TOM EARNHARDT: Listening for words of wonder

Posted August 2, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated April 6, 2021 12:08 p.m. EDT

Ruby-throated hummingbird. (Photo by Tom Earnhardt)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Tom Earnhardt has been described as the “steward of North Carolina outdoors.” A lawyer, he pioneered environmental law in the state. He is an avid naturalist and was co-producer of more than 80 episodes of the natural science television series “Exploring North Carolina.” His observations and photos are a regular weekend feature for the coming weeks.

How fast can it fly? Where does it go in the winter? What does it eat? When will it come back next year? Why are they found only in one place? Who can I ask to learn more?

To anyone who has ever taught, and to parents and grandparents everywhere, these words— who, what, when, where, why, and how—are familiar words of wonder and growth in children! Curiosity is the love of learning manifested in words and actions. And contrary to what you might have heard, curiosity did not kill the cat; it expanded her world and made her wiser.

Curiosity has always been a trait that I have most admired in others. Because of this, I value good questions at least as much as I do the “right answers.” Yet, as a society, we still tend to reward those able to accumulate the most right answers on final exams, SATs, and on graduate/professional tests.

We want answers immediately, just like we need “next-day” delivery by Amazon and FedEx. In our system of rewards we have always put a high value on IQ (intelligence quotient). Again, for reasons I cannot explain, curiosity has simply never gotten the credit and respect it deserves.

There are ways to measure and assess curiosity, but to the best of my knowledge it can’t be taught. I am convinced, however, curiosity can be nurtured and supported. For many years, I watched my own children and other young people stimulated and challenged by the natural world. Nothing elicits questions and fosters curiosity more than time in wild places.

Try to remember your reaction the first time you saw the Milky Way painted across a remote night sky, stood on an ocean beach at sunrise, watched chevrons of geese and swans in the winter sky, or saw fireflies on a warm summer night. Such interactions with the natural world beg us to ask honest questions.

Can you look into Linville Gorge and not ask how old, and how deep? Can you approach Pilot Mountain, rising 2,000 feet above the the Piedmont landscape, and not wonder what forces have shaped it over millions of years? Can you paddle among the ancient bald cypress of the Black River and not ponder how some have survived hurricanes, floods, and even fire for more than 2000 years?

Sometimes the wild things come to you. A few weeks ago near downtown Raleigh, my daughter spotted a shy eastern box turtle lumbering across our backyard. Almost immediately we both begin to ask the same questions using familiar words. How old was this neighbor we had never met, knowing she can live up to 100 years? Where was the turtle born, since most live within a few hundred yards of where its mother laid her eggs? What does she eat in an urban neighborhood, and why had we never seen this gentle reptile before?

Finally, there’s something magical about adult hummingbirds, weighing 1/10 of an ounce! Someone once pointed out to me that 10 hummingbirds could fly south for the winter for the cost of one first-class stamp. For 30 years I have welcomed ruby-throated hummingbirds to our yard in summer. I always have the same personal questions for each tiny new guest: where did you spend the winter, and how far did you fly to get here?

The natural world has always been my family’s “curiosity laboratory.“ While hunkered down at home in this time of coronavirus, I am constantly reminded how fortunate we are in North Carolina to have myriad opportunities to associate with the natural world. These opportunities—in the form of parks, natural areas, game lands, protected forests, and even wilderness beaches—are the result of the work of countless men and women over the past 100 years.

I’d like to think these champions of the land understood the importance of wild places for the growth and success of our children. In these places, young North Carolinians are inspired to ask questions about the world around them. The same words of wonder—who, what, when, where, why, and how— invariably spill over into other parts of our lives. Curiosity frees us to explore new worlds with an open mind.

Sadly, not all children have equal or ready access to the natural world. Some come from families who do no have the economic means for even minimal travel, while others come from schools and circumstances where time in nature is not a priority. As a consequence, too many young adults have never set foot on a North Carolina beach, stood on a mountain peak, or held a turtle in their hands. Without such experiences, good questions may not come naturally. And if we aren’t inspired to ask questions as children, we are less likely to feel comfortable asking them as adults.

As coronavirus has spread unchecked across large swaths of this country, I have watched in frustration while too many “leaders“ have become mired in political dogma. I am concerned that the same leaders are not asking important questions because they know the answers will conflict with long-held personal and political beliefs. Regardless of our political affiliation, we must expect our leaders to have the courage to ask honest, hard questions during difficult times.

Why have other countries flattened the curve, and we have not? What actions will save the most lives, while reducing pressures on our healthcare workers and infrastructure? When and where should we all wear face masks? What will it take to act again as one people and one nation?

Discovery and growth are by-products of curiosity. Honest inquiry will not always give us the answers we expect, or provide them as quickly as we would like. I look forward to the time when I can again visit my favorite North Carolina wild places and hear the words and questions that tell me our children are growing. Our nation needs to hear them, too.

Listening carefully for the words of wonder,


Do you remember the first time you stood on a Tar Heel beach and had a thousand questions about the ocean. How deep and how far? (Photo 1)

EARNHARDT-2 Waterfowl

What were your questions the first time you saw formations of migratory waterfowl etched against a January sky? (Photo 2)

EARNHARDT-3 Linville Gorge

From the rim of Linville Gorge to the river below it is more than 1500 feet. How long did it take nature carve this Tar Heel masterpiece? (Photo 3)

EARNHARDT-4 Pilot Mountain

Pilot Mountain is properly named. It can be seen for more than 50 miles away. This photo was taken looking south from Virginia. How old is “The Pilot” and how has it survived wind and erosion? (Photo 4)

EARNHARDT-5 Black River tree

Many ancient trees on the Black River show evidence of wind and water that have twisted trunks and branches over centuries and even millennia. What forces twisted the top of this tree? (Photo 5)

EARNHARDT-6 turtle

It was a surprise to see this eastern box turtle lumbering through our backyard near downtown Raleigh. How old is she, what does she eat, and where was she born? (Photo #6)

EARNHARDT-7 Hummingbird

If you watch a hummingbird fly or hover more than a few times, you will invariably ask about the speed its wings? (Photo 7 -- Spoiler alert: The wings of a ruby-throated hummingbird can beat between 75 and 185 beats per second!)

EARNHARDT-8 caterpiller

Because we have approximately 3000 moths and butterflies in North Carolina I frequently see caterpillars that I cannot identify. This always leads to the question: what beautiful Lepidoptera will emerge from the caterpillar? (Photo 8)

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