Scrub jays, fairy wrens and finding awe in common things.
When I was in elementary school and growing up with my grandparents, we went to Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner restaurant in Buena Park almost every Sunday. It was a 45-minute drive and located right outside the entrance of world famous amusement park — Knott’s Berry Farm.
I don’t know why we ate there. We never went inside the park and fried chicken wasn’t exactly hard to find on a menu. I also never understood why afterwards we then had to sit on a bench in the marketplace for several hours, admiring our surroundings.
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I was 10 years old. I found none of this fun. There were only two things that I remember finding even a little bit interesting. One was a cross section of a coastal redwood tree with interpretive signage showing what humans had been up to in the 780 years it had lived. (Which now that I think about it is rather depressing.) The other was a big flock of free ranging chickens. (Which now that I think about it is ironic, suspicious, and also potentially depressing.)
You cannot get much more ordinary than a domestic chicken, but in my quest to do anything but sit still, I followed them around while studiously taking mental notes on their behavior. When I felt I had learned all I could from the school of chicken, I decided I would do well with one as a pet. So announced to my grandmother that I wanted one. Exasperated, she answered that if I could catch one, then I could have it.
I was back ten minutes later with an alarm-calling Rhode Island red hen gripped firmly between my hands and I thrust it at my grandmother. She promptly covered her eyes and screamed. (My grandmother was afraid of birds.) My grandfather cackled louder than the hen and I did not get to have a pet chicken.
Needless to say, I was never made the offer of “if you catch it, you can have it” again. It’s too bad I wasted my chance on a chicken. I did, however, discover that watching chickens for hours was full of tiny wonders. Or maybe I didn’t discover it so much as it was something I could innately do as child. Either way, I eventually forgot that awe could still be found in the ordinary and I stopped looking.
Human beings are wired for novelty seeking. When we seek out or stumble upon something novel to us it activates our midbrain, gives us a hit of dopamine, making us want to explore further and seek rewards. Once our brain learns that there is no reward for catching a chicken by hand, it loses its charm, and you no longer get a dopamine hit. So, you can’t blame folks for driving miles to spot a vagrant bird. All the same, most vagrant birds are someone else’s common and ignored bird.
When I worked in Healesville, Australia for a short time, I was utterly enamored with the superb fairy wrens. I spent hours at the bird show, sitting on the ground and trying to train fairy wrens to perch on my hand with meal worms. I couldn’t get over how beautiful and tiny they were. Yet, my co-workers couldn’t understand why something so common would enthrall me. They had visited America and knew we had cardinals and blue jays which they felt were far superior. I had a couple of heated arguments over which of the ordinary blues was extraordinary, but no one ever won the argument. New-to-you always seems better, but I’ve been reminded the last few months that it doesn’t have to be. It isn’t that hard to recapture the childlike wonder for the creatures we see every day.
I just wrapped up running my first 10-week Nature of Awe Explores group with the tools and exercises I’m crafting for my Field Guide to Awe manuscript. Every Sunday we got together on zoom to talk about which exercises we did, what happened on our nature dates, and to just generally tell stories of awe and wonder. What surprised me was how often we were talking about the overlooked and commonplace elements of nature that awed us. There were texts, posts, and emails about murmurations of starlings, feathers found in flowerpots, cartoonish faces shaped by the grooves of oak bark, and great-horned owls that hooted back. We found awe because the exercises asked us to look closely, use our senses, and ask the kind of questions a child might ask. There was so much joy in this that I know I need to do it more —just preferably not with chickens.
This morning, I paused a while to watch the scrub jays in my yard gathering coast live oak acorns. I still think superb fairy wrens are prettier. However, scrub jays are corvids and if you watch them closely and long enough, corvids are always bound to do something awesome. So, I’m going to keep looking and I hope you’ll look longer and more closely at your nature space too. I think we could all use a dose of child-like wonder in the hopes of overcoming the ordinary blues.