Friday, April 29, 2011

ARE YOU ON SOMETHING? – Coming Home To the Here and Now

Ask kids where's their favorite place to play, and you may be as troubled as I am by the answer. More and more, they're saying that place is indoors. Say what? With the astounding variety of places to go, things to discover and adventures to be had in Nature, why on this precious earth would a child prefer to play inside? The kids' answer: because that's where the electrical chargers are.

  Depriving a child of a close relationship with 
  Nature is as unthinkable as depriving that child 
  of proper nutrition.

It was a conversation like this with a young boy that motivated Richard Louv to write his best-selling Last Child in the Woods – Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. The book makes a compelling case: that depriving a child of a close relationship with Nature is as unthinkable as depriving that child of proper nutrition.

I'm so grateful that I grew up when being outdoors was more fun than anything else, when "social media" meant playing, sharing real-life adventures and talking face to face. My "friends" were really friends, because we actually did stuff together; they were my classmates, my teammates, perhaps my co-conspirators in some kind of prank.

We knew fresh air, water, sun and soil first-hand. We were aware that we shared our world with lots of other growing, breathing organisms. Hell, we even loved being outside in the winter!

These experiences shaped my friendships, and they also made me friends with Nature. I watched her, waited for her, suffered at her whim, but more than anything, I learned from her. She taught me patience, resourcefulness and creativity. She introduced me to awe.

These days it seems everyone's on something—on line, on Twitter or Facebook,
on their iPad or iPhone. And, since these indulgences barely require one to lift a finger, this means we spend way too much time on something else: our asses.


It's not just about separation from Nature, though that's certainly a key symptom of this "on" addiction. It's also the loss of real, first-hand interaction with other human beings. Getting "together" through social media, despite the allure of its sheer ease, is like knowing someone solely on the basis of your conversation through a thick wall. Other than knowing each other is paying attention, not much gets through.

          Am I the only one who senses a 
          kind of lonely desperation here?

Now, I'm not living in a cave; I realize that much of value happens through social media. (Think the $29 million in texted donations the American Red Cross raised in short order a few years back for Haiti earthquake relief, or the occasional bloodless overthrow of a corporate or political tyrant powered by the social media.) Still, kids in general aren't involved in such causes; the vast majority of them are "on something" for far less weighty reasons.

For hundreds of millions of Facebook and Twitter users, it's not about helping; it's not about information; it's not even about anything seriously resembling communication. No, nowadays its about connection, not as in sharing something of meaning, but as in connection for connection's sake, connection worn like a badge. Hey, look, I have so many "friends" or "likers." For what? Is anything of consequence actually being done? Am I the only one who senses a kind of lonely desperation in trading the wonders of (real) Nature for this?

It's not that the technology and media are unhealthy in and of themselves; it's the degree of their use, the sheer volume of time the average devotee spends every day on utterly meaningless pursuits.

Parents know, somewhere in their gut, that too much texting, Snap-Chatting and playing Star Wars or Grand Theft Auto – version umpteen—not to mention exposure to the cesspool of reality television—is not good for their kids. But, as with junk food, there's a little conspiracy at work. This time, the connivance involves the parents, who convince themselves that Jill and Jimmy derive some social or educational benefit, or, truth be told, simply welcome the distraction; teachers, who let kids convince them they can multi-task; the media, with its slick marketing machine; highly-cultivated peer pressure; and, of course, the sheer sexiness of the technology.

I figure there are some people out here who still enjoy reading more than 140 characters at a time.

Of course, all of this is happening on the watch of parents, who are not only failing to set limits, but are, themselves, becoming addicted to the same pastimes.

You must have known the disclaimer would come: I can't rail against all this technology and the social media revolution without admitting my own hypocrisy. The "on" generation epitomizes the sped-up, dumbed-down world I decry. Yet, to spread my message, I find myself using the very machines and media I so despise. I'm on just about everything. Okay, I admit, it's fun. It really is.

