Seeking the Sublime

A Road Trip Through the Scottish Highlands

This year, I spent my birthday alone — truly alone, in the hills of an ancient, misty isle 5,000 miles from home. My last week of being 25 years old was spent driving solo through the Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Skye: a quarter century of life culminating on an otherworldly island of equal parts harshness and beauty, where every fantasy or fairytale I’d ever seen or read felt real. It was the most breathtaking birthday of my life.

The best kind of travel is the kind that demands a total reconstitution of not only one’s sense of place, but also one’s sense of self: full of revelations and paradigm shifts that alter the way we live and think at home. Alone in the heart of the Highlands — traipsing across mud and moors and rugged croft land, up hills and mounds and across lochs, down cliffs and crags, against the rain and hail and freezing wind — I felt invigorated and transformed, remade and re-inspired. Spellbound by an annihilating combination of awe and terror, I was breathless at the striking splendor of the scenery; equally breathless with the seeming certainty that I would veer off a tiny, winding one track road while distracted by a panoramic view, or slip and fall to my deserved, dramatic death while climbing over a remote ridge or rocky ruin.

The Romantics had a word for it, that awestruck absorption in aesthetics: to be emotionally and spiritually overtaken by a vast, imposing landscape was to surrender to the sublime.

In Scotland, I surrendered.

“There is a joy in every spot made known by times of old: new to the feet, although each tale a hundred times be told.” — Keats, Lines Written in the Highlands

Almost exactly 200 years ago, 23-year-old John Keats — youngest and poorest of the Romantic poets — went on a Scottish road trip of his own. Its purpose? To creatively galvanize himself by experiencing the legendary sites he had only read about in poems and stories. To, in his own inimitable words, “gorge wonders”.

And gorge himself he did, sailing over stormy seas to isolated islands along the Scottish coast and walking miles each day across wild, windy glens. Keats was ecstatic toward Scotland, summarizing the journey in a letter to a friend as “beautiful, enchanting, gothic, picturesque, fine, delightful, grand, sublime — a few blisters, etc.” After a certain point, however, even Keats’ considerable powers of language proved inadequate to convey the dazzling effects of the Scottish landscape. Loch Lomond overwhelmed him so profoundly that he included an attempted drawing of it with the letter, saying words could not do justice to reality. (The great privilege of our time — gigabytes of clear, sharp photos at our fingertips — was still two centuries away.)

But Keats’ hunger for transcendent beauty was curbed by bodily limits. The harsh and volatile weather of the Highlands took a physical toll, as did several scrapes and falls. (“Being half-drowned by falling from a precipice,” he wrote wryly, “is a very romantic affair.”) The strenuous hike up Ben Nevis — the highest mountain in Britain — resulted in a sore throat so severe that he was forced to return home to London, where he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Two years later, Keats was dead.

It was impossible not to think of him — this clever, curious, incurable Romantic who never turned 26 himself — over the course of my own Highlands adventure. On the solitary cliffs of Skye, away from the hot flat banality of Los Angeles — far from past hurts or irrelevant worries, from anything that wasn’t fiercely beautiful and striking — his words echoed aloud in my head with reverberating clarity: On the shore of the wide world I stand alone and think, till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

I held unconscious intercourse with beauty old as creation, drinking in a pure organic pleasure from the silver wreaths of curling mist. — Wordsworth, Prelude

T o experience a place so vast, so arresting, and so visually beyond the realm of the ordinary that you feel yourself recede into irrelevance against the scope of it — to transcend one’s self entirely — is perhaps the closest a secular person can come to encountering the realm of the sacred or the divine. It’s no coincidence that speaking of the sublime sometimes sounds like speaking of religion: worshipful surrender before God and worshipful surrender before nature both require yielding to something much bigger and grander than one’s self, and in that sense mountains can perform the same function as cathedrals.

Keats himself was following in the footsteps of an earlier and far more established Romantic poet: William Wordsworth, whose own tour of the Scottish wilderness some years prior had already inspired him to shape its lonely grandeur into his ideal of the poetic sublime. Wordsworth was, and still is, referred to as the “High Priest of Nature” — he saw God everywhere, but especially from God’s eye views. Keats, though, privately expressed a desire for his own poetry to be distinguished from what he called the “Wordsworthian or egotistical sublime” — the impression, in so many of Wordsworth’s poems, that mountains exist primarily to tell him things about himself. Far from transcending the self, Wordsworth was concerned primarily with understanding the self, and using landscapes as a poetic canvas on which to do so.

In the long, tumultuous relationship between humanity and nature, wilderness has always functioned as a blank slate for people to project themselves and their ideas upon. Wild places are unsettled — and unsettling — by virtue of being ‘untamed’, as imaginatively full of danger and chaos as they are of nourishment and revelation. Christ goes into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil; Moses goes into the wilderness to commune with God. In spaces wide and unworldly enough to allow an illusion of being alone on the planet, boundaries and binaries — between nature and culture, control and chaos, life and art — begin to blur.

That Romantic legacy — wilderness as otherness, as a liminal space between the real and the ethereal, where no mere mortal is meant to linger long — remains alive and thriving in a land of myths and megalithic monuments, where folk memory became folklore a long, long time ago. Time blurs in Scotland, where a 5,000-year-old yew tree — older than the Romans, older than the Christian god — still grows behind stone walls in a much-less-ancient churchyard. Awed among the remains of cairns and brochs and henges, I was never able to forget the fact that humans have had the same aesthetic response to the Scottish landscape for thousands of years; that it inspired prehistoric people to move enormous stones across it with their bodies — before wheels, before metal, before the written word. In the stone-covered hills of the Highlands, those ancient ancestors and their ancient gods still breathe with every gust of wild wind.

How to reconcile the grand inheritance of those natural vistas with our systematic destruction of them? Globalization and the catastrophic certainty of climate change have ensured we are long past being able to accurately imagine ourselves as solitary wanderers in an unfeeling and unsullied universe. In our age of technological wonder at the expense of natural wonders, the wilderness is no longer hostile and threatening to us so much as we are a hostile threat to it. If an ethical, sustainable coexistence with nature is still possible — or if it ever was — then our paradoxical inclusion and separation from nature must be reconciled into a global consensus of seeing the welfare of the natural world and the welfare of humanity as intrinsically connected rather than intrinsically opposed. Wilderness, in the end, is only a human construct — and a love for natural sublimity should result in respect and reverence for all elements of nature, even those in our own backyards.

How, then, to preserve the self-effacing feelings stirred by an encounter with transcendent beauty? How to bring the exhilaration associated with exploration of the wilderness a little bit closer to home? For those who call the Highlands home, of course, extraordinary views are as common as whisky or tea — but sometimes exposure to the extraordinary can heighten appreciation for the ordinary. After all, that 5,000-year-old yew tree is not inherently more beautiful than the trees in any city park, and some of those might grow to live as long, if given the chance. Perhaps the truest pursuit of the sublime is finding beauty everywhere, in every place — transforming the mundane into the magical.

Decades after the Romantics fell in love with Scotland, and many more decades before I did, Scottish-American naturalist John Muir contended:

“All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to Highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms… So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.”

A comforting thought, when leaving Scotland: sublimity will always be there, but it might be elsewhere, too.