5 Minutes of Awe

On the back porch last Sunday morning, I felt awe three times in under five minutes. First, from the sound of the wood thrush’s song high in the trees across the middle pasture from me. Second, from the arrival of a nuthatch, who stared at me as he stood facing downwards on the locust post waiting for the other nuthatch to finish his (or her?) turn at the suet cage hanging about five feet from where I sat. He turned his head left then right, tilting it each time. Then he faced me straight on, deciding he wasn’t afraid enough of me to change his meal plans. And third, a hummingbird flew into the scene to feast on the rhododendron blooms just off the porch’s corner. 

(The pictures here aren’t from that morning, though, but from a few days later as I stood at the kitchen sink trying to photograph a very active nuthatch feeding at the same suet cage I’d watched during my minutes of awe. The awe that arose from those happenings was a feeling like I was invisible but yet not invisible, and so somehow part of everything. That kind of feeling is part of the official definition of “awe” being thrown about purposefully within psychology and health care circles these days. There’s a lot of new science supporting what we’ve known forever: that awe is good for us.)

After the awe, when I was thinking about the fact that I’d experienced awe but still sitting and watching, I was happy to know that the birds, while wary, weren’t afraid of me.

That made me think of the snake I’ve been seeing a bit too often in the past couple of days. I would prefer he were a bit more frightened by me. He’s a young black snake (a teenager by the size of him) who has been slithering around the back porch and sunning himself on the front patio. Too close to the house’s doors for comfort. And he’s so casual about my presence that it’s making me a little nervous. But I have enjoyed the opportunity to watch a snake move, imagine what he’s intending or how he’s responding to me, an incentive to stand there and adopt a snake’s pace—not the fleeing pace but the decision-making pace, as he chooses how to get from this point to that point. I wonder how my presence may or may not impact the grand scheme of steps he has to take to his next destination. Investigative, practical, even brave steps to his next meal, I imagine.  But it could be about many other things—maybe about finding a partner or seeking a place for a snake nap. 

Scott suggested it might be the wren nest, which is in the eaves off the porch on the second floor. If that’s the case, the snake is snooping around two stories below where he wants to go. That seemed doubtful. Plus, I am sure that batch of wrens has fledged by now. But there could be another brood starting. Wrens are serious about making babies. Is a snake able to smell a wren nest from two stories away, one that only has eggs in it, not baby birds yet? Or was there a rumor on the snake grapevine about a mythical nest up in the sky somewhere, something another snake smelled when there were fledglings in it several days ago? Do snakes share knowledge like that? How would humans be able to figure out the answer to that question, I wonder. Laboratory snake experiments would have a heck of a time simulating this situation, for sure.

That morning of awe was many days ago; and, since then, a new wren nest has appeared in the potted coleus plant very near the back porch door. It may be that this nest was in the works before I noticed it and that’s why the snake was hanging out back here. I am going to patrol the area as well as I can. I’d hate to have to watch another snake getting baby birds. The one I pulled out of the bluebird house was enough for one season. That’s another story for another day.

The reason I was waiting on the porch for that five minutes (during which I was treated to experiences of awe) was that I had a mother and daughter guest here then, AirB&B clients. I had them to thank, in part, for the awe since I wouldn’t have sat still on the back porch that morning otherwise. AirB&B serendipity. They had told me the night before that they’d like to take me up on my offer to show them the trail to the creek. We’d agreed to meet on the back porch at seven a.m. Thankfully they had been five minutes late because I had been looking for inspiration to write another blog post. It had been a long time since the last one.

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