The Return of the Sublime
Whichever name you prefer, the view from this local summit sweeps up and down the course of the Hudson River. Ahead are the plummeting hills of Crow's Nest and Storm King, and far to the north are the looming, ancient peaks of the Catskills. Right in front bends the river around its narrowest point. The stalwart walls of West Point shine impervious and warlike ahead. To the left, far beyond a faint haze and the widening of the river into a bay, are the distant peaks of Manhattan. The twin towers of world trade, and a few lonely spires. They're almost as high as this not so-big-summit.
The sky is piercing blue, the wind is strong, the snow has melted, dry leaves toss in the air. The surge of nature goes on, just another winter is through, never mind record snow or shattering cold or torrential floods. The mountain's still here, much the same as it was a hundred and fifty years ago when Americans began to chart its beauty.
Americans? Charting? What do we have to do with a beauty that has been etched out of the world over thousands of years? Nature lives and forgives, we humans learn to see it anew all the time.
I have on my wall and old etching from the 1840s by W.H. Bartlett, entitled Crow-Nest from Bull Hill. It's a record of the exact same view, a document from the middle of the last century. I recognize at once the hills and the rivercourse, the curves and the bends. A few old military buildings where today a grand edifice lies. There are sailboats on the river, as there might very well be today. But it is in the mountains themselves that I perceive the most difference between that image of yesterday and my view today.
In the print, the cliff of Crow's Nest is etched in precise, searing, but violent strokes that cut vertically down to the dark river before it. The whole mountain is a looming grayish brown. It looks ominous, dangerous, perilously steep. It could be a thousand or ten thousand feet in height, in the image one cannot tell. The view is carefully framed with gnarled, twisted and dead trees, such that it looks like the viewpoint has been hacked violently out of a lush forest. There is a strange light-green bird on one of the dead-tree boughs. It looks like some kind of tropical kingfisher, certainly nothing really found around here.
There are clouds building behind that dark cliff wall, as if a storm might brew up in a few hours or a few minutes. This landscape is a careful blend of the pristine and the perilous, the picturesque and the sublime.
The sublime is an overwhelming beauty that comes at us so strong that we are nearly afraid. It was the goal of the rhapsodizers of landscape in word and image, poetry and song, in the heart of the Romantic age of the last century to stir us into excitement through works of art that presented the world as more than it really seemed to be, in the mundane contact with water and trees, wind and air. "Sublime" is a diffuse word today, meaning really good, wonderful, the best that there is. But it is no longer this specific and looming kind of spectacular aesthetic, where nature is drawn or described as more intense than it could possibly be.
Today it is more popular to discredit the sublime. Look, as I'm saying here, at this fantastic and surreal image of the view from the hill behind my house! Did it really look so wonderful back then? The cliff in that picture is sure impressive, but I know today there's a road across its face, and there's no way a road could be built across that cliff in the etching, it's far too steep. Were these artists lying, trying to deceive the public into believing that their landscape was more stirring than it could possibly be?
It is popular today to use our cricial eyes to point out that nature as we see it is a social construction, an idea put together by society to build a myth that makes sense of the world that surrounds. Nineteenth century America wanted a grand and noble nature in its backyard, so painted and drew it so it could be admired by all. The artists of the Hudson River School ignored the rough edges and squalor of the noisy, dirty river front life and promulgated the image of a pristine rural life not too far from the heaving city at the river's mouth.
Look at Thomas Cole's painting of Kaaterskill Falls. It surges more spectacularly than any real spring runoff, and the view seems to be seen from a point high above the trees. This rather modest waterfall was once, due to its proximity to New York, as popular an attraction as Niagara. Not far was the now-charred Mountain House, also painted wildly by Cole, with wind whipping up over the escarpment, an achorage amidst nature's fury. It all seems abandoned and tame today, yet the ghosts of searching feet and studied exclamations still haunt the trees. Was the artist teasing us, luring us along, or have we forgotten to see?
The sublime has been under attack as long as it has been around. "The sublime," wrote philosopher Immanuel Kant, "is the absolutely great." That didn't stop him from announcing that the beautiful was better, because it was the goal of pure contemplation separate from the easy spectacularity of the powerful, the wild. We recoil from the sublime, and choose instead the pretty, the complete. Niagara Falls is only magnificent because we are so tiny: it's a question of scale. In itself, it is just water falling over a cliff.
