There are some things in nature that evoke within us a feeling we have termed awe. Perhaps this is a poor word to express the reaction we have inside ourselves when we encounter such a thing, but it is the word we have. It is a word that attempts to give a voice to that which cannot be described, the indescribable, the transcendent.
You may have had these types of experiences. I think big or small, any size or event can do the trick. Perhaps for you it was something like encountering a whale on a whale watching tour, or seeing for the first time the type of microscopic life that lives within a droplet of pond water. Maybe an enormous bird taking flight or standing in a deep valley surrounded by towering mountains. Just this morning I was stuck by the elegance of air bubbles inside an icicle in the morning sun.
Whatever it is, these types of things make you unquestionably aware that you are in the presence of something entirely different from your everyday experience. Perhaps you are dazzled by it. Perhaps your stomach feels funny as a result. Perhaps it is such a powerful moment that afterwards all other moments seem like, as Thomas Aquinas put it after a religious experience, “…so much straw after what I have seen revealed to me.”
Though this particular moment of awe that comes upon us is often unexpected, sometimes a well known landmark or structure still manages to shake our very soul despite its familiarity. I have had this experience with the rock formation we call Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. Because I had seen its picture so many times in photographs, documentaries, and other popular culture references (it is even on the Utah license plate!) I did not expect for it to have the impact on me that it did. But after a mile and a half hike over fairly rugged terrain, as it came into my view for the first time in my life, I was completely taken back by its presence and monolithic size. It commanded my attention and forced me to take notice.
I’ve hiked to it on two separate trips now, and if you gave me the opportunity to hike to it for a third, there would be no hesitation. I would drop whatever I am doing right now, and join you there. This is the type of awe I am talking about. That it inspires within the soul such a passion that one might call zealous infatuation.
But it more often is a surprise when we encounter it. We do not expect to be affected. This is part of the power. For instance, when on a typical hike (I hope a hike is never typical) you come around the corner and encounter something that you have never quite seen before – a bear, a waterfall, a tree, a moose – you know you are in the presence of something powerful. Like this oak tree I found on a hike.
There were lots of oak trees around, many big ones, but nothing like this one. When I came around the corner, there was little question that if there was a king of the forest, this was it. And it invoked such a sense of power that I felt I should approach it with a type of humility and reverence, perhaps even caution.
When you encounter these kinds of experiences as I did with this oak, for whatever reason, you get a sense it has seen more, been through more, has a type of wisdom you cannot even access. It is old, it has endured and has the scars to prove it, yet still stands. The labels or categories you have for it do not apply. Suddenly you realize that you are a very small thing in a very large universe and understand why our ancestors worshipped such things. You are not its equal.
What does this feeling of awe mean? Is there something to that tree, to that stone arch? From a material standpoint, it is no more than what I’ve said; just atoms, just particles. Even when combined in a way that makes a tree or makes an arch, in the end, just matter. Yet these are something more surely. Identifiable physical objects in time and space, yes, but if we apply this same thinking to ourselves, are we not just matter, atoms, particles? If we are more than these physical qualities stitched together into a form we call human, then what are we? And by extension, shouldn’t we grant that same mystery question to the world around us we call Nature?
Compliment this essay with many others from the Nature and Travel category.
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