The Fleeting Moment of Wonder

Page 16 of The Mythic Roots of Western Culture’s Alienation from Nature. Adams and Belasco. Tapestry Institute Occasional Papers, Volume 1, Number 3. July, 2015. Outline / List of Headings available here.

The Fleeting Moment of Wonder

The Dark Forest in the story of Gilgamesh’s first journey is archetypally dangerous and challenging: it’s surrounded by a ravine that hinders travel, the giant sacred Cedar is surrounded by matted thornbushes and thickets, and a lethal monster lurks in the depths of the forest. But here, in this most ancient recorded version of the Dark Forest, Fiery Desert Myth, wonder and beauty appear right alongside the challenges: An excellent, straight path leads into the forest’s depths; and the cedars’ foliage is luxurious, its shade pleasant. The forest is beautiful, and the moment of Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s first encounter is rich with imagery and emotion (72):

As the two of them reached the evergreen forest
they cut off their talk, and stood still.
… They stood at the forest’s edge,
gazing at the top of the Cedar Tree,
gazing at the entrance to the forest.
Where Humbaba would walk there was a trail,
the roads led straight on, the path was excellent.
Then they saw the Cedar Mountain, the Dwelling of the Gods, the throne dais of Imini.
Across the face of the mountain the Cedar brought forth luxurious foliage,
its shade was good, extremely pleasant.
The thornbushes were matted together, the woods were a thicket
… among the Cedars,… the boxwood,
the forest was surrounded by a ravine two leagues long,

This “Fleeting Moment of Wonder,” marked by awe and a deep recognition of nature’s beauty, is present in many contemporary films that express the Dark Forest, Fiery Desert Myth. Remember the initial shots of magnificent landscape that immediately follow the “door opening” and “match” cuts we saw in Silverado and Lawrence of Arabia, respectively. It is no coincidence that these images are accompanied by soaring music that generates powerful emotions of awe. Even the Heroes of Jaws and Twister seem mesmerized by their first glimpses of the giant shark and a moving tornado, however rapidly the moment passes. Like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, they pause in silence to simply gaze at it all. . . after which they shake off the moment and go down the trail that leads into the forest, across the desert, out upon the sea, or under the thunderhead. And once there, they fight with nature.

It’s important to notice that this fight is generally one the Heroes initiate even though they’ve come to the Dark Forest or Fiery Desert in response to a call for help. The scientists in Twister chase tornadoes, the protagonists of Jaws chase the shark, and T.H. Lawrence goes out to find someone in the desert. They could all, like Gilgamesh, have chosen to stay home. While this “taking the fight to them” is an important structural element of the Hero’s Journey Myth, it’s important to see how it impacts the Dark Forest, Fiery Desert Myth. Nature’s role in the story, the part it has to play structurally, is “The Challenge” — the thing that gives the Hero something heroic to overcome. That’s why the initial appreciation of nature’s beauty or magnificence can only be temporary.

The switch from a fleeting initial appreciation of nature’s beauty to girding for a fight happens so rapidly that it can be easy to miss. A scene from Silverado (73; see clip below) shows a variant of this quick-change in which the Hero is a woman, her weapon is a plow, and the price paid to subjugate nature will be her own beauty. First the woman praises the place she plans to live, observing it’s “Pretty land, isn’t it.” Then, after further conversation, she inexplicably says the land will only be pretty “someday,” after she has worked and sacrificed to that end.

What’s more interesting is that in the interim dialogue between the woman’s two different statements, the man and woman speak lines in which the characters suddenly symbolize the relationship between humans (the man) and nature (the woman) in Western culture — and it’s the very aspect of the relationship we’re looking at here, that the woman’s other dialogue manifests: When the man observes that the woman herself is pretty, she tells him men are drawn to her beauty but the attraction “never lasts.”

(Click the image below to see the video clip. This clip is mounted at Youtube. Please report problems playing the video file.)


A woman praises a specific piece of land as pretty and then later says it won’t be pretty until after she’s struggled with it and won. Between her two statements, the man and woman briefly symbolize a key aspect of the human-nature relationship in Western culture. From Silverado. 1985 (73).