In feeble defense I can say, first of all, that I think many blogs, including my own, have substance. What's more, I've not yet fallen for the "sound bite" approach to my message. I figure there have to be some people out here who still enjoy more than looking at a picture or two, or reading more than 140 characters at a time.
Let's resolve to nudge a child outdoors and introduce
her or him to curiosity, discovery and wonder. These companions, with no agenda except just being, will
never "unfriend" them.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

HARD EVIDENCE – Do You Dig Geology?

Massachusetts’s Pioneer Valley is a beautiful area. Here the Connecticut River meanders between rolling hills, college campuses, asparagus farms and tobacco fields. (Yes, tobacco in Massachusetts; it seems the kind grown for cigar wrappers loves it here.) Towns nestle cozily into the folds of the landscape. Hardwood forests ignite with color each October only to be doused in sticky snow come late November.

Living in the Pioneer Valley for four years was one of the best perks of attending Amherst College. Even though school was challenging, the obvious beauty all around was not lost on me. Nonetheless, it took me until junior year to realize how much more there was to this lovely place than meets the eye.

   What are your most memorable discoveries of 
   the scoured, sculpted face of Mother Earth?

In those days, Amherst had a very strong geology department. Among the courses offered was Geology 11, affectionately known among students as Rocks for Jocks—supposedly because it took some doing to come out of the course with anything less than a C. (To understand the ironic humor of this, you should know that, at Amherst, the term “athletic scholarship” was about as familiar as the bastard uncle you never met.)

Actually, the course was more rigorous than most gave it credit for. In fact, it was, without a doubt, the most interesting class of my 18-year formal education. Among other things, I learned that the hill on which Amherst sits used to be an island in the middle of a huge glacial lake, Lake Hadley. Drive up or down any of the one-time banks of the lake, and you can clearly see the stair-step contours of the several distinct shoreline levels that existed during its lifetime.

Roches moutonnées, seen from Amherst College
Dinosaur tracks in Holyoke
We learned how the glaciers scoured away the surface of great rock ridges and then plucked away massive blocks as they passed, leaving the distinctive roche moutonnee—or sheep’s back—shapes that characterize some of the region’s small mountain ranges. We saw hundreds of dinosaur tracks, preserved in sedimentary rock from the late Triassic and early Jurassic periods; veins of quartz injected igneously into cracks in metamorphic gneiss; erratics (mammoth boulders of rock varieties normally found nowhere near here, carried down by the glaciers); eskers (meandering humps, like 20-foot-tall veins nestled in the earth’s skin, built up of the deposits of sub-glacial rivers).

Glaciers scoured away the surface of great rock ridges and then plucked away massive blocks as they passed.

Rocks for Jocks made me realize what an apt, grand-scale metaphor the earth itself is for all the lesser-scale wonders it comprises—and for discovery itself. With geology, you want to find something interesting, you dig. You want a gem, you wait a long, long time…and then you dig. You don’t see it right away, you look in creative ways or from a different perspective.

Isn't this how one discovers just about any of the hidden wonders, large and small, that surround us all the time? What are your most memorable discoveries of the scoured, sculpted face of Mother Earth? How have you had to dig for that understanding?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #74
Celebrate your own footsteps.

Feet ... those poor, thankless servants, ever first to shoulder the load, ever last to see the sun. Yet, above the quiet toil, they proclaim their joy—if only we allow them, and listen.

    Let your steps whisper through dry autumn leaves. Encourage their earnest crunch on dried acorns, their squeals of delight compressing dry snow. Indulge their mischievous cracking of ice edges undercut by melt water. Abide the thin chatter of a kicked pebble. 
    Celebrate their joy and yours, not just in getting somewhere, but in the going.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

INTENTIONAL AWARENESS - Seeing As a Contact Sport

As I was walking this afternoon down by the flood-swollen Mississippi River, I happened to notice one tree among many others just off the path. There was something hanging from one of its lower branches. I went over to look more closely.

