Spring Glen: The Sublime in the Thrashing Trees

by Tim Gilmore, 6/22/2012

(between Bartram Road and Little Pottsburg Creek)

Every now and then it happened that he came across some concept that explained to him something about himself and he held onto it to keep from drowning.

All his long life he had loved storms. When he was a boy, he had loved to play in the rain. His best moments of adolescence were spent under Florida’s violent thunderstorms. When he saw the black clouds move slowly and inevitably across the sky, he understood their power. With power such as they had, they could not move faster. True power didn’t move with great speed and restlessness. More often than not, speed and restlessness were signs of desperation. Their display might be shocking and awful in the moment, but nothing about it could be truly assessed in the moment. The greatest forces moved with slow and unstoppable deliberation. When he saw such winds move such thunderclouds over the ocean, he saw in them the absorption of all the small sufferings of his days into a collective movement millions of years in the making. What struck awe in him were the forces of deep-time moving across the treescape or the open ocean. The forces of deep-time swallowed everything up like a hurricane inhaling a trailer park.

Such manifestations taught him that things brewed and stewed for lengths of time that entirely opposed any possible understanding of lengths of time, and he felt a frisson, an ecstasy, a euphoria, a heady high in the thought of his own tiny snuffing out in the great clanking, cranking, whirring wheels of the age of the earth.

And when he came across the concept that explained this self-immolating shudder of pleasure in his chest, he held onto it to keep him from drowning in his own drowning.

The very idea of a billion years is a brutal force, and the earth is four and half billion years old. In the very love of the brutal force of the idea of billions of years, Abram had for decades gone out behind his old wooden house on the coldest days of each winter and walked naked in the ferns in the night. Though the housing developments around his wooden house in the woods had proliferated since the house was built in the 1880s, in the cold in the night in the ferns beneath the pines behind his house, no sign of increased population and development could be deciphered. The house occurred way back in the trees from Bartram Road, but not quite to Little Pottsburg Creek. Out here he could watch the owls swoop down and grab squirrels in their talons. Out here he could see the occasional alligator sliding through the roots in the muck like a billion-year force itself, stupidly intelligent, a thing that did not know what it knew, like the earth walking about in itself, its jaws like a planetary collision. Out here, when it was 22 degrees, when it was 26 degrees, when it was nine degrees, when it was 15 degrees, he walked naked in the icy swamp, crunching bare feet into the slough and quag, and he had never suffered frostbite. When he walked naked in the frozen ferns, he always felt connected to this earth, to this earth’s distantly deep past, but he never understood quite why. He would wonder how anyone could call himself a living being if he felt connected only to the present. He thought the alligators themselves, though they didn’t know it, must feel connected to their primordial depths. On the coldest nights, he felt cold-blooded as an alligator. He felt something brutal come up through him. He felt the thunderclouds that moved steadily and slowly across an oceanscape come up from the earth into his feet and his legs and loins and belly and chest and his limbs and his brain.

He once read a German poet say that everyone angel’s terrifying. Angels and terror. That got at it. That brought the same feeling.

Likewise in strong winds, standing upon the beach and looking out at the ocean involved him in a process of forces so much larger, grander, more real than his one self. The forces carried enough strength to move the sky. The forces began on the coasts of African nations and whirled hellbent across the Atlantic Ocean and sucked up sharks and sunken ships and fishes and slammed into border islands and moved across hundreds of peninsular miles. One storm could shred all the landscapes of the state of Florida. One storm could wind across the ocean in its vicious circle, its whirl, its millennial ouroboros, and show in satellite imagery to the size of three Floridas. One storm, churning the movements of elements of a billion years. No place better to be than the beach.

Even stranger were the other times this feeling overcame him, times that should seem least likely to produce such a feeling. He might be standing in front of his microwave, heating up some beans, and be overcome thinking the forces and elements at work in that microwave had been at work for unimagineable amounts of time. The astoundingly deep force of such vast time worked here in this small microwave oven, in this old kitchen, in this 130 year-old house, in these woods, in this small city, zoom out to peninsula, state, region, continent, hemisphere, right here in this small box, the top layer of buttons of which said, “Popcorn,” “Potato,” “Pizza,” “Beverage.”

Or he might be possessed with the same sensation while pumping gas, to think of the long and enormous circulation loop of ancient trees dead for millennia subsumed into unfathomably deep fathoms of the earth, extracted by the obscene technology of the obscene wealth of petroleum companies, only to be contained and shipped and trucked to this particular corner of Atlantic Boulevard, where he would pump it into his blue 1999 convertible Corvette that would, in turn, burn it up and emit its residual fumes skyward to cross the planet in high altitudes.

Then he came across a concept that seemed to explain to him this erotic and mystical sense of self-sacrifice into the deep-time oneness of things, a Romantic concept treated by Wordsworth and Burke and Coleridge 200 years ago. It was an old idea when they named it at that time. Already it was an ancient understanding when they named it the sublime.

The sublime is different from the beautiful. The beautiful, said the Romantics, is small and ordered, even peaceful. The beautiful is patterned and tranquil, but the sublime is something else entirely. The sublime is vast and deep, something of the infinite. The sublime is wild, willed, wilderness. It creates awe. In its truest experience, the sublime enters the body and mind as an experience both of terror and of deep raptness. The sublime is what happens to you on top of a mountain, or in a storm at sea, or for one old man in Jacksonville, Florida, in the frozen swamps behind his house on winter nights.

He thought the place of definition for the sublime was the intersection of terror and beauty.

Sometimes he also felt some strange power in the place he lived and its place within the small city that had developed since his place was built. It was as though something deeper, something more sublime lived here, and held something truer than all the streets and houses that surrounded it, but also held something integral to all the streets and houses that surrounded it.  He could not wait to stand in the rain of the next storm or to walk in the icy muck of the next freezing cold.

In the presence of the sublime, he knew that all the gods that had ever been were gods of the earth, and all the supernatural ever experienced was a deep sense of the natural. God was not a third party. God was the coming together of the human mind and the “mind” of the earth, briefly understood in a flash of epiphany of the sublime. It was what Wordsworth had intuited on Mount Snowdon: the Grand Union of mind and nature perceived in a moment by a transitory being. When the wind howled in the trees at night, it filled him with a terrible beauty or a beautiful terror that caused him to walk out into the snakes and owls and cicadas and angels. He walked out, vatic and Vedic, into the frost on the ferns, into the gods of the earth, into the god that is the union of the minds of a human being and the planet.