When astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson spoke to a capacity crowd at The University of Iowa in April, he said that through his teaching of the marvels of the universe he tries “to reignite some sense of wonder.” He went on to say that if you’re not wondering “you’re not fully embracing all that it is to be alive. Because humans wonder.”
I could not agree more. Yet the sense of wonder is inherent not just in the far reaches of galaxies, cloud nebulae or asteroids that may buzz about our own planet; It need not even be sought in the mysterious permafrost of Antarctica, the dark depths of the Mariana Trench or the cloudy heights of Machu Picchu. Equally spectacular sources of wonder await our discovery within our home place, ready to amaze and ignite imagination whenever we are open to seeking them.
The greatest sense of wonder possible comes through the miracle of life. And the miracle of life is everywhere. We live amidst some of the richest land in the world, a wonder in and of itself. We plant spinach seeds, basil seedlings and young tomato plants in our backyard gardens, and within days they reach for the sky and then bring forth food for us to eat. In the prairie remnants or restorations we visit at Iowa City’s Mormon Handcart Park in Iowa City, Johnson County’s Kent Park or West Branch’s Hoover Presidential Library and Museum, big bluestem that has been emerging from the rich topsoil for years and years breaks ground and grows to nine-foot-tall splendor within weeks.
The sense of wonder can be dark as well. We marvel at the miracle of bluestem, but its magic is made both precious and tragic when we remember that 99.9 percent of the native prairie in Iowa has disappeared. Within 70 or so years, humans completely extracted a fully functioning ecosystem and replaced it with something else: domestic agriculture. That is probably an unmatched feat in human history, though it has had dire ecological consequences. It is still wondrous, though in the blackest of ways.
Tapping into the remarkable history on the very ground we walk every day can evoke wonder if you let it. Within the limestone walls of our community’s historical and cultural centerpiece, the Old Capitol, the very state we live in was created. On the Old Capitol grounds, the community gathered to mourn Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, to protest the Vietnam War and to hold a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami of 2004. The shadows of profound moments of history and heritage can flicker into our imaginations right here at home.
You can literally touch history, too. Feel that limestone of the Old Capitol outer walls. It was hand-quarried over 170 years ago from along the Iowa River north of Iowa City. It is Devonian limestone, bedrock from when Iowa was a warm inland sea 400 million years ago. Fantastical giant armored fish called arthrodires, superpredators up to 30 feet long, swam in those waters amidst feathery crinoids and shelled brachiopods. A visit to the unique Devonian Fossil Gorge at Coralville Lake, legacy of the 1993 and 2008 floods, will literally put your imagination in touch with our prehistory that dates to long before dinosaurs even roamed the planet.
The wonder of human achievement sparkles around us constantly. The marvels of democracy, when a society cooperatively agrees to make decisions for itself—whether they’re about new jails, school board members or US presidents—recur regularly. Our friends, neighbors, loved ones and guests are constantly writing incredible books and poems, making gorgeous music, building impressive social and cultural organizations, plumbing the mysteries of the human genome and, yes, even probing the farthest reaches of dark outer space.
One person who never lost that sense of wonder about the paths he walked every day throughout his entire life was Iowa Citian Irving Weber, memorialized in the statue at the corner of Iowa Avenue and Linn Street. Living his entire 97 years in his home community, Weber was so fascinated by the world he grew up in and lived in day by day that he could not help telling stories about the marvels of our town in newspaper columns, bus tours, community access television presentations and much more. Whether relating the heyday of Whetstone’s Drugs (the place to go for a Friday night malt), the mystery of Oakland Cemetery’s Black Angel or the spectacle of the coming circus marching down Clinton Street, Irving Weber exemplified a lifelong enthusiasm for our community that can only be called wonder.
Although Irving Weber has not been with us in body for 16 years now, he remains with us in spirit. Each May, our community celebrates the wonders of the local with Weber Days, and I hope you will reignite your sense of local wonder by attending some events. Check out the websites of the Iowa City Public Library and the Johnson County Heritage Society throughout the month.
Wonder certainly can be in the eye of the beholder. And our eyes see best what is closest to us.
Thomas Dean wonders if he will ever be able to learn about and experience all the marvels of our community.