Monday, November 30, 2015

"When something seems impossible, do it anyway."

In our nomadic fashion, Dave and I have experienced some incredible natural phenomena in the past few years. Reading Leigh Ann Henion's book,  Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World, has made me itch to see more--especially the great migration in Tanzania, the bioluminescence in Puerto Rico, and the Northern lights in Sweden (and to stay in an ice hotel!).

Leigh Ann (right) with reindeer herder Johanna Huuva,
taking a break from sledging on the Torne river near JukkasjÀrvi, Sweden
Her book is more than a travelogue; it's a journey into the physical and metaphysical mysteries. For my "Books That Inspire" series, Leigh Ann and I had a chat about how chasing eclipses, migrations, and other natural phenomena around the globe helped to reawake her sense of wonder. 

It's fun that both of our books have "Wonder" in the title/subtitle. What is it about wonder that's important to you?
I've written that wonder isn't about finding answers; it's about becoming more comfortable with questions. Wonder is an emotion that can provide perspective and overpower fear.

"Hesitant" is also in your subtitle. What has made you a "hesitant" adventurer? And what might you say to others who are hesitant about exploring the natural world?
Popular culture often presents the "adventurous" archetype as someone who is fit, very young, and unencumbered. And I'm not fit, very young, and unencumbered. One of the great discoveries I made while researching Phenomenal is that there are a lot of adventurous people who wouldn't make the cover of a fitness magazine. There are eighty year olds mapping out cave passages, elementary school teachers chasing tornadoes during school holidays.

I used the word "hesitant" because I'm often nervous before trips, but I go anyway. As for advice, I think that depends on the individual and the situation. But one of my new favorite mantras has become: When something seems impossible, do it anyway. Everything about Phenomenal seemed impossible until it wasn't.

You didn't set out on a spiritual journey, but your odyssey into the world's phenomenal events developed into one. Why do you think your journey unfolded in this way? How as a spiritual outlook affected your life?

I think my journey became a spiritual pilgrimage because, if you look into nature—via science or your own eyes—you're going to discover deepening mysteries. And spiritual and scientific modes of discussion are some of the only frameworks we have to talk about mystery. As a writer, I'm more artist than scientist, so spirituality dominates my vocabulary.

Thinking in terms of metaphor and mythology has opened me to spiritual discussions, even though talking about mystery—as a layperson in spiritual or scientific circles—opens one to a great deal of criticism. But it's important, I think, to have a variety of voices in dialogue about big questions.

When you start looking into one natural phenomena, you find it's connected to another, on and on. Awakening to that interconnectivity has given—and continues to give me—a sense of spiritual solace.

I noticed in your book that in addition to the sense of vision, you focus a lot on the sense of sound. Why is that?

We're a screen-obsessed culture, and we've started talking about the world mostly via sight-based language. But when you're witnessing a wildebeest migration in Tanzania, you're not just seeing rivers of animals—you're hearing their hooves, you're breathing in the dust those hooves kick up. You're present. I think that growing awareness influenced me, and it's why sound became a character in the book. Of course, hanging out with modern-day shamans and listening to deer-antler organs in the Arctic also influenced things!

You quote eclipse-chaser and writer Kate Russo as saying that the "real issue is that people don't feel free. They feel they have to live according to this script that's for everybody." What would you say to people who might want to challenge the script and live more freely?
What seems impractical to others might be supremely practical in the context of your life.

What natural marvels have you not seen that you would like to?

The list is ever-growing. If you'd asked a month ago, I might have said I'd like to witness a murmuration, a mass of birds twisting and turning as if a single creature. To do so, I thought I might have to travel to the UK, Israel, or another locale where they're common. But, just last month, I was driving through Kentucky and one appeared right over the highway. One of the enduring gifts of my Phenomenal journey is that I'm always on watch for wonder.

Leigh Ann Henion's essays and articles have appeared widely, and her stories have been noted in three editions of The Best American Travel Writing. She lives in the Appalachian mountains.


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