Children have the ability to marvel over simple things in nature—leaves, pebbles, twigs. When she becomes a mother, Leigh Ann Henion starts to question: Could experiencing earth's most dazzling natural phenomena make the world similarly new again? Phenomenal is the improbable story of how she chases eclipses, auroras, and other natural phenomena around the globe to reawaken her sense of wonder.
Whether standing on the still-burning volcanoes of Hawai‘i or in the fearsome lightning storms of Venezuela, amid the vast wildebeest migration in Tanzania, or the millions of swirling butterflies that roost on a mountaintop in Mexico, Henion discovers the visceral awe that her child experiences every day. Her spiritual wanderlust puts her in the path of modern-day shamans, reindeer herders, and astrophysicists. These seekers trust their instincts, follow their passions, shape their days into the lives they most want to lead. And, somewhere along the way, Leigh Ann Henion becomes one of them.
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A Hesitant Adventurer's Search for Wonder in the Natural World
By Leigh Ann Henion
Penguin Publishing GroupCopyright © 2016 Leigh Ann Henion
All rights reserved.
A REPORT CAME OVER THE RADIO IN SWAHILI: SOMEONE HAD SPOTTED A cheetah and her cubs.
“We’d have to drive fast to get there. Do you want to go?” my guide David Barisa asked, breathlessly. David was in his thirties, but he had a certain youthful panache given his shaven head, gold-plated sunglasses, and street-savvy nubuck boots. I couldn’t tell if his excitement was over the predator sighting or the excuse to speed.
“Sure,” I said.
We’d been watching the largest wildebeest herd I’d seen in the Serengeti, roughly 10,000 animals grazing and shuffling their feet in migration. Each year, some 1.3 million wildebeest move full circle through Kenya and Tanzania, following rains. They’re joined by zebra and gazelle, as well as a cast of hungry characters that lurk in the fray. And the drama of all this—as it’s taught in textbooks—was transpiring before me.
In the distance, thousands of additional wildebeest were clumped on the horizon, moving like silt-colored rivers. Breezes brought the sweet, nostalgic smell of hay. We bounded across rutted roads while David reeled off names of the animal groupings we’d seen over the past few days: clan of hyena, pack of wild dogs, pride of lions, herd of elephants.
“So, what do you call a group of cheetah?” I asked.
“They’re usually alone,” David said, grinding a gear. “But when I see them together, I just call them a family.”
I had to ask because I’m not a scientist. No, I’m a part-time teacher and freelance writer, mother of a young child, wife of a carpenter. So what was I—grader of papers, changer of diapers—doing gallivanting around the Serengeti? Why had I left my husband and two-year-old son back home in the hills of southern Appalachia?
My answer might come across as insane, or—at the very least—overly dramatic.
But here’s the truth: I was on an epic quest for wonder.
I’d been chasing phenomena around the world for more than a year when I arrived in the Serengeti, and I still had many miles to go. But my inspiration had been sparked even before I became a mother, when—three years before my son’s birth—I visited the overwintering site of the monarch butterfly in central Mexico. Before I accepted the magazine assignment that took me there, I’d never even heard of the monarch migration, during which nearly the entire North American population comes to roost in a small swath of forest. But witnessing millions of butterflies swirling, dipping, and gliding over a single mountaintop gave me an actual glimpse of what I mean when I refer to myself as spiritual but not religious.
And—in difficult times—memories of that experience sustained me.
I don’t know that I suffered clinical postpartum depression when my son was born, but I began to empathize with the horror stories the condition can lead to. Inspired by butterflies, I had long ago dreamed up a list of other natural phenomena I’d like to experience. But travel to far-flung lands? Once I had a baby, I considered myself lucky to make it to the grocery store before it was time for bed.
Still, I mused: Children have the capacity to marvel over simple things in nature—leaves, twigs, pebbles. Couldn’t exploring just a few of earth’s most dazzling natural phenomena—steeped as they are in science and mythology—make the world similarly new again, reawakening that sort of wonder within me? Drudgery, after all, has nothing to do with growing up if we do it right and—beyond tending to the acute physical needs of a child—little to do with what it means to be a good parent.
Back then, I didn’t know that acting out my self-designed pilgrimage would put me in the path of modern-day shamans, reindeer herders, and astrophysicists. I had no idea there were lay people from all over the world, from all walks of life, already going to great lengths to undertake the sorts of phenomena chases I’d dreamed up. Some took odd jobs to stay under the northern lights. Others left white-collar positions to make time for swimming in glowing, bioluminescent bays. These were people who braved pirates to witness everlasting lightning storms, stood on volcanoes, stared into solar eclipses. They trusted their instincts, followed their passions, willfully shaped their days into the lives they most wanted to lead.
And, somewhere along the way, I became one of them.
David pulled into a line of safari vehicles. The cheetah family consisted of a momma and three cubs. We stood in the pop-up roof of our Land Cruiser to see into the heart of their grassy nest. After a few minutes, the mother decided to rise. Her babies followed, in single file, and she crossed the dirt road to approach a wildebeest herd.
When they were still a ways out, the cubs took a seated position. “She’s telling them to stay back,” David said. The mother moved on. When she was just beyond the herd, she stopped to watch. “She’s teaching them how to stalk,” David reported. “How to survive. She’s watching for a young wildebeest, the weakest of the herd.”
The cubs were dark fuzz balls floating in a sea of grass. The mother cheetah stood taller. All her babies’ eyes were on her, watching. The light of day was beginning to fade. A giant elder wildebeest walked five feet in front of her. I gasped. Still, she waited.
“He is too big for her,” David said.
