About Awe

A few months ago, I wrote the following piece for another blog, Writing the Wild, that I share with other women. I publish it here for those who may not follow Writing the Wild.

img_3021“Riding over Marston Pass, the view was so huge, so empty yet full, that it was unsettling. My eyes travelled outward—as far as I could see were jagged peaks, rounded mountains, flat-topped buttes and wide valleys below.”      Julianne Baker

Awe:
1 a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.

2 an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like

3 an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime

4 a feeling of great respect, usually mixed with fear or surprise

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From Merriam-Webster to the Oxford English Dictionary, to Dictionary.com, official definitions of the word awe include the word fear or dread. But in this present day, is awe always combined with fear?

Recently I ran across an article on the feeling of awe. (Link) I shared it with friends, which sparked thoughtful discussions. As we wrote, talked, and thought about what awe means to us, my mind’s eye returned to the view over Marston Pass. I remembered feeling small, but not afraid. I remembered feeling unimportant, humbled by the beauty and vastness of what I was seeing, of where I was. I did not use the word ‘awe’ in my description, but that is was I felt. I like that feeling of unimportance. It grounds me in my human-ness. Awe brings me out of my inner mind where thoughts can be larger than life. Awe sets me right down in the here and now.

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What is awe? What is that feeling of awe, and what does it do for us? More importantly, what makes each of us feel awe? And what emotions do we associate with it? Fear? Anxiety? Gratitude? Inspiration?

On Facebook we questioned : “Do you find your awe connected to fear? I’d say most of the time I do not. However, I think some people like the awe and fear cocktail… Because it produces adrenalin. “

Another reported: For me, awe can be either fear or the closest I come to believing in a god. The difference between coming face to face with a chest-beating Lowland Gorilla in West Africa, or watching a 16 year-old champion gymnast, or seeing the sunrise on Torres del Paine.”

Another:” the natural world does it for me every time, no question. A great painting doesn’t, but I wonder if that’s because I’m not a painter. I’m impressed, but not necessarily gaga.”

Which led us to differ between art and nature: “…amazed at and humbled by another’s abilities vs. completely awestruck by light in Antelope Canyon or a sheer rockface thousands of feet tall. “

Each person who commented referenced a passion. Another friend recently wrote about flying—he was a pilot: One thing this type of awe shares with nature is the humbling aspect. I was humbled by the capability of the jets I flew. I stand in awe of the perfection of evolution, this type of awe I guess I would put in the category of wonder”. 

Most of us described awe as emanating from their heart or center, radiating outward. Some described it as happening when something unexpected was experienced, as simple as a feather next to the trail.

I’ve begun to think that awe is a very personal thing and can be cultivated. In fact, it should be cultivated. For me, the natural world inspires awe. For me, awe is a feeling of being humbled by the natural beauty around me. Awe connects me to myself and to my surroundings. Awe makes me grateful to be alive. My awe seems to be a combination of wonder, humility, amazement, unimportance, connection and gratitude.

Awesustains me. It is life at its most intense. Many of my strongest memories have at least a tinge of awe:

The view of Electric Peak, covered in new snow after a September storm.

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The view from the top of the Grand Teton on a sunny August afternoon, and the view looking back up at the Grand after descending from the summit.

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Watching a cinnamon colored black bear nip the tops of yellow flowers, close enough that I could see his incisors through my binoculars.

Having lunch on the shore of Turbid Lake in the backcountry, then looking up to see two wolves come down to the opposite shore.

Hearing wolf howls at midnight while backpacking on the Mirror Plateau.

Seeing a grizzly bear searching for moths on the rocky slope of Younts Peak.

Watching a cow elk urge her newborn calf to its feet in Hayden Valley.

Finding and holding an obsidian point which fit perfectly in the palm of my hand, as a golden eagle flew overhead.

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Watching the beauty of a rainbow over Lamar Valley after a summer rainstorm.

Standing thigh deep in Slough Creek, concentrating on laying the fly just right on the water, then looking up to see a bald eagle fly at eye level, a bison lying on the bank of the stream 20 yards away, and 5 mergansers swim around the corner.

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The first time I felt awe, that I can remember, was my first view of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I was young then, and was unimpressed by the familiar landscapes of my childhood in the Midwest. The jagged snowy peaks, the fresh cool air, the night stars that seemed to be only an arm’s length away, the red and yellows and blues of meadow flowers—these were new. These made me open my mouth in wonder. I have continued to seek out that sense of wonder, that feeling of humility. These days, more and more experiences evoke awe. Perhaps it is a function of having more knowledge. Or maybe the awareness of how little I know and how ephemeral this life is. In the end, it does not matter. All that matters is that I search out experiences that continue to inspire me to feel awe.

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“Awe sneaks up on us like love. We surrender to the ecstatic outpouring of life before us.”                                            Terry Tempest Williams

What makes you feel awe? What other emotions are connected to awe for you? I would love to read your thoughts! Please leave your comments below. Thank you.

