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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

(The sublime) landscape and wellbeing in the time of covid-19.

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

The importance of experiencing "sublime" landscapes was known to elite 18th and 19th century Grand Tourists; and was theorised by the philosophers Burke and Kant; although the importance to them may have been as much to do with being able to acquire cultural capital that could then be "spent" in polite conversation after your tour, to reinforce your elite status, as experiencing psychological wellbeing - albeit status and wellbeing are strongly linked in worlds which are unequal in their distribution of resources.

Those who could not afford to take a Grand Tour to Europe, or the Highlands of Scotland, could experience the sublime vicariously, though viewing the paintings of artists such as Joseph Mallord William Turner, Philip James De Loutherbourg; and Caspar David Friedrich, or the prints taken from their paintings; if they could afford to buy a painting, or a print from a painting, or visit one of the new galleries opening up.

Turner, Hannibal Cross the Alps, 1812

De Loutherberg, A Storm with Smugglers, 1791

Friederich, The Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog, 1818,

In 1757 Edmund Burke, in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, suggested that the sublime in art produces the strongest emotion the mind is capable of feeling.

He wrote, ‘whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime’ [using the 18th century meaning of "terrible", i.e. provoking terror]."

In 1790 Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, proposed two types of sublimity: the mathematical and the dynamical. "With the mathematical sublime, one is faced with the magnitude of nature, and one's imagination cannot adequately comprehend the vastness. Kant argues, though, that our faculty of reason kicks in and allows us to comprehend the sense of infinity before us; the feeling of the mathematical sublime, then, is the feeling of reason's superiority over nature and our imagination. The dynamical sublime is also a feeling of reason's superiority to nature, but via a different avenue. Kant explained, "[T]he irresistibility of [nature's] power certainly makes us, considered as natural beings, recognize our physical powerlessness, but at the same time it reveals a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and [as having] a superiority over nature...whereby the humanity in our person remains undemeaned even though the human being must submit to that dominion." The Art Story, The Sublime in Art - Development and Ideas | TheArtStory accessed 22/11/20..

Kant, in Western philosophical "reason", captures something important - a sense of powerless and finitude in the face of natural vastness. However, contra to indigenous peoples' spirituality, and folk beliefs, he sees "man" as has having a capacity for judging ourselves as independent of nature and [as having] a superiority over nature"; a justification for the future human exploitation of nature; as capitalism tacitly proposes we can live without nature in our exploitation of nature's resources.

Two hundred and fifty years later, many people are in the same position as those too poor to travel to continental sublime landscapes in the 18th and 19th centuries; with the additional reasons of covid-19 travel bans, and, hopefully, not wishing to be responsible for excessive carbon emissions from transport.

The psychological importance of experiencing the sublimity of nature discussed in philosophy has received recent support from psychology research, e.g. Sturm, V. E., et al. . (2020). Big smile, small self: Awe walks promote prosocial positive emotions in older adults. as discussed in Young (2020) Awe Walks” Can Boost Positive Emotions Among Older Adults

Young notes that earlier research "shows that when we feel awe, our focus shifts from our self to the wider world, leading us to perceive ourselves as being less significant, or “smaller”, and also making us feel more socially connected to our community. This could lead to a rise in positive, prosocial emotions, the team reasoned — and might help to combat typical age-related increases in negative emotions and loneliness".

To investigate the potential of their awe walk idea, the team recruited 52 healthy adults aged 60 to 90, half of whom formed a control group. Both groups were told to take a 15 minute outdoor walk, ideally alone, every week for eight weeks, and to take three photographs of themselves each time — one before, one during and one after the walk.

Only the awe group was told that “with the right outlook, awe can be found almost anywhere, but it is most likely to occur in places that involve two key features: physical vastness and novelty”. This group were asked to tap into their “sense of wonder” and to try to go somewhere new each week.

.... the team found some key differences between the two groups. Firstly, as the researchers had predicted, the awe group reported feeling more awe while walking. Over time, they also felt more socially connected, and reported bigger increases in positive emotions — including prosocial emotions such as gratitude and compassion, and also joy — while they were walking. The boost in prosocial emotions, specifically, carried through into everyday life. Daily distress also decreased more over time in the awe group.

The team also analysed the participants’ photographs. They concluded that, with more walks under their belt, the smiles of those in the awe group became more intense. Whether you consider smiles to be expressions of happiness, as the team does, or social signals of a willingness to affiliate, this could potentially lead to more positive social interactions. Unlike the control group, over time, members of the awe group also came to occupy less physical space, relative to the background, in their selfies. The researchers interpret this as reflecting that the awe group were feeling “smaller” over time.

What about the finding that, over time, the awe group took up less space in their selfies? Again, they were told to try to walk somewhere new each time — and that vast spaces are more likely to trigger awe. It certainly seems possible that, with growing confidence, they chose to travel to renowned beauty spots, rather than a local park, say, and selfies at those beauty spots may be more likely to contain large background features such as a mountain (which features in the paper as an example of a “big background” constituent of one awe group selfie).

Whatever the reasons behind the findings, the work does suggest that — for highly educated, healthy older people, at least — “awe walks” are beneficial. And, despite the potential risks associated with encouraging older people to walk alone in vast, unfamiliar natural settings, there could clearly be physical health benefits, too" Emma Young, “Awe Walks” Can Boost Positive Emotions Among Older Adults (2020), as accessed on 23/11/20.

This research converges with an earlier systematic review on walking in nature "Examining Group Walks in Nature and Multiple Aspects of Well-Being: A Large-Scale Study", Marselle Melissa R., Irvine Katherine N., and Warber Sara L.. Ecopsychology. September 2014, 6(3): 134-147.

So walking in nature, especially when we experience awe, and especially when we do it in groups, is beneficial to our well being. I suspect many nature lovers over centuries knew this intuitively, before psychology research conformed this empirically!

So, when many people can't get outside because of lockdown or poverty, what can we do?

At a moment we can't even go to a gallery to view a painting of a landscape, let alone travel to Europe to see the Alps, one possibility is savouring online digital images of sublime landscapes (real or representations in art) . You could re-view art you visited in museums and galleries or look at photos and videos of landscapes that you have visited.

If you have taken photos of landscapes you have visited, review them. There is much research in psychology that savouring past positive experience is important for current well being.

You could also start making new memories - go and find "the sublime" in countryside near you that can be walked to; if you are lucky enough to live near green spaces. There are "sublime" things in parks, or other small green spaces. Take photographs of what you find; review them when you get home.

The internet also brings opportunities to "visit" landscapes that you have never been too, and may never go to. I have been "visiting" the island of Madagascar on-line.

As well as revisiting favourite landscape paintings (by Caspar David Friederich, Turner and Frederic Edwin Church; I have also been discovering contemporary landscape painters on-line who I didn't know before, such as Scott Naismith. The experience of novelty is also important to well being.

This is certainly maintaining my mental health - along with walking or cycling through nature; although landscape is not always "sublime" in Sussex! But I am convinced that all walks in nature are good for my wellbeing; walks don't have to be through sublime landscapes and small sublime things can be found in many places.

Enjoy your encounters with landscapes - be they on-line, or in galleries, or in the countryside.

Church, Niagara Falls, 1867.

Turner, Steamship Coming Into Harbour, 1842.

Scott Naismith, Fluid Dynamics III, 2019.



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