such cycles from a clean, dry place.”

  • “I also think that the experience of wonder requires a certain knowledge. The scale (temporal and spacial) and complexity of nature which science reveals to us can bring adults to their knees (figuratively and literally), but is often lost on children.”

    I disagree intensely with this…but I do it as a mother with a degree in biology, so perhaps my children have a leg up in the “knowledge” department, and it might not be a fair disagreement. My children experience wonder in the natural world in a way that is far more insightful and painfully honest because it is unburdened with the same degree of knowledge. They see things that I don’t (with all my training) notice simply because the scale and perspective of their involvement with the land is so very different than mine.

    Also, since tramping about in nature is pretty much a weekly (if not daily) activity for our family, they have a pretty good grip on death. Nature is not all fluffy bunnies and pretty flowers. A child that spends time in the woods or by the shore on a regular basis knows that life is fragile. And a child that has been taught empathy (and I truly believe that empathy is a skill that needs to be taught, not everyone comes to it naturally) can appreciate this even more greatly than some adults.

    …aw, heck, I might as well go do my own blog post, lol…

    • thalassa: I hope to read your post. Thanks for the challenging insight.

  • June Bug

    I disagree. My earliest memories were of Nature’s gifts, and of the life there. I know that compared to other people, maybe this makes me odd. Maybe my being able to understand animals and plants makes others see me as odd. But for me, to say no child can understand or appreciate Nature is not just Ageist; it’s conceitedly wrong.

    It is humans I cannot “appreciate.”

    • Actually, given the responses, I think I may be the *odd* one in this community.

  • Nicole Youngman

    Kids CAN appreciate nature just as well as we can–and maybe better–but they need to be able to DO something in it. Splash in a creek, catch frogs, build a fort, whatever. Standing around staring at things doesn’t resonate with them regardless of whether it’s a real-world amazing view or a painting in a museum. Do you know Richard Louv’s work? Great stuff and he talks about this sort of thing a lot. They like the technology because it’s something they can manipulate and interact and be creative with–my ten year old son will play Minecraft all day given the opportunity, but stick him outside where there are bugs and lizards and frogs to go after and he has all kinds of fun doing that, too.

    • Great point Nicole! Actually, I left out part of what my daughter said above. When I asked her why she thought kids don’t appreciate nature like adults, she said that they don’t have the patience, but she also said that kids like to play! Alison Leigh Lilly drew this distinction between contemplative and participatory appreciation in her post. http://alisonleighlilly.com/bl

  • Keegan

    I disagree. I think that your point about death is entirely valid, and children do not understand the fragility and temporary nature of our existence as well as those of us who are older and have experienced death. But this isn’t true of all children, as some children lose loved ones at a very early age and are faced with the undeniable truth that we eventually die. I also think that it has a tremendous amount to do with how we are raised. I was raised in nature by a mother who was constantly teaching me and immersing me within the beauty of our planet. I was also raised Pagan, so this might put me in a small but increasing minority within this community. And I imagine that my upbringing must have had an impact on how I might have otherwise viewed the world. But I have always had a sense of awe and reverence for nature, and have also always been painfully aware of death’s part in the cycle of life. So while what you said may be true for some children it is definitely not true for all children. And having helped raise my younger sister, and now that I am helping her raise her twins, I fully agree with the quotes you mentioned about children having a completely different worldview than an adult, one filled with wonder and awe that escapes the eyes of most adults simply because we forget to pay attention and grow accustomed to nature’s beauty. Knowing how the world works and learning about the universe helps us to comprehend nature’s vastness, but it also takes away some of the awe that is an intrinsic aspect of mystery. When you know nothing of nature, as a small child, you are left with only the awe and wonder that comes hand in hand with nature’s beauty. Why else would children constantly ask why, and never accept an answer? They are so incredibly curious about the world because it bewilders them and leaves them awestruck as they try to put words to the feelings they experience. When I asked my young cousin what he thought about seeing Niagara Falls for the first time he just stared at me and back to the falls before asking me, with sadness in his voice, why so many people were taking pictures instead of looking at it themselves. He couldn’t comprehend how someone could take the time to take a picture of the falls when the beauty of it was staring them in the face. That kind of awe is not something you learn as an adult, it is something that comes with childhood and is, hopefully, retained into adulthood.

    • Thanks Keegan. I have really appreciated the many challenging responses to this post. You are right that all children cannot be fit into one box. I brought this issue up with my Unitarian discussion group last Sunday, and there were some who, like me, felt that their sense of wonder had only deepened with time. But there have been more people who have responded to this post with their own experiences of genuine child wonder either from their own childhood or from raising children. Thanks again.

  • I can see that there are quite a few dissenting voices among the comments, and I agree with some of what they’re saying. I, too, was a child who was from a very early age aware of her own mortality and smallness in the vastness of the universe. But I do see what you’re saying here. I definitely feel differently in nature now than when I was a child. Some of it is the same – I used to have experiences of awe and reverence, too. But it happens more often now. And I have attached more meaning to it.

    I certainly went through a phase in my early- to mid-teens where I would have had that dismissive attitude that you refer to. It stemmed first of all from a general feeling of rebellion against my parents, a wish to differentiate myself from them and make myself different. It also stemmed from a deep discontent. My late childhood and early teens were a very difficult time for me, emotionally. I too often feel as though I am wholly myself, more so than any other time, while appreciating the beauty of nature. But in my early teens, my sense of self was confused and conflicted. Perhaps I was unable, for a while, to enter into that state. Paradoxically, I think it requires a sort of release of the ego, which may be difficult or unappealing to someone who is in a state of underlying identity crisis, as so many teenagers are.

    • John Halstead


      Thanks. I think you make a great point about adolescence. That’s exactly how I felt.

      I have found the number of dissenting voices quite interesting in this case. It tells me a lot about our Pagan community. I think I come to Paganism as someone who needs it desperately, precisely because I did not come to it naturally as a child.


  • Michael D. Barton

    I agree with Nicole that play is an important part. Kids’ hands and energetic bodies need to keep busy!

    I think the level of appreciation that a child has for nature will vary with the child. It begins, I believe, with not only how much exposure to being outside a child is given by their parents, but also by how much time they spend outside with their parents.

    Also, although Rachel Carson did not have any children of her own (she never married), she essentially adopted her nephew Roger, and it is the experiences she had sharing nature with him that led her to write A Sense of Wonder,

  • SnowLprd

    Very thought-provoking. Well done.

    Minor correction in last sentence — should be: “[…] the beauty of the earth”