Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
41. Why Is the World So Beautiful?
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41. Why Is the World So Beautiful?

A gift of a question from Robin Wall Kimmerer, and more on the science of awe
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Transcript

“Why is the world so beautiful?” This question inspired a young plant-loving woman of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation to go to college and study botany. Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story in her luminous book Braiding Sweetgrass—how this question guided her as she earned a PhD and became a professor of botany, and how it guided her too to find her way back home to Indigenous understandings of plants.

“Why is the world so beautiful?” I ran across her question again back in December, during the holidays, and this time I decided to really pay attention. It was the season of giving, and the question itself felt like a gift—something to be carried gently into the new year and unwrapped slowly over time.

So now we’re six months into the year, and we just passed the solstice. Where did the time go? Happy solstice to each of you!

And I’m still carrying the gift. I try to unwrap it every morning: “Why is the world so beautiful?” Waking up to this question gives me a nudge, every day, to step outside and take a fresh look and appreciate what I see.

And there is so much! My own little slice of the beautiful world includes, in the distance, a small bay of the blue Pacific Ocean and beside it an old volcano worn down over time, its rounded-down head often wearing a narrow crown of fluffy white clouds.

A faraway bay in dawn light next to a round mountain with a crown of pink-tinged clouds

Right over my head are the thick spreading branches of a huge monkeypod tree, where in the mornings a crimson northern cardinal often sits to sing. He’s the first to wake up in the morning, calling everyone else awake, and he’s the last one to sing everyone else to sleep after night falls. At dawn he’s joined by white-eyed warblers and house finches and zebra doves trilling and cooing in a chorus, and the lovebirds who roost in the eaves of this cottage are stirring and chirping, often fussing at their neighbors, as if they’re just taking up the old argument where they left it off the night before. They have rosy heads and bodies of mint green or sky blue or sunny yellow, and they gleam bright and bold in the morning light.

And the sky—oh, the sky! Each morning when I look up, the sky is new. If I wake up before dawn, I get to watch one of the brightest stars of the night be the last one to wink out in the morning. That star is Vega, passing overhead now. At the last solstice, in this same hour before dawn, Vega hung low at the northeastern horizon; over six months I have watched Vega sail up and over our heads, past the zenith. I’d never tracked the path of Vega before; it’s one of the gifts of waking up and looking out to ask each morning, “Why is the world so beautiful?”

And each morning the world is new. So beautiful that I can only say, “wow.” And “thank you.”

The wonder of it all—that we should be alive here, now! That we can open our eyes and ears every morning to the beauty of sky and water and trees and plants and birds and animals—it boggles the mind! Just appreciating such beauty for a few moments takes me to a new place for the day. It carries me right into wonder and awe.

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Now, I can just about hear what some of you are thinking: She lives on a tropical island! Who wouldn’t see beauty every day?

But before you click away, let me tell you a little more about my tropical island. Let me tell you about the grassland I see every morning, stretching out across Maui’s hillside as far as it goes.

A hillside of brown grass with a few scraggly trees under a deep blue sky with sweeping white clouds

The grass is here because the forests that used to cover these volcanoes, from their tops down nearly to the coasts, were destroyed in the 1800s by logging and by being trampled under grazing animals brought here by American sugar barons for their upcountry ranches. Then in the 1920s, after the trees were gone and the land had eroded, American scientists brought kikuyu grass from Africa and sent cuttings out to all those ranchers to stabilize the soil. But now the soil on this side of the island can’t grow anything else because the kikuyu grass squeezes it out with a dense mat of roots that can reach four feet or more into the ground. And the grass is flammable, and now there are brushfires on this island, in a place that never evolved with fire because the forests that were here cooled the soil and kept it moist. Just a few nights ago I went to sleep with the smell of smoke from the latest wildfire.