Finally, she found a baby wildebeest that had been pushed to the edge of the herd, and she slipped through grass like a fish slicing through a wave. The young wildebeest reacted, going from standing to swerving in seconds flat and, before I could even take a breath, a mother wildebeest appeared. She pushed the baby to the center of the herd, which erupted into honking that rippled across the savanna.
“They’re warning each other,” David said, like a foreign language interpreter. The cheetah was still, as if she’d forgotten something. “She doesn’t like to waste energy chasing something she doesn’t think she can catch.”
I quietly cheered for the young wildebeest. He was, after all, the main hero of the migratory story. Wasn’t he? I watched the cheetah turn back toward her babies, who had traced her every move. Her head hung low. She appeared to be sulking. “She’s going back to tell them they’re going to bed hungry tonight,” David said.
There were no clear winners. No easy answers. Only hard questions and survivors. But, because I had, for so long, only seen the pain of the wild on television, I had forgotten that there is also this: Long days of grazing through fields, listening to wind. Whole weeks spent sleeping in trees.
David, who had spent nearly every day of that year cruising the Serengeti, had seen only four predator kills in his lifetime. But he’d logged thousands of hours of watching animals—prey and predators alike—relaxing. This is the sort of life human bodies were also built for—acute stress and long periods of leisure, not the other way around.
A small group of wildebeest stopped to watch us pass. They were headed to the larger herd. Their life was a process, a cycle, a never-ending circle. But wasn’t mine, too? All my life, I’d thought: If I can just get into that college. If I can just make more money. If I can just birth this baby. If I can just get him through those scary first few months. If I can just make it through my first three weeks back at work. If I can just get my son potty trained. If I can just get a book contract. If I can just make it through the next eight nights sleeping alone in a canvas tent. If I can just. If I can just. If I can just.
Staring into the field of hooves pounding the earth, it was clear I had been denying myself this: The seasonal migrations of my life, the initiations, would never end. There would always be a proving ground to face. But acknowledging and embracing this was crucial to moving forward. It seemed a path to reduced anxiety, and I could surely use that. Letting go of the abstract idea that at some point my life would be more complete than it was that very moment felt like letting go of some sort of underlying, constant fear I wasn’t aware I had. Standing in the center of the Serengeti, it was apparent: I would benefit from balancing my abstract human thoughts with the visceral, phenomena-centered viewpoint of the animals that lived there.
Phenomenal is defined as that which is amazing. It also means that which is directly observable to the senses. And what began as a tour of extraordinary sights had evolved into the story of how—in an abstract, digital world of overspecialization—I was becoming the expert witness of my own life. When I returned home—as I did for months at a time, in between one- and two-week phenomena chases—I brought an expanded, global sense of wonder to bear on my own backyard, alongside my family.
“They are going to cross,” David said, nodding toward wildebeest that had lined the dirt road. Their pulse would quicken as they ventured out, but once they were back in the grass, it would slow. They’d move on, in every sense of the phrase. David picked up speed, determined to reach camp before dark. I turned to watch the animals brave their crossing, but all I could see was a cloud of volcanic dust rising in our wake.
I AM FRANTICALLY SEARCHING FOR MY NEWBORN SON, ARCHER. I’M ON my knees. My hands are slipping across cold hardwood floors. I grope my mattress’s metal frame, the legs of his crib. I’ve already thrown all the covers off my own bed, convinced he was suffocating in down.
When my panic reaches an apex, I wake up.
Sleepwalking. Night terrors. I have no idea what to call these episodes, but they have become a regular part of my life. More than once, at sunset, I have wept knowing I was assured another sleepless night to come. Sometimes, I cry into the night, watching my son nurse in his sleep as my husband, Matt—a bookish woodworker with a collection of self-designed tattoos—snores nearby.
Matt does not parent at night. That was established early on. Though I’m already back at my day job—teaching writing classes between nursing sessions—he is working with power tools. Sleeplessness and power tools are not a good mix, and anyway, Archer wants milk. I am the supply. He is the demand. We are sharing my body. I am his ecosystem. He is mine. And it feels like we’re clinging to each other for dear life. Matt is in our orbit, but he has become a distant planet.
When I am fully awake, I see Archer safely sleeping in his crib. I glance at the notebook where I record each of his nursing sessions so that I’ll remember to rotate sides, lest my raw breasts began to bleed, again. He is nursing nine times every twenty-four hours, a system that means he is attached to my person, suckling, almost constantly.
I hear his every movement, each breath. I read too much about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. I cannot relax. I have not slept more than three straight hours since he was born, but I am especially shaken by the night’s episode, which has actually brought me to my knees.
My mouth is dry. My hands press against hickory floors.
I rise to get a glass of water that my body will, in time, turn to milk like holy wine.
Dawn won’t offer assurances. Days feel like hour-upon-hour of living underwater: the outside world muffled, every movement slowed to a languid speed. My friends tell me I seem to be handling things well. Things being the fact that my colicky son does none of the quiet, cooing lap sitting that seems so common in other people’s babies.
I wonder if it’s because I am afraid to tell the whole truth—what happens beyond the hours I spend staring at my son in wonderment, amazed at the miracle of his life. I love and marvel over him as if he were my own heart pushed into the world and, still beating, set on top of my chest. Yet I cannot help but mourn the loss of something I can’t quite place. I have an inner emptiness—literal and figurative—that I’ve never felt before. It’s as though nourishing his life has built a new chamber in my body that is now cavernous and empty, waiting to be filled.
