We are standing in a sea of green and yellow, running our hands over sulphur-flower buckwheat, mule’s ears and fragrant sagebrush leaves. Thick clouds roam the sky above us, cool wind ruffles our hair and the mineral smell of rain invades our nostrils.
We gaze, awestruck, at a snowy Grand Teton, which, at 13,775 feet, is the highest point in the almost 40 miles of the Teton Range, a spectacular block of mountains that seems to explode straight up and out of the valley floor.
“Whoa,” my 14-year-old godson, Ben, says. “So cool.”
It’s an early Saturday morning in June, and we’re spending the weekend at the Four Seasons Resort and Residences in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Last night, with the balcony doors flung open, we listened to the wind whisper to trees and the chorus frogs sing as the fire crackled and the television stayed, purposefully, off.
This morning, we are exploring Grand Teton National Park on a private tour with Jackson Hole Wildlife Safaris. We started at sunrise with Seth, our guide, pointing out chokecherry blossoms and explaining huckleberries to Ben, all while monitoring his company’s Slack channel to make sure we don’t miss any big animal sightings, say, a black bear or grizzly. We’ve been on the road for less than an hour, and Ben has already spotted a mule deer through the trees, female elk grazing with their young and a juvenile moose along the Snake River.
“Kid’s got great eyes,” Seth says.
“Better than 20/20,” Ben shouts from the backseat, around a mouthful of yogurt parfait.
We are about to climb back into the SUV when Ben points and asks, “What’s that?” I turn in the direction of his extended finger, lifting the binoculars Seth hands me. At first, all I see is waving grass. Then, a tuft of thirsty shrub becomes a yellow flank, and those naked tree branches morph into horns. My eyes follow them down to wide, liquid eyes on either side of a flat black nose.
There is this one creature, lying still. Then another. And another. The meadow is full of resting animals. “Pronghorns,” says Seth. “The fastest land animal in North America. Probably to outrun the cheetahs, when there were some here.” Related to the antelope, pronghorns are hoofed animals or ungulates, and neither Ben nor I have ever heard of them. Or the fact that there were once cheetahs here.
“Whoa,” we say, together this time.
According to Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology, director of the Berkeley Social Interaction Lab and author of “Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life,” that “whoa” is a universal sound of awe. A vocalization humans make when we notice how vast and mysterious the world is. Keltner’s research reveals that experiencing awe is critical to our health and well-being. In “Awe,” he writes, “It is awe that activates our inclination to share and create strong networks, to take actions that are good for the natural and social world around us.”
A desire to make a conscious connection with nature and my godson is what brought us to Jackson Hole. Having context for natural wonder has carried me through some of my darkest times. And multiple sources — from the American Psychological Association to the Greater Good Science Center, the Yale School of the Environment and beyond — support the healing power of nature across cultures and communities. There is even a name for it: ecopsychology.
With this in mind, I want us to make awesome, life-affirming memories together. The kind that I made with my grandmother in Canada, who took me on epic hikes along the Niagara Escarpment, the two of us slurping from natural springs and shouting “hawk!” whenever we spotted one. And there are few hikes more epic than the Iron Way, or Via Ferrata. Originally use by Italian soldiers to traverse mountain passes in the Dolomites, these climbing routes have since made their way to the U.S. The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort Via Ferrata has 17 routes of varying difficulties, incorporating steel rungs, suspension bridges and ladders so that climbers can clip their harnesses onto a secure side cable for a safe — yet stunning — alpine adventure. Ben can’t wait to try it.
So even though it’s a cold and wet morning, we’re excited as we enter the Bridger Activity Center to gear up. Our guide takes us through the safety measures and the sample climb before asking us what we’re up for. I look at Ben. He looks at me. “Whatever you think we can manage,” I say. Ben nods. Soon, he is clinging to the side of a rock face at 9,000 feet, his back leg quaking.
When I ask him if he wants to stop, he says no. “I’m terrified, but I love it.”
“Me, too,” I say, because I feel vitally connected to him, this moment and this place, intensely present and attuned to all of my senses. And I can tell he feels this way, too.
When it comes to awe, Keltner has identified eight wonders of life where we can find it: moral beauty, collective effervescence, nature, music, visual design, spirituality and religion, life and death and epiphany. In contemplating this list, I realize how many times I have been awestruck this weekend. I think about the crowd of strangers tiptoeing through the brush to catch a glimpse of world-famous Grizzly 399 and her cub. How a massive old bison turns his head to stare at me, and I am instantly transported through thousands of years of people in this place. Rounding out the awe is a huge gust of wind that blows up around us during our seven-minute sit as we listen to Beautiful Chorus sing “I am Connected.”