Kant was trying to discredit the sublime at the end of the eighteenth century, long before it caught the sway of millions of onlookers. What was he so worried about? This pull of sensation away from the pure safety of the human mind, out into nature itself was a straight challenge to his vision of the great miracle of the human mind, contained within itself. We just imagine greatness out there. It just looks big because we are small. We only enjoy the majesty and forcefulness of the wild when we know we are actually safe enough to contemplate. The sublime is the absolutely great, but there is something better: the human mind. How's that for hubris?
Now today we all know they turned off Niagara Falls for a while to do some repairs on the rock, to make the flow more smooth, more beautiful. Then they turned the water back on. Are we any more in control of the situation? The surge of the Colorado River down the inner recesses of the Grand Canyon is carefully regulated by dams above and below this sacred national treasure. Today they start artificial floods to keep the ecology going. Do we not own nature, and make it appear how ever we want? Don't we only let it impress us when we want it to?
The sublime is more than this. It is not a game. It's not something we can turn on and off, or keep within our clutches. It's a way of reaching out to the world where nature takes over, where we show our intelligence by learning to participate in things far greater than what we will ever know. The smaller we come to feel ourselves when compared with the mountain, the nearer we come to particpating in its greatness. But we have to face it, we have to learn to see. We cannot talk ourselves out of being impressed, out of loving the sheer, shouting beauty of the world. History should not lead us to belittle it, and we cannot let the ready availability of so much information turn off experience.
I don't believe W.H. Bartlett and Thomas Cole were lying when they presented the mountains as grand as they could. I don't think it was propoganda for an imaginary wild America that never was. I believe they were teaching us to see, and we need to learn this as much now as ever. It's not so much a question of saving nature as learning what it means to witness the wild that surrounds us in all its many ways of lying in wait.
While walking down toward Yosemite Valley one day in the early 1870s, John Muir happened upon two traveling artists who were hoping to run into him. Toting a letter of introduction, they had come in search of landscapes suitable for painting. All they had found were mountain vistas bare and scoured, foreground, middle ground, and background alike. Where would they find a truly sublime landscape, something worth glorifying, recording. Muir guided them East toward the Sierra Crest. After two days' walk they came to a suitable view. "At last," said one of the artists, "here is a typical alpine landscape."
This is the classic tale where the sublime is maligned. The wandering painters, easels in hand, searched far and wide through the beautiful wilds for a vista worth immortalizing. Why not instead look anywhere, why not turn the gaze on any aspect of nature and depict its amazement, depth, and intricacy? We must not forget how to see. We can learn to probe the infinities of anything.
Muir himself left the artists to their sketching in that high Sierra bowl, and headed straight into the landscape they were studying, ascending hitherto unclimbed peaks, inhabiting the view in the making, crawling deep inside the painting and going straight up to the top of the very peaks they were reducing to paint, not without real perils along the way. At one point he's trapped on a rock wall, his knees shaking like a sewing machine, and he's at the verge of a fatal fall. Gaining composure, he finds a way up, and then feels that vast sense of relief that any of us feel after a brush with death. Once safe, we can revel in the memory, but want at once to try again. Risk, confrontation, gauging our scale against the world. That's the sublime, a poise in nature we can touch, nothing painted, nothing written, nothing framed.
Anyone who's been to the tops of mountains knows that no picture can encapsulate the views that one finds there. Everything is clear only in the distance, just background, not foreground. As a kid I would dutifully take my camera on all such journeys and hikes, and I would exclusively photograph mountains, no people, no clues as to why or how or with whom I got there. People didn't appreciate my pictures, as I reeled off the names and altitudes of summits and explained how their locations connected. I was excited by the pictures because they excited my own memories. As early written books were once only triggers for telling stories, these images suggested to me the awesomeness of what had been seen, and the promise of future journeys. They were not meant to contain anything important of nature, just to remind me of how much is out there.
So it's not the frame or composition which defines the sublime landscape that we can expect to find out there in the world, as much as the ability to see the truly wild in what can so easily seem tame. Forget the cliff face, stare at the newspaper as the train whistles past the Palisades. It's all just a view out the window, time mulled over between home and work. Why even bother noticing?
