The Sublime?

Back in the day when I was young and foolish, in high school studying poetry, I learned of something called “The Sublime.” It was an idea, an aesthetic, so abstract and yet so beautiful that I wanted it, I believed in it. The Sublime was perfect, breath-taking (literally), beyond (almost) human effort, inspiring, an object of wonder — and fear.

The Sublime is an ideal. A person might think of Plato but that would be missing the point. Plato’s ideal did not have the power of inspiring anything awe. It was an unreachable archetype that we just gesture toward as inferior human beings in our inferior copies of what we can imagine but cannot recreate. There is no emotional content (frustration, maybe?) in Plato’s ideal, but The Sublime?

It was a human idea — floating around for a while in the mid 18th century and infecting the Romantic poets and propounded by the philosophers Edmund Burke and Emanuel Kant. I have dim, dim memories of encountering this in an intro to philosophy class in college. My teacher was a classicist, so she kind of ran over The Sublime with the truck of  Platonism, but The Sublime lingered, somehow inextricably tangled up with nature.

When the idea was new, mountains — especially abysses, crevasses, precipices, high snowy peaks and plunging, surging waterfalls — all became conduits through which people could experience The Sublime. People started climbing mountains in order to terrify themselves into a kind of “horrible joy” through which they could fully perceive The Sublime. What were they really climbing? Was it the mountain under their feet or something else? Fear is prescriptive, and it is thrilling (if we don’t die) which is why we like carnival rides.

A very interesting book that looks at this is Mountains of the Mind by Robert McFarlane.

The Sublime was the property of well-educated and well-to-do Europeans. No self-respecting farmer or ploughman or sailor was going to have any part in the reduction of nature into an idea.

I think The Sublime was a force in separating humans from nature (in their minds, only, there’s no real separation possible). That in my life time there has been a movement to “get back to nature” is kind of sickening and self-indulgent. Nature has ALL the power over us. We are it. It is us. It’s not Sublime; it’s the ultimate reality. Drink water or die pretty much says all we need to know about where the power lies.

Featured image: An Avalanche in the Alps Philip James de Loutherbourg. It’s pretty accurate, for all its drama. But…


A non-sublime account of an avalanche at Chamonix

Mountains (with Maps!)

A long time ago, I made a list of my favorite words. The two on top were “mountains” and “wonder.” If I wrote a list like that today, I’d probably have the same two words on top.

I like living a little distance from the mountains so I can see them ranged across the horizon. That’s why I chose Monte Vista instead of some of the other towns in the Valley when I moved here. I’m perfectly placed to look at the San Juans (not that far away) and at the Sangre de Cristos (farther away). I can watch the alpenglow (morning and evening) and enjoy the gathering clouds in both directions.

This side (eastern) of the San Juans is pretty “soft” and gentle, but the west side is a different story. The San Juans are the largest range in Colorado, and they cover a good part of the state — “good” meaning both “high quality” and “large.” The dark green line on the map below marks the Continental Divide. The orange line that runs from Alamosa to Cortez is my street. 🙂

The Rio Grande starts up in the San Juans, and I hope someday to go to the source up on Canby Mountain. That will happen when I get my hip and get my jeep 🙂


The Sangres, at least here where I live, remind me of the Alps with their jagged peaks abrubtly jutting from the Valley floor. In Colorado, they are a long, narrow range that marks the end of the Rocky Mountains and the beginning of the Great Plains.


Mountains are a source of wonderment for me. I look at them all the time and they are never the same. Mt. Blanca (featured photo) is a massif, not really just one mountain. It’s one of the Navajo’s four sacred mountains and marked the northeastern boundary of their lands.


I can subscribe to these boundaries, too. They circumscribe some of my favorite places in the world, where I’ve had the chance to experience many moments of…



Daily Prompt: Wonder


I was driving east on US HWY 160 on the weekly road trip to the big city for groceries — Alamosa, Colorado. It was a semi-bleak February morning, Sunday, somewhat early. I was armed with the coupons they’d sent in the mail, a bunch of good deals, as it happened. The envelope was covered with pale pink hearts against a dark pink background. There were even free things in there; free juice — my favorite brand, other stuff. Added up to a savings of more than $40. Not bad.

