In a way, my new book, Looking for the Hidden Folk: How Iceland’s Elves Can Save the Earth, is about the power of stories. We all tell stories. We always have. But we don’t always take responsibility for the effects of our storytelling. Stories shape how you see the world. They determine not only how you think of elves, but also how you think of such “real” things as mountains—or creeping thyme.
A story that cast a magic spell upon all mountains was Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke, from Ireland, published it in 1757, when he was twenty-eight. He was, writes Macfarlane, “interested in our psychic response to things—a rushing cataract, say, a dark vault or a cliff face—that seized, terrified, and yet also somehow pleased the mind by dint of being too big, too high, too fast, too obscured, too powerful, too something, to be properly comprehended.” Instead, such things inspired “a heady blend of pleasure and terror. Beauty, by contrast, was inspired by the visually regular, the proportioned, the predictable.” It’s the frisson of fear that makes a Icelandic volcano, or a cliffside swathed in fog, sublime.
I once visited that part of Scotland, the western edge of the Isle of Lewis, but did not meet Campbell walking her moor. Still, a story Macfarlane told, a little aside, gave me a new perspective on Iceland (the most interesting place in the world to me). Macfarlane wrote, “When it wasn’t too cold, and not so dry that the heather was sharp, Anne liked to walk barefoot on the moor. ‘It takes about two weeks to get your feet toughened up so that it’s no discomfort. And then it’s bliss.’ You should try it when you’re out there. Take those big boots of yours off!’”
Back on the bank, I dabbled my toes and gazed at the glacier-capped volcano, Snaefellsjokull, its corruscations of lava catching the light, until it was time to go, then, remembering Campbell’s bliss, decided to walk barefoot back to the car. It was lovely. The heath was springy and soft and comforting to my feet—though they were not even toughened up. Picking along, carefully placing each foot, I found ripe crowberries and almost ripe blueberries, some very blue but still tart. The grass was soft, too, but I found myself preferentially stepping on the berry bushes and fragrant creeping thyme, which tickled. Who would have thought that thyme (not time) equaled bliss?
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