Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Immersion in the Sublime

Work often takes me to extreme places, such as the outer space-like vacuum of an electron microscope or the frozen seascape of McMurdo Sound. Such places harbor limitless riches in sight, sound, and experience. They should be the domains of dreamers, poets, and artists.

When slipping through the thick sea ice and descending to its underside, a profound loneliness always  chills my heart. The thought that there is no other person in the entire Southern Ocean at that moment, compounded by the indescribable beauty of the icy aquatic space, defines the sublime to this man. Life sustained by a thin tube delivering air on demand. Life enabled by sophisticated under- and outerwear. Life viewed by a privileged scientist - a linear, analytical thinker, seeking a way to express this moment to others. A faithful rationalist who, for two decades, has extended his cold, wet hand toward the warmth of artists.

The Underside of Sea Ice
still frame of a Shawn Harper video

Glimpses of such underwater moments are portrayed in Werner Herzog's recent documentary, brilliantly captured by Henry Kaiser's lens. But the feeling I am trying to describe here is much more haunting. It is an isolation and a beauty like no other. I know intuitively that it is profound, even though I don't know what it is.

One day I hope to find an artist who understands this feeling and will help me express it. An artist who will help me share it with the world.


  1. I'm sorry such a lovely post has not already garnered lots of comments.

    My husband also likes to seek out extreme conditions, preferentially atop mountains. The little I have been able to accompany him has made me think that perhaps what is so impressive is the humbling aspect of being confronted with all that ecosystem in the face of your own isolated status, as the one witness of that moment. Even a photo, as beautiful as it is, is a poor substitute for the experience, which is conditioned by your perception of it...

    Sounds like reading some Thoreau might be in order.

    Here via Steffi Suhr.

  2. Thank you Heather. Yes, photographs seldom (if ever) truly capture a moment; they are fractional abstractions made with imperfect tools. It seems to me that "capturing the moment" requires much, much more: the gifted touch of a poet, the skillful prose of a writer, the thoughtful strokes of a painter, the calculated tonalities of a musician. All of these elements in concert. And much more - because it is a personal experience, and few (if any) of us can master the arts required to express that moment.

    I agree with others who contend that an experience shared at the level of the heart by an artist and a scientist - polar opposites, so that intuition and reason resonate - might lead to greater understanding and expression of a humbling, terrifying, profoundly beautiful moment.

    It's very hard - and sometimes heartbreaking - work.