The Personal Origins of Awe

In another life, if I could pull the threads together, from beginning to end (well, not all the way to finish at which point I won’t be doing any typing) I would start and end that tapestry with AWE.

I distinctly remember the first time I felt it—at maybe three or four. Not uncommonly, awe is manufactured by bigger-than-life stories, or stories of bigger-than-life monsters or stronger-than-life superheroes. And Superman certainly contributed to the conviction that the world was stranger and more complex than it seemed, me at my sandbox.

But I wandered off into the rough. Sandboxes were for sissies. I was going to dig my way to China, in a hole I had started behind the garage in a Birmingham suburb, miles from the closest woodland or park. That digging hole would connect me, I was told, to a land of pigtailed Chinamen, in bathrobes and pointy hats. All it would take was persistence, and from time to time, a new spoon to dig with. I know it sounds trivial, but that the world was ROUND and my place in it connected by a straight line through the center of the planet to a people so unlike those in Woodlawn made the hair on my arms stand up. Or would have, if I’d had any.

And then, there were the quartz crystal and mica and feldspar and fool’s gold that came out of that random pit being slowly carved into what must have been excavated house foundation diggings, pushed into place a few decades earlier than the early 50s when I began my world travels.

Each nugget was a treasure, a doubloon from a pirate treasure chest. But more than that, the quartz: It was just translucent enough that vision penetrated it, imagined something faintly there inside it—another world found in my diggings to China’s other world.

Lastly, I remember a toy that became an object lesson with far-reaching philosophical overtones. We visited a childless family relative most Sundays, and while the adults chatted, my brother and I were sequestered in a room off to the side (if not climbing the sticky plum tree out back.) One of the few “play things” we were allowed to play with was a set of Russian stacking dolls. The largest hid the next largest, which hid an even smaller one, down to a tiny one the size of a peanut.

And I may be embellishing this backwards through the lens of adult understanding, but I believe that it was in these stacking dolls—these holons within the whole—that it dawned on me that at every level of truth, one could go deeper; could stare more deeply into the translucent haze with enough force of will to reach yet another embedded truth. And again, and again.

A few years later, a quarter acre woodlot was the microcosm of wilderness. In the part, I could imagine the whole, and it gave me shivers.

And in all these anecdotal personal remembrances, the common thread was a sense of being a small part of a much greater whole. This was a nascent feeling of AWE—a thrill of smallness that hinted of what could be found, known, seen, discovered, realized.

Small wonder I wanted a microscope from the time I was in the second grade. Or that I majored in biology.

I relate all of this to you, dear diary, so that soon I can offer a discourse by others on the potential consequences of awe—happening naturally more in some lives than in others; often coupled with curiosity; and held up as a desirable and intentionally achieved strength that, once acquired, could make us a better animal than what we presently appear to be in this brutish zoo of the early 21st Century.

So if I can pull it off, I’ll post the followup soon. No promises. Life in the trenches. And regarding the other end of this awe-some life of 70-plus years (the oft-mentioned third book), I wouldn’t wait up for that one.

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fred

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

2 thoughts on “The Personal Origins of Awe”

  1. You took me back to my own childhood, growing up on the bald Canadian prairie, where you wouldn’t think there’d be anything at all to spark awe. But the strange thing is, that’s exactly what happened—I grew up awestruck with the sheer enormity of the outdoors, how my world stretched from one horizon to the next! And, of course, that was accompanied by curiosity, about what lay beyond. Good post, Fred!

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