And let me tell you about the water I look out on. Here on Maui we treat our sewer water, and then we pump it out into the ocean. But the treated water is only mostly pure, not completely pure, so the extra nutrients left in the water support the growth of invasive algae, and the algae sprout on the reefs and crowd out the corals. And the nitrogen in that wastewater and in the runoff from golf courses weakens the sea turtles, and some of them catch a herpesvirus that causes large white masses of tumors to grow on their eyes or mouths or necks, and I have seen these tumors. The tall palm trees outside my window and even the majestic monkeypod over my head are exotics, imported from somewhere else, often by Americans who wanted these islands to look more like Florida, which they understood, than like Hawaiʻi, which they didn’t. And none of the birds I hear in the dawn chorus are native, all of them brought here from somewhere else—as pets or as game birds or just because the people who came here missed the birds from home. The coastal areas of Maui lost all their native birds already decades ago.

So this land is wounded land; these waters are under enormous stress. The Hawaiian islands, because they’re thousands of miles away from other land masses, gave birth to 10,000 native species, and 9000 of those are endemic, meaning they’re found nowhere else in the world. And many are endangered; just in recent decades we lost eight more forest birds to extinction.

All of this is true, and I am aware of all of it when I wake up every morning. And yet—at the same time—the Earth is pumping out beauty enough in any one day to last a lifetime. This world is magnificent. Gobsmackingly gorgeous. A sky of blue, and under it growing things, birds trilling, an ocean that reflects the precise hues of the sky—every day it fills me with awe. “Why is the world so beautiful?”

Gregory Cajete is an Indigenous scholar of the Santa Clara Pueblo, who says in his book Native Science that feeling awe lies at the heart of spirituality. He writes, “Our innate sense of awe at nature’s majesty” is “the core experience of spirituality. From this sense of awe flow . . . the foundation of community, and the ‘right’ relationship with all aspects of nature.”

So I want to look a little more at this experience of awe and why it is so important, and so necessary. Why it helps us toward right relationships with others here on Earth.

And it turns out that Western science too has a lot to say about this. This week I’ve been catching up on the work of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. One of its cofounders is Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology who has been studying the experience of awe for more than twenty years. Dacher’s new book came out in January, and it’s full of what they’ve discovered in their psychology lab about human beings and how we experience awe.

They define awe as that feeling we get when we’re in the presence of something vast, something that challenges our understanding. In the presence of something so huge or so intricate, people often report that they feel small, but in a good way—humble and amazed and connected up with everything around them. As an example, think of that feeling you get when you’ve been hiking up a mountain, working and working with each step, and suddenly you arrive at the top, and the view opens out into this huge panorama, and you go “Ahhhhhhh!” It’s so large and so beautiful, and you’re so small, but you feel happy to be part of it all.

Related episode: 6. Finding the Way of the Heart

In Dacher Keltner’s lab they do neuroimaging to see what the brain can tell them about this experience of feeling small. And what they find is that when people are experiencing awe, the parts of the brain that fire up when we’re focusing on our own lives and our own plans start to deactivate. As he puts it, “The ‘self’ regions of the brain start to calm down.” And our attention gets drawn instead toward the world around us, and the usual boundaries soften and dissolve. Experiencing awe frees us to feel connected to everything. And it’s a joyful experience. Keltner comments: “What a striking property of the human condition! That when we let go of the self, all the joy begins!”

It turns out that joy is only one of the many good things that happen inside of people when we feel awe. Lani Shiota is a psychologist at Arizona State who also studies awe, and she and her team find that experiencing awe changes people—for the better. It especially changes how people take in and process information. When people are experiencing awe, they tend to have more accurate perception than usual; they can see and hear a little bit better what is actually in front of them. Because most of the time we tend to pull our past experiences into the forefront and then view what is before us through that filter of old events. But when people feel awe, they’re more able to be present to what’s right in front of them, or as Shiota says, they take in information “in a relatively unbiased way.” It means they’re a little less influenced by what they want to see and a little more open to what they actually see.

