I recently read an article by Jessica Hullinger in The Week about the importance of experiencing “AWE” in our lives. To quote Ms. Hullinger: “I'm a nature nerd and an awe junkie. Regular injections of natural beauty help keep me afloat in a world that would otherwise drag me down. I need brushes with wonder to maintain my sanity. I need that swelling in my chest and goosebumps down my spine, that tear-jerking act of kindness, or brilliant full moon, or stirring speech. Awe and wonder just make me feel good.” She goes on to state that: “nature is one of the biggest elicitors of awe and wonder. It's like a charging station for our emotional batteries. As naturalist John Muir once wrote, "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. Wilderness is a necessity."
For me my “wilderness” is my garden. As much as I love heading out to the ocean or up to the mountains to experience the awe inspiring wonder of nature it isn’t always an option. So the next best thing for me is the garden. And in my case it is often the minutia that surrounds me that usually brings me that “awe” experience. Take for example “hoar frost”.
Hoar frost is the crystalline structure that forms on fences and twigs and even leaves this time of year when the air temperature is freezing or below freezing. As the cold air contacts the object the moisture contained on the surface of that object turns to ice and forms crystals. Some very beautiful patterns can form and close examination reveals the “awesomeness” of this whole process. When freezing air comes in contact with the soil surface, “ground hoar” will form. That “crunchy” sound you hear when you walk over a frozen gravel path is the result of ice crystals that have formed from the water trapped between all the little rock pieces. As the crystals are formed more moisture is pumped up from below them and the surface hoar will continue to grow. I have seen these crystals reach 3 to 4 inches tall but to really appreciate them you need to get up close and personal, which means slowing down and getting on your hands and knees. The architecture of these structures is truly amazing and is one of those “awe” moments for me.
To continue with Ms. Hullinger’s article: “Awe makes us kinder to one another. Indeed, a series of recent studies has shown people who regularly experience awe are more compassionate to others. They're more humble, more giving, more helpful. Here’s why. Awe makes us feel small. It diminishes our sense of "self" — all the little things in our personal bubble that we fret over. All the things we think are unique and ever so important. Awe reminds us that actually, none of that really matters”.
So there you have it. Getting excited about some dumb ice crystals can actually make us better human beings. It’s not important how it works, just that it does. Reveling in our gardens over the first rose bloom of the season or a dew-draped spider web in the fall can go a long way to making life more bearable. Even if you think your garden is ugly and pathetic, I can guarantee you there is some “awe” there somewhere. Go look for the “minutia” and see if you don’t feel good too.