On the Trail of Sublime


July is when America packs its kids into the car and goes looking for the sublime—even if nobody knows that’s what they’re looking for. I used to think “sublime” was a dumb word, a mushy rhyme found in every bad poem and bad song and bad hymn. But when I started writing about the great parks I learned that the word has a specific intellectual meaning.

I remember one July afternoon when I sat on a log in Yellowstone National Park, waiting for Old Faithful to go off. I had always assumed that the geyser erupts on a regular schedule—something like every 57 minutes. I should have known better. In Yellowstone, nature was still visibly at work, just below the surface. No geyser could be expected to be strictly punctual.

At the Old Faithful Inn, a rustic edifice that seemed to be made of giant Lincoln Logs, I saw a sign “predicting” the next eruption for 3:42—more than an hour away. It said that eruptions last anywhere from 1.5 minutes to 4 minutes, depending on shifts in the bubbling underworld, and can only be forecast one at a time. YOU TOO CAN PREDICT OLD FAITHFUL, said an adjacent mathematical table, which explained that in 1917 a ranger discovered “a correlation between the duration of an eruption and its subsequent interval.”

Walking out to Old Faithful at 3:30, I found several hundred pilgrims already there. I was struck by the simplicity of what we were waiting for. Americans are generally thought to be unable to enjoy themselves without electronic help. At the ballpark a scoreboard or an organist tells us when to cheer; on television a laugh track tells us when to laugh; in cars and on walks a digital companion saves us the trouble of having to look at the scenery or listen to the birds or think our own thoughts. But in Yellowstone we were waiting for a show whose only component was hot water. There was no impatience in the crowd; even small children seemed to know we had signed up for something you can’t buy at the mall.

At 3:42 Old Faithful went off and everybody clapped. The eruption lasted only a few minutes, but it had a beauty that no photograph could convey, the water rising and falling and catching the sun and then slowly drifting off. Afterward, the motorized tourists went back to their cars and buses and the rest of us went back to the hotel. But the geyser continued to tug at us in the lobby and the dining room. Whenever its next predicted moment approached we all stopped what we were doing and hurried out to watch. My own fidelity was rewarded by several eruptions of unusual length and height, including one in which the dancing waters were silhouetted against the setting sun.

The idea of sublimity was first broached at another natural marvel, Niagara Falls, in the early 19th century. Until then nature had been regarded as the enemy, a hostile wilderness to be cleared and domesticated. How that notion began to crumble is documented by the historian Elizabeth McKinsey in Niagara Falls: Icon of the American Sublime. Tracing the theory of sublimity to mid-18th-century aestheticians—especially Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, Professor McKinsey says that the experience of early visitors to Niagara Falls called for a word that would go beyond mere awe and fear. Sublime was perfect. It denoted “a new capacity to appreciate the beauty and grandeur of potentially terrifying natural objects.”

I decided to test that theory—when I visited Niagara myself—by taking a voyage to the base of the falls, as tourists have since 1846, on a boat called The Maid of the Mist. As we approached the horseshoe-shaped Canadian falls, inconceivable amounts of water cascaded down around us. But our little vessel was undeterred: it kept heading into the cloud of mist at the heart of the horseshoe. How much farther were we going to go? The boat began to rock. I felt a twinge of fear.

Fortunately, in any group of Americans there will always be one non-sublimicist keeping watch. The man next to me, peering out of his hooded yellow slicker, told me he had been measuring our progress by the sides of the gorge and we weren’t making any progress at all. Even with its engines at full strength The Maid of the Mist was barely holding its own. That was a sufficiently terrifying piece of news, and when the boat finally made a U-turn I didn’t protest. A little sublime goes a long way.

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William Zinsser, who died in 2015, was the author of 18 books, including On Writing Well, and a columnist for the Scholar website.


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