And not only do people see more clearly, they think more clearly too. People who have just been feeling awe are more skeptical when they hear bad reasoning about something; they think more critically. They have better discernment. As Shiota puts it, “Awe seems to reduce our tendency to filter our current experience through what we think we already know.”

You can already see why experiencing awe would be so crucial at a moment like this, when people are falling under the spell of misinformation from so many directions, but this is only the start of the benefits of feeling awe. Many studies over the past twenty years have shown that experiencing awe also leads us to treat other people better. Feeling awe actually makes us kinder and more generous. Feeling awe weakens people’s desire for money—this is an amazing finding, right?

The bottom line is, awe makes us better people. More ethical people. More loving and empathetic people. And, in a finding that didn’t surprise me, feeling awe in nature also, as Keltner puts, often goes along with “the sense that plants and animals are conscious and aware.” This is something that Indigenous peoples have known since forever and that Western science is only beginning to catch up to.

And all of these changes in people underscore what Gregory Cajete said: awe and wonder are the key to right relationship with others on Earth—all others, both human and more-than-human. Because awe helps us see clearly and puts us in the frame of mind to treat others well—to see miracles all around us and to feel connected to the grand unfolding of life.

Losing awe and wonder means losing our connection to the mystery of becoming—how all life on Earth is still unfolding: how a mighty tree unrolls from a seed. How our own bodies grow without our instructions. How species separate over generations, adding new characteristics, dropping others. How new variations unfold over time.

Those who forget to be amazed at that unfolding, and how far it exceeds our human understanding, will try to force things to unfold according to their own lights. They will coerce others to conform to their plans, whether those others are humans or wetlands, forests or rivers. This is how tyrants and colonizers and enslavers are made—by losing touch with the wonder of other beings, how vast their lives, how unstoppable the life force within them. This is how fascists are made—by forgetting that we are small, beautifully small, in the scheme of things and forgetting how joyful it feels to be only a small, connected-up part. This too is how we send species into extinction—by losing our amazement at their beauty, their contribution, their unique thread in the tapestry of relations on Earth.

And falling out of awe is how the Supreme Court can decide that wetlands don’t need to be protected under the Clean Water Act, which just happened in the Sackett v. EPA case. The US includes over a hundred million acres of wetlands, but this ruling changes their definition in a way that will threaten almost half of these wetlands.

It’s all about not understanding swamps. Not being in awe of marshes. Falling out of touch with the great mystery of how water cleans itself, how it purifies the land, how wetlands protect coastlines. People who are willing to destroy water’s power to purify are people who have forgotten how to be amazed by every part of nature even if they don’t understand it.

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Awe could save us. Awe could help us recover our respect for what wetlands do, what forests do, what rivers and reefs do. Awe, in fact, may be the only thing that will save us, because awe teaches us to take our appropriate place in the community of beings on Earth. Awe explodes our arrogance. Wonder and awe make us humble—and increase our joy in the process. And joy is the best possible response to a world that lavishes us with so much beauty—beauty that unfolds in ever-new complexity, in a daily mystery of ever-springing life.

The life force is unstoppable. In the famous lines of poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “And for all this, nature is never spent; / There lives the dearest freshness deep down things.”

That deep-down freshness is still present, even on wounded land. Even here on Maui, on land where forests have not grown for over a hundred years. The life force is still springing, and the forests could grow again, because people right now are working to help them flourish. And the forests are responding.

Art Madeiros is a biologist born and raised in Hawaiʻi. Twenty-five years ago he led a group of people in fencing off a square of dry land near the top of Maui’s big volcano, Haleakalā. The fence keeps out all the wild pigs and deer and goats. After the fence was up, people planted a some native trees to encourage the forest to resprout. And after some time had passed they planted shrubs and plants that the tall trees used to live with in the native dryland forest.

