The reason this book is interesting to me is that it gets at the argument that wilderness areas are worth saving when they are sublime. When people are in those high places, the argument goes, they are able to make contact with something profound and this contact is healing in the broadest sense – it improves lives, improves souls, improves us as humans. See Heidi.
But then there is the obvious counterargument that goes: wait a second, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yosemite may be sublime for you, but maybe an open-pit mine is sublime for me. It would be useful to know if we can move beyond or dismiss either argument. And next, it would be nice to know with some more specificity what we are really talking about with this feeling of the mountain high.
Marjorie Hope Nicolson’s starting point in this book is to provide a counterexample: It proves that the mountain high is not some universal, timeless, recognition of the sacred in mountains. In England, from the middle ages up until the 18th century, mountains were dismissed with “violent disparagement” as the ugliest of natural objects. But once the Romantic period begins, language regarding mountains becomes exalting, ecstatic, lyrical. On it’s surface it seems like this would be enough to dismiss John Muir’s arguments about the sacredness of Hetch Hetchy. But remember this is the starting point (page one of the preface), and Nicholson delves deeper. What she really wants to know is, “Why did mountain attitudes change so spectacularly in England?”
“During the first seventeen centuries of the Christian era, “Mountain Gloom” so clouded human eyes that never for a moment did poets see mountains in the full radiance to which our eyes have become accustomed. Within a century–indeed within 50 years–all this was changed. The “Mountain Glory” dawned, then shone full splendor. Why?” (3)
What happened was the Enlightenment. As scientific discoveries began to upset the assumptions of the Christian world it produced “one of the most profound revolutions in thought that has ever occurred.” No longer did people have a fixed place in the universe in the great chain for being from earthworm up through peasant, squire, king, to God. No longer could they look at the stars and see fixed lights moving in perfect symmetry on spheres. Instead there was a chaotic abundance, each moving in its own path. Jon Donne was so disturbed he wrote a sort of pre-Yeats Second Coming poem, and George Herbert simply tried his best to ignore these changes. The Romantics, on the other hand, were the ones who, rather than resist these findings, discovered a way to bring them into their idea of a God-driven universe. Henry More for instance:
Nature’s careless pencill dipt in light
With sprinkled starres hath spattered the Night
Here, for the first time, was an English Christian finding God in the infinite disorder of nature. More was first appalled (“An infinitie of worlds! A thing monstrous if assented to”) (133), and then enthralled by the implications of astronomy. He decided that this not only made sense, but was inevitable, and he was “Roused up by a new Philosophick furie.” Rather than looking for God in simple perfection, More began finding Him in richness, diversity, variety, abundance. If something natural seemed evil it was only because of man’s limited point of view. You can see the roots of modern day bio-spiritualism here.
The discovery of the sublime in nature came not from some literary tradition, but from science, argues Nicholson:
“Awe, compounded of mingled terror and exultation, once reserved for God, passed over in the seventeenth century first to an expanded cosmos, then from macrocosm to the greatest objects in the geocosm–mountains, ocean, desert. … Scientifically minded Platonists, reading their ideas of infinity into a God of Plentitude, then reading them out again, transferred from God to Space to Nature conceptions of majesty, grandeur, vastness in which both admiration and awe were combined.” (143)
(Richard Holmes makes the same point more intimately by telling the stories of Romantic artist/scientists in The Age of Wonder).
So what does this mean practically? Is Muir’s claim that Hetch Hetchy is a cathedral shattered because it wouldn’t have been a cathedral in 1500? Certainly it shatters the claim that we can know with absolute certainty which places are sacred in a religious sense. There’s no more space for orthodoxy. But just because a feeling is subjective doesn’t mean that it is not real. There are measurable effects on the body to being surrounded with (subjective) natural beauty. Lowered heart rates. Increased scores on tests. Faster healing. All these very real reactions are influenced, not just by the absolute quality of the place, but the meaning that culture and science have imbued in its scenery.