From my kitchen window I look out over the Fore River, or, rather, where the Fore empties into Casco Bay. You wouldn’t know it was a river at this confluence, unless it was brought to your attention. Regardless, there is water and sometimes, morning in particular, I look out over it in wonderment. For instance, just now a loon, who is wintering below my window, surfaced with something–it looked like a little crab–in her bill. She tilted her head, jerking back and forward, and swallowed twice. Then she shook her head, looked over her shoulder, and–flip!–disappeared below the surface, looking for desert, no doubt. Besides the loons, we’ve also had mergansers and exquisite long-tailed ducks as winter guests. My neighbor has spotted golden-eyes and buffleleheads, but I haven’t seen them yet.
I’ve been noticing birds for several years, on land and water. I’m not a birder, truth be told. I aspire to being a birder, but I’m not there yet. Birds, like much of what I enjoy about the outdoors, are a vehicle by which I connect to nature. In nature, I find enriching wonderment. I guess it could be called transcendence, as Emerson and especially Thoreau, found it. But I’m not entirely comfortable with the word transcendence. I’m not sure transcendence is something I long for. Wonderment, yes. Transcendence, not so much. It implies leaving something behind or rising above something, I think, and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Wonderment–like clarity–seems the antithesis of transcendence. It seems more like being in the thick of things. Perhaps the fine philosophical points are lost on me. Regardless, there are water fowl below my window and I nurture the wonder they prompt in me.
There is an important word in ancient Greek thought, that relates to this experience: arete. Arete has for centuries been translated as virtue. But, as I’ve just discovered, that is likely incorrect. In the new book, All Things Shining, the authors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly point out that a better notion of the word arete is human excellence. “Homer’s epic poems brought into focus a notion of arete, or excellence in life,” they write, “that was at the center of the Greek understanding of human being.” Related to birds below my kitchen window: “…excellence in the Homeric world depends crucially on one’s sense of gratitude and wonder.” That rings personally true. It is while in a sense of wonder that I am most reminded of my humanness. I have, among other things, loons to thank for that.