"Poets talk about 'spots of time,' but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment. No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone. I shall remember that son of a bitch forever."
So writes Norman Maclean in "A River Runs Through it." I think a lot about Maclean every time I head toward the mountains. His relationships with his father and brother are the sort I always wished I'd had when I was a boy.
But what I find most compelling about his work are its attempts to use his passion for fly-fishing as a metaphor for the nature of his own existence. That's a recurring strain within Romanticism: poets (and their critics) try to figure the interplay between ourselves and our surroundings as a union of the self and the other. Meditating upon an object like a Grecian urn, a meteorological phenomenon like the west wind, or the shelter created by the shade of a linden tree becomes an act of self-disclosure and unification with the world. If the phenomenon that we call the world is wholly contained within the imagination of the individual, then things like urns--or activities like fly-fishing--can join with the person and break down the isolation that so many of us feel when we're faced with an apathetic world. We flow out of ourselves and violate the boundaries of our own existence, becoming one with nature or another person through the merest observation and contemplation.
So sometimes, time stops, and if we're lucky and attentive, we can feel the enormity of life contained in one crystallized moment. More importantly, we experience this sense of the sublime not as an isolating and self-destroying aesthetic, but rather as something which expands our sense of self in order to encompass everything we see. The world stops being elsewhere and becomes a part of us, just as we become a part of it.
That's why I ride. I've written here before about the ways in which pedaling through an environment makes me feel like I'm immersed in it rather than "floating dully along." But when I've been pedaling for so long and hard that I start to lose the ability to define myself, I sometimes become hyper-attenuated to the world. In those moments, life takes on a grace and an artistry that it seems to be lacking most of the time. I don't really care whether or not this perception shows me life as it is or life as I dearly wish it to be. I just know that in those moments, "there is life and food for future years."
Here's Maclean again:
Life every now and then becomes literature--not for long, of course, but long enough to be what we best remember, and often enough so that what we eventually come to mean by life are those moments when life, instead of going sideways, backwards, forward, or nowhere at all, lines out straight, tense and inevitable, with a complication, climax, and, given some luck, a purgation, as if life had been made and not happened.
Riding the bike on Trail 401 in Crested Butte felt like writing the story of riding the bike. There was poetry in the world as I bombed down the trail: a lyric about myself, my friend, and mountains.
But Wordsworth knew--as does Maclean, as do I--that only in poetry can such moments endure, that "life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last:"
Why is it that all wonderful things seem so fleeting, yet the pain of their passing endures?