The Scavenger Hunt - Trust

Big magic: creative living beyond fear - Elizabeth Gilbert 2015

The Scavenger Hunt

Let me give you an example of where the scavenger hunt of curiosity can lead you.

I’ve already told you the story of the greatest novel I never wrote—that book about the Amazon jungle, which I neglected to nurture, and which eventually jumped out of my consciousness and into Ann Patchett’s consciousness. That book had been a passion project. That idea had come to me in a brain wave of physical and emotional excitement and inspiration. But then I got distracted by life’s exigencies, and I didn’t work on that book, and it left me.

So it goes, and so it went.

After that Amazon jungle idea was gone, I didn’t have another brain wave of physical and emotional excitement and inspiration right away. I kept waiting for a big idea to arrive, and I kept announcing to the universe that I was ready for a big idea to arrive, but no big ideas arrived. There were no goose bumps, no hairs standing up on the back of my neck, no butterflies in my stomach. There was no miracle. It was like Saint Paul rode his horse all the way to Damascus and nothing happened, except maybe it rained a bit.

Most days, this is what life is like.

I poked about for a while in my everyday chores—writing e-mails, shopping for socks, resolving small emergencies, sending out birthday cards. I took care of the orderly business of life. As time ticked by and an impassioned idea still had not ignited me, I didn’t panic. Instead, I did what I have done so many times before: I turned my attention away from passion and toward curiosity.

I asked myself, Is there anything you’re interested in right now, Liz?


Even a tiny bit?

No matter how mundane or small?

It turned out there was: gardening.

(I know, I know—contain your excitement, everyone! Gardening!)

I had recently moved to a small town in rural New Jersey. I’d bought an old house that came with a nice backyard. Now I wanted to plant a garden in that backyard.

This impulse surprised me. I’d grown up with a garden—a huge garden, which my mother had managed efficiently—but I’d never been much interested in it. As a lazy child, I’d worked quite hard not to learn anything about gardening, despite my mother’s best efforts to teach me. I had never been a creature of the soil. I didn’t love country life back when I was a kid (I found farm chores boring, difficult, and sticky) and I had never sought it out as an adult. An aversion to the hard work of country living is exactly why I’d gone off to live in New York City, and also why I’d become a traveler—because I didn’t want to be any kind of farmer. But now I’d moved to a town even smaller than the town in which I’d grown up, and now I wanted a garden.

I didn’t desperately want a garden, understand. I wasn’t prepared to die for a garden, or anything. I just thought a garden would be nice.


The whim was small enough that I could have ignored it. It barely had a pulse. But I didn’t ignore it. Instead, I followed that small clue of curiosity and I planted some things.

As I did so, I realized that I knew more about this gardening business than I thought I knew. Apparently, I had accidentally learned some stuff from my mother back when I was a kid, despite my very best efforts not to. It was satisfying, to uncover this dormant knowledge. I planted some more things. I recalled some more childhood memories. I thought more about my mother, my grandmother, my long ancestry of women who worked the earth. It was nice.

As the season passed, I found myself seeing my backyard with different eyes. What I was raising no longer looked like my mother’s garden; it was starting to look like my own garden. For instance, unlike my mom, a masterful vegetable gardener, I wasn’t all that interested in vegetables. Rather, I longed for the brightest, showiest flowers I could get my hands on. Furthermore, I discovered that I didn’t want to merely cultivate these plants; I also wanted to know stuff about them. Specifically, I wanted to know where they had come from.

Those heirloom irises that ornamented my yard, for instance—what was their origin? I did exactly one minute of research on the Internet and learned that my irises were not indigenous to New Jersey; they had, in fact, originated in Syria.

That was kind of cool to discover.

Then I did some more research. The lilacs that grew around my property were apparently descendants of similar bushes that had once bloomed in Turkey. My tulips also originated in Turkey—though there’d been a lot of interfering Dutchmen, it turned out, between those original wild Turkish tulips and my domesticated, fancy varieties. My dogwood was local. My forsythia wasn’t, though; that came from Japan. My wisteria was also rather far from home; an English sea captain had brought the stuff over to Europe from China, and then British settlers had brought it to the New World—and rather recently, actually.

I started running background checks on every single plant in my garden. I took notes on what I was learning. My curiosity grew. What intrigued me, I realized, was not so much my garden itself, but the botanical history behind it—a wild and little-known tale of trade and adventure and global intrigue.

That could be a book, right?


I kept following the trail of curiosity. I elected to trust completely in my fascination. I elected to believe that I was interested in all this botanical trivia for a good reason. Accordingly, portents and coincidences began to appear before me, all related to this newfound interest in botanical history. I stumbled upon the right books, the right people, the right opportunities. For instance: The expert whose advice I needed to seek about the history of mosses lived—it turned out—only a few minutes from my grandfather’s house in rural upstate New York. And a two-hundred-year-old book that I had inherited from my great-grandfather held the key I’d been searching for—a vivid historic character, worthy of embellishing into a novel.

It was all right in front of me.

Then I started to go a little crazy with it.

My search for more information about botanical exploration eventually led me around the planet—from my backyard in New Jersey to the horticultural libraries of England; from the horticultural libraries of England to the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland; from the medieval pharmaceutical gardens of Holland to the moss-covered caves of French Polynesia.

Three years of research and travel and investigation later, I finally sat down to begin writing The Signature of All Things—a novel about a fictional family of nineteenth-century botanical explorers.

It was a novel I never saw coming. It had started with nearly nothing. I did not leap into that book with my hair on fire; I inched toward it, clue by clue. But by the time I looked up from my scavenger hunt and began to write, I was completely consumed with passion about nineteenth-century botanical exploration. Three years earlier, I had never even heard of nineteenth-century botanical exploration—all I’d wanted was a modest garden in my backyard!—but now I was writing a massive story about plants, and science, and evolution, and abolition, and love, and loss, and one woman’s journey into intellectual transcendence.

So it worked. But it only worked because I said yes to every single tiny clue of curiosity that I had noticed around me.

That’s Big Magic, too, you see.

It’s Big Magic on a quieter scale, and on a slower scale, but make no mistake about it—it’s still Big Magic.

You just have to learn how to trust it.

It’s all about the yes.