One benign, summer morning I departed a small tent camp, pitched on the back of a valley glacier, and headed with a few friends for an embayment a couple of miles away in the La Gorce Mountains, in the interior of Antarctica. We were curious about the place, an unnamed natural amphitheater we’d examined through binoculars some weeks earlier. A curving wall rose sharply from the valley floor on three sides, towering over a dark expanse of frost- shattered porphyry and other igneous and sedimentary rock that had fallen, over dozens of millennia, from the walls and serrated ridge above, or been pushed up from the glacial ice below this rock barren.
It was a clear day of unusually still air. By now, at the end of a forty-five-day field season, the six of us were so accustomed to the steady cold I can’t recall a specific temperature. It must have been around 0°F. The few people who have actually traveled in the interior of Antarctica have all done so recently and their journeys have been carefully recorded by the U.S. Geological Survey; so it’s possible to say, with a high degree of certainty, that no one had ever been where we were headed. The La Gorce Range, with its many unnamed peaks, shoulders its way through the continent’s permanent ice cover about 225 miles north of the South Pole. The vast, dead- slow river of ice, flowing off the polar plateau, around this range, and toward the edge of the continent, buries the lower seven thousand feet of these mountains. The upper several thousand feet are bare, wind-blasted rock and steep snowpack.
Eying our destination from camp and scrutinizing the topographic map, we guessed that the only problems we might face in our traverse would be a crevasse field, which we could skirt, and the steep pitch of an ice wall where Klein Glacier, on which we were camped, curved around the base of Kessens Peak, the valley’s southeast portal. Like a river streaming around a boulder, an ice sheet moving around the corner of a mountain range leaves a cavity on the downstream side of any obstruction. It was this side slope of the passing glacier that we would have to descend to reach the mouth, about four miles across, of this deep amphitheater.
The pitch of the ice wall raised a few eyebrows but was not perilous to navigate. We descended, crossed the ice apron to the foot of the valley, and parked our snow machines at the threshold of the felsenmere, the dozen or so square miles of rock blown clear of snow by perennially strong winds (which happened not to be blowing on this day).
My tent mate, John Schutt, the expedition leader, had the same unannounced idea I did. The two of us hiked in a few hundred yards over the angular boulders and rocks, looking for a relatively flat patch in the rubble that had been soaking up solar radiation for weeks. Using a couple of sun-warmed boulders as backrests, we settled in to peruse what many would characterize as a scene of desolation.
To the northwest of us, on the right, was 10,823-foot Mount Paine, the other portal to the valley. From there a sharp ridge, an arete, swung toward us and curved around behind us to terminate on our left, at Kessens Peak, 8,645 feet. Directly before us, about a mile distant, the ice wall of Klein Glacier rose up some hundreds of feet, a rigid tsunami of translucent grays and brilliant whites cutting across a pale blue sky, a great expanse lighter than azure, darker than pearly blue, and without a cloud.
The silence around us was so deep it induced an aura of anticipation. The present, the time in which John and I were gazing west, grew taut, like a manufactured object tightened. And then it broke, in the manner of mercury dispersing. Each of us felt he was being given what he had deliberately sought here — an unbounded moment when immaculate light filled an immense space, a moment devoid of history, empty of language, without meaning.
I have experienced this emotion before, the sense of a sudden immersion in the profound mystery of life, a mystery that seems to originate in arrangements of time and space that precede the advent of biology. It is a sensation known to many people, often characterized as an awareness of unity with the divine, or as a release from the routine coordinates of life, as a greatly expanded sense of the present, or as a religious experience without the symbols of religion.
In reflecting on previous occasions when I have sensed this collapse of measured time, and been aware of a pervasive, almost tangible hush in a specific geographic place — once in the self-contained desert ranges of western Namibia, another time in the far reach of a spinifex grassland bordering a dry riverbed in Australia’s Northern Terrritory, once at the Cliffs of Moher in western Ireland — I realized that certain elements were common to them all. I was always with a feeeeew friends; the physical place opened toward a generous horizon; the weather was clement; the atmosphere was silent; and light played a strong role, intensifying the clarity of the air. This has led me to believe, contrary to popular western folklore, that these apparently private experiences are actually social, that they have more in keeping with everyday life than with a grail quest. Further, since these experiences always release in me a floodtide of hope, I’ve come to associate the vistas — sharply lit land opening toward a horizon, a vast silence under benign skies — with that emotion.
That particular day in the La Gorce Mountains with my friend John, though, I saw something in addition, something I’d never noticed before, possibly because no human mark of any sort showed here, or because this landscape wasn’t catalogued anywhere among the events we call history, or possibly because of the sheer immensity in which we were so comparatively infinitesimal in a nightless summer — I experienced space and time as one. I saw the flow of the glacier before me, the shifting of my chilly fingers in my mitts, and the disintegration, rock by rock, of the cirque wall behind me as the same event.
Months later, when the memory of the sensation did not recede, I began to wonder at the nature of the glue that might hold time and space together. To put it another way, what allowed a sense of space, a feeling for the volume of geography around myself, and a sense of time, a sensitivity to the different lengths of interval by which we notice change, to penetrate each other?
It could be reverence, I thought.
* In a lyrical, beautifully human book called Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, the classicist and philosopher Paul Woodruff describes the cardinal virtues — courage, reverence, wisdom, justice — as those that are recognized, admired, and upheld by all peoples, regardless of their other cultural beliefs. They go beyond religion, and no particular human tradition can claim that these virtues originated with them.
Reverence, writes Woodruff, “begins in a deep understanding of human limitations.” He describes it as a capacity for certain feelings, most obviously awe and respect, which “prompt us to behave well.” He stresses, further, that the ability to feel these emotions must be practiced if an attitude of reverence is to become part of one’s character. A reverent attitude toward the world, he writes, is what we recognize in ourselves when we feel awe “at the immensity of the reality that does not conform to human wishes,” and when respect for the ineluctable mystery of the world wells up in us. Finally, he points out that through all of human history, different peoples have celebrated and reinforced the virtue of reverence, individually and comm...