Wrapped loosely around the base of the branch was some string. Tied in it every inch or so was a little clump of fabric wadded from torn strips, alternating in color between dusty shades of rose, gray and yellow. Just above this odd necklace a three-inch-wide tin band wrapped neatly around the branch. I carefully turned the band back and forth to read the neat, press-on lettering that wrapped around it in three lines:

  "They are the roots;
    We are the fruits
    So that others may grow."

Was this someone's environmental art installation? A tribute or memorial of some kind? Whatever it was, I found it sweet and touching, and identified with the artist's putting something out there for anyone—or no one—to see and judge. I wondered how many people had noticed and taken the time to consider it.

          Sometimes awareness turns insistent...
          a capacity with which you purposely
          set out to find meaning.

For a second, I stepped back from my reverie and looked around at the bigger picture: the steep slopes of the river valley, shouldering the stocky red brick buildings of the University of Minnesota Medical Center; the gray, wrinkled fingers of a thousand still-bare trees pointing every which way; students drifting in slow motion through their tai chi on the field below; on the path, a young couple delighting in their baby's tottering steps; and, in the background, the surging Mississippi, affecting all with its certainty.

There was so much that could have caught my eye, and yet here I was, drawn in by this quiet, quirky little assertion.

How do you choose what you pay attention to, what stirs you to wonder? It's not always just the biggest, the fastest, the brightest, the loudest that reaches out and grabs us, is it? Don't you find, as I do, that sometimes awareness turns insistent, becoming a more proactive sense, a capacity with which you purposely set out to find meaning?

I've made it my life's work observing wonder. And part of that is observing people observing wonder. Some clearly don't have time for it. Others manage to make time and space for wonder, but play a sort of waiting game. There's certainly nothing wrong with this kind of reactive attention; the openness and patience it requires are the core values of awareness, and they're often rewarded.

        Instead of waiting for wonder to happen
        to you, you expect it. You look for it. In a
        way, you create it.

But then there's a more intentional form of awareness. It's a blade alloyed of openness, patience and wonder, then honed to a fine edge by a spirit of inquiry. Instead of waiting for wonder to happen to you, you expect it. You look for it. In a way, you create it. Sometimes I refer to this capacity as "seeing generously," which means your vision is no longer just a one-way process of taking things in. It becomes a transaction, for you also give something of yourself to the deal, investing your interest, your expectation, your faith.

It's the difference between simply noticing a stranger entering the room, and studying her. You might wonder why she's there. Maybe you keep watching to see where she goes or whom she meets. You examine her expression and body language for clues about what kind of a day she's having or what kind of person she is. Perhaps you're curious to meet her. All of this while other more obvious things are going on in the room all around you.

    I don't think the connection would have
    been made if I hadn't been reaching out too.

So why did I happen to notice, among all the other things going on, that curious little art piece on the tree limb? Why did it catch my eye, engage my curiosity? Surely it reached out to me in some way, but I don't think the connection would have been made if I hadn't been reaching out too.

I can't prove that we intentional observers actually see more than reactive ones, but I know there's a difference. Perhaps it's just that we see different things…or in different ways. What do you think? When you invest like this in the way you see, how does it affect what you see?

Next time you're out walking, see if you can dial up your passive awareness to the next level. Look at the subtle, quiet things and find meaning. Look intentionally. See generously. Expect wonder!

…and let me know how it goes!

“You can ask the universe for signs all you want, but ultimately, we only see what we want to see, when we are ready to see it.”

  TED MOSBY (TV character, How I Met Your Mother)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

CELESTIAL DOLPHINS – Figments of Phosphorescence

I guess it all started with the moon and stars. Ancient man found those celestial lights a great source of wonder. Now and then, when things got a little more exotic (like eclipses and northern lights), wonder turned to fear.

But when you're a kid, most such fears are, as yet, unlearned. And things like awe and wonder tend to fall a little closer to home.

