by Mark Meyer · Posted in: essays
Part One: The Traverse of the Sublime
I am resting at the crossroads of the sublime, reclined on a lichen-covered rock amid Lake Clark National Park's Telaquana trail. The word trail is a misnomer. There is no trail; there are no signs, no campsites, nothing as far as the eye can see to suggest that humans ever put down their stone tools to take up life in the modern age. To the East, Telaquana Mountain with its blue, hanging glaciers and neighboring unnamed peaks dominates the view, rising from the tundra vertically several thousand feet above me. To the West the landscape maintains a gentle aspect, punctuated with small lakes and low ridges, as far as I can see. I am at the intersection of what Immanuel Kant would recognize as his two versions of the sublime.
In his third critique Kant split the sublime into two variations: the dynamic sublime in which the imagination is overwhelmed by an enormous power or magnitude and the mathematical sublime in which we are mentally unable to cope with a huge quantity or space. Gazing over the landscape to the east I imagine that with supplies, strength, and impossible luck I could rise and walk until I arrived at the Bering Sea without encountering any sign of the modern life that dominates our day-to-day existence. For somebody who lives in the lower forty-eight, the vastness of this terrain inspires awe and I can't really imagine just how much wilderness is over the horizon. On this rock amid this expanse I can feel the sensations Kant describes, but I doubt I share his intensity. I have, after all, seen satellite imagery and flown over this area in a plane. My imagination doesn't strain to contain the entire area in a single concept—one of Kant's definitions of the sublime—but it does strain to imagine it in terms of my own size. As I think about this space, allowing my mind to switch back and forth between the various scales, imagining first the walk across the landscape, and then the little dot I would represent on a satellite image, I cannot form an accord between the systems of reference. My smallness and vulnerability in this environment is emphasized to a level of apprehension. This must be what Kant means when he says,
The feeling of the Sublime is therefore a feeling of pain arising from the want of accordance between the aesthetical estimation of magnitude formed by the Imagination and the estimation of the same formed by Reason.
To the West, rising to 8,000 feet, Telaquana Mountain is awe-inspiring as it dwarfs any structure made by man, but gazing over its jagged edges offers no feeling I would associate with the sublime. Perhaps climbing up and staring into the blue crevasses of its glaciers would shake me up a bit but that would be more akin to fear—a distinct feeling Kant separates from the sublime. In Kant's day a trip through the Alps was uncommon. It left eighteenth-century travelers raised in cities and farms breathless. Nothing in their everyday life could prepare them for the power of the high Alps and their own insignificance by comparison. Insignificance, however, is a feeling anyone living in a modern city with a population in the millions has learned to cope with, or in many cases embrace. The enormous bureaucracy of modern governments, metropolitan populations, and the power of a global economy are things that prepare us to observe our smallness in comparison to a mountain like Telaquana, even while standing directly under it without feeling the emotional vertigo described by the explorers of the sublime such as Kant and Edmund Burke. But this mountain and surrounding landscape have a quality that dwarfs not only us, but also our entire civilization, economy, and history. The time scales represented in this landscape humble our assessment of history the same way the mountain and receding tundra challenge our estimation of physical scale. This landscape places human history in a larger perspective, so large in fact it creates its own feeling of the sublime, a temporal sublime.
Looking around I see nature operating on a variety of time frames. A few fit into a human scale like the yearly migration of the arctic terns or the cycle of freeze and thaw on the lakes. Others are longer, like the travels of the caribou who leave deep ruts the width of roads in the tundra when they pass through in herds several thousand strong. I am sharing this rock with a large rhizocarpon, a type of map lichen. Unless you are a caribou who likes to dine on lichen you probably don't spend too much time thinking about them, but they do have an interesting property which is useful when talking about time: they tend to grow at a uniform rate. This has spawned the science lichenometry, a method of dating exposed rock surfaces by calibrating the growth rate of the lichen living on them. Lichenometry can be accurate but because lichen grow at vastly different rates in different environments, taking a growth rate curve from one area and applying it to another will not produce accurate data. This minor setback, however, doesn't stop me from wondering about its age and playing the game of armchair lichenometrist. Rhizocarpon has a growth rate between a couple hundredths and one millimeter per year making it quite possible that this large colony has been working on this rock since Kant's time. It was likely here when Europeans first came to the Lake Clark region, and while the human world was experiencing the violent upheavals and struggles of the last one hundred years this little yellow and black colony was quietly digging into this rock. It probably looks about the same today as the day I was born. From the point of view of the lichen human history is like the history of mayflies. Our insistence on writing history solely in human terms the way Paul Shepard observed, "conceives the past mainly in terms of biography and nations," begins to look shortsighted when you begin to see how long the processes of nature are compared to our own. The way this challenges our inherited values by showing how easily and completely they can be contained in a larger framework is sympathetic to Kant's definition, "the sublime is that in which comparison with which everything else is small," and further, "we willing call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature."
