Sunday, April 17, 2005

Insignificance

"...But now, lying on my back at the bottom of the black Redwall gorge, I understood. I was hopelessly insignificant. Insignificant and helpless. A mere insect. And when we humans feel this way we are, inevitably, afraid.

Out in the world you may, very occasionally, look down at night from a high and lonely vantage point onto the swarming life of a great city and catch a frightening glimpse of your own personal insignificance. But that is not quite the same thing. You do not feel, achingly, the utter insignificance of all mankind, and you therefore escape the sense of final, absolute, overwhelming helplessness." Colin Fletcher, The Man Who Walked Through Time

I've been reading (or re-reading) a lot of Colin Fletcher recently in an attempt to get a glimpse of desert hiking in preparation for my 2007 PCT trip. This passage is from his account of his trip down the Grand Canyon, the first person to do it on foot. It resonates with one of the feelings that I find most powerful when confronted with the power of nature. If I'm hiking along the coast, it'll wash over me when I'm tired and staring out at the waves that just keep coming, the tides that come and go. Hiking the coast in New Brunswick is good for this because of the incredible height of the tides. Along the Appalachian Trail, I was often struck with this feeling of insignificance while above treeline in Maine and New Hampshire. I remember sitting looking at Mt. Washington, feeling, as Fletcher says, like "a mere insect" in the face of the beauty, majesty, and sheer size of the mountains ahead. Rather than making me feel afraid, however, I find this feeling of insignificance reassuring. It reminds me of my truly frail place in the order of Nature, my deformity in the face of True Beauty, my indistinguishable flicker on the timeline of History. I'm gripped in a very tangible way by the fact that these things, Beauty, Goodness, Time, exist, existed long before I arrived, and will exist long after I'm gone. In my normal day-to-day activities, my sense of importance can become inflated. My place in the order of the world can get confused. In the midst of the mountains, or the vast unexplored power of the sea, I am put back where I should be. Order is restored and it is a good feeling.


This restoration of proper order is also something that comes when I am photographing natural things. When I stop to 'consider the lilies of the field', to try and capture a moment of their beauty, Beauty, Order, and Goodness push their way into me. As a photographer, it isn't my job to manipulate the thing to make a good picture. My job is to manipulate the camera to capture the beauty of the thing. In order to do this, I find myself physically representing the emotion that I have, usually kneeling but sometimes even prostrated before the object I am photographing.

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