I make my way into the living room without turning on any lights and walk toward a window, half expecting to catch sight of a bobcat. I see only the river below, a distant forest, and the hill leading to our garden plot. I feel like I am the only being awake in the world and—despite the fact that I have just doubled the number of people I share a house with—I have never felt more alone.
• • •
To his credit, Matt perpetually tries to bring friends back into our lives with more regularity, but his attempts—often grand, as in “Oh, did I mention I invited ten people over for dinner tomorrow”—don’t always go over well. In fact, they often lead to arguments and, to my chagrin, me throwing fits and—in my worst moments—food. Are these out-of-control reactions the result of hormones, exhaustion, or are they proof I am becoming someone unrecognizable?
I hold Archer, literally, all day long. He will not lie in a crib without crying and I—struggling with feelings of confusion, spousal resentment, and guilt over things I can’t quite pinpoint—cannot leave my baby when his face is wrenched. So, he sleeps on me. He plays on me. Constantly. Sometimes, especially around dinner, even this does not quell his crying episodes. I sing. I dance. I cry.
I have no hope of ever sleeping again. I have no hope.
I develop tendonitis in my arm. It hurts when I twist it to put him down, punishment I accept for thinking I might be able to go to the bathroom without a companion. I forget to brush my teeth. I don’t shower. I can’t figure out how to balance these simple things against my need to feel I’m doing a good job—the right things, what I’m supposed to do.
When a friend tells me that her baby takes three-hour afternoon naps, about how she’s concerned her child might be sleeping too much, I have a lurching physical reaction. I do Internet searches that lead me to terms like “wakeful baby” to explain why my experience is so very opposite. I find articles about wakeful babies being of higher intelligence, having a keen sense of curiosity. I want to believe them, but I suspect these articles were penned by parents like me as a form of solace in an excruciating time.
Finally, one day at around the six-month mark, I admit to myself that I am going to have a nervous breakdown if I don’t take a shower each morning. I turn on a white-noise machine and put Archer in his crib. His tiny features crinkle like tissue paper being balled. His complexion turns crimson. I turn the water on and try to relax, impossible in my near-psychotic state. I hurriedly rinse my hair—which has begun to fall out in clumps as my body attempts to readjust hormonally—and I run back to him.
My friends, mothers, tell me that I will slowly get my life back. I don’t believe them. My biggest fear—my secret fear—is the same one that plagued me years ago when I took a soul-killing receptionist job to quell my parents’ concerns about health care coverage: This is what my life is going to be from now on. Only, I no longer have the solace of a reception area full of New Yorker archives. It is impossible to read while nursing, because the rustling of pages wakes Archer from his tenuous bouts of postmilk slumber. So, I sit. I stare at walls.
The woman I once identified as myself seems to have ridden off into the sunset. I am having a complete breakdown of faith. Faith in what, exactly, I do not know.
• • •
Have you ever heard the saying about how a mother is someone who, upon seeing there are only four pieces of pie for five people, declares she never did like pie? Before I was a mother I thought this quote was sweet. My own mother, a retired elementary school teacher with a sweater for every holiday, is selfless in this way. But when a friend posted it on her Facebook page halfway through my son’s first year, it made me unreasonably upset. The mother probably baked the pie. Why not just cut the freaking thing into smaller pieces so everyone can have a taste?
When Archer turns eleven months old I begin ordering books about no-cry sleep solutions, but I am beginning to think it might not be such an awful thing to let him cry it out at night. I have cried myself to sleep for months. Something isn’t right.
One night, when Matt finds me wailing in unison with our son, he tells me I should take a break because my emotions aren’t good for Archer. Only then do I understand I’ve entered a phase of my life when people seldom consider what might be good for me. Even I somehow don’t feel it’s acceptable for me to think about my own needs—physical or otherwise.
Not long after Matt chastises me for crying, I tell him it’s time for Archer to go to his own room. I want him to feel safe and secure, but I have given so much of myself I feel hollow. An actual shell of my former being. And if I have no enthusiasm, no wonder, no want for life inside of me, how am I going to nourish my child?
Matt and I survey the home we designed and built together, putting in hard labor at night and on weekends. I suggest that we move Archer into the guest room, but Matt is convinced that he should go in a smaller space that once served as his office.
“It’s cozy, womb-like,” he says.
After a little hemming and hawing, I finally agree, and he builds a changing station using scrap wood from one of his job sites—strips of walnut, oak, and wormy maple. On the night Archer moves into that tree-lined, womb-like nursery, farther afield from his former residence—i.e., me—he starts sleeping. Not all night, but for several hours at a time. Finally, I understand what he’s been trying to tell me all along. He needs me, but he also needs some space.
I can totally relate.
• • •
Months pass. Each week, I get a little more sleep. Thirty minutes. An hour. Two hours. I am still breast-feeding, and I am still night walking—stumbling into Archer’s room, cradling my swollen breasts, convinced I am holding him after a feeding session only to find I’d already put him down—but my floor-level panic sessions have become sparse. I am upright. I am coming back into the world of the living. Sort of.
I’m an odd bird, you see—a mix of my mother, who rarely leaves the house, and my father, who cannot stay seated for more than ten minutes. Even before Archer’s birth, I hardly ever went out to socialize, but I often took trips farther afield. It’s unlikely I’ll meet you downtown for taco Tuesday, but I might very well join you for a trip to Tahiti.
Archer makes this tendency tricky.
I spend most of my evenings watching computer-streamed television shows that don’t require me to think. But as the months go by, my ability to stay awake increases. I start reading the news again. I begin to allow myself to dream improbable dreams. I pull up Web images of far-flung phenomena. Because my memory has been racing along the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains I call home, tracing the migration corridor of the monarch butterfly, seeking the promise of my own rebirth.
