Essays - Autumn 2010

Wonderlust

Print

"Deep Travel" opens our minds to the rich possibilities of ordinary experience

By Tony Hiss

September 1, 2010


 

One spring morning, with nothing on my mind while I was walking home on East 16th Street, a quiet New York residential block near Union Square Park in Manhattan, after dropping my son off at school, I saw three people staring wide-eyed at an apartment building fire escape overhead. Blue and white feathers drifted slowly toward the sidewalk. A peregrine falcon—the cliff-dwelling hawk known to birders as the “embodiment of freedom”—was plucking and eating a pigeon. Peregrines, with fierce black eyes, blue-gray backs, and white bellies, can fly 200 miles an hour when swooping to kill. They are crow-sized; this one looked enormous.

Above the fire escape I could see puffy white clouds and a pale blue sky, as I had a minute before. When I looked down again, however, the concrete sidewalk and the asphalt street looked suddenly insubstantial, no more than a paper-thin, makeshift, temporary cover—like a throw rug, almost, or a picnic blanket—hiding the island’s original underpinnings, dirt and boulders, that have been a continuing presence at least since the last glaciers retreated. I seemed connected to a different “now,” a longer time frame, peregrine time, so to speak, an uninterrupted, postglacial present moment more than 10,000 years old that dated back to the peregrines’ arrival in the New York area. DDT spraying after World War II almost eliminated peregrines from the region, but captive breeding programs have restored them. With Manhattan’s endless supply of pigeons, peregrines now accept local skyscrapers as cliffs for nesting. The bird I saw probably lived near the top of the 700-foot-tall Met Life Tower on 23rd Street; the pigeon it ate probably came from Union Square Park.

My expression for moments like this is deep travel. In an instant, our sense of the here and now that we’re a part of expands exponentially, and everything around us is so vivid and intensely experienced that it’s like waking up while already awake. Deep travel has a distinctive taste, and people who like it tend to look for ways of getting more of it. It often surprises us, stealing over us unawares. But it can be sought out, chosen, practiced, remembered, returned to. That’s because, as I’ve come to realize, it’s an ancient though underappreciated human ability built into all of us, one of the bedrock components of human intelligence. In my own deep travel, I’ve found that, once I reactivate it, even a long-familiar route—like a walk through nearby streets—exists within such a fullness of brand-new or never-before-considered details and questions that I wonder how I ever had the capacity to exclude this information from consideration.


Many who write about travel have noticed that the word itself, in its original Old French form, travaillier, had only harsh meanings, such as toil, trouble, and torment, and seems to trace back to an even older Latin word, tripalium, the name of a three-staked Roman instrument of torture. Modern travel, the movements of hundreds of millions of people day by day, also includes the extraordinary, often tortuous circumstances of millions of migrants and refugees, many of whom are in motion only involuntarily, fearing for their lives. Ordinary 21st-century travel itself has been accompanied by an undercurrent of fear since its first year, when 9/11 forced us to realize that any vehicle at all, even a passenger plane, can be used as a bomb. Sometimes the feeling of vulnerability fades, but its vibration is never quite stilled; and there are times when, even without a headline, we can feel it stealing back over us like some thickening of the air, a small, dark cloud or a patch of fog or mist, shifting, changeable, and capable, even when not directly overhead, of shadowing landscape and landmarks, draining off light and color, blurring clarity.

These ugly realities add to the difficulty of the urgency of getting it right. Travel already confers so many blessings—moving goods and foods around and spreading ideas and innovations, lightening our load, extending humanity’s reach, bringing people together who might never otherwise meet, challenging stay-at-home thinking. As we set our sights even higher and restore travel’s extra, innermost dimension, we will welcome it, seek it out, rely on it at any moment of any day, confidently, routinely, implicitly, as an ever-present opportunity, a built-in launch pad and catapult for lifting the wings of the human spirit.

What are the pathways that lead back into deep travel? I’ve been exploring a few of them. Wonder, it’s frequently said, is a feeling that is alive in children but has dried up in adults. There are famous sayings about wonder—Descartes called it “the first of the passions”; Plato celebrated it as “the only beginning of philosophy”; Ralph Waldo Emerson saw it leading to a different passion—“Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of science.” But how do you isolate or amplify the flavor of it? A friend suggested looking at a small book on the subject by Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder. Carson, now revered as a founder of modern environmentalism, brought out only four books in her short lifetime—three about the sea and Silent Spring, the famous bestseller about the dangers of DDT and other pesticides. She died at the age of 56, and The Sense of Wonder, originally a magazine article titled “Helping Your Child to Wonder,” was published posthumously.