I hate shopping, but it’s a 25 minute drive and I have satellite radio in my car. It’s a luxury for which I pay $6/month. I was listening to the 60s station — uncommon for me — Paul Revere and the Raiders had just regaled me with “Kicks” (but they don’t keep getting harder to find). After that? The Association, “Never My Love.” I don’t think I’ve heard that since it was on the Top 40, and, for some reason, the song filled my car even though it’s not a song I ever liked.

I looked around at the mountains all around me, the white, white fingers of fog filling a high valley in the Sangre de Cristos, layers of random clouds all negotiating the future like a bored couple on a Sunday afternoon. “Shall we rain? Shall we snow? What do YOU want to do? I dunno, what do you want to do?” I thought of my novel in progress and how much fun it was last week when I finally FOUND the story. I thought of how I could organize the vastness of the narrative and got a good idea.

The song kept playing.

The mountains right now are snow-covered, white and indigo. I thought of my piano teacher in Nebraska who consoled me when I had to move away by saying, “Just think of the mountains, how much you love them and how happy you’ll be to be there again.” The family was moving back to Colorado.

The song was still singing, a full-on love song, and I remembered the moment I realized I was a writer. I sat on the floor of my bedroom in Nebraska, probably 12 or 13. I had my dad’s portable typewriter sitting on the closed case. Not a bad desk for a kid who liked to sit on the floor. I was writing a poem. I was SO happy. It was a love poem to the fields and forest where I hiked and played, to storms and seasons, to natural features, foliage, wind and sky.

The song moved closer to the ending, and then I saw it. I have always found a way to be near any mountains, out in any nature, that happened to be around. I have always written. Life without love? No.

What makes you think love will end
When you know that my whole life depends
On you…
Meanwhile, I move we return to celebrating this egregious paper holiday of disappointment in the Roman way. Bonum Lupercalia!!

Better than Promised – The Meaning of Life

“So what do you think?”

“I think it’s incredible. It’s an immense house with mysterious rooms behind shining doors. How did you come up with it?”

“Just happened. Kind of a cool idea, no?”

“Definitely. Was it difficult to build?”

“Well, you know, I’m He-Who-Is-Not-Named. It took a week.”

“Amazing. So what do I do here?”

“Stuff will happen. You’ll meet other people and interact with them. Sometimes it will be difficult and sometimes easy. There is a lot to see. You’ll travel around, look at things and learn from them.”

“Better than Disneyland, yeah?”

“Well, there is Disneyland, too, you know. This is fairly inclusive.”

“Thanks! How awesome!”

“There is one thing, though. As time passes you’ll start breaking down and then…”


“Yeah, that’s a bit hard to explain. You’re not permanent.”


“You’ll die. Cease to exist. End of story. That’s all she wrote. Kick the bucket. Finito.”


“Uh, that’s for me to know and you to find out.”

“Ah. Well, OK. Knowing that isn’t very helpful anyway, is it?”

“I don’t think so, that’s why it’s not part of the design.”

“Design? What’s the point of being here?”

“You get to see it, participate in it, learn from it, BE in it. Have a good time.”

“Is anything permanent?”

“No, I mean even those big things there, those rocky bits with snow on them? That’s not even the first range of them to be here. There were others before and there will be others when those are gone.”

“Wow this time thing is pretty major isn’t it?”

“There really is no time, Lamont. It’s actually just duration, how long things last. In reality, there is no time. It’s all a grand simultaneity.”

“What’s a ‘Lamont’?”

“You’re Lamont. Augusta Lamont. You’re named after those things there. You’re going to love them, I can tell you that much about yourself.”

“They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“I’m fond of them, but…”

“Well, OK, so I’m Augusta Lamont and I’m here for this thing called ‘duration’ and I get to look at stuff and do stuff, have a good time and then I die?”

“That’s pretty much it. You might contribute to it somehow, but basically, you’re here for the ride. Anything else depends on you. You’ll discover that from the ground, it’s kind of a labyrinth.”

“Cool. I’ll do it. Looks like fun, however long it lasts.”