• • •
Nearly the entire monarch population of eastern Canada and the United States migrates to Mexico’s Transverse Neovolcanic Belt to wait out winter, traveling up to 3,000 miles from their respective homes. Their needs are so specific, almost all of the approximately 250 million monarchs that make the pilgrimage each year can be found in a small, mountainous swath of land in Michoacán and, to a lesser extent, the state of Mexico, where oyamel firs grow at high altitudes.
A monarch’s life span is only two to six weeks in the summer months, but those born in late fall live for an unbelievable seven to eight months. This generation is responsible for carrying on their species’ migratory legacy. The butterflies traveling to Mexico are four to five generations removed from the butterflies that left the mountains the previous spring. But they always return to the same vicinity, and often to the very same tree their ancestors left the year before.
Scientists believe the monarchs mark the trees in some way, but they do not know how.
In 2007, three years before Archer was born, I visited the El Capulín Monarch Sanctuary on a magazine assignment. The site was deep in the Sierra Madre Mountains, beyond the orbit of Mexico City field-trip buses and day-trippers. I was joined by a driver, Paco, and travelers including the Matthews family—Judy, Donald, and their son, Dan, a second-grade teacher with a penchant for Hawaiian shirts.
Judy and Donald, hobby naturalists from New York, had spent the last fifteen years of their lives working as volunteers for Monarch Watch, an educational outreach program of the University of Kansas. The Matthewses told me they had a garden they cultivated with plants other people might try to eradicate from their manicured lawns. They were especially careful to nurture milkweed, which the monarchs depend on for reproduction. This is where the butterflies lay their eggs, and the Matthewses were thrilled to think that the monarchs at El Capulín might have started their journey on the underside of a leaf in the family garden.
The Matthewses almost hadn’t made it to Michoacán that year. Dan explained that his father was coping with an early stage of Alzheimer’s disease and his mother’s walking cane was required because she had Parkinson’s disease. “It was looking like we couldn’t come on this tour . . . but it was important that we come now,” Dan said. “This might be their last chance.”
In preparation for the trip, Dan’s students had raised two butterflies to watch them go through their metamorphosis. One of the butterflies, Holey, formed its chrysalis on a book in a forgotten corner of the classroom. When he emerged, he had a hole in his wing. This deformity made the butterfly the kids’ favorite. Dan recalled, “I have a video of the kids on the day we released the monarchs. The butterflies were just out of reach, and they were chasing them and calling out, ‘Holey! Holey!’ It looked like a church service.”
The kids asked Dan to keep an eye out for Holey on his trip, but the odds of it made him roll his eyes. He said, “I mean, I didn’t even think Holey would be able to fly.”
• • •
The path to the monarchs’ roosting site at El Capulín was hidden between a white house and a wooden hut surrounded by banana trees and grazing sheep. It was not a place you would easily find on your own unless you were a butterfly, and maybe not even then. There, just outside the village of Macheros, monarchs lived at the top of Cerro Pelón, or Bald Mountain, a dormant volcano.
At the foot of the mountain, vaqueros, or cowboys, stood by their horses waiting for us to choose a companion. We’d been warned that the sanctuary’s roosting site was not accessible without one. I approached a tan horse with a black-and-gray-speckled mane. The animal, Flor, was short in stature, which helped calm my near-crippling fear of heights. But I was still nervous.
At dinner the previous evening, I’d explained my hesitation about riding horses and another woman on the tour said, “Sounds like you are having control issues.” She was right. I didn’t like being dependent, out of control of my own motion.
As Flor and I started our journey, I thought about how far monarchs travel. They move all the way to Mexico on air currents. They do not flap and flail; they soar. They would never make it across the continent before freezes if they used their own energy. It is because the butterfly leaves so much up to chance that it is able to reach its ancestral home in Mexico.
The relatively flat section of the lower trail leading to the monarchs’ hibernation site was flanked by trees with very little underbrush, likely due to grazing livestock. The evergreens’ trunks were impossibly straight. As Flor and I climbed, the brush got dense, and the path got steeper.
I began to wonder just how far up we were going, so I asked a nearby vaquero accompanying us on horseback, “How much longer do we have to ride?”
“Two,” he said, making a peace sign.
“Two minutes?” I asked, hopefully.
“Two hours,” he replied, amused.
I resolved not to ask any more questions I didn’t really want to know the answer to.
Somehow, Flor and I began to take the lead, but it wasn’t long before we reached a point in the path where Flor refused to climb. I looked up and saw a stretch of unearthed stone so precipitous that the trail took on a switchback pattern, as if we were being asked to crawl up a downhill ski slope.
Paco was riding behind me. “Ándale!” I heard him shout.
“Ándale,” I said to Flor, and she began to move.
I leaned forward until my body was pressed against the hard horn of my saddle. The trail was so coarse, so difficult to negotiate, that Flor was starting to sweat. I could see the hair on her neck beginning to clump. To our right was an endless green chasm. My life and Flor’s were intertwined. If I had been nervous before, I was absolutely fearful now.
“Everything is okay,” I told Flor softly, “Todo está bien.”
I repeated this over and over to placate her, to placate myself.
Flor pushed on and it was all I could do to hold tight. The path was narrowing. My shoes scraped against stone and tree trunks. I was holding the back of my saddle so tightly it was digging into my skin. I could hear horses clambering behind me, but I could not turn.
“Todo está bien. Todo está bien.” I said it until everything really was.
