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The Sense of Awe

Taos Horse Fly
Published July 2010

Seeing a film clip on the Internet made by Robert Jensen, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, of the ocean eerily bubbling like a chemistry experiment as it washed up on a wide beach in Pensacola, Florida, already blackened with oil made me weep. (You can see what I describe at The words that kept coming to my mind over and over were, "Don't you know it is beautiful, so beautiful?"

The beauty of the ocean, its beaches, bays and marshes, rocks and tidal pools, is in my mind's eye in the present tense, not in the "was" it is becoming. I see with my mind's eye the variety of life that teems in the ocean in the present tense too and think of the line from Gerald Manley Hopkins' poem "As Kingfishers Catch Fire:" "What I do is me: for that I came." The oil-covered dying baby dolphin shown being carried onto shore in a man's arms shortly thereafter died and didn't get a chance to be its "me."

One of our sons and his family live in Wilmington, North Carolina, ten minutes from the beach. In ordinary times, local people there organized volunteers to stand watch at night over the turtles that come up on the beach to lay their eggs to make sure no harm came to them. Now I carry in me the nightmare vision of the unstoppable oil pouring and pouring (I've read "hemorrhaging") out of the underwater hole in the Gulf of Mexico, pouring out still as I write. How can we protect the turtles now?

Last summer before the BP disaster, my husband and I rented a house on the beach for a week near Wilmington with both sons and their families. The two girl cousins, seven and ten, both played hard trying to learn how to stand up on surf boards to ride the waves. We took as a benevolent omen the dolphin we spotted close by seemingly wanting to join in and felt the grace of porpoise play. Our four-year-old grandson was content to run in and out at the water's edge like a sandpiper, as he chased the shallow waves and played in the clean sand.

This is not to deny the ocean's fury either, for beauty is not only about a moving visual experience but about awe, which can be fearsome. I do not espouse a particular religion, but Psalm 111:10 says that "Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." One definition of "fear" is "reverential awe." So we might say, "Reverential awe of life is the beginning of wisdom." And that is what's missing for so many of us--awe for the things of nature that we did not make. So many of us are un-amazed and see not life's mystery, but only the money we might gain in milking nature.

Our inability to run life backwards and start over, to un-do the gunk gushing into the Gulf whose currents could take it around the tip of Florida and up the East Coast, killing along the way, beauty, livelihoods, ways of life, and life itself, fills me not only with anguish but with a profound sadness.

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