A few inches of lichen on a rock is probably not what Kant had in mind when he developed his ideas of the sublime; the lichen doesn't inspire fear, but it does plant the seeds for doubt about the assumptions which allow us to go about our daily lives. I have a natural inclination to defend myself against this doubt with a sort of teleological argument which takes refuge in the accomplishments of modern humanity. I console myself with the idea that our ends and purposes are greater than the lichen's, that we as individuals contribute to a meaningful history and that if our lives are short at least our history and accomplishment are lasting. We have gone to the moon, cured polio, and produced lasting works of art, all greater and more permanent things than what is happening on this unswept stone. Endowing ourselves with a role in a great human history with a Hegelian purpose may overcome this mild temporal sublime but when I look to the west across the tundra to the terminus of the piedmont glacier flowing down Telaquana Mountain I am back where I started. The ebb and flow of this glacier which once covered the area I am standing, and is responsible for the placement of my lichen-covered rock, has been shaping this area for all of recorded human history. While imagining the glacier as a slow river with eddies, tides and rapids, my mind is forced to a temporal scale which makes it difficult to judge our historical tradition and the purposiveness of our striving as anything other than an illusion. Paul Valéry in The Crisis of the Mind beautifully captured this overwhelming temporal sublime:
We modern civilisations have learned to recognise that we are mortal like the others. We had heard tell of whole worlds vanished, of empires foundered with all their men and all their engines, sunk to the inexplorable depths of the centuries with their gods and laws, their academies and their pure and applied sciences, their grammars, dictionaries, classics, romantics, symbolists, their critics and the critics of their critics.
We like to hold our young civilization exempt from the effects of time but proof of Valéry's foundered empires is scattered across this landscape. Artifacts from a people who lived here eight to ten thousand years ago can be found throughout this area mingled with more recent artifacts of an entirely different people who moved into the region only a couple thousand years ago. Entire religions, languages, and cultures have been absorbed into this tundra. In our culture we place a special significance on the individual and create a history from the biographies of people whose ideas and acts we think of as extraordinary. When I consider that the people who occupied this land did so not for hundreds, but for thousands of years, I think of Claude Levi-Strauss who challenged our exceptionalism when he wrote, "I see no reason why mankind should have waited until recent times to produce minds of the caliber of a Plato or an Einstein." The land before me likely holds the dust of the bones of such people. Stepping back and viewing history in this framework is similar to imagining myself in the satellite photo. Our entire recorded history becomes so miniscule as to be invisible and ephemeral. Wilderness is an exercise in humility. We often argue the need to establish and preserve wildness in pragmatic terms—how it can be a tool in our economic goals or how it effects our health—but there are other equally persuasive reasons to keep large areas untrammeled by development. The sublime humbles our ambitions, our economy, and our history but also adds dimension and a wisdom lacking in our workaday life. That these areas exist even while I sit in an office at a computer, or stuck in traffic—that the glacier continues to shape the land, the caribou continue to migrate across the tundra, and the lichen slowly adds a millimeter to its circumference—offers perspective and presents a wider framework in which to judge the madness and folly that surrounds our daily lives.
