On May 1st, Steven and I hiked a brief portion of the Pacific Crest Trail en route to the path that ascends Hobart Bluff. We began with a short but rough drive to the trailhead on Soda Mountain Road, during which our Nissan Versa actually picked up a small boulder and dragged it along. The ensuing lurching and grinding raised terror in us that we might (once again) need expensive car repairs. Happily, once the rock fell out the bottom of the car, everything seemed normal again.
At the trailhead, we parked gingerly along the roadside, collected our water bottles, camera gear, and notebook, and paused to examine some new-to-us ephemeral spring wildflowers growing in the meadow near the trailhead sign. We also discovered a small pile of emergency fuses and a forgotten fabric shoulder bag draped over the signpost (“Through-hiker debris?” I momentarily wondered, but of course, no logical trail-hiker would have been carrying automobile fuses, nor a fancy embroidered shoulder bag). Curious, I peeked inside the bag and found a hand-written note: “Thanks! I returned your coffer after I borrowed it,” with a phone number scrawled at the bottom. I smiled to think of the positive view of human nature held (and upheld) by the PCT hikers I have met.
How quickly a little fictional adventure developed in my head during the few minutes it took Steven to photograph the wildflowers. (Sidenote: something I love about spending time in nature is how many stories might happen even though they often don’t. Outside of the familiar, domesticated surroundings in which most of us tend to situate ourselves, there is a shorter-than-the-usual hypothetical gap between one possible cause and another possible effect. Which is why we carry water bottles and snacks, for example. You never know what might happen.)
But I intend to tell you about our actual hike, in straightforward non-fictional format, rather than what I imagined. So without further ado . . .
We set off on the pleasant foot path, just the right width for walking single-file. I contrived to let Steven loan me his brand-new pocket camera so that I could work on my photography skills and take visual notes of our journey.
Anna Maria on the Pacific Crest Trail en route to Hobart Bluff
Along the trail we observed a rich variety of lichens: the dangling white Usnea and brown hair-like Bryoria draping tree limbs, the spritely green wolf lichen (Letharia) in puffs on the upper parts of branches, the brown, pale green, gray, and orange crusts on bark and on nearby rocks. The air temperature was in that perfect springtime range where your bare arms feel good in the sun, but the shade feels pleasant, too.
I’m not sure how many different species of flowers we saw, but it seemed like every few feet we discovered something new: in pink, white, yellow, indigo, violet, or lavender. I recognized the purple larkspur and the white wild strawberry blossoms, but everything else looked new.
Fawn Lilies at Hobart Bluff
What the camera couldn’t capture: the clean, fresh musk of mosses and trees, the romantic perfume of white, trumpet-shaped flowers and, from a cluster of purple flowers, a smell like the fake grape flavoring in childhood’s purple bubblegum. A shrub emitted a spicy scent reminiscent of nutmeg.
Steven noticed a pair of the tiniest imaginable flowers growing in a rock crevice, delicate yellow with muted red details. Their form reminded me of iris, but each one was smaller than a child’s pinky fingernail, like doll’s house garden flowers. I dug my hand lens out of my pocket to see its little stamens more clearly. Steven photographed the pair of them framed by my size 5 wedding band to try to show a sense of scale.
Mimulus alsinoides, Chickweed Monkeyflower
As we hiked into higher elevations, we encountered different species of trees and wildflowers. The manzanita up here was fresh in tiny pink blooms, while at the lower elevations, as at home, the manzanita flowers had already faded and curled weeks ago. We hiked uphill until the only trees left were junipers, the wind creaking their ancient branches in so loud and varied a fashion that I first mistook the sounds for the chattering of small animals. I wondered what tales these junipers could tell, if only I could decipher their squeaky-hinge language.
Juniper and view of Mt. McLoughlin – photo by Anna Maria Johnson
It was right around this time that we came in view of Mount McLoughlin, that perfectly triangular peak covered year-round in snow, which my youngest daughter and I had hiked last fall with our college students. We stopped and looked out over the huge world. I made a series of photographs of the panoramic view to use as reference for an art piece I plan to make for an upcoming art show next January. I mused for a while about what kind of art project I might want to make later in response to this landscape: a painted mural, a line drawing, a watercolor painting, an artist’s tunnel book?
