We know children experience ecstatic moments, thanks to environmental psychologist Louise Chawla. But what happens when the “radioactive jewels” start to pulse as adults? What does ecstatic experience in nature look like for a grown person? (No, that doesn’t mean sex in the forest. Although I suppose it could.)

I wrote this two years ago:

There are times when I’m outdoors that things take on a heightened, almost piercing quality. My mind zooms in. The small cloud of buzzing insects above the water seems very important. The sight of the beaver dragging branches across the lake is almost poignant. The lamplight through dripping leaves seems intended for me.

Everything seems immediate.

I stood in a cloud of swallowtail butterflies Sunday afternoon, my feet on the sandy edge of the creek near one of the mossy rock outcroppings. There were at least twenty of the shocking yellow butterflies, all flitting around my head, never landing, just air-dancing around me. There’s a perfectly rational biological explanation for this behavior — it’s called “puddling”. Flower nectar is the butterfly’s main source of food, but lacks all the nutrients they require. So they frequently hang out near wet, sandy areas, feeding on the extra salt in the sandy moisture.  I probably just interrupted a puddling session, so they took to the air until the threat passed. (Last year, very near the same spot, I found three of them dining on dog turds.)

The only evidence of my ecstatic butterfly moment
The only evidence of my ecstatic butterfly moment

They just wanted salt — but I was having a far more complicated reaction. They fluttered about, some of them so close I could have reached out to grab them.  Time slowed down, and the sound of the creek faded away. They were mesmerizing. This is it, I thought. Ecstatic experience.

I hunt this.

This is what I do, I thought. I’m a wonder hunter. I’m drawn back, again and again, to places that dispense moments of natural wonder, like a lab rat hitting the reward bar. This is why I attach to places. I never attach to a place that doesn’t have a history of dispensing my preferred psychic reward.

Chawla also talks about a sense of ownership that accompanies a child’s ecstatic places — either literal family ownership, or some other sense of belonging: “The child belonged to a place because the place, in some way, belonged to the child. This mutual sense of belonging always had a socioeconomic basis: The land was family property or public property; it was wild or unclaimed; or it was part of a summer resort or a boarding school where the child’s family had a secure social standing that ensured “belonging.” Ecstatic places were never the territory of a vigilant other, where the child felt like an interloper. They were places the child could claim.”

This explains, then, why I’ve never been interested in returning to a magic place after it fell out of my hands; why I never returned to my house in Montana despite the fact that I sold it to my neighbor-friends who encouraged me to return; why I can’t even drive by some of my former homes; why I was so sad this weekend, despite meeting the buyers who are open to us visiting the place.

I’ll keep wonder hunting, because I wouldn’t know how to live otherwise. So I know I’ll find other magic places. Maybe someday I’ll even get to keep one.

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