AWE: Diary

Disappearing in the wonder of the wild moment

Each spring my wife, Terry and I migrate from our home in Wyoming to Dartmouth, a college long famous for the alumni placed at center of America’s financial system, but recently for its sustainability programs. Sustainable Dartmouth is largely a student-driven effort to promote long term sustainable lifestyles while reducing the significant environmental footprint of the campus.

I’ve written many personal stories about evolution and how we’re living in a world vastly different than that for which we’re biologically designed. (See, “A Wild that Leaves Us Speechless,” EIJ, Autumn 2014) I’ve had the strong feeling that as biological organisms we’re programmed to pass life onto the future, which, it seems to me, is what ‘sustainability’ is all about.

two polar bears eating whale meatPhoto by Anita RitenourAWE diminishes us in that we shrink in all this presence, shifting our focus from our individual selves, to the great and potentially powerful collective.

For my fellowship with Sustainable Dartmouth my self-assigned task was to make the case that if students spent more time outside in the wilds, they’d be more inclined to make sustainable choices. First I needed to know what I could find in the academic world about this relationship. I looked at hundreds of papers and articles, interviewed scholars and went to seminars and workshops. I’ve made some basic assumptions — mainly that how healthy (physically and mentally) and happy we are and how meaningful our lives are may be proportional to how close we’re living to lives biology built us for. My journey has been anything but straight and everything but boring. It’s taken me into mindfulness and evolutionary biology, to the current paleo fascination and Jungian and Eco- psychology. Lately, AWE has been the focus of my inquiry and some events of the last month provide supporting material.

September 4: Today we spent hours sitting in a bus on a long spit of gravel connecting the small Inupiat Village of Kaktovik, Alaska with the Beaufort Sea. We were watching polar bears pull nearly invisible pieces of old flesh from the bones of Bowhead Whales killed a year ago. We barely moved. We muttered, our eyes glued to binoculars, “ahh ahh” and “ooooh” and “holy shit” and “can you believe this?” Not another thought entered our minds. The changing light and wild bears combined with the infinite universe we saw when staring out to sea, created what we can only describe as AWE.

We are here for three days, part of a group of people interested in long term conservation of this part of Alaska: The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We all know but barely understand that exposure to these massive peaks, this wind and screaming weather, and this impossible-to-describe force of life, diminishes us in that we shrink in all this presence, shifting our focus from our individual selves, to the great and potentially powerful collective.

Sept 15: Today marks a week back from Alaska. Since returning we’ve spent all waking hours at the hospital with a beloved brother with a life-threatening lung infection. A lot happened inside the hospital — what we hear was a successful surgery but only after hours (and hours and hours) of waiting. “No surprises,” was the report from the surgeon. But a lot happened outside of the hospital, too.

Peregrine Falcon Adult Coming DownPhoto by Marlin HarmsThe AWE we experienced watching those falcons swoop and hover and their rocket-like speed had absorbed any self-awareness.

Terry and I were getting in our car after walking miles out across the massive parking lot when both of us looked up. “What was that?” she said as a large bird flew behind the tall building, emerging on the other side as the dropping sun turned the lacy clouds purple. “Falcon,” we said, almost in unison. Two peregrine falcons soared above the 15-story hospital tower. We grabbed our binoculars and watched for 20 minutes: soaring; perching — the larger one to the left of the ‘M’ in the “Medical” Center and the smaller one on top of the ‘t’ in “Intermountain”; then sparring with a third one coming in from the far east.

During those minutes we thought about nothing else but the wonder of those birds — their grace, the perfection and mastery of the sky, their beauty. We didn’t think about Hank and his pain, his future recovering, the limitations he may or may not be living with. The falcons absorbed all of our attention. We’d ‘disappeared’ watching the falcons, just as we’d ‘disappeared’ watching the polar bears.

The AWE we experienced watching those falcons swoop and hover and their rocket-like speed had absorbed any self-awareness. This loss of self-awareness made me wonder about our evolutionary selves.