Finally, we reached the top of Cerro Pelón. The sun was coming out as I dismounted Flor. When I first saw the butterflies, I saw more than a dozen at once, and my enthusiasm grew with their numbers. It took a few minutes to realize the extent of what I was witnessing. To see one hundred butterflies against a blue sky was fantastic. Seeing one million swerving and soaring above me, realizing there were more in the trees waiting for the right moment to open their wings, felt like nothing short of a miracle.
Paco called out and instructed me to cup my hands behind my ears. He said, “Escuché.” Listen. And, as we stood there, I could hear the butterflies. Their wings against the air sounded like a light rainstorm falling on verdant forest. All of those paper-thin wings had traveled as many or more miles as we had, but I was still surprised to see that some of them were a bit worse for wear. They looked like faded flags, tattered and torn after a battle. Monarchs are valued for their physical beauty, but what is most beautiful about them is that they are survivors.
Only three colonized trees were visible from where we dismounted, though there were more butterflies resting in the understory. I was standing under a tree filled with monarchs when a cloud passed to reveal more sunlight. Bunches of butterflies above me began to let go of the branches they’d been desperately clinging to and poured into the sky; they brushed against my face and fell into my hair. The streams of cascading monarchs made the trees’ branches look like ever-expanding arms reaching down to embrace me.
I was filled with an inexplicable surge of energy that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. The butterflies were live orange confetti setting the sky ablaze. They were the beauty that cultures try to capture in stained glass windows, the elation people seek in religion.
They were an embodiment of hope.
The ancient Greek word for butterfly is psyche-, the same word for soul. The Greeks believed butterflies were souls seeking reincarnation. All over the world butterflies have held an inexplicable amount of significance for diverse cultures. In Mexico, the widely observed Day of the Dead holiday has its roots in indigenous mythology. The P’urhépecha, also known as the Tarascan, believe that the first two days of November are a special time of year when their deceased loved ones are able to visit them, possibly in the form of monarch butterflies.
Historically, Celts believed women became pregnant by swallowing the souls of butterflies. Chinese culture indicates that butterflies are the joining of two souls, their wings halves of a sacred whole. And every contemporary American college student with a butterfly tattooed on her belly, ankle, or shoulder must have a different explanation for why she was drawn to the image.
In this information age, the monarchs’ mystique is part of their appeal.
Despite recent advances that have led scientists to believe the sun plays a role in assisting the butterflies’ navigation, it is unknown how the fragile-winged insects make the many decisions necessary to keep them alive as they battle storms and choose their moments of passage in high-stakes situations, such as crossing the Great Lakes. It is also a mystery as to how they find their way back to the very specific spots where they gather in Mexico’s mountains in concentrations of millions per acre.
No single butterfly ever makes the round-trip from Mexico to the northernmost reaches of North America. Most of the males die near their ancestral breeding grounds, but female monarchs move north in the spring. There, they lay their eggs. Each subsequent, short-lived generation moves a little farther up the continent along corridors of wildflowers.
In early fall, the chosen generation reliably starts the migration cycle anew.
Wandering Cerro Pelón, I found Dan lying on a patch of open ground, playfully calling out for the monarchs to cover him. Judy was watching her grown son with a satisfied smile on her face. “God gives us more than we even know to ask for,” she said.
Though I was raised a Sunday-school-going Lutheran, I usually shirked away when people started talking about God. I always imagined there were political, social, or moral motives at play rather than spiritual ones. Also, coming from North Carolina—the Bible Belt state where I was born, raised, and still lived—I was hesitant to use the word “God” because people from my part of the country often used it interchangeably with Jesus. And—while I thought the cultural manifestations of his handsome, bearded face brought a lot of people peace—I didn’t think it was necessary to go through Jesus, or for that matter, anyone, to get to divinity.
I’d called myself spiritual but not religious since I was twelve years old. Yet, as I stood on that mountaintop at twenty-nine, I still didn’t have a good grip on what that meant. But in the presence of open-hearted Judy, in that extraordinary place, I was actually starting to suspect that I had been limiting my way of thinking about the word “god.”
Mythology mastermind Joseph Campbell wrote: “God is not supposed to refer to a personality . . . God is simply our own notion of something that is symbolic of transcendence and mystery . . . We are particles of that mystery, that timeless, endless, everlasting mystery which pours forth from the abyss into the forms of the world.”
That, I could get behind.
It wasn’t social or political. It was not a religious affiliation. But it was something.
I did not turn from Judy, and she had nothing more to say. Together, we stared into the day’s abundance, appreciating the tangible rewards of our resilient, monarch-focused faith.
Dan, whose students were never far from mind, finally stood up and said, “I saw a butterfly with a hole in its wing just like Holey’s, but, I mean, I don’t really think it was Holey.”
“You never know,” I said. “It’s pretty amazing that any butterfly with a hole in its wing could make it down here.”
“I guess you’re right. I took a picture. I’m going to show my kids. They’ll believe it’s him,” Dan said, shaking his head, amazed. “Think of how many days we take for granted in our lives, but this is one day we will never forget. We will never be able to take this for granted.”
The hours we spent with the butterflies passed quickly. Just before we left, I looked down and noticed the monarchs were casting shadows on the earth. They were turning the mountaintop into an inverted carousel night-light, their shadows moving slowly across the land.
Overlooking the surreal scene, I began to wonder how something this marvelous could take place year after year without millions of people clustering in these mountains along with the butterflies. I made a mental note to research nature’s most spectacular shows, questioning: If I’d never heard of this phenomenon, grand as it was, what else was I missing?
When we departed, there were still millions of butterflies overhead. I opened my hand as if to touch the gliding creatures, even though I could have reached them no more than a star. There were so many monarchs at the top of Cerro Pelón that, when we began our descent down the mountain’s trails, the butterflies seemed to chase us as we left, horse by horse. They followed along in the air to our right, gliding over the abyss I feared.
