A couple of evenings ago, my husband and are were sitting in the hot tub in a clearing under the redwoods outside our back door talking, when out of the edge of the trees came a deer. She stood there, ears perked, staring straight at us. Immediately, we went silent, our eyes fixed on the deer, her form subtly outlined somewhere between visible and invisible. We have seen this deer maybe four times in the past week or so. She comes up into the clearing, pauses, looks at us, waits for her fawn to follow, or sends it on ahead, then bounds along the edge of the trees a bit, perhaps pausing to nibble at a branch or two, before disappearing down the embankment and deeper into the trees. When the deer appeared again last night however, she didn’t move on. She continued to look at us for what was probably 15 minutes while we sat very still observing her observing us. Occasionally she moved, looking to the sides of the clearing, and later lowering her head slightly, as if in a bow. Not knowing what this meant, we lowered our heads slight too, bowing in return. Later that night, I read that deer lower their heads down as if to eat if it senses danger, and then jerk it back up again abruptly when in danger, hoping the predator will give away its position. We weren’t predators, though, so had nothing to give away.
As we continued staring in silence at each other, I couldn’t help but think of Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like Weasels” where Dillard describes looking into the weasel’s eyes and she is “stunned into stillness,” and this is how we, too, felt. Dillard describes how her eyes were locked with the weasel’s. In our case, it was too dark to see the deer’s eyes, but this kind of precise vision of each other wasn’t necessary. Our presence mesmerized each other. I don’t know what the deer was thinking, if she was simply curious about us, afraid, or some other thing. What is the mind of a deer like, I can’t understand. She was free to move on, but didn’t. Dillard explains how her encounter with the weasel helped her realize how she would like to learn how to live totally present in the act of living as a weasel does. “I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you,” she explains. Such encounters in nature as these throw us out of our humdrum expectations about life or about what will happen next, and enable us to become suddenly aware of our connection to the universe of being. We are in awe, aware of our senses, fully present in the moment, conscious we are alive. This, for me, is one of the important reasons I am alive–to experience the wonder of being!
Moments of awe are rare, which makes me curious if awe requires certain conditions for it to appear. Is awe rare because we are so concerned with our schedules and chores that we don’t notice world around us as alive with the potential to fill us with wonder? Is it because we aren’t often out in wild places where we might be more likely to experience the presence of nature’s raw or intense moments? Art, music, and experiences in nature can all be possible ways awe emerges. Though most of us don’t often do we have the opportunity to witness the kind of art that stops us short because of its power to make us see ourselves or life so precisely, maybe we want to do more to cultivate an open awareness of life where awe can surface naturally. Could we, for example, practice noticing things on a particular walk we take every day from and to a particular location and begin to ask questions about what is there?
A couple of examples of things in nature that have the potential to evoke awe are found as video links in Vicki Zakraewski article, “How Awe Can Help Students Develop Purpose”. Interestingly, Dacher Keltner from the Greater Good, has found in his recent research that experiences of awe have the potential to feel less self-centered and act more empathetically. Empathy could go a long way in helping people gain the insight into each other’s worlds in ways that could help us live together more cooperatively and meaningfully.
Unrelated to power and control, wonder and awe require a stance toward the world that is open and receptive. The deer I observed in hushed scintillated silence in my backyard turned away with a snort when she heard a rustle in the bushes, but those moments in her presence made me aware of the wonder it is to simply be alive. The Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “Mankind will not perish for want of information; but for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”