Things that filled me with awe this week
Featured image: Meander Canyon on the Green River—a tributary of the Colorado—in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Green vegetation blooms at the riparian zone. Photo by David Swindler, winner of the Aerial section of the National Geographic’s People’s Choice photographer of the year contest (2017). “Through the spectacles of geology, terra firms becomes terra mobilis, and we are forced to reconsider our beliefs of what is solid and what is not. Although we attribute to stone great power to hold back time, to refuse its claims (cairns, stone tablets, monuments, statuary), this is true only in relation to our own mutability. Looked at in the context of the bigger geological picture, rock is as vulnerable to change as any other substance” ( Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination)
For people like me who prefer not use the adjective “spiritual,” AWE is an indispensable word to represent feelings that rob us of speech, cast off our individual self, dislodge our sense of here and now, and immerse us in a vast and ancient universal “we.” As William Wordsworth put it after crossing the Alps from Italy to Switzerland via the Simplon Pass during the summer of 1790, “There is something august and stately in the Air of these things that inspires the mind with great thoughts and passions that are too big for our comprehension;…[things] that fill and overbear the mind with their Excess, and cast it into a pleasing kind of stupor and imagination.”
Simplon Pas summit, facing south. Gabriel Lory, 1820. “The account in Book VI of The Prelude describes the events of this day (August 17, 1790) in considerable detail. Wordsworth and Jones crossed the summit of the Simplon Pass without realizing it. It seems likely that the day was cloudy, but even if Wordsworth had been able to see clearly, the range of mountains to the south must have misled him, as the above shows, leading him to believe that the summit of the Alps was yet to come” (“Wordsworth at the Simplon Pass“).
Unfortunately the impact of the word “awe” has been leached of its power through our intemperate use of “Awesome!” for everything from a pair of earrings to a new blend of tea to a tattoo. I’m arguing for separating the words “awe” and “awesome,” so as not to transmit the cheapening of “awesome” to “awe”; so as to ensure it retains its contemporary meaning of “feelings of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder” (Oxford Dictionary). Those of us who want to keep “awe” for emotions such as expressed above by Roger Macfarlane and William Wordsworth would do well to follow C. S. Lewis’s advice not to “use words too big for the subject. Don’t say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very;’ otherwise, you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”
Microscopically tiny wonders: inner ear hair cells. Colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of sensory hair cells from the organ of corti, in the cochlea of the inner ear. These cells are surrounded by a fluid called the endolymph. As sound enters the ear it causes waves to form in the endolymph, which in turn cause these hairs to move. The movement is converted into an electrical signal, which is passed to the brain. The V-shaped arrangement of hairs lies on the top of a single cell. Magnification: x21,000 when printed 10cm wide. Courtesy SPL / Photo Researchers, Inc.
Reclaiming awe is one of my after-surgery projects: after focusing on my physical healing, I again focused most of my energy into managing my ever-present dementia-generated stress and anxiety. In addition to walking as many steps as possible each day, I continued my quest to find engaging daily brain stimulation. In the past decade I have increasingly lost my “natural” ability to find interesting things to do vs my formerly over-the-top involvement in the world around around me. Since philosophical questions still stir my curiosity, I tackled a big one: how do I, here and now, live out my ethical understanding of what a good life is: being connected, in honest and integrity, to the cosmological, astronomical, mineral, vegetable, and animal words, particularly my fellow humans. As part of this endeavor, I am reading Dacher Keltner’s Awe: The Transformative Power of Everyday Wonder (2023) in which he attempts to define awe and gathers many anecdotal examples of its occurrence in his own life and those of others. Despite my sense that Keltner may be spreading “awe” a bit too broadly for my liking, his book has helped to newly alert me to phenomena in my daily life that, as he explains, awaken my “autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR ), or the constellations of sensations in your body when you experience awe, including tingles in the spine, shoulders, back, neck, and crown of the head.” Phenomena, in other words, that evoke “what Walt Whitman refers to as the body electric.”
Two fishes swimming in the sea not more lawless than we, one of British artist Margaret C. Cook’s twenty-four “stunning, sensual” illustrations for a 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
Though fresh on this journey, I feel that I have already roped “awe” into my life more abundantly than before. Compared to Keltner’s, Wordsworth’s, or Whitman’s exalted observations, the ones that tingled the crown of my head and shivered my spine this past week, are work-a-day commonplaces indeed. Nevertheless, each of them stopped the time for an interval, drove away the words in my head, and left me with a mix of surprise, pleasure, and in one case, dread mixed with Schadenfreude. Each one has newly polaroided (verbing a noun is one of C.S. Lewis’s pet peeves) a formerly known or newly discovered marvel of our world for me. I will start with the most mundane.
ONE: Peter’s photo stands for the first occurrence of “everyday” awe that I recently experienced. In consideration of those among you who might be queasy about animal food products, I asked Peter to create an abstract image of my observation, so that it now appears to me as inoffensive as a topographical map. Since the two “pinto-beans” are what I want to talk about, I asked my ever-accommodating photo-fixer to make them stand out in some way. Influenced by the skyscape outside his study window, he drew airplane vapor lines that intersect just above them.
THE REVEAL: The photo portrays the inside of a chicken carcass, from which I was culling every last little bit of animal protein to put into a chicken pie. WARNING: if you are queasy about these matters, DO NOT CLICK on the link in the next sentence. After putting the pie in the oven, I got on the internet and googled “chicken kidneys“. Much to my surprise and delight, these disproportionally huge objects were not the organs that filter wastes and toxins from the blood—they were instead the bird’s testicles! They are situated on the spine, behind the heart and below the lungs. The actual kidneys are situated along the spine behind the testicles. When I told Peter about my discovery, his expression of awe had more than a tinge of envy:)
TWO: My second awe-inducing experience happened during a walk by the river in our “back yard,” the tiny Hidden Hollow nature reserve that our apartment overlooks. Actually, my observation consist of two parts. a), The river that flows through Hidden Hollow, Parley’s Creek, has transformed from its usual trickle is now a foaming, roaring mass of muddy water. Like in many other states, Utah’s bodies of water, too, are under a constant threat of overflowing their boundaries. During my regular walks to the river, the stream’s sound and sight act on me like a mantra that almost instantly carry me to what theists call a “spiritual” experience.
To my conscious soul I now can say
of usurpation, when the light of sense
goes out, but with a flash that has revealed
there harbors; whether we be young or old,
our destiny, our being’s heart and home,
is with infinitude, and only there.
Late, late yestreen I saw the new Moon,
With the old Moon in her arms;
So focused was I on the lovely opening lines that I completely missed the supposed meaning of the moon in this phase:
And I fear, I fear, my Master dear!
We shall have a deadly storm.
May 8, 2023 @ 4:31 pm
when it comes to awe you have so often made me experience it.
May 27, 2023 @ 12:26 pm
My dearest Shen, you are one of the phenomena in the world for whom I have the most awe! I so love our in-depth conversation, even though my contributions are usually about shallow things like clothing or trips to Las Vegas…Thanks for upgrading me with your awe-some company.