Part Two: The Ecumenism of the Bear
But if there is a state where the soul can find a resting-place secure enough to establish itself and concentrate its entire being there, with no need to remember the past or reach into the future, where time is nothing to it, where the present runs on indefinitely but this duration goes unnoticed with no sign of the passing time and no other feeling of deprivation or enjoyment, pleasure or pain, desire or fear than a simple feeling of existence, a felling that fills our soul entirely, as long as this state lasts, we can call ourselves happy… —Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Reveries of the Solitary Walker
Such is the state Rousseau describes as he sets out from the Island of Saint-Pierre drifting on his back, eyes skyward, in his small boat on the water of the Lake of Bienne. I imagine myself like Rousseau as I sit in a small kayak in the center of Lower Twin Lake. The day is calm, cold even for early fall, and the smooth surface of the lake is reflecting the gossamer clouds above. With the departure of the nesting merlins the songbirds have started to return to this end of the lake and their songs turn this valley into a large amphitheater designed for their performance. I don't know if it is my imagination or if the boat is really moving, just barely, toward the end of the lake where the Chilikadrotna River begins. Like Rousseau, my days are blessed with abundant time, and like Rousseau I enjoy the requiescence of a small boat on a calm lake. I watch the land to see if it is moving, keeping my eye lined up with the tip of the kayak and a spruce on the shore for reference. I think I am moving, but barely. At this rate it would take hours before I needed to paddle to avoid the river.
Eventually I do begin back and as I casually paddle toward the cabin I notice a large splashing near the shore. It is the time of year when the moose lose their inhibition and make themselves known. I have seen the potholes their feet leave in the marshy areas around the lake. I know they are around, but I have not seen a single moose all season. As I row carefully toward the shore, trying to silently slice the paddles into the water, I begin to make out the brown shape in the water. Because it is standing in front of brown and yellow dwarf birches, it is difficult to see the outline and it is not until I am closer that I realize this is no moose. It is a large grizzly bear, wet up to its chest. I'm not sure what it was doing making so much noise in the water, but it is now on the shore walking along the water's edge toward the cabin. I let the kayak glide closer to the shore and then gently turn it parallel to the bear's movement shadowing his path along the shore. He ignores me for about three hundred yards until he reaches the sandy area past the cabin then stops, lifts his upper body, pivots on haunches placing his slightly pigeon-toed feet and snout towards me, and looks directly in my eyes. Although the bear doesn't appear agitated and my kayak is over fairly deep water, a respectable distance from the bear, I suddenly feel uncomfortably close. I wonder if Rousseau would only see the brutish bottom of his hierarchy ranging between "stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man," or if he would recognize the sublime in bear. The idea of the sublime was in the air during his lifetime. Edmunde Burke published his Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful in 1756 when Rousseau was 44, and Kant's Critique of Judgment appeared in 1790, only twelve years after his death.
In the second part of his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Rousseau briefly touches on the idea that cultural ideas are acquired successively—he creates an identity between culture and history. Our culture becomes a created latticework of adopted myth, philosophy, science, and art built upon itself over the course of history. Call it what you may—a world-view, cultural outlook, collective unconscious—we often substitute this anthropocentric framework for the world. All of our values and beliefs hang on this latticework and exist within its boundaries like specimens in a bell jar. In creating the noble savage, Rousseau imagines humans predating this framework. These people, free from the negative influences of society, retained a prelapsarian innocence and goodness, but since Rousseau's criterion for judging the relative goodness of both the noble savage and the poisoning power of social structures are based on ethical values from within our social framework his early man never escapes into the authentic world of nature—the world vigorously illustrated by the bear before me. The sublime I sense in the bear is not based on his ability to eat me or his brute strength, but rather the way his existence disturbs our exceptionalism. Although they too would be representatives from the natural world, Rousseau's noble savage would never inspire the unsettling feeling of the sublime because they still represent and adhere to our values—they reinforce our perspective rather than challenge it. The bear doesn't care of goodness or evil or reason, or suffering, beauty, or history. When confronted with the bear, the thorn and thistle of nature red in tooth and claw, I see it outflanking our constructed reality and on every side. We can never reconcile ourselves with the raw nature we see in wilderness and, although anxiety over our received values is often presented as a postmodern idea, the uncomfortable feeling that our values hold no ecumenical authority has been with us for a long time. This is the sublime of Ecclesiastes where all human achievement it reduced to vanity and mist. It is the sublime of Job standing before the whirlwind, whose voice viciously places his suffering and his attempt to grasp the infinite into a larger perspective offering for comparison the image of the leviathan which, like this bear (and by extension all of nature) will make no covenant with man—we are outsiders. We could call the bear a brute and be done with it, but this ignores the uncomfortable fact that nature is in accord with him, the estrangement is our, something obvious in the wilderness but easily forgotten in the human world. When I image our ethics and reason from his perspective, they are illusions and we stare at each other as through a glass, darkly, unable to understand one another.
