Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

A Conspiracy of Trees

August 6th, 2020

A Conspiracy of Trees

I want to revisit a forest walk— maybe this one near Lake St. Clair in Tasmania  (the trek that prompts this essay) or ridge-top nothofagus in New Zealand’s Tararuas, or the old, twisted orchards that surrounded my boyhood home— to think about empiricism, specifically “radical empiricism,” and the problem of representation in nature writing. For decades literary scholars have “problematized” the notion of Representation (“problematize” means they talk about it, a lot). While nature writing often does its damnedest to invoke the beautiful and the sublime, it, unlike much imaginative writing, is anchored by the brute facts of the more or less directly experienced material world. In a sense, its representation is more aligned with science— the act of naming and categorizing—which helps account for much of the writing by today’s “new naturalists” who are either practicing scientists or write of their experiences with them. (I’m thinking of, for example, Robert Macfarlane, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Merlin Sheldrake, or Bernd Heinrich). 

For those who remember their history of philosophy, radical empiricism is most directly associated with William James, the American philosopher from the late 19th century. In brief, empiricism is the philosophical position that understanding and knowledge arise from the direct experience of objects in the material world rather than through rational or logical categories that somehow preexist or transcend actual experience. James attaches the adjective “radical” to his empiricism to make room in thought not just for the isolated objects of experience but also for the experience of relations among them: “the relations between things, conjunctive as well as disjunctive, are just as much matters of direct particular experience, neither more so nor less so, than the things themselves.” James is of course arguing this fine point in the rare air of academic discourse. For trekkers, radical empiricism is simply the air we breathe. Unlike a scientific researcher who of necessity brings an abstract nomenclature designed to produce order and extract a specific (but often narrow) understanding of the objects of nature, for trekkers, wandering in the world brings both the perceptive clarity of specific objects—look at that tree, hear that bird, stub that toe on that rock—and at the same time the perceptual blur of conjunctive and disjunctive relationality. It is not so much a philosophical position as it is a necessary practice. The sights, sounds, and smells of the forest relay understanding of specific threats — the rattle of a snake— but also relational moods: the wind shows the underside of leaves, the humidity shifts, the birds go silent; the weather is changing. I don’t want to turn loose a philosophical concept onto the forest to find a way to “Represent Nature.” Instead I want to try to understand how thinking and knowing happen while wandering in an area teeming with sensation, with entangled multiples, with life.


Representation depends on the notion that the world presents itself to some generally outside observer, then language or art re-presents that world. For the radically empirical trekker (a redundancy) the individual furnishings of the world are not simply represented by a word or symbol, because they are not individual. Nothofagus alpina doesn’t stand in for those moss covered southern beech I wandered on a Tararua ridge except as the most rarified of abstraction or objectification. Those epiphytes and their symbionts were all of a piece, as was my presence there along with uncountable other nonhuman actors: “The humidity seems to go up as the temperature drops. The hairs on your arms respond even as your heart rate slows. The smell is both faint and acute, the merest but cleanest whiff of turned soil, and the moss itself breaths. We have no words to describe the sound of moss.”

Here is perhaps where James can join forces with his friend and philosophical colleague Charles Sanders Peirce. The two are best known as the founders of the philosophical school Pragmatism, but Peirce is also the author of a complex semiotics, a study of how signs make meaning. Unlike Ferdinand de Saussure who famously declared there is an arbitrary connection between the signifier and the signified, a point that later became generalized as an irretrievable split between word and thing, Pierce takes a different tack, bringing three possible forms of meaning production: icon, symbol, and index. The last—the notion that meaning can come from the act of pointing, brings us back to the forest. If the Latin nouns define and isolate the nothofagus, the pronoun (as Peirce explains in a different context) functions on another plane. It is indexical, pointing out that specific southern beech festooned with moss and lichens, not an abstract isolated botanical specimen. The indexical points toward an object but is intimately linked to the disjunctive and conjunctive relations constituting the moment (including the pointer and the observer following the finger).