One of the guides, knowing my trepidation about horseback riding, looked at me, glanced at Flor, and then said, “It’s amazing what we can do when we have to, isn’t it?”
But when we hit our first acutely steep stretch of trail, I started to clench up. I called out to my fellow travelers, “I can’t do this. I couldn’t have made it up without my horse, but I think I’m going to have to walk down.”
From behind me a voice called out, “You can do it. Just take a few deep breaths and get comfortable. Your horse knows what to do.”
I took a deep breath. I considered how much farther I’d get if I had faith in my horse, just as monarchs have faith in the invisible breezes that carry them across the continent.
Flor struggled to find her footing on the rocky path. I wanted to scream out when she raised her head to express her own uncertainty, but I didn’t. Instead, I released my grip on the saddle and placed a hand on her wiry mane. I leaned in to whisper, “Gracias.” And together, we stumbled forward, into the unknown—which, for me, turned out to be motherhood.
• • •
I’m now nearly thirty-two years old. I’ve traveled, explored, adventured. I’ve built a house, married a husband, had a baby. I’ve done it all, happily, in that order. None of it felt forced; all of it was welcomed and celebrated. But there is an untraditional glitch in my very blessed, traditional trajectory. I can’t get the travel, explore, adventure part off my mind.
Those things weren’t just part of my youth; they are part of me.
But all the years of my life I’ve been told that motherhood means I’m finished with hard-core, challenge-myself-to-the-hilt adventuring. I’m married with a child. That’s the adventure. Those roles will do all the challenging I need. Sure, there will be worthwhile things ahead of me, but, really, I’m in for the winter, and by winter I mean the season of discontent that will last the rest of my life. It’s only natural to allow myself to become a little embittered now that my familial roles don’t allow for the all-encompassment of my personal pipe dreams.
For a split second, I bought into this. But then I remembered how a friend once shared with me the fallout from her mother telling her, over and over again, about the sacrifices she’d made to have children. She’d reiterated them like tiny mantras, stories of personal loss offered as proof of love for her daughter. But the comments always made my friend think to herself: Wow, she probably shouldn’t have had children.
Parenting is about sacrifice, that is for certain, but does being a good mother mean devoting every drop of my being to my child, or does it mean being true to my spirit in a way that illustrates that there is more than one way to live a good life? Motherhood affects everything, but does it have to change everything about who I am and what I choose to pursue?
Archer and I are forming a relationship word by word, day by day. And it seems like embarking on a pilgrimage might just be a way for me to do my part in our partnership. I give to my son of myself, as I hope he will someday choose to give to me, but he is his own being. I am my own being. And I fight the idea that my life is no longer my own. I have to think like this because, as Archer grows, it will be increasingly true. I have given birth to a person with free will and my success as a mother, my personal gauge of success, will be how far, how brazenly, he ventures into the world—coming back to me as I will always return to him.
But since his birth, my world has collapsed into a series of rooms with central heat and a supplemental woodstove. I’ve been living in a black hole, feeling guilty that my curiosity—my need to venture afield—isn’t going to go away. The list of must-see natural phenomena I compiled after witnessing the monarch migration seems to read like a map that might lead me back to myself, a way of fortifying the natural-world connection I made in the presence of butterflies.
I need to take a leap of faith. For my sanity. For my marriage. For my son. I want to look back in ten years and think I can’t believe this is my life in a good way, a wondrously astounded way, rather than a woe-is-me way. I don’t want to wait and wait and subconsciously resent my life or, worst of all, my son—my beautiful, blessed boy. That, perhaps more than any of the tsk-tsk looks and comments I am opening myself to from the outside world, is the greatest danger of not embarking on the quest I’ve dreamed up. I am going to pilgrimage to some of the world’s most dazzling phenomena. I don’t know how I’ll make it happen, but I am going to do it.
When Archer suckles one breast and refuses the other during our ritual one morning, I feel a bit rejected and relieved. The next day, when I offer him my milk, he laughs at me as I lie on the bed, offering up my body. He makes the American Sign Language symbol for milk, a grasping motion reminiscent of milking a cow. Archer wants a bottle. He is weaned. I am inexplicably saddened. I will miss his nuzzles, the way he patted my breast when he was hungry.
He has inspired me to marvel at our joined bodies the way I yearn to once again wonder at all the world. But, now that he is eating solid food, it is time for me to start at the top of my phenomena list. I am going to reimagine my life by doing the unimaginable, and I am taking my husband with me. We need more than a vacation. We need rejuvenation, electrification.
So, with Archer happily settled into a room at my parents’ house, Matt and I head for the airport. We’re thankfully financed by a travel magazine assignment, my first since Archer’s birth. My father holds my son in the crook of his arm, and Archer waves good-bye, repeating his favorite new word: “Go! Go! Go!”
The syllables rain down like a blessing.
BIOLUMINESCENCE, PUERTO RICO
TWO DAYS LATER, MATT AND I ARE STANDING IN A NARROW ALLEYWAY IN Isabel Segunda—on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico—when a stranger approaches to tell us that he’s channeling the power of the ocean. Crazy? Maybe. But we’re here on a similarly far-fetched quest—to swim in a celestial sea. I tell the man, who introduces himself as Charlie the Wavemaster, that the Milky Way will soon crackle and shimmer as it slips through my fingers. Bits of stardust will cling to my hair.