Looking at ourselves from this perspective has often lead to criticism of the entire human framework and towards advocacy of primitivism and anarchism, but to embrace these is to fundamentally misunderstand how captivated we are by our social artifice. We cannot escape it; it defines the limits of our human experience. Fully realized, arguments for primitivism must, in the end, attack the entire framework, leaving us with the vague and dubious ramblings of anarchist writers. The whole framework unravels at the first moment of deconstruction taking everything that defines humanity—reason, language, ethics—with it. This is a fundamental conflict with any golden-age philosophy which tries to put the fruit back on the tree of knowledge: without the reason and symbolic culture responsible for our alienation from nature, we have no means with which to judge our condition better or worse. Primitivists create a philosophical uroboros using the very same symbolic resources to criticizing them. Even ideas we endow with qualities beyond human dominion, such as Natural Law, in the end are based on reason and exist within its bounds. This is the difficulty Rousseau creates when he invents nobles savages that are at once above the natural world and at one with it.
It seemed like minutes, but was probably only a few seconds before the bear, confident that I offered no threat, turned and started away from the lake, walking over the hill and out of sight. The bear, of course, isn't the leviathan and isn't beyond the power of human technology and strength, but the natural world it represents defies our attempts to contain it both physically and philosophically. I've come here in a sense to escape the human realm and form a dialogue with nature. The bear and everything that inspires the sublime suggests that although we may be able to escape the trappings of the civilized world, neither the Lake of Bienne nor Lower Twin Lake allow us to escape ourselves and any dialogue we attempt will in fact be a monologue. Perhaps this is what Rousseau discovered off the Island of Saint-Pierre which caused him to write, "What is the source of our happiness in such a state? Nothing external to us, nothing apart from ourselves and our own existence" and what Job learned from the whirlwind when he said, "Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust."
Part Three: The Apocrypha of the Wild
I am tempted to think that every place has once been under water. Visit the Grand Canyon and interpretive signs will explain how, as difficult as it is to believe, the land on which you are standing was once at the bottom of the ocean. Signs on some of the highest mountain passes in Wyoming attest to their previously inundated state. Yosemite, Nevada's desert plateau, the Badlands, even the Sahara desert—the driest of the dry—have spent significant portions of their histories as home to the fishes. On reflection you begin to wonder why the park service hasn't spent a little more time searching for a spot to erect a sign indicating a region that has never once been the floor of some ancient sea; it would seem a singular distinction. Although it is quite certain that the land over which I am hiking between Turquoise and Lower Twin Lakes was once under ice, I can't say if it was ever an ocean floor. There are no signs. In the entire four million acres that make up Lake Clark National Park I doubt there are any interpretive signs once you leave the little visitor center in Port Alsworth.
