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A sense of wonder through the eyes — and ears — of a child

Lulu Miller’s radio series 'Terrestrials' is for all of us

Lulu Miller
Photo illustration by Mark Riechers/Midjourney. Original portrait by Kristen Finn (via Lulu Miller/WNYC)

Lulu Miller is known for her work on curiosity-driven radio shows and podcasts, including “Invisibilia” and “Radiolab,” where she is now a co-host. She is also the author of the book, “Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love and the Hidden Order of Life.

Her latest project, near and dear to her heart, is the creation of a “Radiolab” spinoff show and podcast series for children: “Terrestrials.”

Miller spoke with “To The Best Of Our Knowledge,” explaining how nature and child-like sensibility can help adults rediscover a sense of wonder.

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This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

Shannon Henry Kleiber: So, Lulu, what inspired you to create “Terrestrials”?

Lulu Miller: It was a couple of things. I became a mom. I now have two young boys, and I started to find the minds of kids really interesting. I hadn’t grown up around kids. I was the youngest in my whole family. I didn’t really babysit. Kids kind of intimidated me until I had them.

I suddenly realized they’re a demanding audience. They want real humor. They can think really deep thoughts. They’re not all locked in with assumptions yet. I was finding myself having these almost psychedelic conversations with my son about what things are in the world.

And it was also partly selfish. I started it about a year into the pandemic, and I suddenly just felt really hungry to think about nature.

SHK: I love that you talk about your son asking questions that kind of seem psychedelic. How old are your kids and what were they asking you?

LM: OK, so now they’re 4 and 1 and a half. They’re still really little. And the show is for kids who are a little bit older, but the older one was making interesting mash-ups of words and understandings. He was calling anything that was kind of green and scaly a fish. So a turtle was a fish, but a plant or leaf moving was a fish, and anything that was a little land animal was a dog. Dogs and cats were dogs and little ants were dogs. And then anything that flew was a duck.

Watching his mind try to group the world and see what went together and try to make associations and understand things just felt like, oh, I just want to have this conversation again and again and test my own assumptions.

SHK: I so relate to that as a parent. My kids are teenagers now, but I remember when they were really little, I would sometimes see things through their eyes, suddenly staring at an icicle or looking at this tongue on a goat in the zoo, or something I would never notice, like a ripple on the sand on the beach.

LM: Absolutely. We were at the beach on a cold night and we were talking about the word “horizon.” We’re looking out. And he said, “Maybe if we go in Uncle Jim’s boat, we could touch the horizon.” It’s just an audience who is thrillingly alive to me.

SHK: They’re not afraid to not know the answer to something, or to not know that something is completely explained. It brings out a sense of wonder which is kid-like. What is your understanding of wonder?

LM: I think of it as this thing that’s often kind of eye-rolled into the corner and dismissed as trivial or twee or just for children. And you picture it with bubbles all around and there’s a naivete or innocence.

But I’m an etymology nerd. And so the root of “wonder” is kind of deliciously and fittingly unknown. So if you go to its cousin, it’s synonym — awe — the root of that is old English “ege” for terror. And I think these moments of wonder, these bubbling up feelings of “whoa!” — there is a terror in it, there is a feeling of smallness before the world.

With scientists and people commenting on humanity and where climate change is going and how humans are destined to be greedy, the world can feel so known. And I think moments of wonder are brushing up with this feeling that, wait — maybe you don’t have everything figured out yet. And that feeling for me is the best feeling, because it opens up an authentic sense of hope, an authentic sense of possibility. And so you have to have faith that there might be a surprise.

One of the things in the show that I try to do is to get an adult past their expectations. I always begin the first minute without telling you what we’re talking about. The titles don’t give away that this is about an octopus. This is about a mule, because I don’t want you to enter with any assumptions or expectations, and I just want you to teleport into its sensory experience of being.

SHK: Why do you think that sometimes adults lose the sense of wonder? These moments of not worrying about what anyone else says out in the natural world. How can we get that back?