I hope Vieques’s Mosquito Bay, or Bio Bay, will be as grand as I’m imagining. Plankton-induced bioluminescence—which appears to mirror stars in the night sky—occurs spontaneously across the globe, but no site on earth hosts the phenomenon with more regularity than the southern coast of Vieques. In 2008, Guinness World Records named Bio Bay the brightest in the world.
Charlie, a gray-bearded man who is wearing a baseball cap and handkerchief headband, seems delighted by our plans. He says, “The Bio Bay, it’s all about vibrations. You slap the water and it lights up! It’s inspiring! The water holds so much awe!”
I smile. That’s exactly what I’m hoping to find here.
Charlie is holding a long metal pole. I gesture toward the rod. He says, as if he’s surprised that I have to ask, “Oh, this is my magic wand!”
A ferry from mainland Puerto Rico approaches in the distance. Charlie taps his wand on the ground near my feet. “I’m putting out vibrations right now. Feel it?” There is a dull resonation under my sand-encrusted flip-flops. Charlie says, “Vibrations affect everything and everybody all the time. All the way up to the divine!”
A yellow butterfly hovers above us. Charlie uses his free hand to point out its fluttering wings. He stops his vibration making and pulls the rod close to his chest, saying, “Hey, what do you get when you multiply two negatives?”
“Yes!” Charlie says, pleased that I’m playing along. “Everything,” he says, “comes out a positive if you look at it the right way!”
Vieques, which is located roughly seven miles from the main island of Puerto Rico, is a place where it hasn’t always been easy for residents to see the bright side of things. In the early 1940s, thousands of residents were forced from their homes when the United States Navy expropriated roughly two-thirds of the twenty-two-mile-long, five-mile-wide island for artillery storage and military training. In the following decades, Vieques was the site of perpetual military training involving munitions that delivered doses of napalm, lead, depleted uranium, and a cocktail of other contaminants. In 2003, when the navy ceased bombing, nearly 18,000 acres of the island were designated as a national wildlife refuge. This move has kept residential activity concentrated in a narrow swath of land in the center of the island, preserving its status as one of the least developed in the Caribbean.
In 2005, the Environmental Protection Agency added Vieques to its Superfund National Priorities List, officially making parts of the island hazardous-waste sites. This designation made Vieques a supremely unlikely tourist destination. But the navy’s toxic legacy has proven no match for the island’s more than fifty undeveloped beaches where—on a busy day—visitors might share a crescent of sand with one or two other intrepid souls. Tourism is on the rise, but the cadence of local life still dominates the streets here.
Matt and I begin the climb back into town. Charlie follows. Together, we walk through Isabel Segunda—the larger of the island’s two towns, with a population of roughly 2,000—in full view of its bustle. Cars blast the thump-de-thump of reggaeton. Neighbors chat through barred windows with people on the street. Young men in athletic clothing ride bareback on horses guided by rough, twisted rope. Roosters run wild through the scene, dodging hooves and tires.
Everyone passing, almost without exception, gives Charlie a hearty hello or thorny glance that reveals respect, bemusement, or disapproval of his one-man, wave-channeling work. Charlie, as it turns out, is somewhat of a local fixture. He’s a full-time Wavemaster. I can’t comment on the practicality of his work. All I know is that he’s putting out a good (there’s just no other way to say it) vibe.
We stroll a few blocks into town before Charlie bids us farewell. Just before he slips into the driver’s seat of a borrowed pickup truck he says, “There are so many mysterious ways and miracles in the world. There’s so much involved you could never understand it all.”
As he drives away, I can hear his metal rod echoing in the truck bed like a tuning fork.
• • •
It doesn’t take long to realize that exploring Vieques requires a car. The island, which doesn’t have a single traffic light, is also devoid of taxis. We catch a público—part of Vieques’s limited public transit system—and head for Maritza’s Car Rental.
The island is stitched together by a series of unmarked, one-lane roads. Our minibus races by turquoise and hot-pink houses, past a church hosting a tent revival, along fences of slender branches and barbwire intertwined with hibiscus vines. Each time a car appears up ahead, we enter a contest of wills. Who’ll guide their tires off the blacktop first? Which driver is going to yield? Locals tend to favor small compact cars and work trucks. Visitors are immediately identifiable in the late-model Jeeps that have begun to proliferate.
After I fill out the paperwork necessary to secure a Jeep Cherokee—which turns out to be several years newer than the vehicle I drive back home, not exactly a positive on an island where driving is considered an adventure sport—I inquire about Vieques’s speed limit. I haven’t noticed any signs posted. The attendant looks shocked by my inquiry, as if she’s never been asked about these regulations. In fact, she looks like she’s never even considered them. She shrugs. “I don’t really know. Maybe 45?” I must look concerned about the looseness of this estimation because she adds, “Don’t worry. The horses will let you know how fast to go.”
Here, horses trump Hondas. The animals often appear wild, but the clip-clop of metal shoes and the brands burned into their coats reveal that they are at least semitame, domesticated. They sometimes chase cars alongside roads and, along with prehistoric-looking iguanas, can often be found leisurely sunning in the middle of streets.
The rental attendant says, “When people want to ride the horses they just go out and catch them.” She makes a lassoing motion and explains that, sometimes, if people cannot locate their own horse, they’ll wrangle whatever animal they can. In this situation, proper etiquette requires the borrower to set the animal loose in the middle of town. This way, the owners are sure to find out that their free-range friend has been released.
As I turn to go, she says, “I know it seems strange, but the horses here get sick if they’re penned in. We don’t know why, so we let them be free. It’s the only way they will be healthy. It’s what makes them happy.”