Throughout the national park system, most of the signs you see will fall into the Visitor Information System (VIS) category. This is part of the Park Service's goal to present our public lands in a unified, easily understood way that is immediately identifiable as belonging to a larger framework and "experience a National Park without confusion and conflict." According to the NPS sign standards manual they allow "content to be presented in discrete, easily comprehended 'eyefuls' consistent with how park visitors are most willing to receive information." The design standards essentially take an enormous and diverse collection of land and fit it into a brand. I don't want to be too critical of the interpretive efforts made by the National Park Service, they are fascinating and useful, but they also leave the impression that the path toward appreciating the land begins and ends with natural history and science. This should come as no surprise since the park service's mission is based on preservation and resource management and the parks hire managers with backgrounds in various scientific disciplines. For the artist, however, science is often less than fruitful ground and to spend a few days walking through an uninterpreted wilderness, to escape the positivistic framework that dominates not only the Park Service but also our entire culture is a gift to one's imagination. So much of our daily lives is dominated by mediated experience—newspapers, television, maps, traffic signals, interpretive signs—that we rarely confront anything without either implicitly or explicitly receiving a framework through which to interpret it. In a capitalist society most of our actions fit into an economic structure which manipulates our fears and desires. We go on vacation to escape and enter another mediated environment. Even when we escape to nature we often find ourselves in a mediated experience presented to us in terms of humanity's struggle to control and overcome nature—idyllic farmed land, adventure escapes where we climb mountains and race down rivers, or places presented as rational conservation efforts (such as our parks) where science gives us the resources to administer nature. The true wilderness experience, where the landscape is left unmediated and you are alone with your own thoughts to reflect from neutral ground, is rare and becoming more rare every day.
To say this is truly an unmediated experience, however, is not quite accurate. Although there are no signs or trails I have brought most of my cultural baggage with me and I am interpreting this wilderness through bits of history, science, and art I have picked up over the years. Maybe self-mediated is a better term to describe the experience of being here alone. After a few days of travel, letting my mind wander over the mountains, streams, and glaciers, looking at the huge and the small, the interplay between rock, water, and biology my imagination begins to fill the gaps in my understanding of this land. One unexpected result is that I begin to understand animism as a natural reaction to being alone in the wilderness. If the modern media has improved any one of our mental skills it has been our ability to block things out. We are constantly bombarded with stimuli competing for our attention and we react not by paying attention to everything, but by filtering out as much as we can. It is no surprise then that you don't notice that objects can enliven a part of your consciousness—you drop by Starbucks and simply eat a madeleine, you don't wait Proust-like for it to awaken something in you. Take all these images away and replace them with a few quiet, natural objects, add a little fear to sharpen your observation and suddenly everything seems to vibrate with life. The inanimate takes on a meaning beyond its mineral composition, the birds become individuals observing you rather than two-dimensional representatives from a field guide fitting perfectly into a Linnaean taxonomy. This is the source of myth and, I believe, art and it makes me crave a glimpse of this place through fresh eyes without the cultural symbolism I brought with me. If we follow Kant, this sounds a little like seeing the world in its uninterpreted state—the noumenal world, the thing-in-itself—which he says is not only impossible, but makes no sense. We can't experience the world without experiencing it through conceptual structures. We can, however, imagine an entity who does and we can measure ourselves against its image. For this we turn away from Kant's world of transcendental deduction to consider the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, and the angels who inhabit his Duino Elegies.
This landscape is nothing like the Adriatic, although the bora sweeping down the coastal plains of Italy must have felt the same on Rilke's face as the cold gusts coming off the nearby glaciers. As I look out over the tundra I can't help thinking of Rilke standing on the steep cliffs outside the deserted Duino castle overlooking the Gulf of Treiste, feeling the profound isolation, when the question that opens the Elegies entered his mind: who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders? I could ask the same question here and would receive the same answer Rilke eventually arrives at: nobody. Rilke's angels bear little resemblance to the traditional image; they are neither cherubs from a Raphael painting nor mighty heroes like Milton's archangels. According to the poet, "The angel of the Elegies is that Being who stands for the recognition in the Invisible of a higher degree of reality" and "is the creature in whom that transformation of the visible into the invisible we are performing already appears complete." The "transformation of the visible into the invisible," taking the everyday world and breathing new meaning into it is the poet's work and Rilke expresses a deep envy for the angel's viewpoint. The angel experiences the world directly, has an immediate connection, has what the poet always strives for and can never attain because humans are trapped with their reason and concepts in the interpreted world [gedeuteten Welt]—a world in which Rilke feels we are never really comfortable. Throughout the elegies Rilke asks what our reaction to his angel would be, what would we feel and think standing face to face with this being that experiences the disassociated world? Rilke uses the German schrecklich; a word that is often translated as awesome or terrifying, but could as easily be translated as sublime in the Kantian sense. The Angels have many elements of the sublime: the crushing smallness and brevity we feel in their presence (And even if one of them should suddenly press me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his stronger existence), the affinity between the beautiful and the sublime, (Beauty is nothing but the beginning of Terror we are still just able to bear) and a sense of indifferent power (We adore it so because it serenely disdains to destroy us). At the same time they offer a model for our aspirations in both art and life. If we could experience the ordinary in the way we experience the beautiful and the sublime, we might approach the viewpoint of the angels. This is an attractive idea for a poet or artist intent on seeing with his own eyes and suggests that what Rilke's angels could teach us we might also learn from the sublime in nature.
