Books to Cultivate a Sense of Wonder in Nature — Wherever You Are
Reading can help you look at the world in a whole new way. Here are some books, for kids to adults, to get you started.
“There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature — the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” — Rachel Carson, “The Sense of Wonder”
Nature is full of wonder. I have always felt such a sense of awe in the natural world, especially when I go slow. A few years ago, I took a friend who was newish to backpacking on a trip to the Suiattle River Trail. We planned a short trip and left lots of time for exploring. It’s a good thing we did; I teased her later that it was a bit like hiking with a toddler.
We stopped constantly to examine moss, mushrooms, ferns and wildflowers. The candy-striped orchids she found kept us entertained for easily 20 minutes — and we still talk about them.
Lately, especially when we were all constrained to the confines of our neighborhoods, I’ve thought about that trip. I’ve taken more “impressive” trips. But few stick in my memory as vividly, and as comfortingly, as that slow trip with a dear friend.
This past spring, constantly at home, I saw things I’ve never noticed in the 14 years I’ve lived here. I noticed that the tree in my front yard has purple buds, which turn into reddish leaves that, as they grow, turn green. I realized the chickadees make different calls before and after they have started a nest.
All of this has made me think about a sense of wonder in a larger sense. I re-read a few books I’ve always loved and searched out new books that speak to this sense of wonder. Here are some of my favorite books, and some of the thoughts that stuck with me from each. I hope one of them speaks to you. And I'd love to hear about your favorite books in the comments.
The Sense of Wonder: A Celebration of Nature for Parents and Children,” by Rachel Carson
First: "The Sense of Wonder" is not only for parents. If you have children in your life, or even if you don’t, this is a beautiful book. It’s also short, more of a long essay, and full of lovely photos.
Rachel Carson is probably best known for her book “Silent Spring,” which raised the alarm about the dangers of pesticides to birds and the larger natural world. Carson dedicated this book to her nephew, Roger, and writes at length about the joy she found exploring outside with him. As a parent, this book is deeply touching. But I also think it would speak to anyone who wants to find a childlike delight in the beauty of nature. Here are some of my biggest takeaways from the book:
- Cultivate curiosity. It’s OK if you don’t know the answer to your kid’s questions or you don’t know what type of bird you’re watching. Instead, ask questions, make observations and find tools to learn more about the things that really interest you and your kids.
- Children need an adult in their life who will share in their joyful sense of wonder. That shared joy helps the child develop a love for the natural world and helps the adult cultivate their continued enthusiasm and curiosity.
- When kids are grown up, they will remember the nights they stayed up too late and were able to watch the stars or see the moonlight on ocean waves. They won’t remember their messed up schedule or a couple night’s with too little sleep.
“What is the value of preserving and strengthening this sense of awe and wonder, this recognition of something beyond the boundaries of human existence? Is the exploration of the natural world just a pleasant way to pass the golden hours of childhood or is there something deeper? I am sure there is something much deeper, something lasting and significant. ... Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants,” by Robin Wall Kimmerer
“Braiding Sweetgrass” is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. (Or, more precisely in my case, listened to. The author reads the audiobook and it’s lovely.) Robin Wall Kimmerer is a botanist and an Indigenous woman, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She weaves together Indigenous knowledge with a scientific way of looking at the world. She believes that the natural world has a lot to teach us — but we have to listen. This whole book is about that listening and learning.
Wall Kimmerer tells a story of going to college and being asked by an adviser “Why do you want to major in botany?” She told him “I chose botany because I wanted to learn about why asters and goldenrod looked so beautiful together.” He was immediately dismissive and told her that was not the sort of thing botanists concerned themselves with. He told her science was not about beauty, but her book proves him wrong.
I find it hard to say, simply, the ways this book sticks with me. Wall Kimmerer uses storytelling so effectively that it’s hard to explain without re-telling her stories. Her book has to be read, and I highly encourage you to do so. That said, here are some of the things that stuck with me most.
- The relationship between humans and the natural world doesn’t have to be a story of conflict. The natural world gives to us, and we can give back. But for many, that may mean a lot of re-thinking and re-learning.
- There is a lot we don’t know. Wall Kimmerer talks about how her elders would say that the trees talk to each other. For a long time, science would have rejected that idea. But science is being to show it’s true. Both through the air, using pheromones, and through roots, trees are communication. What else is true that we don’t yet know?
- Plants and animals have a lot to teach us. It’s slow and deep learning and sometimes hard to put into words. And it’s so very worth the effort.
“There was a time when I teetered precariously with an awkward foot in each of the worlds — the scientific and the indigenous. But then I learned to fly. Or at least try. It was the bees that showed me how to move between different flowers — to drink the nectar and gather pollen from both. It is this dance of cross-pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world. After all, there aren’t two worlds, there is just this one good green earth.”
“Nature Obscura: A City’s Hidden Natural World,” by Kelly Brenner
“Nature Obscura” was published at an opportune time. It came out earlier this year, and I read it around the beginning of quarantine. The books focuses on the small bits of nature that can be found all around us, including tardigrades living in moss on our roofs, crows in our neighborhood trees, lichen on rocks and moths flitting around your porch lamp. The author, Kelly Brenner, lives in Seattle and her book focuses on areas in or near the city, but this is a book that you can enjoy no matter where you live. I loved learning more about all the creatures that live around me.
The author’s enthusiasm for her various subjects is contagious — each chapter will make you look at the world differently. Here are a few of my favorite suggestions she offered on exploring the nature near you:
- When you’re busy it’s hard to get outside — but that’s when you need it the most. Brenner suggests taking a short walk, sitting in your yard, going up to your roof and watching birds or clouds or simply eating your lunch under a tree.
- Find a spot in your yard or somewhere close to your home to sit every day for a few minutes. Just observe. Look at the sky, trees, grass. Just notice what’s around you and how it changes from day to day and season to season.
- Place an open umbrella, upside down, under a bush and gently tap or shake the bush. Check out the insects and spiders that fall out.
“Experiences in nature need to take place where people are, and many people are in cities. I hope to show that nature is not only ‘out there’ in the wilderness but in our own backyards and parks within easy access. … I would take it as the greatest compliment if you are inspired enough to put this book down and venture outside to follow a fly or spy on a murder of crows or squeeze moss to find a water bear. When you’re done, come back, read the next chapter, and find your next adventure.”