LM: It’s hard. We’ve got to lock it up sometimes. There are jobs to get and confidence to project and taxes to pay. And if we were always in a state of wonder, like, “is this a couch or is it maybe a bomb?” — sometimes you just have to parse the world and move forward.

It’s a stilling process where you stop and pause. We can’t always pause. I have complete empathy for why you’ve got to put it away just to go be an adult.

But to get it back, I think it’s the practice of noticing whatever is authentic to you. Like when you feel that little tickle on your heart, you feel that little pull, what does that mean? Or you read a headline that just gives you that eerie feeling of wanting to know more, or being surprised that something worked that way. I think it’s just getting better and better at trusting that and not judging it and just thinking, “Huh? Wow. Stories about math really interest me.” Or “stories about breakdowns really interest me.” Or “stories about how money works really interest me.” Or maybe it’s nature, maybe it’s poetry. Don’t judge it.

I think it’s just noticing when you get that tickle and then cherishing it and following it. But it’s sacred when that tickle comes because that feeling is reminding you, oh, you care about something.

SHK: And sometimes it can be really little. One of my teenagers was saying, “I just really like this particular color of green so much now.” And I said, “Oh, wow, that’s really cool.” And she showed me the color and we started seeing it in different places. So now when we go places, we’re looking for that particular color of green. It’s got a little blue in it. It’s hard to even describe. It seems small, but I was really happy for her that in this realm of everything else, of going to school and everything she’s doing, that she’s thinking about this color that she’s interested in.

LM: Having a hunt is so fun. Just whatever the hunt of the gifts the world gives you, I think that’s a very liberating, rejuvenating feeling, to feel the engine in you that wants to go out into the world and wants to ask questions.

SHK: So I was wondering about your childhood, Lulu. You’re seeing this through your kids’ eyes now, but were there experiences that were formative or memorable for you growing up?

LM: Nature was just this hugely, perpetually safe place. I am someone with a lot of feelings, and therefore, the human world can sometimes be this a minefield of, “Oops, I made someone mad,” or “I feel guilty.”

My oldest sister was bullied horrifically — in the 1980s where, especially with kids, there was just less awareness about cognitive differences — and just I remember watching that as a kid and just thinking, “Oh, the human world can be so brutal.” There’s so much cruelty, there’s so many needs. It’s so hard to get it right. It’s so hard to make everyone happy.

My dad would take me hiking all the time. And he’s a scientist. So he was very into pointing things out, like fungi. He’d say: “Allie Algae met a fun-guy and they took a lichen to each other.” It just was always this place where there was interest, there was beauty. The air changed. It’s more oxygenated. There are all these smells, there’s pines and flowers and lakes to jump into. Pull up a rock and find a beetle and a worm. And throughout my childhood and then just throughout my whole life, it just is this realm where I feel safe, I feel rejuvenated, and I feel it’s easier to access my wonder and my questions.

As much as you think about Linnaeus, who named the world, there’s a sense everything is known, but it’s not. There are so many questions. And that’s why I love science reporting. There are just so many questions left. And nature to me feels like a reliable place to encounter those questions.

SHK: As I was listening to your episodes, I was thinking about Rachel Carson, and I found this quote that you probably know: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement and mystery of the world we live in.”

LM: That really moves me. Yeah, I love that. My wife is a psychologist. She works in the NICU at a hospital where parents are dealing with very scary stuff. What she works on is how giving parents, even just a little bit of mental health care, can help improve the baby’s outcome. She was practicing a presentation to me and she started with this quote by (Donald) Winnicott, this famous child psychologist who said basically, babies don’t exist. They are always in a relationship with an adult.

And I feel like this Rachel Carson thing gets at it, too, where maybe a kid is a little bit older and they could survive for a little bit, but that to keep the wonder alive, you need the conversation and just that. Like I think increasingly as I get older, I think relationships and conversation — real conversation, confusion, maybe even conflict, resolution — that is the real stuff on Earth. And it’s so exciting. It’s like there’s sparks there.