The example of Rilke's epiphany at Duino illustrates an alternative reaction to the landscape. It does not meet the National Park Service's ideal "without confusion and conflict." Nor is it based on science or logic, nor the mastery or shepherding nature, nor even understanding nature in any rational way. It is a poet allowing the land to infect his imagination and interact with his cultural framework and his personal symbolism yielding a very rich interpretation. Most importantly, the interpretation is not a received one, it escapes mediated experience. Rilke addresses the landscape as directly as he can, or more correctly he images a being who experiences the world directly and then explores the possibilities of approaching this state. Instead of projecting inner conceptual structures on the world, he turns the process inside out and appropriates the external world into his conceptual structure. Rilke's says it well in his notebooks, "This world, regarded no longer from the human point of view, but as it within the angel, is perhaps my real task, one, at any rate, in which all my previous attempts would converge."
Part Four: The Diaspora of the Flesh
From my campsite on the moraine above the north shore of Turquoise Lake the Mulchatna River, which begins where the lake ends, looks like a narrow silver ribbon receding to the horizon. The scale is deceptive. From the air the wide expanses and tall mountains fool the eye into believing that the tundra is predominately horizontal, rolling hills covered with an even lawn of gentle plant life, but on foot what was a small rough area becomes a massive copse of chest-high dwarf birch shrubs or an impenetrable thicket of alder. I am hiking today down to the lake, across the river, over the southern moraine and on towards Lower Twin Lake.
The land around Turquoise lake is generally barren and rocky, but the underbrush along the lake is thick in spots and, being in grizzly country, I prefer to remain where I can see and be seen whenever possible. I try to visualize a route around any brushy areas along the exposed ridge of the moraine where few plants grow higher than a couple inches. There are times when the Mulchatna can be difficult to cross and I've been hoping for the few days I've been here that this is not one of those times. Few hikers visit this area and with no real trail reports to alert travelers to the changing conditions you simply need to be prepared for anything. River crossings are always dangerous. A river crossing when you are alone in a rarely visited wilderness makes you reevaluate your sanity. The hike is pleasant. The air has an eerie quality that gives the impression that you can hear for miles. In the far distance I can hear the buzz of a small plane but as I get closer to the river the sound of rushing water fills the aural landscape. During the approach the river has gradually changed its appearance from this morning's delicate, winding thread to what I see standing on its bank: a wide, frigid expanse of moving water. Again, the scale here is deceptive, but I would guess the width is somewhat greater than 100 yards.
I've forded plenty of rivers, I know the routine: I change into wading sandals, secure my things and start into the river. After a few false starts and stops to reassess the easiest ford I find a route, which with the aid of my tripod as a walking stick, I can navigate without slipping too much on the larger rocks. About half way across, the river abruptly forms a deep, fast moving, channel—maybe twenty feet wide. I was told to expect this and that it is normally about four feet deep at the outlet of the lake with a sandy bottom. I was also told that its depth could vary widely with the season and weather and at times can be problematic. Because the water is direct runoff from the glacier feeding into the lake, it has that cloudy, blue color from the glacial sill suspended in the water. Any water deeper than a couple of feet is opaque making it difficult to determine if I can safely cross. So I stand here. At least the area around the channel also has a sandy bottom which feels good on my numb feet. After about five minutes of pacing upstream and down in thigh-deep, quickly moving water, hoping one area is obviously easier to cross than another, I decide to extend the legs on my tripod and probe for the bottom. As I lean forward, holding the tripod by its head, making jabbing motions into the water the current keeps pushing the legs downstream and towards the surface thwarting my efforts. Then the sand under my feet calves into the channel taking me with it. I can't tell how deep the channel is; my feet dangling underneath me don't touch the bottom. I am suddenly swimming. Because I had unbuckled the waistband of my pack the air in the lower areas of the pack caused it float and rotate away from my back with the result that the top of the pack is pushing my face into the water.