The sequence and timing of the transition from Fleeting Moment of Wonder to the view of nature more typical of Dark Forest, Fiery Desert Myth suggests a switch of consciousness: from something of a child’s wordless wonder to a kind of stern parental warning. In real life, stormchasers such as Steve Miller commonly write about their deep sense of wonder and awe: “The back edge of the meso[cyclone] is just about overhead. Words and pictures cannot describe nor capture the sensation of this moment…it was very surreal…a religious experience to say the least.” (74) But stormchasers’ descriptions and photographs often provoke admonitions that tornadoes are dangerous and shouldn’t be chased (75). And of course, tornadoes can be dangerous; even experienced professional stormchasers have been killed when tornadoes changed course unexpectedly (76). But what’s more important than the “facts” of how dangerous tornadoes are to stormchasers is the sequence of mythic motif here. It’s the same as that seen in the openings to Silverado and Lawrence of Arabia: the person who sees a tornado gasps in wonder at the magnificent beauty of nature and is then immediately reminded of its danger, power, and heartless unconcern for human life. This is the humanus’ view of nature as Ruthless — specifically the Fear motif — common in the Dark Forest, Fiery Desert Myth. The fear may be expressed as a wary respect, as in the Silverado clip you just saw, but it’s a respect based on fear of nature and what the battle with it will cost.

Moments of Wonder are not expressions of the humana. A stormchaser who feels awe at sight of a tornado does not expect it to be a Best Friend that will play with him or tie ribbons in her hair. Nor do stormchasers’ feelings of awe make them go away so as not to harm the tornado (a physical version of the Animals Only motif). The Moment of Wonder is instead an expression of the whole unsplit psyche that has been repressed to unconscious depths in people of Western culture. That unsplit psyche perceives nature in a distinctive way expressed by neither the humana nor the humanus. We distinguish this unsplit, foundational part of the psyche with the term nana moma, which is Choctaw (rather than Latin, 77) for “all of nature” in the sense of “all things” or “everything.” The term therefore refers to a whole psyche perceiving a whole nature. It is present in all human beings, though it may be suppressed. The voice of the nana moma surfaces, speaks, and then disappears over and over in Fleeting Moments of Wonder embedded within Western culture’s Dark Forest, Fiery Desert Myths. Elusive but powerful, its view of nature is corrected at every turn by the humanus. 

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References, Notes, and Credits
for
The Fleeting Moment of Wonder

72. The Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablets IV and V. Translated by Maureen Gallery Kovacs, Electronic Edition by Wolf Carnahan, I998. Available online at http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab4.htm and http://www.ancienttexts.org/library/mesopotamian/gilgamesh/tab5.htm

73. Silverado. 1985. Lawrence Kasdan, Director. Lawrence Kasdan and Mark Kasdan, Writers. Columbia Pictures, Delphi III Productions. Images and film clips on this web page are used under Fair Use as stated in the Copyright Act of 1976, 17 U.S.C. § 107.

74. Steve Miller. Report of a Mesocyclone that formed over Oklahoma City on June 13, 1998. Texastailchaser.com

75. Melody Kramer. 2013. “Are Storm Chasers Crossing the Line?” National Geographic News, June 6, 2013. Available online at http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/06/130604-storm-chasing-dangers-samaras-weather-tornadoes/. Accessed July 8, 2015.

76. The most famous case is that of Tim Samaras, Carl Young, and Paul Samaras. See Jake Carpenter and Catherine E. Schoichet. 2013. “Unpredictable Storm in Oklahoma Turned on Three Chasers.” CNN. Available online at http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/02/us/midwest-weather/

77. We are deeply grateful for the assistance of Dora Wickson, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma Language Department, in selecting the appropriate term nana moma. We have not chosen Latin for this term because the whole, unsplit psyche is not a phenomenon specific to Western culture. We appreciate the help of Janine Dunleavy of Southern Cross University, Australia, in helping us clarify our point that the nana moma is a universal presence in human beings, even when it is suppressed. A Jungian introduced to this term would consider the nana moma an archetype such as the anima or animus, universal because of the commonality of human brain architecture. We see the nana moma as neither dependent on nor reducible to any aspect of human anatomy. That is why the term means “all of nature” in the sense of “all things” or “everything.”