Our species is Homo Sapien, which as I recall, means “They who know.” Homo sapien sapien, our sub-species, means, “They who know that they know.” The difference between “knowing” and “knowing that we know,” might be self-awareness, or self-consciousness. I wonder about the Bible and Adam and Eve and their eating of the “Tree of Knowledge.” Couldn’t that have been the moment that symbolizes our changing from Homo sapien to Homo sapien sapien; the moment that doomed us to a future of “self-knowledge”?

September 16. Tonight we went to Meru, the movie about three friends climbing a previously unscaled 20,000-foot high Himalayan Peak, also called, Meru. These three — Conrad Anker, Jimmie Chin, and Renan Ozturk — who I think must be the best all-around climbers in the world, play themselves in this spectacular film. They also do the camera work. They climb steep ice and snow and vertical, nearly featureless rock walls; the same walls to which they strap their tent. They spend nearly sleepless nights pelted with snow and buffeted by wind. They barely eat.

Many critics love the film. It has won awards. It’s about leadership and friendship and mentorship, but also challenge, drive, and obsession. Every climber I’ve talked to loves the film. But some who’ve seen it say it’s about selfishness — why would people with loved ones who depend on them and deeply care about them expose themselves to such high risk of death by going to such extremes? (They have each personally kissed death on the mouth and lost dear friends to big mountains.)

Therefore, Meru, the film, is also about dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitting chemical that sends messages to the brain to control motor skills, while driving us to seek new knowledge or challenges — to explore. Some people have excess dopamine which drives them further into dark and unknown corners of existence to achieve a goal — climb a mountain, explore uncharted territory, start a company, run for president.

The film is not so much about adrenalin, another neurotransmitter. When our brain senses a threat, adrenaline is released, temporarily imbuing our body with the unusual strength and speed we need to save ourselves. Adrenalin triggers our ‘fight or flight’ response to potentially fatal dangers.

Meru peakPhoto by steynard/FlickrWhile the climbers in Meru are definitely risk takers, they are not necessarily thrill seekers. In those mountains, AWE must have been present.

While the climbers in Meru are definitely risk takers, they are not necessarily thrill seekers. (Adrenaline may have been a factor at different extreme points during the climb, or when the wind snapped the structure supporting their tent, but they did not fly from Meru’s summit in a wingsuit.)  In those mountains, AWE must have been present. AWE may contribute to the fact that Conrad Anker is part of a group of our most effective and influential environmentalists and humanitarians who have spent much of their lives climbing the world’s most wild mountains.

September 17: Today I recalled a Zen story about a monk who, against the advice of the other monks, was out exploring high cliffs and hanging valleys, looking for wild herbs for a soup he wanted to make. The monk noticed a tiger with hungry eyes who began to chase him. The monk started running and came to a cliff. He had a choice: to stand there and let the tiger eat him, or climb down the vine he noticed hanging down over the cliff. His chances were better climbing down the vine, he thought. As he climbed down, he looked up and saw a mouse above him nibbling away at the vine, his only connection to life. He yelled at the mouse hoping to scare it away, but the mouse kept at it. The vine was moments from breaking when, from his right, a red strawberry attracted his attention. The strawberry was so beautiful it took his breath away. He reached over and picked the strawberry and ate it. It was delicious.

I read different interpretations of the story, most of them suggesting that, being a Buddhist story, it’s about being in the present moment. This might be true, but I have a different take on it. The monk, driven by dopamine, wanders the wilderness searching for fresh herbs for his soup. Adrenalin kicks in first giving him a boost of speed to escape the marauding tiger and then the added strength holding onto the vine required. Then, with neurotransmitters flooding his system, he still experiences AWE — the red strawberry, its sweet taste.

The moral of the story (the way I read it) is that a monk, who has trained and meditated most of his life, can, even the moment before his death, experience AWE; that perhaps AWE can occur even in the presence of risk and danger. But science says that doesn’t happen with the rest of us.

