Hello, friends. This past week, our small bit of Lake Ontario achieved perfect lake-skating conditions: the ice was clear and dark, at least 4 inches thick (much thicker in parts), and incredibly smooth, with no snow on top. We saw hundreds of people – and quite a few dogs – out there, skating and walking along kilometres of frozen water. The World Ice-Boat Championships took place, too.
I’ve always been a bit nervous about skating on the lake – it seems like such an obvious way to “win” a Darwin Award – but this year, we were confident about the conditions. We went on Saturday and loved it so much that we were back again on Sunday morning, despite the snow that had fallen overnight.
Stepping out from the beach is exciting but not at all frightening: the water is so shallow that if the ice were to break, you’d end up in knee-high water. It would be unpleasant but no big deal. Further out, it got really cool: we could see through several inches of ice down to the bottom of the lake. We even spotted a couple of shipwrecks that, usually, only divers get to see. The light on Saturday was softly luminous, idealizing everything it touched. On Sunday, the sunshine was so intense that the whole world looked glittering and supercharged, even through sunglasses.
Our neighbours were out there, the kids passed around a hockey puck, and even our three-year-old, who normally goes on strike when confronted with winter, stomped and danced around on the ice. It was profoundly exhilarating – a degree of emotional intensity that had less to do with the joy of skating in gorgeous weather and much more to do with the constant awareness that we were standing on water deep enough to drown us. All that separated us from hypothermia and drowning was a few inches of ice.
This, according to philosopher Edmund Burke, is the sublime. In his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), Burke argued that experience of the sublime “excite[s] the ideas of pain, and danger… [it] operates in a manner analogous to terror… it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling”. (In contrast to the sublime, beauty is small, smooth, delicate and light – that is, pleasant and easily contained.) Burke’s theory had a huge impact on eighteenth-century literature, and also on luxury tourism. By the second half of the eighteenth century, privileged young Englishmen making their Grand Tours of Europe sought out the extreme peaks of the Swiss Alps, and revelled in remote locations during wild storms.
The sublime inspires, terrifies, and reveals the puniness of human endeavour in extreme contrast to the natural world. This week, I discovered that it also lodges deep in your subconscious and haunts you long after the encounter is past. I don’t think of myself as a particularly anxious person, and I enjoyed our lake expeditions. The shiver of the sublime is, after all, a pleasurable one. But on Sunday night, after two consecutive days of sublimity on the lake, I had a fierce series of nightmares about skating into open water, falling through holes in the ice, and much worse.
In the early hours of Monday morning, I decided that I need a new strategy for dealing with the reality of lake-skating. It might be entirely too sublime for me.
What about you, readers? Have you had a nose-to-nose encounter with the sublime?