Now, most people don’t know about the dryland forests of Hawaiʻi; I didn’t either before I moved here. When we think “tropical forest,” we picture a lush wet rainforest. But every Hawaiian island also has its dry side, away from the clouds and rain, and the forests on the dry sides of our mountains held the other half of life, the dryland half—broadleaf trees and a thick understory of plants and shrubs and so many birds and insects.

But now only 3 percent of our dryland forests remain. You only have to look across the hills I look at every day to see just how gone the forests are. Art Medeiros says, “We used to ask ourselves, ‘Can anything be done here?’” At the time, he says, “people were saying, ‘Oh, no, nothing can be done. [The forests are] dead. They’re gone.’” But in working for a few years with that fenced-off square of dry land, Art and the volunteers learned something about the forests. “When you try to help them, oh, they come back!” he says. “They’re not gone!”

The forest was just waiting. After a hundred years with no baby seedlings, one year new shoots began to pop up from the ground. “I say the trees forgave us,” Art says. “Many of them started to have babies [again]. First it was the common things. . . . And then it was the rarer things.” He pulls up a picture of tiny green shoots of halapepe, an endangered native tree, poking up from the ground. “It’s magical,” he says, “to see the components of ancient Hawaiian forest putting themselves back together. That’s the miracle part of my work. . . . When you do your part, and something else responds,” he says, “it’s an amazing feeling.”

The land and waters in every other spot of the world are waiting too. Waiting for people to care for them, to take a few first steps to help bring them back to flourishing. There’s no better antidote for the sadness and grief we feel in the face of losing so much of the Earth than to move closer to the mighty power of this same Earth. To get our fingers into the regenerating soil, to help restore our own corner of this beautiful, awe-inspiring Earth.

We do not work alone. When we lend a hand, the Earth responds with more beauty and more life.

Because the world’s beauty is not spent. It is available every day to feed our wonder. To soothe our jangled spirits. To heal our grief. This is an Earth that is still becoming, still turning up new shoots out of the ground, still hatching young fish and young turtles, still gathering cottonball clouds above our heads, still tingeing those clouds pink and orange and purple at the start and end of each day. This is an Earth that churns out beauty when it doesn’t have to.

The same mountain and bay in sunset light, with fluffy gray clouds tinged red and water of blue-violet.

“Why is the world so beautiful?” I don’t know, but that beauty is a comfort and a mystery and a wonder beyond comprehending.

Wonder is our lifeline. Awe is the thread that we can follow to find our way out of this maze we are lost in. Awe is our daily practice and our daily joy. If there’s one thing we can do every day, it’s find some awe. Because awe opens our hearts. It shrinks us down to our real size. It shows us we’re not alone and allows us to feel connected to everything and everyone else. It grows us in love.

“Why is the world so beautiful?” Wishing for you some amazement every day, to keep you nestled firmly in the lap of this mighty and beautiful Earth.

Thank you for reading Nature :: Spirit. If you enjoyed this post, please let others know!

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For digging deeper

Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the story of her question, “Why is the world so beautiful?” in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2015). Also check out her interview with Krista Tippett, “The Intelligence of Plants,” On Being, February 25, 2016.

Gregory Cajete’s view of awe as “the core experience of spirituality” comes from Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence (Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers, 2000), 98. The book is available to read for free at the Internet Research Library.

I learned the history of kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinium) on Maui from a 1958 report by Edward Y. Hosaka, “Kikuyu Grass in Hawaii,” University of Hawaiʻi Agricultural Extension Service Circular 389, available for download here.

For information on the white tumors on sea turtles, see “Fibropapillomatosis and Sea Turtles—Frequently Asked Questions” on the NOAA Fisheries page. For in-depth study of the disease, see Karen Arthur et al., “The Exposure of Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) to Tumour Promoting Compounds Produced by the Cyanobacterium Lyngbya majuscula and Their Potential Role in the Aetiology of Fibropapillomatosis," Harmful Algae 7, no. 1 (Jan 2008): 114–25. For the connection to nitrogen pollution, see Kyle S. Van Houtan et al., “Land Use, Macroalgae, and a Tumor-Forming Disease in Marine Turtles,” PLoS One 5, no. 9 (September 29, 2010).