     We hung over the bow railing and saw our 
     bow waves filled with millions of little blue-
     green pinpoints of light

I'll never forget the first time I encountered fireflies. While living at our family’s summer house, I’d find them on those cricket-pulsing, sultry nights in the hay fields down by the St. Croix River. My parents let me keep a few in a jar. From this I learned not just about phosphorescence, but also a little about life and death.

I'm not proud of this, but, as a ten-year-old boy, my curiosity sometimes trumped respect. My experiments with fireflies included squashing them and rubbing the glowing goo on my clothes, where it shone for a few seconds longer than the poor creatures’ lives.

My wife’s dad was a navy man. He’s told us of seeing the entire wake of his minesweeper aglow with phosphorescent plankton stirred up by the vessel’s night passage through the South Pacific.

I thought that experience, as phosphorescence stories go, would surely have to take the cake. Until, that is, my wife and I were lucky enough to discover the Searcher and its fantastic natural history cruises from San Diego around the Baja Peninsula.

Late one night, while we were motoring in the calm, deserted Sea of Cortez, the captain of the 95-foot boat came on the P.A. system and announced that he and the crew were seeing some good phosphorescence from the bridge and that we might want to head out on deck to check it out.

           The glow of a single firefly can be 
           your ticket to wonder.

Maintaining cruising speed, he turned off the Searcher’s lights. In near-total darkness, we and our 20 or so fellow passengers hung over the bow railing, looked down and saw our bow waves filled with millions of little blue-green pinpoints of light, enough to completely light up not just the water, but the sides of the hull as well. It was absolutely mesmerizing. We watched in reverent silence for nearly 20 minutes.

As some of our fellow travelers headed back inside, Sally and I still couldn’t get enough of the hypnotic glow and gurgle of those bow waves. Suddenly, several large streaks of churning light emerged, like so many comets, from the watery darkness on both sides of the boat and streaked toward the bow.


The dolphins, like the Searcher, ignited the plankton, which shrouded them in light, leaving 20- to 30-foot glowing, swirling trails. These delightful creatures seemed to know this would thrill us even more than their daytime antics, weaving, twisting and jumping with an extra measure of exuberance.

After about ten minutes lacing in and out of our bow waves, our living comets peeled off from the bow one by one and launched themselves back into their own deep, dark universe.

We were so fortunate to have been in the right place at the right time for such a powerful, magical experience! But one needn't witness a celestial dolphin light show in the Sea of Cortez to appreciate the wonder of phosphorescence. If you let it, the glow of a single firefly can be your ticket to wonder.

Have you had any magical encounters with phosphorescence? 
Let us know!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #74
Choose the window seat and fly!

As you break through the clouds, let your imagination, too, take off. Soar between peaks of cloud “mountains.” Look for real summits poking up through the white blanket and realize that today their view may very well be reserved just for you.
At night, bathe in moonlight awash on a billowy blue sea; tiptoe through pools of warm, golden light where cities glow.
This is flying as if it were for the first time.

“Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.” 
 Albert Szent-Györgyi 

Monday, April 11, 2011

RECLAIM WONDER! – Take the Pledge!

In this increasingly sped-up, dumbed-down, 140-character world, are you starting to hear, as I am, that little voice of unease from somewhere deep in your soul?

Doesn't some part of you just want to say no to all that virtual "reality," all the quick, shallow relationships this digitized culture expects us to buy into? Don't you yearn to recapture that sense of wonder we all had, naturally, when we were kids?

Use the ideas as goals, resolutions, or just occasional affirmations of your intention to live      a more attentive, curious and grateful life.

That's what my Reclaiming Wonder Movement is all about. It's recognizing that yearning, and beginning to make our own choices as to the kind of depth and substance we want in our relationships with ourselves, each other and Nature.

