RADICAL AMAZEMENT: May the Spirit Move You, One Way or Another

About the Author

Richard Louv is Co-Founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children & Nature Network, an organization supporting the international movement to connect children, their families and their communities to the natural world. He is the author of nine books, including "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder" and "The Nature Principle." His newest book, "Vitamin N," offers 500 ways to build a nature-rich life. In 2008, he was awarded the Audubon Medal.

The crescent moon was a rip in the blackness. Deep maroon spread above the island. The mirror of the lake seemed lit from below. The air was cool and trout began to rise. Coyotes howled, then stopped as suddenly as they began. I reached up and banged on the underside of the van’s pop-up bunk.

“Boys, wake up. Look outside.” But of course they did not stir. My older son’s hand hung over the edge of the bunk, fingers twitching in sleep. I smiled at his hand, and continued to watch the morning grow.

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In truth, a sunrise is a mundane occurrence. Happens every day. Sometimes the sunrise is hidden by clouds or smog or sleep; it happens whether we’re watching or not. But if we’re awake, a sunrise can be a window to something larger.

This memory was formed two decades ago. It still rises.

A few evenings later, a group of friends got together at our house. The topic of religion and children came up. One friend said he has rediscovered the peace of church and hoped that he could communicate this to his children.

He recalled his own childhood experiences at church as less than fulfilling; and the gap between what the adults said on Sunday mornings, and what they did during the rest of the week, did not escape him. Yet, without his childhood exposure to church, he would not now find so much comfort in the rituals of liturgy and song. Another friend hesitantly admitted that, because she has not introduced her children to organized religion, she feels guilty. She does not believe in religion, so she feels that taking her children to church would only teach them that parents are hypocritical.

And yet, this friend, who described herself as an atheist (she seems more of an agnostic), also remembers intensely spiritual moments as a child, when she believed she was speaking directly to God. As an adult, she continues to experience similar moments, when life becomes blindingly vivid.

I thought of my sons and the sunrise on the mountain.

Most of our moments are less majestic. We stumble from deadline to deadline, pay the bills, grind through seemingly prerecorded conversations with our bosses and workmates and even our friends, when we fear that we will be detected for who we really are, merely human.

Several years earlier, a group of local religious leaders — a priest, a minister, an imam and a rabbi — also met in my living room. During the discussion of fatherhood, Rabbi Martin Levin, of Congregation Beth-El, said that to be spiritual is to be constantly amazed.

“To quote the words of Professor Abraham Joshua Heschel, a great teacher of our age,” he said, “our goal should be to live life in radical amazement.”

Heschel would encourage his students to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted: Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

For many people, organized religion offers the necessary structure, a weekly reminder that there is more to life and afterlife than budgeting and blackness. Others find a different or overlapping source. Since I was a boy, fishing has been my special window to the spirit. It is not the only window, and not for everyone. But for some of us, it is good.

As the day moved from dawn to dusk, I waded into the calm water, lifted the rod and let loose of the line. I watched my boys along the shore. The younger one, who had temporarily given up on fishing, joyfully hauled his catch of the day, an old bucket, across the mud flat. The older boy had taken his rod into a thicket where there was a secluded pool. Perhaps, in that place, he was immersed in that quietest, strongest of voices.

Sometimes the rhythm of the rod is like a chant or the swinging of incense. Sometimes I can almost feel the water bulge and know that a fish is rising beneath it. Now a trout lifted itself, caught the sunset on its orange flank, and above the water stopped in time, as did my children and the world.

And then life went on. In a few hours, the boys and I would begin to miss their mother, and we would head home more amazed by the sunrise and sunset, by light and dark, by small muddy shoes on the stairs or the sound of my wife’s hairbrush, by the smallest of moments.


Richard Louv is chairman emeritus of the Children & Nature Network and author of LAST CHILD IN THE WOODS: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder and THE NATURE PRINCIPLE. This essay first appeared on the C&NN site on Nov. 21st, 2012. It is adapted from an earlier book, THE WEB OF LIFE.

Follow Rich on Facebook and on Twitter @RichLouv 


More Reading

All Children Need Nature: 12 Questions About Equity & Capacity

The Uncommon Core: Schools, Wilderness, and Supporting the Natural Resilience of Young People

“Hummingbird Parents”: Seven Actions Parents Can Take To Reduce Risk And Still Get Their Kids Outs

The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Schools Become, the More Nature They Need

Don’t Tear Down that Fort: Ten Lessons (and more) that Kids Learn from Building Their Own Tree Houses and Forts — if Adults Let Them


  1. It’s so refreshing to hear people talk about these moments and this radical amazement in such a frank and open way. There are, perhaps, more of us out there than one might think, but our generation is aging and we can’t let these key concepts about our human experience evaporate into the ethernet. Thank you for carrying the torch.

    This essay reminds me of your cottonwood tree experience in the Introduction to The Nature Principle. I now want to read The Web of Life to hear more.

    I’m reminded of this Mary Oliver quote: “Dawn is a gift. Much is revealed about a person by his or her passion for, or indifference to, the opening of the door of day. No one who loves dawn, and is abroad to see it, could be a stranger to me.” (Long Life)

    Barbara from Nova Scotia

  2. Richard,
    Thank you, once again you have captured in words what most of us can only see and feel.

    Oh, by the way, in Sarasota with the in-laws catching bass on surface rapalas and unweighted senkos. Wish I could share this with you…

    Best Fishes,

  3. Richard,
    thank you for this post! Yours, and the “WILD SNAPPING” post of 11/18, have been a great combination for my thoughts this morning. I am presently “pilot testing” a project connecting kids & nature & photography and spirituality at my church, which we have named “Finding God…through the lens of a camera.” We have just started but this tie seems a natural! Thanks again for the post.

  4. I was outside with my students today and was reminded of the radical amazement you wrote about. As the seven and eight year olds in my care wondered at the frost on a leaf and the up-ended root system of a pine tree blown down in a storm last summer. There is wonder everywhere! Children naturally practice observing it and finding joy in it. As adults we need to make sure we are not squelching this and actually pause to learn from them and wonder about things that we pass over in our busy lives. It helped me recapture some of that joy today.

  5. Great essay, as usual. My church is trying to encourage the nature-spirit connection in children of all ages by sponsoring a Family Nature Club in our community (listed on your website). It seems natural for a religious organization to make this connection, between the spiritual and natural worlds. My only surprise is that more churches aren’t doing something similar.
    Keep up the good work!

  6. Beautifully expressed!


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