Carson agrees with the widespread and almost despairing assumption that wonder is perishable and too easily outgrown:

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

The hope the book offers is almost a hope against hope—she thinks parents can, in effect, teach their children to stay aloft and in the process regain an ability to fly, which they themselves may already have lost. Buoyancy, she thinks, can be both rescued and regained once wonder is focused on the natural world: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder without any such gift from the fairies, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.” The book has many pleasures, among them a story of first offering this gift to her 20-month-old great-nephew: she wraps him in a blanket and carries him down to the Maine seashore on a stormy fall night. “Out there, just at the edge of where-we-couldn’t-see, big waves were thundering in, dimly seen white shapes that boomed and shouted and threw great handfuls of froth at us. Together we laughed for pure joy—he a baby meeting for the first time the wild tumult of Oceanus, I with the salt of half a lifetime of sea love in me. But I think we felt the same spine-tingling response to the vast roaring ocean and the wild night.”

In The Sense of Wonder, there’s a quiet lament about neglecting nature, thoughts brought on by walking outside and seeing the stars one summer night in southern Maine. “If this were a sight that could be seen only once in a century,” Carson writes, “this little headland would be thronged with spectators. But it can be seen many scores of nights in any year, and so the lights burned in the cottages and the inhabitants probably gave not a thought to the beauty overhead; and because they could see it almost any night perhaps they will never see it.”

Here was an entrance I was looking for. It wasn’t that the value of the stars had dimmed or that their supply had in any way diminished. It was that certainty had triumphed over scarcity. What had dried up and disappeared from the mind’s riverbed was the flow of attention. Because with certainty can come the complacency of pseudocertainty. It’s a matter of confusing some thats with a what. Knowing from repeated experience that we can count on the stars to be there and that their continuing presence is not an immediate threat, we begin to think we can say with the same level of confidence that we know what they are. Attention is withdrawn and moves in a different course. Some people know a great deal about the stars, others next to nothing. There is always more to find out. But habituation—not noticing something that seems unchanging and harmless—can cloak both knowledge and ignorance with the same mantle of indifference: “Oh, yes, the stars.” Something we have a word for.

Bringing this one realization back into your mind, elementary as it is, I’ve since found, can bring you straightaway into deep travel. It could be called the “wonder induction”—a simple matter while you’re moving around or looking at a scene or at anything at all, perhaps something as humble as a fire hydrant, and saying to yourself that, however many times you’ve seen it or one like it, you don’t know exactly what it is. Or at least that there’s a lot you haven’t found out so far. Such as how it works, and what it’s connected to, and where it came from, and who thought of it, and how many people are responsible for it, and when it might next be used, and why it looks the way it does, and how and when it got there. And having thought such thoughts, attention surges back, the world opens up again, and the immensity of the not-yet-known and the still-to-be-explored returns and beckons. Even after infrequent contact or what feels like a long absence, “wonder” hasn’t vanished. It’s constantly only a single thought away from making a fresh appearance.

The life of Jean-Henri Casimir Fabre, considered the father of modern entomology, and praised by Darwin as an “incomparable observer,” seems to exemplify Emerson’s observation about wonder growing into science. Fabre, who died in 1915, at the age of 87, made many of his pioneering 19th-century discoveries about bees, wasps, beetles, grasshoppers, and crickets while peering through a magnifying glass as he walked around the two-and-a-half “worthless” acres he had owned for 36 years in Provence. I’ve kept for 25 years in my small “Wonder” file of clippings a short appreciation of this “marvelous old man.” It was written by the American essayist Edmund Fuller, who had spent part of a May day wandering though Fabre’s small garden, and then quoted from what Fabre had written about his “laboratory in the open fields”: “I go the circuit of my enclosure over and over again, a hundred times by short stages; I stop here and I stop there; patiently I put questions and, at long intervals, I receive some scrap of a reply. . . . This is what I wished for . . . a bit of land, oh, not so very large . . . an abandoned, barren, sun-scorched bit of land, favoured by thistles and by Wasps and Bees. . . . I observe, I experiment, I let the facts speak for themselves.”

Fabre’s “best instruments,” Fuller wrote, “were ‘Time and Patience.’ In a difficult period, closing the third of his ten volumes, he wrote: ‘Dear Insects, my study of you has sustained me in my heaviest trials. I must take my leave of you for today. . . . Shall I be able to speak to you again?’ He did, again and again.”