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Wilderness in the Anthropocene

A year ago, I was dealing with the aftermath of serious eye infection after having cataract surgery. When the emergency calmed enough that I could go two weeks between visits to the retina specialist, I talked Fred into a quick week down to one of my all-time favorite spirit-healing places, Canyonlands. With one eye, I drew in my journal and wrote the piece below for Writing the Wild , a blog that I share with two other women.
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“There are some who can live without wildness…. and some who cannot. ”                                        Aldo Leopold

I am one who cannot.

Canyonlands, autumn 2015:

Early morning. I wake early and heat water and quietly step outside into cool desert air, trying not to wake Fred.

I grab my chair and place it for the view. Ensconced with journal, tea, warm jacket and hat, I sit.

Vermillion streaks line the eastern horizon, the sun not quite risen. Sand and cliffs are dark violet, sleeping until the sun wakes them to reds and rusts.

I sit and watch. Slowly, imperceptibly, golden morning light begins to crawl across the red sand. I breathe; the light slides a bit further, inching closer to the violet cliffs, waking them to the day.

My thoughts turn to wilderness and last night’s book: ‘Satellites in the High Country’ (author: Jason Mark).  What is wild? What is wilderness? Do we need a new definition of wilderness? Is wilderness even important?

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That last question terrifies me. I fear that to many people, wilderness is unnecessary, extraneous, irrelevant to their lives. It seems that wilderness is being assaulted on all fronts, and though one battle might be won, the war is never over. I need to move off of this line of thinking…

There is a proposal to name a new geologic epoch after man: the Anthropocene. An epoch must show up in the geologic layers so that thousands of years in the future, geologists will be able to find the delineation in the rocks. Some say it is too early to name this epoch, others say that the date of the first above ground atomic bomb test is the perfect start date of the epoch (radioactive layers will be found from world-wide fall out), others say it should begin from the Industrial Revolution, still others propose the start of agriculture.

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Either way, naming a new epoch after man, the Anthropocene, seems filled with hubris. Yes, we have over-populated, over-used, over-extracted to the point that it feels as if we are barreling blindfolded down the road at 100mph, missing signs that warn the road is about to end. There is no place on earth that is untouched by humans. From the CO2 content in the atmosphere, to acidic oceans, to erosion caused by building, to plastics and aluminum, we are ubiquitous.

Wilderness may no longer be defined as ‘untrammeled by man’. But….. But….

Looking out on these red rocks, I know:  THIS is wild. THIS is wilderness. The wild is free and unpredictable. The wild teaches me that I’m not in charge. These red rocks hold a mirror, reflecting the smallness of my desires. The wild has her own agenda.

Wildness brings me to my knees.

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“People need wild places. Whether or not we think we do, we do. We need to be able to taste grace and know once again that we desire it. We need to experience a landscape that is timeless, whose agenda moves at the pace of speciation and glaciers. To be surrounded by a singing, mating, howling commotion of other species, all of which love their lives as much as we do ours, and none of which could possibly care less about our economic status or our running day calendar. Wildness puts us in our place. It reminds us that our own plans are small and somewhat absurd. It reminds us why, in those cases in which our plans might influence many future generations, we ought to choose carefully. Looking out on a clean plank of planet earth, we can get shaken right down to the bone by the bronze-eyed possibility of lives that are not our own.” Barbara Kingsolver

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Utah Meanderings, March 2014

Ancient art, high on rock walls                                                                                                                                                                             Bears witness to those who’ve come before.                                                                                                                                                   Who were they, those long-ago people?                                                                                                                                              Our footsteps echo their trails.

Down a long dirt road, red dust coating the interior and exterior of my truck, Teresa and I rattled our way to the Horseshoe Canyon TH. We hiked down into the Canyon, the sign said an 850′ drop (which we’d have to climb on the way out). The day was beautiful–warm, sunny, not too much wind. We wandered along the dry river bed, looking at first buds on cottonwood trees, early flowers, and red canyon walls. Our goal was the Great Gallery, though there are three other galleries along the way, all beautiful. 

Archaic people created the Great Gallery pictographs,called Archaic Barrier Canyon Style. These pictographs have been aged to be up to 6-8,000 years old–the oldest ones, anyway. One of the pictographs is identical to a figurine found in a 6,000 year old layer. IT is possible these were considered sacred sites to late people–those who came 3,000 years later. The climate was changing from cooler and moist to dry and warm, so perhaps that has something to do with the purpose of the pictographs. One of the figures looks like a bison–one of the extinct bison? 

 Later, Fremont people created some of the other pictographs. These are more recent, some are less detailed. 

I wish I’d carried my binoculars in order to see the pictographs more closely, but the Park Service had thoughtfully placed ammo cans at the Great Gallery, one of which held serviceable binos. I also wish I’d taken my ‘real’ camera–I just got an Iphone 5S, and have been experimenting with using the camera for photos. While it takes amazingly great photos, I’d have liked a closer zoom and the ability to use a few more features of a camera. We were fortunate to meed a Park Volunteer who told us about what we were seeing. When I got home, as I was deleting old downloads, I found a pdf file on Horseshoe Canyon–one that the volunteer had recommended! Huh, don’t know when I downloaded it, but it’s very cool. Good info. 

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“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

So true.