Last weekend, on my fourth Isolation traverse, I stood on a glacier and watched a solitary bird emerge from the cloud and fly past us. I watched it disappear through a gap in a black saw of a ridge, back to the world of the living in the valley beyond. What swept over me then was like déja vue turned inside out--a reaching, longing feeling for something that I've come close to before, that I knew in a dream, that I miss intensely.
C.S. Lewis wrote at length about the idea of sehnsucht, an almost indescribable longing. For a far away place, for a feeling, for an unattainable state--the german word is meant to encapsulate things that are, well, hard to encapsulate. The most essential part of the feeling is the mystery, the impossibility of resolving the longing. Perhaps less enamored of wilderness than his friend J.R.R. Tolkien, Lewis nonetheless associated sehnsucht with experiences in natural settings. But he managed to paint it more broadly, to make the feeling identifiable to his whole audience. Dwelling on an emotional experience common to most of his readers was a perfect way to bring his theological arguments to life, for as nebulous as it may seem, sehnsucht is as familiar and identifiable as déja vue.
Lewis's memoir Surprised by Joy took its name from a Wordsworth poem of the same name. It's a short poem in which the poet intensely grapples with missing someone who is no longer there, with the longing for a closeness that can never again be real. But of course Lewis argues that it can be real, that every human desire corresponds to an attainable thing. Therefor, the enormous longing of sehnsucht implies something heavenly that we can somehow attain.
In college I read and wrote a lot of poetry. Poetry helped me understand the strong, hard to describe feelings I found in the wilderness, as well as the tumultuous feelings I found returning to the city. But I've calmed down with the years. These days my livelihood is built on bridging the wild and non-wild worlds, and I risk making something mundane from the savage mountains. But the feeling of sehnsucht is more powerful than complacency. It may take up as little as a moment, but it manages to re-situate me in the dreams that have buoyed me up as long as I can remember: dreams of a wild journey, of renewal, of an elemental experience. When one of my guests mentioned Lewis and the idea of sehnsucht, I was not surprised to find that we were discussing the feeling I had on the glacier only the day before.
Whether you explain the feeling through theology, psychology, or neurology, the feeling is real. It's a familiar part of mountain travel, the great sigh of longing that moves through your being at an unexpected moment. I can't defend my belief that this feeling is a good thing, or prove that wilderness is somehow the home of this good thing. I can't reconcile the utter pointlessness of a ski traverse and the transcendence of it. And I can't convey that feeling to another person, not in words, not really. But I know I will keep going back for it.