September 30: Today, although it had broad bipartisan support, the Land and Water Conservation Fund was allowed to expire. For 50 years this fund has been America’s most successful conservation program, making possible the purchase of private inholdings in National Parks and Wilderness Areas, wildlife habitat, public access to hunting and fishing, and heritage sites. This program is funded by oil and gas producers and comes at zero cost to the taxpayers. Rob Bishop, Utah’s own far-right, anti-federal, anti-public land, anti-anything wild or natural Congressman, led the charge to sink the program. This is only the latest example of Bishop’s hatred for the wild. Which for me, begs the question: How did any of us think for one second that Bishop’s “process” to create “a Grand Bargain” supported by all constituents, to solve the conflict surrounding 10 million acres of BLM Wilderness in Southern Utah would succeed? After three years of meetings and field trips and head-scratching, this “bargain basement” process seems to have been nothing but an effort to stall any conservation efforts until that day when once again a Republican moves into the Oval Office.

two polar bears eating whale meatPhoto by Wolfgang StaudtMonument Valley, Utah. Psychologist Dachel Kelmet believes that experiencing awe involves a diminishment of the self — the individual disappearing in the wonder of the wild moment.

The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) engaged in this process skeptically, but in good faith. After 30 years of ground truthing every inch of southern Utah, SUWA “knows” the land and what is wilderness and what isn’t.

Years ago, while working for SUWA, I was gathering information with Executive Director Scott Groene in Beaver County. While wandering the edges of the Central Wah Wah Unit of the Utah Wilderness Coalition’s 9.1 million acre “America’s Redrock Wilderness Proposal” we were stopped by the immense view in front of us.  We stood in awe, looking west across an infinite, feature-less, and little known sea of yellow grass. The sun had just set, but the orange light it poured along the horizon spread and glowed on in timelessness and some of it painted our faces. 

“This,” Groene said,  “is what we’ll need in the future. This is why we’ll come back here.”

October 1: Today, I bought a copy of Dasher Keltner’s book, Born to Be Good and read the last chapter, which is about AWE. Kelmet, a psychology professor at University of California, Berkeley, has also co-authored numerous scientific papers. Those I’ve read focus on what he calls the “pro-social” behavior that is often the result of experiencing awe. I sent him a note a few months ago, asking him a few questions, many of which he said remain unaddressed by science. Kelmet believes that experiencing awe involves a diminishment of the self — the individual disappearing in the wonder of the wild moment. This shrinking of the self is accompanied by the expansion of one’s compassion for the collective and the desire to contribute to the greater good. A key here is that our preservation tendencies associated with risk and fight or flight (or thrill-seeking) are at odds with our desire to care.

October 3: Today I wondered if, when the neurotransmitters from risk and fight, flight, or thrill, are flowing in our bloodstreams, AWE can’t happen. I looked, but couldn’t find, an ending to the story of the monk and the tiger and the beautiful strawberry. What if because the strawberry distracted him, he lost the strength in his hands to hang onto the vine and fell to his death? Or if, being a monk, he could experience the AWE from the strawberry while continuing to save himself? I concluded that biologically, we’re chemically designed to save ourselves and not be distracted by AWE. When we’re safe, AWE is possible and with it the desire to care about the collective.

October 7: Today, I realized the need to adjust my Dartmouth work. Nowadays, the trend in “outdoor experience” seems centered around the chemicals associated with personal survival — dopamine and adrenaline at the expense of AWE. While being outside for any reason is important and better for us than being inside, the opportunity for AWE needs at least equal emphasis with the drive for risk and thrill. Since the simple acts of sitting or wandering in the wild world creates opportunity for us to experience AWE and the associated sustainable or pro-social behaviors, I suggest that daydreaming with my back against a boulder next to a stream be elevated to at least to same status of extreme sports.

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