When I ask Ben to write his trip highlights in his journal, he writes: “Seeing the group of bison, going up the mountain to meditate and eat waffles and climbing the mountain.” I realize that not only do we need to have access to these kinds of experiences, but that we need to model these behaviors and enjoy them together, encouraging children of all ages to join us.
Where attention goes, attention grows.
So how can we grow our capacity for wonder and our reverence for the natural world, beyond luxury trips and adventure travel?
Read on for some of my favorite ideas.
Plant a seed
Invite nature into your everyday. A few examples:
• Take a cutting from your friend’s pothos plant.
• Buy an orchid from Trader Joe’s or a tiny cactus from the 99 Cents Only Store.
• Try an indoor herb garden or a balcony box.
• Start a vegetable garden.
• Use your plot as a tool to connect the generations. Teach your kids how to caretake, harvest and consume what you grow. Cook the bounty together.
“My mother and her seven siblings were raised by her single mother, a widow, on a small plot in rural Alabama in the 1940s,” says award-winning author, attorney, therapist and mother of two Natashia Deón, “and if you’d ask my momma, she’d say, ‘We never knew we were poor because we always had everything we needed,’ but in California, no matter how good things were, she’d always notice the lack of collard green bushes in her garden. So, when she turned 80 years old, I ordered two packets of Alabama collard green seeds online, and we have been connecting over small bushes of collards and her larger-than-life childhood ever since.”
Volunteering at a community garden is another way to cultivate a reciprocal relationship with the land and each other, says poet, educator and activist Teresa Mei Chuc, who co-founded The Regenerative Collective, an organization dedicated to hyper-local native plant projects. According to Chuc, many of the gardens in the Los Angeles area are led by community elders. Check out Metitlan Community Garden, Mott Street or Mudd Town Farms.
Can I eat that?
It can be an adventure teaching city kids how to trust the land. To get started, learn how to forage. Find an app, take a class, get on Meetup or Eventbrite. Map your neighborhood on FallingFruit.org, print out your findings, grab a wagon and make a game of it.
What kid doesn’t want to know how to survive the zombie apocalypse?
Listen to the leaves
Did you know that plants can talk? Make music even? “I’ve always had a connection to nature, but it wasn’t until I started making music with PlantWave — a device that converts the electrical signals of plants into sounds — that I began to experience a really profound shift in consciousness,” says musician Greg Camphire.
“I’m learning that plants are our intelligent, perceptive and sensitive relatives who are living through the climate crisis with us and are essential to our mutual survival,” Camphire says. “In the struggle for environmental justice, their voices must be heard.”
Experiment with time
Stay up late and go to bed early sometimes. Sleep outside. Wake up ahead of the light. Make a big deal out of sunrises, the stars and meteor showers. Map the sky, search The Old Farmer’s Almanac, celebrate the cycles of the moon. Science is cool, but so is ceremony. See how you can combine the two.
Step into the blue
“You are not a drop in the ocean,” the poet Rumi wrote. “You are the entire ocean in a drop.”
So much research supports spending time in parks, forests and gardens, but being in blue space — around water — has its own unique benefits, including wave sounds, light reflections, leisure activities and a vital connection to our physical makeup and survival. So make swimming a part of your regular activities. Spend some time at the beach. Play in the waves and search the horizon for whales.
Visit the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium or take a surf lesson. Pick a lake and take a polar plunge. Go hiking in search of hot springs and waterfalls. Touch the water when you can. Think about all of the people, places and things you are connected to, just by submerging some of yourself in the blue.
Get your Groupon
Have you ever seen hundreds of dolphins jumping through the waves? Well, I have, and it was because I went on a kayaking trip through the Channel Islands on a Groupon deal. And I don’t just mean discounts. Gather your people and do things together or get out there and find some new folks to do things with. Check out Meetup and Eventbrite. You can also split the cost of something special with the ones you love, such as a falconry experience with Hawk on Hand or whale watching with Newport Coastal Adventure.
“Wild creatures and nature are major sources of inspiration,” says writer and founder of Makara Center for the Arts Marytza K. Rubio. “We have so many fruit trees and bright flowers in our neighborhood that attract these gorgeous beetles and bees…and when you are quiet and patient, you can see hummingbirds, parrots, pigeons and hawks all in one afternoon.”
Go looking for peacocks in the streets of San Pedro and keep your eyes peeled for the hawks that haunt the 710 Freeway. Open your windows and listen for the chittering of raccoons, search for the shine of opossum eyes in the night. Instead of squealing in terror or shouting with annoyance, let the kids see how excited it makes you to spot them. Get wild about it. Learn about all of the things we have in common with creatures big and small.
Embrace your most natural core and this truth: We are the wild things.
Amanda Fletcher is a freelance writer, trainer and breathwork practitioner with a degree in kinesiology.