On birds going extinct in Hawaiʻi, see Kim Steutermann Rogers, “Wave of Hawaiian Bird Extinctions Stresses the Islands’ Conservation Crisis,” Audubon, Oct. 6, 2021.

Dacher Keltner's new book is Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life (New York: Penguin Random House, 2023). He hosts the “Science of Happiness” podcast of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. His comments on forgetting the self and coming into joy come from two interviews: with Krista Tippett, “The Thrilling New Science of Awe,” On Being, Feb. 2, 2023, and with Susan Cain, “Awe: The New Science of Wonder,” Family Action Network, February 2023.

Psychology professor Lani Shiota explains how awe sharpens people’s perception in “How Awe Transforms Body and Mind,” Greater Good Science Magazine, August 2016. Quotes come from there and from another video, “Let’s Talk About ‘Awe,’” ASU Department of Psychology, 2018. Interestingly, this clearer thinking does not happen when people are feeling other positive emotions, such as happiness or enthusiasm, only awe.

For a summary of how awe makes people’s lives better, including the supporting research, see Summer Allen, “Eight Reasons Why Awe Makes Your Life Better,” Greater Good Magazine, September 26, 2018. Also see “The Science of Awe: A White Paper Prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley” (September 2018). To download, click here. One of the studies mentioned is Libin Jiang et al., “Awe Weakens the Desire for Money,” Journal of Pacific Rim Psychology (January 29, 2018).

For an example of Western science investigating—and demonstrating—awareness in plants, see the work of Monica Gagliano on plant cognition, especially how plants demonstrate memory: Gagliano et al., “Experience Teaches Plants to Learn Faster and Forget Slower in Environments Where It Matters,” Oecologia 175 (2014): 63–72. Gagliano gave a talk in 2021 at TEDxSydney, “How ‘Heretical’ Science Revealed the Intelligence of Nature.”

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem is “God’s Grandeur.” One needn’t share Hopkins’s conception of God to enjoy the poem and celebrate the “freshness deep down things.”

For the clearest quickest summary of the Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA, illustrated by overhead photos of the waters on the plaintiffs’ property, see Kirtli Datla, “What Does Sackett v. EPA Mean for Clean Water?” Earthjustice, May 26, 2023. For in-depth analysis of the decision, see the commentary by Sambhav Sankar, “Samuel Alito Took a Blowtorch to Environmental Law,” Slate, June 9, 2023. Also helpful is the legal background in Chris Geidner, “Brute Force and the Reactionary SCOTUS Majority's Assault on Clean Water,” Law Dork, May 26, 2023.

For an introduction to Hawaiian dryland forests, see “About Dry Forests,” Ka'ahahui 'O Ka Nāhelehele, 2018. For an idea of what Maui’s ancient dryland forests were like, see “Auwahi Forest Before People,” Auwahi Forest Restoration Project. Poke around the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project site for lists of native species, supporting research articles, and more.

For an overhead photo of what a young, thriving Hawaiian dryland forest looks like compared to the desert beside it, see the banner photo at the Auwahi project’s “Achievements” page.

Art Medeiros’s words come from two sources: an interview with Havilah Mills of the group Grow Some Good, available for listening on the homepage of the Auwahi Forest Restoration Project; and his TEDxMaui talk from 2012, “Auwahi: Hope on a Hawaiian Volcano.”

For a ten-minute guided meditation to strengthen your sense of belonging on Earth, check out this episode from the Greater Good Science Center's podcast: “Happiness Break: How to Be in Harmony in Nature—Wherever You Are,” with Yuria Celidwen, an Indigenous scholar of Nahua and Maya descent.

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Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
Nature :: Spirit — Kinship in a living world
How can we realize our kinship with nature? 20-minute scripted episodes for rethinking our relationship to nature and cultivating reverence and an open heart.
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