But even the stunning overlook was only a preview of what we saw from Hobart Bluff. It can only be described as “sublime,” in the nineteenth-century sense, which is a different sort experience than what you get from most of the Monument. What I mean is, the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument is a place set aside not for scenic vistas, but for its scientific value, biodiversity, and species richness: values that must be looked at closely in order to be fully appreciated. It’s not a tourist-draw like the Grand Canyon, but the sort of place best enjoyed with a hand lens and field guides.
Panorama of Hobart Bluff – Click on the image for a hi-resolution version
Most of the day’s hike en route to Hobart Bluff was like that: pretty, beautiful, delicate, appreciable on the micro-level. But the Bluff itself is macro-level, a scenic tableau, postcard-ready. In actuality, a little scary. For a brief time during this portion of the hike, Steven vanished from my sight (innocently hiking a little ways ahead while I’d paused to take pictures from an impressive overlook) and I, staring down the steep slope to the rocks below, growing hot and thirsty, felt almost panic-stricken in the presence of the sublime. (The word panic comes from the name of the Greek Pan, god of the wild, the mountains, and the season of spring)
Eighteenth century political and philosophical writer, Edmund Burke, wrote the influential, “Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” (published 1757). In it, Burke lays out the difference between what is beautiful (pastoral, culturally influenced landscapes) and what is sublime (awe-inspiring vistas that remind us of our own mortality), and discussing the value of each.
Here follows “A Brief Interlude on the Sublime and the Beautiful,” which I’ve distilled from a lecture Steve presents to his photography students:
Describing the sublime, Burke writes:
“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. 1 In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. Astonishment, as I have said, is the effect of the sublime in its highest degree; the inferior effects are admiration, reverence, and respect.” (Burke)
Burke applied to the sublime the following descriptors: terror, passion, obscurity, power, privation, infinity, succession and uniformity (i.e. repeating columns or pillars), and darkness. The sublime reminds of our own mortality and limits in the face of the awesome and unknown.
In contrast, the “beautiful,” to Burke, is associated with that which is small, smooth, curved, delicate, brightly colored, pastoral, and feminine. It is symbolized visually with fertility metaphors, such as rolling hills, agricultural abundance, and shepherds keeping their flocks. Hearkening back to the idea of a pastoral paradise, paintings influence by Burke’s description of “the beautiful” try to depict a harmonious integration between the world of nature and the world of human culture.
Burke’s ideas heavily influenced 18th and 19th century landscape painters in Britain, America, and Europe, such as Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School (including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Frederic Edwin Church, and others). Their large-scale landscape paintings were intended to evoke a particular type of emotional response for the viewer and served as “The cinema of the 19th C”. Artists created ten-foot long paintings to be hung at world exhibitions and charged admission for audiences to come and view them in a special room. Sometimes they encouraged viewers to bring opera glasses to view minutely crafted details delicately brushed into their giant canvasses. Even more elaborate displays involved moving lights and shadows and mannequins. Some paintings were mapped to cylindrical panoramas and surrounded audiences in an immersive experience… much like today’s IMAX theaters.
The aesthetic of the sublime continues to influence the world of cinema, for example, The Perfect Storm and The Lord of the Rings. The danger and terror are what make for an interesting story line (and visual effects). There are plenty of critiques, feminist and otherwise, of Burke’s philosophy which neither of us will not attempt to explore here in a brief post, but Burke’s influence on western culture and art history is well documented.
Like a modern day Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, A visiting professor surveys the Hobart Bluff overlook in the fall of 2012
(Thus ends the mini-lecture–thank you, Professor Steven–and we resume our hike.)
Turning our eyes from the lovely, small wildflowers in bloom upon the grass, we scanned the horizon, noticing layers of blue mountains piled along the horizon and the sheer quantity of rock, and approached the edge of the rock cliff.
Steven perched on the Bluff’s edge to create a series of landscape images, while I scooted back to nestle securely on my own rock seat. He looked so in his element up there, I couldn’t resist capturing a few images of the photographer looking somewhat like the nineteenth century portrayals of gentlemen explorers pondering the sublime portions of the wilderness (a la 19th C. landscape photographer William Henry Jackson).