Eduardo Kohn, author of the recent How Forests Think, brings Peirce (and, by implication, James) into the forest. Kohn uses his experience in the Amazonian rainforest to ascribe the meaning-making capacities of the indexical to non-human and even to non-neural beings. He explains, “For Saussure human language is the paragon and model for all sign systems …. Peirce’s definition of a sign, by contrast, is much more agnostic about what signs are and what kinds of beings use them; for him not all signs have language-like properties, and . . . not all the beings who use them are human.” The index is a pointing out or a signaling that turns the attention of any entity toward a part of the world, perhaps momentarily singling out a recognizable object (or threat) in the perceptual blur that is the experienced world. For Kohn, the myriad signals threading through the rain forest—odors, sounds, temperature gradients—are all a form of communication (between all those entities). 

In contrast, a representation would be of a system in a single, stable slice of time. It could be called scenic, the Western privileging of the radical split between the object and its (human) observer. Conversely forest semiosis is fluid, unstable, and situation specific. As James would say, “Our fields of experience have no more definite boundaries than have our fields of view. Both are fringed forever by a more that continuously develops, and that continuously supersedes them as life proceeds.” Much nature writing tends to highlight that expected scenic moment: the point where the green tunnel opens up to a vast, open landscape, where the trekker becomes observer of the beautiful and sometimes sublime. But the trekker’s experience of the world is rarely that. Hours are spent, day after day, where experience is “fringed forever by a more,” and where meaning is not abstracted from noise but lived in and through it. 

Another way is to think a forest walk as a conspiracy. For most that word calls up images of shadowy figures talking in hushed voices in out-of-the-way corners, but etymologically is means “breathing together.” To conspire is not so much to plot as it is to conjoin in recognition of mutual needs and desires. Trekking is always about breath. It’s keeping pace, increasing speed and slowing based on dimly perceived oxygen levels— oxygen encountered by breasting the air the forest has just made. The experience of the forest cannot be represented but it can be conspired. As Natasha Myers makes clear, “our worlds will only be livable worlds when people learn how to conspire with the plants.” Her’s is a practical and a political imperative. It is also (radically) empirical: “The objective nucleus of every man’s experience, his own body, is, it is true, a continuous percept; and equally continuous as a percept (though we may be inattentive to it) is the material environment of that body, changing by gradual transition when the body moves” (James). It’s not knowing about the forest, nor is it knowing with the forest, it is knowing as part of the forest, as its very breath: it’s a conspiracy.

PS. This year my time in the forest was cut short by the need to avoid conspiring. The Covid 19 pandemic brought me home from the woods to a place where breath is not to be shared. We now live in a world where responsible people wear masks to avoid sharing breath while, at the same time, some complain that masks inhibit breath and still others actively cut off the breath of their fellow humans. The product of an objectification that ignores the conjunctive and disjunctive relations that enable (and compel) us all to breathe together.


T. Hugh Crawford

The Lee Shore

April 27th, 2020

The Lee Shore

Once hiking up the Tongariro Crossing from the north just after I cleared the tree (and lahar) line, I stepped headfirst into a gale. The storm had been threatening as I ascended the lower section, but it unleashed on gaining the open ground. No visibility and winds that literally blew me off the trail. As I was closer to the Department of Conservation’s Ketetahi hut, I pressed on, hiking in a crouch with one arm swung back holding my pack in place, finally reaching it but not without being soaked through and feeling hypothermia. Obviously the goal of my trek that day was impossible so, after bundling in my sleeping bag for an hour to get back temperature, I made my way down the mountain to the place where I had begun, feeling grateful when I entered the woods which cut the wind and then finding two English trekkers in the parking lot who offered a ride to a campground on the south side of the crossing. That evening I found myself warm, cleaned up, dressed, and eating a meal in an elegant restaurant.

The English Pennine Way is, by and large, a beautiful wander through the Yorkshire Dales on long-trod paths. But, as readers of Wuthering Heights well know, up on the moors the fog and wind come in, easily disorienting the casual walker. Much of the path is cobbled with material from old mills, so in the dense fog, you have to trust the stones. One day in such a state, I heard the unmistakable sound of an ATV engine, and soon out of the mist a modern-day Heathcliff appeared, asking if I had seen any stray cattle on the ridge. I replied that I had barely seen my own feet. He laughed and rode off, maybe heading to the Grange. Up on those ridges people—probably shepherds—have built stone walls in the shape of a cross, allowing walkers caught in the weather to find shelter in the lee of whatever angle breaks the wind. These seeming Christian contrivances are pure material practicality and not theological symbol, serving troubled travelers no matter the direction of the weather. 