The movement can start philosophically and lead to lifestyle changes, but it's inevitably a spiritual journey. Lots of people want to take part in this journey, but don't quite know where to start. That's why I've crafted the Reclaiming Wonder Pledge. (see text from the piece below this post)

Think of it as a list of first steps and/or mileposts to guide you on your quest for more mindfulness. You can use the ideas as goals, resolutions, or just occasional affirmations of your intention to live a more attentive, curious and grateful life.  
You • can • do • this!!

Use the peach-colored order form to the right. >
Print it out, frame it, or make it the background of your computer desktop. Give a framed copy to someone you know who's also yearning to reclaim wonder in his/her life.
Thanks for taking the Reclaiming Wonder Pledge! Have a wonder-full day!

•  I believe I'm surrounded by wonders great and small, all the time, wherever I am.
•  I understand that many of those wonders lie hidden to first glances.
•  I will open my spirit to those wonders; my eyes, my ears, my heart will follow.
•  I will make time for awareness, curiosity and wonder.
•  I will turn off the television, put down the book and start looking, learning and living first-hand.
•  I will decide for myself what entertains me and, more importantly, what nourishes my soul.
•  I will carefully examine the myth of certainty, and value learning more than knowing.
•  I will notice and celebrate the power of presence.   
•  I will be more aware of the miracle of grace that resides around and within every person.
•  I will rise above bias and fear, and find the good in every person, every thing, every situation.
•  I will shine the light of my own spirit, and will give others the chance to shine too.
•  I will try to experience everything as if it were for the first time.
•  I will approach each day with faith in Nature's instruction, and gratitude for being Her pupil.
•  I will be patient with both Nature and myself, celebrating small steps toward understanding.

Friday, April 8, 2011

INSTRUMENT OF GRACE – The Power of Touch

When you touch something, it touches you.

Touch is underrated. Sure, it gets credit as a way of discovering and exploring—that is to say, as a receiver of sensation. What we seldom appreciate, though, is that, of all our senses, only touch is always a two-way street. You can usually see, hear or smell something pretty much anonymously—without its being involved in any way. But when you touch something, it touches you.

Many years ago I was walking out of my office building for lunch when I heard a disquieting sound from across the street. It was the sound of impact, not like the metal-on-metal crash of a car accident, but something more dull, a heavy thud I suspected right away could not be a good thing. When I got to the top of the steps, I could see what had happened. A workman who’d been perched on the roof of a three-story rooming house had fallen nearly all the way to the driveway below. He’d caught the corner of a dumpster, where he lay, draped like a rag doll, his body bent grotesquely backward.

By the time I and a few other passers-by had run to the scene, someone had already called 911. The guy was conscious, but I think he was going into shock. We didn’t want to move him because of the near certainty of spinal injury. So we threw several jackets over him and prayed the ambulance would be there soon.

    When I opened my eyes after a minute or so, 
    he was looking right into them, and the look 
    of pain and terror was gone.

The man was terrified. I think he’d already realized he was in pretty bad shape. Maybe he’d noticed that he couldn’t feel his legs or his body; I didn’t ask. I took one of his hands in mine, closed my eyes and tried to pour my good wishes, my spiritual energy, everything I was feeling for him into the clammy flesh. I prayed that God would use me as a conduit for His grace.

There were probably ten other people around by this time, and I think some of them were trying to ask me and the victim questions. I'm sure others were trying to encourage him. But I’d completely tuned them out. I think he had too, because, when I opened my eyes after a minute or so, he was looking right into them, and the look of pain and terror was gone.

I’ve asked myself many times what this apparent connection was all about. I don’t know if my touch really played a role in helping to calm this poor guy or not. But I think, if for no better reason than my believing so strongly in the power of this connection, that it was indeed so.

The ambulance came, the EMTs immobilized the victim and away they sped. I looked for some reference to the accident in the papers, but I guess that, like the scores of other non-lethal injuries that happen to people every day, this one hadn't warranted a mention. I could only hope and pray that he’d recover enough to lead a good life.

I know I’m walking on thin ice to presume there’s power in my touch. After all, who do I think I am, God?

