The leaves are falling in our backyard. The liquid ambers have gone deep red, and their leaves blow into drifts that collect against the grass. My four-year-old son looked out the window the other morning and found one suspended perfectly in mid-air.
Held by a single invisible thread, thanks to a spider with outsized hunting ambitions, the leaf hung above the herb garden, outside the window of our breakfast nook. Every day, for more than a week, its continued presence sparked a new round of musing during breakfast: the incredible strength of spider silk, the catching of just one leaf, the harmlessness of the gusting wind, the persistence of the leaf’s ruby hue. And when it finally fell, my son asked if it would happen again.
He was wondering, a quality only children master. The depth of my son’s wonder might seem incommensurate with the subject, a solitary leaf caught by happenstance. Yet it’s precisely such things that delighted G. K. Chesterton, that sparked his sense of awe.
He once wrote, in a letter to his then-fiancée, “I like the Cyclostyle ink; it is so inky. I do not think there is anyone who takes quite such a fierce pleasure in things being themselves as I do. The startling wetness of water excites and intoxicates me: the fieriness of fire, the steeliness of steel, the unutterable muddiness of mud.” It is little surprise that a mind so capable of enthusiasm over mud often lamented, “We are perishing for want of wonder, not for want of wonders.”
Chesterton’s zeal was not merely an enthusiastic temperament. He recognized the significance of things being themselves. As Aristotle writes in the Metaphysics, “It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” For a thing to be itself it must have an essence, a thingness. To have a thingness is to have a telos, an end, a purpose.
Chesterton, in the same letter, saw as much, in people as in ink. “It is just the same with people . . . . When we call a man ‘manly’ or a woman ‘womanly’ we touch the deepest philosophy.” If there is a “manliness” at all, there must be an end for man.
Thus, to contemplate the fieriness of fire is to contemplate our ultimate end. No wonder we wonder. Or as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, as he thought on dirt and fire,
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.
Scientists wonder, too. Indeed, no one defends being awestruck by our world more than the apostles of scientism, and their cries sound surprisingly familiar. Richard Dawkins, the ethologist and evolutionary biologist, waxes lyrical on the “poetry of reality.” Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, employs a variant of the phrase, the “magic of reality.” For Krauss and Dawkins, mystery and wonder drive science, and scientists thrive upon both.
Carl Sagan, in the series Cosmos, finds wonder even in the merely factual, where mystery has been dispelled. Strictly speaking, even the most ordinary things around us are traceable to the heavens: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson, American astrophysicist and a preeminent champion of science, invested a similar thought with more passion in a lecture at the Salk Institute some years ago. For Tyson, starstuff doesn’t capture the poetry of our unity with the universe. “It’s quite literally true, that we are stardust, in the highest exalted way one can use that phrase.” This realization that “the molecules in my body are traceable to phenomena in the cosmos,” that we are stardust, “makes me want to grab people in the street and say, ‘Have you heard this?’”
In fact, large masses of people hear this piece of information at regular intervals. Once a year, a man holds my head long enough to mark it and say, “ Memento, homo . . . quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.” We are starstuff, and to starstuff we shall return. Our wondering, however, continues beyond this fact”at least, it does if we muse like a child, for whom there is always one more “why?”
To wonder as Tyson does is to marvel at the complexity of nature, the vastness of the universe, and the starry origins of our own molecules. And rightly so: We can’t help but be amazed at the edge of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison or when the sky above the Eastern Sierras blazes with the Milky Way. But stopping there gets us no closer to answering the real questions of the wondering mind. Why this complexity, why this vastness, why something instead of nothing?
The answer, according to Krauss in a recent interview with the Guardian, is that we are doing it wrong, that “the only meaningful ‘why’ questions are really ‘how’ questions.” Some questions are just the wrong ones to ask, it seems.
“One can debate until one is blue in the face what the meaning of ‘non-existence’ is,” he continued, “but while that may be an interesting philosophical question, it is really quite impotent . . . . It doesn’t give any insight into how things actually might arise and evolve, which is really what interests me.”
For over a week, my son and I read up on the strength of spider webs and why leaves fall. We tried to understand how a leaf might redden of its own accord, even after it’s no longer on the tree. It happens to be an infinitely complex interaction between the brightness of the sunlight on glucose in the leaf, the unmasking of pigments otherwise covered in chlorophyll, and the variation in the temperatures between night and day.
That leaf, as it turns out, was caught in possibly the only position in our yard where it could have changed so dramatically, suspended by a single thread in a patch of sunlight. My son thought about this incredible coincidence and asked, “Why?”
Bill Goodwin is an attorney in San Francisco, California.
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