In a 1999 article for Backpacker Magazine titled Fear Walked with Me about the hike from Telaquana Lake to the shore of Turquoise Lake Jonathan Dorn described Lake Clark as a "vast, one-false-step-and-you're-dead wilderness" and wrote that "the range of real and perceived threats was almost paralyzing." And he never had to cross the Mulchatna. There is a copy of this article posted on a bulletin board at the park headquarters in Port Alsworth. Although the local people rarely come out here alone to hike, this is familiar ground for most of them and they chuckle at Dorn's terror. We don't generally fear what we know. But for tourists, paralyzing fear is not an uncommon reaction to the Lake Clark wilderness. Most of the locals have a good story or two about someone from the lower forty-eight who, upon being dropped on the shore of one these lakes is overcome and either wants to leave immediately or if their terror doesn't hit until the floatplane (and only way out) has left, spend a few uncomfortable days without leaving the relative safety of the gravel bar where they were deposited. Having flown over this area several times, I have a familiarity with the land and, though the sublime has frequently been on my mind, I have never seriously felt afraid our here, not in the way Jonathan Dorn describes. The potential for fear is a part of the sublime but there is a distinct and subtle difference between the two. Kant writes, "we can regard an object as fearful, without being afraid of it; viz. If we judge of it in such a way that we merely think a case in which we would wish to resist it, and yet in which all resistance would be altogether vain." To Kant fear is to the sublime what desire is to beauty, a visceral reaction which interferes with the purely contemplative. In the Critique of Judgment he offers several examples of natural objects (including the mighty river) that inspire the sublime, "provided only that we are in security." Friedrich Schiller, in his own work, Of the Sublime, communicates the sentiment a little more artfully, "where we ourselves are the object of a hostile power of Nature, then it is all over for the aesthetic judgment. As sublime as a tempest may be, considered from the shore, those who find themselves upon the ship, that is demolished by same, may be to the same degree little disposed to pronounce this aesthetic judgment over it."
I am definitely on Schiller's ship, but in hindsight I would prefer to imagine that I was performing my own little experiment with the sublime. Thrashing along, pulled downstream by the Mulchatna river like a piece of driftwood, fighting the awkwardness of my pack and trying not to drop my tripod (one doesn't prioritize well in these situations) I can confirm that Kant and Schiller are correct. With no security and plenty of fear the thought of the sublime is the furthest thing from my mind. It is difficult to "measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature" when bobbing up and down like a fishing float in a wild Alaskan river. After some minor panic I manage to paddle my way to the other end of the channel before getting pulled too far downstream, stumble across the other half of the river's shallow section and sit down on a rock to dry and take stock of my luck.
I feel my mind dealing with the unknown proximity of death, how it can brush up against us at any moment. Looking back over the river I imagine the alternate course my history could have followed, one involving a wider channel, less buoyant pack, or stronger currents. I wonder how far I would have floated had I suffered the Mulchatna's riparian coupe de grace. Considering my clothing (somewhat river-rock colored), my tundra-green pack and the Park Service's vague guess about my location based on my itinerary, an aerial search would have been in vain. My body would have drifted until it came to rest on some gravel or the marshy areas where the river widens and slows. The animals would have found me before the rangers and I would be scraps—another ordinary thing that fishes gnaw'd upon. I imagine the diaspora of my flesh through the ecosystem, as I become food for animals, then plants, and then again animals, the matter that was me spreading ever more thinly across the landscape. I sit wet, truly lucky to be drying under a warm sun, and again feeling the sublime, stronger than before, heightened by the sudden reminder of my smallness and by nature's gentle check against human pride. These are the moments that inspire the notion of fate. We are always balanced on the crossroads of the sublime. I remember Longfellow's Psalm of Life, which takes a stiff upper lip in the face of our old incertitude, "Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal…Let us, then, be up and doing / With a heart for any fate." I adjust my pack, and continued.