• • •
Excerpted from Phenomenal by Leigh Ann Henion. Copyright © 2016 Leigh Ann Henion. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter 1 Metamorphosis 7
Chapter 2 Bioluminescence, Puerto Rico 25
Chapter 3 Catatumbo Lightning, Venezuela 49
Chapter 4 Volcanic Eruption, Hawai'i 77
Chapter 5 Northern Lights, Sweden 127
Chapter 6 The Great Migration, Tanzania 177
Chapter 7 Total Solar Eclipse, Australia 235
Reading Group Guide
"All of life is a trust fall, and I'm awakening to the thrill, rather than the fear, of being suspended midair" (p. 76).
An introduction to Phenomenal, by Leigh Ann Henion
In the sleepless nights following her son's birth, Leigh Ann Henion spent hours staring at him in wonderment. But the award-winning travel writer struggled to reconcile the person she was with the parent she'd become. While dealing with the rigors of caring for a colicky baby, she says she had a "complete breakdown of faith" (p. 10). Faith in what, exactly, she wasn't sure. In her darkest moments, she was drawn to memories of Mexico, where she had witnessed the migration of the monarch butterfly. Over time, they gave her hope that she might once again wonder at all the world. As her son, Archer, grew so did his ability to marvel over simple things. After he was weaned, Henion set out to gain similarly new perspective—by intermittently chasing natural phenomena around the globe while her son spent time with other family members.
Henion’s first expedition was to Puerto Rico, where she and her husband, Matt, visited a bioluminescent bay, with waters that appeared to glow due to microscopic organisms. In the complete absence of man-made light, Henion swam in "a cloud of liquid electricity” (p. 38). On their last night-swim, Henion found herself struggling far from shore. She couldn't see Matt, but he saw her and swam over. In that moment, she realized that she’d been waiting for him to rescue her since Archer was born. At the same time, Henion realized that there was no shame in admitting that she was overwhelmed. “The sleep deprivation, the hormones, the resentment—had been too much for me to navigate on my own," she writes. "I had blamed him for not noticing that I was drowning, but I should not have been afraid to ask for parenting help” (p. 44).
Transformed, Henion returns to Archer knowing that motherhood is only one part of her life’s journey. He, too, learned from her absence and seemed to have a new understanding of their relationship. Henion wrote: “I was no longer an appendage. I wasn’t his right hand … I was his right-hand woman” (p. 51). Henion began planning for future adventures, determined to live out a self-designed pilgrimage to wonder, despite the many obstacles that made the journey seem improbable—especially for a young mother.
Whereas Puerto Rico was an easily accessible tourist destination, many of the other places Henion visited were fraught with challenges. To witness the Catumbo lightening over Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo, she faced the very real possibility of falling prey to kidnappers. In Tanzania, where Henion traveled alone to witness the world’s largest mammal migration, she found herself charged by a bull elephant and stranded after dark in the bush.
In her first few months as a mother, she'd considered herself lucky to make it to the grocery store before it was time for bed. But she spent subsequent years gazing into live volcanoes, the northern lights, and a total solar eclipse. Along the way, she encountered modern-day shamans, reindeer herders, and astrophysicists, who, like her, chose to live their lives in pursuit of the phenomenal. Ultimately, Henion brought a newfound sense of wonder home to bear on her backyard, alongside her family.
Heartfelt and imbued with the awe-inspiring grandeur of the wonders she pursued, Phenomenal is the unforgettable account of one woman who—in opening herself to the universe’s most captivating mysteries—awakened to a deeper understanding of spirituality, nature, and her role as both a mother and a fully realized person.
1. Do you think a man would ever feel the need to write a book like Phenomenal? Despite the strides women have made, does a mother still need to justify her absence from home and family in a way that a father does not?
2. What is the most phenomenal experience you’ve had? How did your life change in its wake?
3. “Parenting is about sacrifice, that is for certain, but does being a good mother mean devoting every drop of my being to my child, or does it mean being true to my spirit in a way that illustrates that there is more than one way to live a good life?” (p. 21) Discuss the above passage and how your thoughts about it changed—or didn’t change—after reading Phenomenal.
4. During her trip to Sweden to see the northern lights, Henion realizes that “all religious rites, are, at root, human interpretations of phenomena” (p. 174). Is there a ritual in your own life that you perform to connect to something greater than yourself?
5. In order to travel to Venezuela she is forced to take a leap of faith and wire money to someone she’s never met. “All of life is a trust fall, and I’m awakening to the thrill, rather than the fear, of being suspended midair.” (pg. 76) Should human beings have more faith in one another? When has your faith in someone else been rewarded?
6. From the voice of Pele in the churning lava to the preternatural silence of her room in the ICEHOTEL to “the secret language of elephant-produced infrasound” (p. 181), Henion pays particular attention to the sounds of her various experiences. How attuned are you to the sounds that surround us? Does American culture value our visual experiences over those of our other senses?
7. During her travels, Henion meets both spiritual seekers and scientists who pursue the same phenomena but offer radically different interpretations for their existence. Why are science and spirituality so often at odds? Do you agree with Henion that science itself requires a kind of faith?
8. “I think people put restrictions on their lives. They perceive: I can’t do this because I don’t have the money. I can’t do this because of whatever...But if you’ve got that passion, if you’ve made that choice, it will happen” (pg. 240) Many of the people she meets followed their passions despite various obstacles. Do you envy them? Could you do what they did?
9. “You’re not doing it for him, you know, you’re doing it for you. You’re doing it to become a fully realized person. There is no guilt in that.” (pg. 251) Would you feel guilty in her position? Why or why not?
10. What drew you to read Phenomenal? Is this a book you would recommend to others? If so, who and why?