7 Dec 2010

Awe-struck in big tree country

Back before the snow fell and the temperatures plummeted, when the last of the autumn leaves were still clinging to the trees, we visited The Hermitage near Dunkeld in Perthshire, a place that had long been on my “to see” list.

We are going to go for a walk, but first I would like you to take a moment to think about the last time you felt a genuine, giddy sense of awe.

Today the senses of an average person living in even a semi-urban environment are bombarded by a steady stream of electronic data. We text and listen to our Ipods while we are cooking, we play pc games while chatting online with friends and watching clips from Youtube.

After awhile the mind builds a filter, weaving all of the clutter together and holding it just far enough away from our consciousness that we can reach out an pluck something out should it intrigue us enough.

With all of that in mind, imagine what it would have been like to step out of a carriage in the early 18th century and stand beneath the looming Douglas Firs of the Craigvinean Forest, while the River Braan booms next to the path which leads off into the shadows.
As you walk, the forest becomes darker and the river louder. Filled with a sense of anticipation you round a corner and see it, the squat grey building with its peaked roof. You catch your breath, already hearing the roar of the falls pushing on your ears.
Built in 1757 as a viewhouse meant to amplify the sound of the falls, in 1783 it was re-decorated as a shrine to the blind bard Ossian and dubbed Ossian’s Hall.

The insides were covered floor to ceiling with mirrors, so visitors would see the Black Linn falls before the full sound reached their ears. Everywhere they looked the moving bulk of waves and mist would surround them, and when they finally stepped out onto the platform it was like an explosion of power threatening to sweep them away.

Vandals partially destroyed the hall in 1869. A hundred years later the area was given over to The National Trust for Scotland and the hall was rebuilt, albeit without the mirrors.

What is still magnificent is the set of glass doors that lead onto the platform, so visitors can experience the moment of rising vapour and roaring waves that occurs when the doors are first pushed open and you step outside. Inside there are tarnished romantic scenes of nature and snippets of poetry that are meant to further inspire. In this instance however, I think nothing can replace the reflected reality of all those mirrors.
Beside Ossian’s Hall is a stone bridge, curved like a stretching cat over the river. Bright green moss clings to every jutting rock, making you half believe that it has never known human hands, that it has been here forever, grown from the banks to join in the middle.

A narrow muddy trail leads down to the side of the bridge, where a small entrance emerges next to black rock and rushing water. The only purpose of this had to be aesthetic, a way to get visitors closer to the force of nature.

Like the moment of opening the doors of Ossian’s Hall, moving beneath that stone arch and into the open feels like an initiation of sorts.
Awe comes with feeling vulnerable to the elements, yet just far enough away to still cling to a sense of safety. If we experience these feelings now, imagine the reaction of visitors in Victorian times.

Across the river stands Britain’s tallest tree, a 209-foot Douglas Fir. The path to it was blocked so we didn’t attempt to venture closer, but with all the other towering giants looming just overhead, I wasn’t disappointed.
We wandered on but the weather closed in before we could visit Ossian’s Cave, an artificial cave near the end of the valley walk that was built in 1785. I imagine the darkness falling around a lone figure who had agreed through some adolescent bet to spend the night in the cave, the sound of bird song fading with the light while the river roared louder and the damp crept in.

I had never been anywhere like The Hermitage and can’t wait to go back. I want to see it again in the height of summer, all that green against the river and the stones.

Do you see what I mean by awe? Do you think we still have the same capacity for wonder as we did hundreds of years ago? Or has electronic influences dulled our ability to experience nature as anything but just another pleasant distraction?

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