Nature, awe and fear


Table of Contents


I learned to swim in calm waters. Small lakes, predictable and easy. You don’t need to worry about the waves, or timing.

The ocean is a different beast. The coastline is beautiful, the waves majestic and powerful.

I am not a strong swimmer, and I was repeatedly reminded of this years ago when trying to learn surfing (which I failed).

Some of those moments: awe-inspiring waves, fun play in the water. Then a wave crashing over your head, a big tumble underwater, and a sudden realisation that you are not running the show – the ocean is.

Awe and fear.


As a kid, I was hanging out with a friend and we got a bright idea to play with fire, as boys do. It was fun, at first.

Late summer, dry forest floor, whispers of smoke. Stamping it out, fetching something to smother it with, trying to stop the spread.

One moment we are in control, the next we realise we’re not. Filled with dread.

The fire brigade puts out the fire. Extinguishing the shame takes much longer. A lesson well learned.

To this day fire scares me, irrespective of the precautions. My gut reminds me that it is just a gust of wind or an errant ember away from breaking out. And when it does, it has a life of its own.

Awe and fear.


I was talking to a friend who had returned from a trip to Europe. They went skiing in the Alps with great anticipation. The day after getting to their destination the village got evacuated.

Looking through the photos, the amount of snow was eerie, almost unreal. Some people had been dug out of their houses, houses that were entirely entombed in snow.

My friend recounted how that initial feeling of joy in seeing endless snow unexpectedly turned into visceral concern: ‘What if…’

Awe and fear.


This past summer was the hottest on record in Australia.

One late summer day, I cycled to the city despite the forecasted heat, never thinking twice about it.

The way over was fine, however the mid-afternoon return journey was hot. Like, 40 degree hot, in direct sun, with a bit of headwind.

40 degrees (104°F) may look impressive on the thermometer but it’s not, not when you need to do something outside. I am lucky to have a choice, many others don’t.

I’ve often done the same ride in low-to-mid 30’s (85-95°F) and it has always been fine. This time, suddenly, it wasn’t.

I didn’t really feel it until about halfway home, when it started getting really uncomfortable. Two thirds in, mild panic – what if I can’t keep going, what if I can’t make it home? There is no reprieve, no cool space nearby, no immediate escape.

In the end I made it home fine. It took a third of an hour to properly cool down.

Thinking about this later, I realised how quickly an everyday situation had turned strange and confronting. Everything is normal, and a moment later it’s not.

Awe and fear.

Related: Dahr Jamail’s experience with wildfire smoke

Thanks to everyone who reviewed versions of this essay.

Author: Jussi

I would like to ensure that there remains a liveable world for our kids to enjoy – I'm @jopas on Twitter –