Well…yes, I am God. So are you and so is everyone and every thing. As a matter of faith, this is where the rubber meets the road. Whatever higher power we believe in, if we don't believe it can and will channel its grace through us, aren't we denying it the chance to use us as its instruments of love? Who are we to make such a denial? Author and lecturer Marianne Williamson puts it so well:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.
Do you believe in the power of touch? How have you sensed it flowing to, from or through you? We'd love to hear about it here on OMW! -- Click on Comments below.

    "You are not here to save the world, but you are 
     here to touch the hands that are within your reach."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

DEMYSTIFYING THE MYSTICAL – The Down and Dirty Road to Higher Consciousness

As I've begun building a following for One Man's Wonder, two challenges have stood out above all the rest: deciding and articulating what it is I want to say, and finding other bloggers who might appreciate that way of looking at life and be willing to engage with me in engaging the world.

One Man's Wonder is part nature blog, part personal reflection, part spiritual journey. To be more precise, it explores the considerable common ground that exists between simple, everyday awareness and some kind of higher spiritual consciousness.

Call it what you will, this area's not defined or governed by any particular religious construct; you don't have to be a liberal arts graduate or an NPR listener to fit in; there are no slick New Age buzzwords. All you have to do is show up, pay attention and not be in a hurry to leave. Period.

     We're at the point of stepping back and
     recognizing the sad absurdity of stockpiling
     meaningless "friendships" and chasing
     quick, shallow experiences.

As for finding kindred spirits, I'm coming across surprisingly few blogs that aren't about just nature (usually just one aspect of nature) or just spirituality (most often of just one bent). And many of the latter, laced with slick New Age jargon or Zen-speak, seem pretty hard for the average person to relate to.

It puzzles me that so few people are managing to articulate this obvious nexus of the immediate with the eternal in plain, everyday language. It's not that hard.

I know I'm not the only one who senses the growing unease people are feeling with this sped-up, dumbed down, 140-character world of sound bites, texting, and virtual relationships. I think we're at the point of stepping back and recognizing the sad absurdity of stockpiling meaningless "friendships" and chasing quick, shallow experiences. We're capable of so much more.

We yearn for substance, for real-world experiences that cause us to think, to feel, to wonder. Don't you feel that longing percolating somewhere in your soul?

So what can you do about it? Slow down. Rethink your priorities. Give yourself the gift of time unencumbered by expectation. Put yourself—physically and, more importantly, mentally—in a place where, when wonder comes calling, someone's actually home to answer the door. Believe in small miracles. And remember, we often see what we expect to see.

     Sometimes the only way to attain something
     I desperately want and never seem to find is
     to stop looking for it.

Too many people seem to invest in symbols and gurus instead of in real-life experience—and few ever seem to find their bliss. What I've found is that sometimes the only way to attain something I desperately want and never seem to find is to stop looking for it. For wonders surround and fill us all the time. You don't have to hire a personal coach, consult a crystal or join a movement to find answers or inspiration. They're already in you.'s already in you.
This brings me back to One Man's Wonder. My wish is that these reflections, these accounts of experiences that have moved me to wonder, will help you see how natural, how down-to-earth, how utterly simple it is to enter the realm of the mystical.

I don't pretend to know anything beyond my own feelings and the belief that my presence has power. Beyond that, it's just curiosity, patience and a bit of faith. These are things no one should have to strive for, much less pay for. My hope is to be seen not as an expert on anything, but just a fellow traveler who happens to enjoy sharing his experiences, and hopes you'll find affirmation and encouragement in them.

Please let us know how it goes...

Saturday, April 2, 2011

HOW TO BE IN THE MOMENT – 101 Little Tips

 TIP #54
Be aware of negative space.

    In Nature, as elsewhere in life, we can see more if we look not just at things, but also at the spaces between things; not just at the pattern, but breaks in the pattern.
    Among other things, this skill will help you find critters in
water or deep woods.