Notes From An Essay – “Wonderlust”

I finally picked up the copy of American Scholar that I purchased several months ago and started reading it for the first time. It says Autumn 2010 on the cover, so I’m guessing I got it back in September or so.

One of the essays is titled “Wonderlust” and is written by Tony Hiss; author of a couple books I now have on my “buy soon” list, In Motion: The Experience of Travel and The Experience of Place.

In the essay, Hiss deals with the concept of Deep Travel. This, in a very small nutshell, can be explained as an acute, possibly sudden, awareness of your surroundings as if they are more ‘new experience’ rather than ‘habit’.

I’ve read through the essay twice now. Mostly because it’s so good, but also because it very much applies to the journey we are about to embark on. I’m going to share a few quotes and passages for context before finishing that explanation.

First, the author quotes Rachel Carlson from her book, The Sense of Wonder:

If this were a sight that could be seen only once in a centruy, 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.

I believe in this so much, but it is such a hard concept to grasp fully even after accepting it. The only beauty we don’t see in this world is often that which surrounds us on a daily basis.

Hiss ties this up a little more into a smaller passage of his own:

… 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.

At this point, the essay shifts gears slightly and turns the responsibility for wonder back on the reader.

A tendency to be preoccupied by ..[pride].. would leave little room for wonder. Whether being humble […], 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 awareness.

And finally, a friend of the author speaks about a concept he calls “Warsaw induction”, in which one images that their familiar surroundings are in fact not familiar and focuses on what they would then wonder about.

This is something I’ve never put a finger on, but I’ve often experienced. It may seem weird, but there is one specific stretch of road near us that I always try to imagine from the perspective of somebody who is driving it for the first time from out of town. I think at some point I became fascinated with how unfamiliar roads can seem in different places even though they all accomplish the same purpose with the same traffic rules. To think there are people that drive on this road with a sense of unfamiliarity every day can sometimes blow my mind.

In a couple months, we’ll be traveling around the world together. One day I’ll wake up and walk to the corner cafe from a hostel in France, sit at a table while drinking a morning coffee, and stare out in wonder at all the unfamiliar. Maybe we’ll hang around for a few days or a week and things will start to blend together. And then we’ll move on to another place and the wonder will refresh once again.

Hopefully, after enough of these cycles, we’ll learn how to appreciate some things in a way that we’ll always be wondering.

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