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The sublime.

Gippslandia #12 explores the time and experiences spent outdoors and how those experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways.

Nov 12, 2019

Words: Tim Leeson

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Take a look at this photo.
What feelings does it inspire?
Maybe the sound that escaped through your lips gave it away?

Yup, in this position, I’m sure I’d feel ‘awe’. The places that most frequently triggers this very key, but relatively elusive, emotion for me have nearly always been in nature.

In preparation for this edition, I wanted to gain a better handle on why time or experiences outdoors were a catalyst for what can often be powerful sensations. Especially as Gippslandia’s outstanding creatives were submitting their astute insights on the concept of ‘wilderness’, I needed to have a clearer appreciation of mine.

Apparently, modern psychology has barely scraped the surface in researching ‘awe’ when compared to other emotions. One reason for this is that it’s difficult to register a distinct facial response associated with the sensation, in us or our primate cousins, making it challenging to study visually.

But many modern psychologists believe that while “fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of a life in profound and permanent ways”. What a powerful sensation. That a fleeting sensation can influence the rest of your life.

A dictionary definition is: “an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear, etc., produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful, or the like”. The etymology of the term is derived from related words in Old English and Old Norse that were used to express fear and dread, particularly towards a divine being.

My other key source of awe is closely related to the sublime: the immense beauty found in art and design. I can also understand its correlation with religion, but struggle to appreciate the association of the emotion with politics, which is the other principal trigger psychologists link it to. Although, I’ve never experienced a masterful political orator in full flight, or witnessed a charismatic leader weave their spell over a crowd. And while I might be tempted, I don’t feel brave enough to question a Belieber or a member of the Beyhive as to why they’ve devoted their lives to a pop star (not to their face, anyway). There are studies into whether we feel a true sense of awe when we admire celebrities in popular culture. For me, the joy of awe while in nature is triggered by the sensation of immense insignificance. It is a reminder that there is something far greater than ourselves.

As you cast your gaze over a never-ending vista, the bush, the desert, the mountains or the ocean extending for days, all utterly wild and free, it is very difficult to still believe that you are the centre of the universe.

It reminds me of a famous quote from the science author Arthur C. Clarke who said that, “There are two possibilities: either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

A lone reminder of humanity. A road. A house. A powerline. A fence. A logging coupe. A dam. A piece of rubbish. These shatter this sensation or inhibit its release from even beginning.

Edmund Burke, a statesman and philosopher in the 1700s, reasoned that, “Objects that are clear, anticipated, and certain in their origin, form and design do not produce the sublime experience. Rather, objects that the mind has difficulty grasping are more likely to produce the sublime experience”.

In the wilderness, we easily detect the residue of mankind and it destroys our awe.

That’s why we need to keep the wild, wild. Whether it exists in a forgotten corner of your backyard, an old-growth forest in Gippsland, the world’s largest coral reef system or even a previously unexplored recess of your mind, experiencing it could change your life.

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