Because to notice is to reach out to a home in the world, not in the mind. It's the only way to grab onto the little that's left of a way to contact a world that's still more-than-human, that will always be still a bit beyond our reach. We have to enjoy that, to keep longing, to keep changing, and never to destroy what we transform. The idea of the sublime can help, if we don't explain it away, if we don't trivialize it, if we learn to see in both the strangest and most obvious of places.
In our post-literate culture we gauge how much we know by how much information we know how to look up, not how much we can recite or retain. Why visit the Canyon when I can download all the information I need about it from the Internet? Never mind the latest hype, but there have long been photos, paintings, views, facts, maps, routes, all claiming to represent the experience of walking through the awesome place. There's still no plausible reason to get bored. Some visitors, anyway, have noted that the Canyon has been built too close to the road.
There is less need to see when what we're supposed to be comes so carefully packaged. There's a famous photograph of a woman at the brink of Yellowstone Falls, wearing a scarf with the same picture of the Falls wrapped right around her head. Now it's fine to wear the images of our travels, conquests, and beliefs any way we want, but we should not think they have been captured once they've been so labelled. "This car climbed Mt. Washington" says a bumper sticker you can find throughout northern New England. Then what did the people inside do?
The sublime has been called a purely aesthetic response to nature, separate from science, hard work, or real experience. It has been embraced and dismissed for centuries, and seems these days to generally appear out of fashion, a vestige of Romanticism with a capital "R," unrealistic and an exaggeration of life. Look at the true landscape, the critics cry, from the top of your hill! It's gentle and humanized, criss-crossed by roads. The economy doesn't demand the wild, and the land is protected only by the grace of rich people who escape here from the city, and enjoy it whenever they can fully in contrast from the whirr and business of the buzzing urban home. The love of country, of green nature, exists only together with firsthand knowledge of a way of life that seems far from the charms of the Earth.
Do not drive to the summit of the mountain, for you'll miss the effort of the view. Walk up, walk on, even if the trail be muddy and the snow deep. Yesterday I criscrossed the slopes of the Bull, looking for the exact spot where Bartlett's engraving was set from. Each vantage looked a little different than the one I had memorized from the wall. I scrutinized the slopes of Crow's Nest, trying not to think about the radio tower now on its summit and the fact that it's all in the U.S. Military Academy reservation, off limits to mere citizen bystanders and explorers. How perilous might that cliff be imagined to be? I remembered Bartlett's firm vertical crag strokes, and I saw the bare trees against the white snow like cross hatching, scratches one after another reaching down, plummeting to the melting icefloats on the spring river. It's not so far fetched: it's looming, deep.
The bend of the river to the south seemed perfect, more picturesque than sublime. More so even than the painting, as it is supposed to be. The work seems strained trying to encompass this arc, this long bend in the river through ranges of further hills. It's a cream haze day, not from deathly air but from the rapid melt of the winter light. Things will grow again here soon, the greenness will fill in the views.
If you want to find the Kaaterskill Falls today, no sign will guide you. The authorities have taken them all away. The ladders are gone, the ropes have been removed. But there's an endless network of old abandoned paths that will lead you there if you know where to look. After all, this waterfall was far more popular than Niagara in its day, as accessible as it was from the metropolis. There are two abandoned railroad grades that lead to it. Every road to it is eroded, worn down by weather and the pounding of feet into mud.
It's hard to find the right angle to get the best view of it, scrambling around the edge of the crumbling cliff, looking for overlooks that have long since broken off and bashed into bits a few hundred feet below. Impossible of course to find the vantage from which Thomas Cole set his quite composed painting-that place must have been some imaginary nest in the sky. But we too can extrapolate, and imagine the draw of the place to thousands who journeyed for miles. There is a special drama to the spot, as branches are brushed aside to frame the best view. A narrow cascade plummeting through a deep hole in the late season snow, a frozen hundred-foot icicle where the blue ice is melded with the red dirt of the old Catskill hills. Like any place when carefully observed, it looks like nowhere else.
But it inspires some of the same wishes as any waterfall. This is the right place to go, the perfect edge off which to jump, or at least sit and dangle your well-worked feet. For the mind, like Cole´s painting, holds on to all edges, even this one. The sublime is outside, and inside.
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