Perhaps age-old moral injunctions, such as “pride goeth . . . before a fall,” have parallel uses that apply to our access to perceptions. Maybe “pride” is a deadly sin or a vice (the original Latin word means “failing” or “defect”), and maybe—less judgmentally—it’s a technical description of a specific kind of fragmentary perception, or should it perhaps be called a restricted information flow, like an artery unable to pump enough blood? A state people can get stuck in without realizing it. Something that, along with, say, anger or greed, can deaden sensations that might otherwise reach you. A tendency to be preoccupied by a “love of one’s own excellence”—St. Augustine’s definition of pride—would leave little room for wonder. Whether being humble (the “holy virtue” that, according to Dante, acts as an antidote to pride), or at least being more forthright and honest about what you know and don’t know, will make you a better person, it can certainly restore a far wider range of awarenesses.


When I told another old friend about the wonder bridge into deep travel, he said, “Oh, there’s an even easier way than that. What you’re calling deep travel brings with it, you say, a remembrance that you don’t know nearly what you could about what you’re passing through if you open yourself up to it. But what about those times when your ignorance is total and you don’t even know where you are? Those are the off-balance moments when I think everyone is projected headlong into deep travel. You slow down, you may stop altogether. You’re lost. You’ve got to find, and soon, some way to proceed, and so your senses are wide open and, for the time being, everything and everyone is a potential source of information. But that’s not what I’m suggesting—getting lost. That’s the situation behind the idea I use.”

This friend works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “I call it the ‘Warsaw induction,’” he said. “All you have to do is look around you”—we were having a sandwich in a crowded coffee shop on Madison Avenue—“and say to yourself, ‘What would I notice, what would I want to know more about, what would I find compelling and be fascinated by if we were having lunch in Warsaw right now, instead of New York?’ I say ‘Warsaw,’ of course, just to mean some place I’ve never been; if you’ve been to Warsaw, try Cairo instead, or Cape Town or Ulan Bator.

“Suddenly there is no way of knowing whether what you’re seeing has been there for a long time or was only just put there, and you don’t know, either, whether what’s happening goes on all the time or is something brand new. Everything around you has a question inside it, and the answer may have something unusual or exceptional to tell you, not just about how to fit yourself into Warsaw patterns but about how to live your life anywhere, although if that’s the case, you probably won’t know about it until later. Why is there a picture of the Bay of Naples on the wall behind us? Why was there a bowl of pickles on the table before we even sat down? Does the noise in here mean that lunch is a celebration, the high point of a day? Or is it in hours the farthest away from home that people get, the other end of an orbit that’s about to swing back?

“I should add that there are a couple of ways to play Warsaw—in ‘Warsaw Lite’ you assume you speak ‘Polish.’ Meaning that if you’re in New York and can understand the conversations of the people at the next tables, then that’s extra information that’s available to you to help you figure out where you are and what’s going on. In ‘Intense Warsaw’ you don’t know ‘Polish,’ so you try to ignore the words you’re overhearing to let yourself be guided only by the tone of voice or the gestures that accompany it, maybe a stare or a smile or a frown.”


Deep travel is not so much the enemy of the ordinary as it is an understanding that when you start to look closely there is no ordinary. Because the answers to questions like “What would I think about the street I’m walking down if I had no idea where I am?” or “What if I knew this would be the only chance I’ll ever have to see the sky the way it looks tonight?” are by their very nature open-ended. “The greatest of all the accomplishments of 20th-century science,” Lewis Thomas, then chancellor of New York’s Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said almost 30 years ago, “has been the discovery of human ignorance.”  He later added, “Each time we learn something new and surprising, the astonishment comes with the realization that we were wrong before.” Finding ourselves in the presence of the unknown, or the not-yet-known, or the unknowable can be an uncomfortable encounter or a thrilling one, depending on circumstances. But because of the way our minds have been assembled, the extra dimensions of deep travel and the rewards they bring are readily available. Sometimes deep travel will assert itself with no warning. But when that doesn’t happen, these riches can be ours for the asking. It’s a choice that often has far-reaching consequences. “Two reeds drink from one stream,” said the 13th-century Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi. “One is hollow, the other is sugar-cane.”

Tony Hiss is the author of 13 books, including the award-winning The Experience of Place. He is a visiting scholar at New York University's Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service and was a staff writer at The New Yorker for more than three decades. This article is adapted from In Motion: The Experience of Travel, to be published in October.


Comments are closed for this post.