Beauty in Landscape

One may subscribe to Ortego y Gasset’s statement: “Tell me the landscape in which you live and I will tell you who you are” (see The Solace of Fierce Landscapes by Belden Lane for more on this).  For me, that may be turned around into: “Tell me the landscape which lives in you and I will tell you who you are.”  Recently I had the opportunity to return to the landscape of my youth and was reminded that wherever I go, I am filled with the beauty of that landscape.

For the aboriginal peoples of Australia, the land has two landscape–one is physical, the other is spiritual (see The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin for an exquisite discussion about this).  My experience of the redwood forests of northern California is of these two landscapes—physical and spiritual.  In Western civilizations, typically, landscape and spirituality are not inevitably interwoven as they frequently are for indigenous peoples.  However, that does not mean that everyone in the West is immune to knowing landscape spiritually.  If so, I must have missed that inoculation, because I truly am not immune to experiencing this landscape spiritually.

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Photo by Phault 2005

Besides knowing landscape spiritually, there is another way of knowing–that of knowing the landscape as narrative.  The direct experience of the landscape and a corresponding narrative of landscape collaborate to define who and what an individual is. For example, the direct experience of landscape for the Western Apache also includes their history embedded in features of the earth.  The sense of place is paramount.  Only in reference to the earth can an Apache persist in his identity.  The Western Apaches’ “sense of place” and “sense of themselves” are inevitably interwoven through narrative.  The Apache landscape is full of named locations.  Through the agency of historical tales such locations work in important ways to shape the images that Apaches have of themselves (see Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache by Keith H. Basso for more on this subject).

It may well be, that my personal narrative of landscape informs my relation with it.  When I was a youngster, I would climb these gentle giants of the Sequoias and ride the wind.

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by theslowlane 2003

When I revisit that landscape, this memory floods back into me.  Landscape is not limited to a panoramic view, my personal identity, or my personal narrative of the land.  This specific landscape is a portal into the numinous (for a discussion on this term go to Numinous and the Numinosum).  There are many expressions of beauty.  This one, in particular, touches me deeply.  Soul and Beauty are relational as depicted in the myth of Psyche and Venus.  The beauty in nature that the landscape of the coastal redwoods spotlights, I experience as a clear demonstration of this link between Soul and Beauty. Personally I think that the majesty and mystery of the beauty of this landscape was better represented by the Elven forest of Lothlórien in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring than the actual redwood forest used as a location for filming the Star Wars Episode VI – Return of the Jedi peopled with the Ewoks. This may well be because the stately and wise Elves better mirror my experience of the redwoods than do the furry short-of-stature Ewoks.

Your assignment is to find and journal an experience you have had with nature that may have helped define who you are, opened up a spiritual association, or spoke to your soul.

Numinous and the numinosum

Recently I was asked to explain the word “numinous”.  So, here goes:

The word “numinous” was coined by Rudolf Otto from the Latin numen, meaning a god, cognate with the verb nuere, to nod or beckon, indicating divine approval.  This word, or its noun, the “numinosum,” refers to any phenomenon experienced as a manifestation of tremendous power felt to be objective and outside the self.  It is a crucial element of religious experience.  For Otto, the numinosum is non-rational and irreducible; it cannot be defined, only evoked and experienced.

According to Lionel Corbett, the numinous grips or stirs the soul.  The numinous produces a kind of holy terror, awe or dread which Otto describes as a feeling of the ‘mysterium tremendum.’ It can also erupt in the modern person as the experience of the uncanny or the supernatural.  Such awe may be overwhelming or it may be gentle as the still small voice.  The uncanny is not a function of intensity but rather of a specific quality. [see The Religious Function of the Psyche by Lionel Corbett for a detailed discussion on this.]

I experience the redwoods of northern California as a portal into the numinous.  The magnificence of these sentinels  “stirs my soul.”  I stand in awe of their grandeur.  There is something “uncanny” about them.  For me, these expressions of nature, I experience as supernatural.  There is something larger at work here; something that cannot be defined; only experienced.

According to Richard Tarnas in Cosmos and Psyche the numinous is also defined as something that suddenly confronts human awareness with an unexpected dimension of reality, something that is experienced as “Wholly Other” than the mundane sphere, that utterly transcends and subverts the everyday world of conventional experience, and that disrupts the very ground of one’s being as it was previously construed.  Jung’s notion of synchronicity can be recognized as the inexplicable coincidence that carries a numinous charge.

For me, myths are not necessarily numinous in and of themselves; just as the menu is not the meal, the map is not the landscape, and the road sign is not the way, etc.  What myths do is to alert us to the possibility of the numinous.  They help us recognize when we are in the grips of the mysterium tremendum.  The numinous can be beatific like Dante’s vision of Beatrice.  It can also hold a terror as when a demon visits us in a dream and we awaken breathing heavily in a cold sweat.  And, the numinous can also be experienced gently as the still small voice. Regardless of the form, the soul is deeply stirred.

My attraction to myth is many layered.  One of these layers is simply because myths are great stories.  Also, they typically contain pearls of wisdom.  They are mirrors reflecting the human condition.  And, I could go on.  However, for the purposes of this commentary, let me say that I am attracted to myths because they are metaphors for life that cannot really be explained directly.

Myths are keys opening the door beyond which lies the numinous.

Neo at the Architect's door

Neo at the Architect’s door

I hope this helps clarify the word “numinous.”  I currently do not have a forum, but I would be interested in hearing about your “numinous” experiences.