After finishing a month of trekking in Tasmania this February, I found myself on the Great Barrier Reef teaching a university course on Moby-Dick. The weather on the day we took the ferry out from Gladstone to Heron Island was a little rough—barf bags were widely distributed and people passed around Dramamine like it was molly. Twice on the outbound leg, the ferry passed in the lee of an island (Mast Head then Erskine) so briefly the waves smoothed and wind abated. Much to the relief of some nauseated students, we arrived at Heron, disembarking in the sun but also to wind and surf stirred by an offshore cyclone—one that would slowly pass on the the East buffeting us for days. 

Moby-Dick is a maddeningly beautiful book. Ahab famously declares “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails,” but Melville the author has clearly gone off them. It’s a book with a complicated textual history, with some dead ends and a number of enigmatic characters. Some think the original protagonist was to have been a man named Bulkington whom Ishmael encounters at the New Bedford Spouter Inn, his having just returned from a four year voyage on the whaler Grampus. Bulkington, like Jack Chase or Billy Budd, is a handsome sailor—a strong, capable man who inspires confidence and loyalty from his fellow sailors. He appears again briefly on Ahab and Ishmael’s boat, the Pequod, in a “six inch chapter” that serves as his “stoneless grave” entitled “The Lee Shore.” Obviously a teachable moment, my students, having braved the seas, Dramamine, and barf bags on a short channel crossing, well understood the calm of a lee shore. 

Of course all calm in Melville is soon disrupted, and he uses this chapter to push at the calm/danger binary. Like crouching in Pennine Way cruciform walls, to be in the lee of an island is to albeit briefly inhabit shelter, but as Melville makes clear for the sailor it is the island that is the danger. Bulkington must pilot the Pequod into the sea, the teeth of the storm, to avoid being wrecked on the reef: “The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.” So to rest in the lee, perhaps only for a moment invokes home’s hearth and brings calm, that “insular Tahiti” Ishmael describes later in the book, but in the big outside, leeward is short lived, and safety or perhaps even truth is only to be had by casting off, doubling the cape and facing the teeth of the storm: “Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?” Melville sets up a land/sea binary, but the two-stranded lesson of the lee shore is that seeking refuge is but a momentary respite—actual safety is to be had by abandoning false comfort. My time in Ketetahi hut was limited because, built on the slope of an active volcano which had recently erupted hurling rocks through the roof, it was deemed by the authorities unsafe. Refuge was actually to be found by returning to the storm, piloting before the wind to the woods below.


Although he died nearly a decade before the publication of Moby-Dick, the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin pressed precisely the point of Melville’s “Lee Shore.” In “Patmos” he pens the phrase that so stirred Martin Heidegger: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” The speaker is a wanderer seeking salvation in the lee of Patmos, an island that could bring revelation (if St. John doesn’t remain hiding in the cave). Charles Olson, in his wonderful book Call Me Ishmael, reads Melville’s 1856 journals on his trip to Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the Holyland, recording Melville’s response to the Mediterranean in general and Patmos in particular: “Off Cyprus, on his way from the Holyland to Greece, Melville can no more imagine a Venus to have risen from these waters than ‘on Mt. Olivet that from there Christ rose’ …. Now, off Patmos, he can ‘no more realize that St. John had ever had revelations here.’” Like Ishmael, Hölderlin’s speaker is persuaded by an unseen force—the amorphous desire some call wanderlust—the desire to cast off the assurances of hearth and home to live by passing through (or around) a world that alternates danger and refuge.

… a spirit 

Led me forth from my own home 

To a place I thought I’d never go.

. . . .

And how fearsome it was to leave 

The sight of dear friends and walk off 

Alone far over the mountains

Bulkington, like Ishmael, is one of Melville’s isolatos, “living on a separate continent of his own.” There are scenes of camaraderie in the novel— who can forget the squeezing of the hand—but Ishmael’s solitude is unmistakable. What Hölderlin makes clear is that a wanderer’s solitude is profoundly different from the alienated soul in society. It is a necessary forsaking and wandering out into “howling infinite” which, as Ishmael opines, is better “than [to] be ingloriously dashed upon the lee,”

Heron Island can be circumambulated in about 30 minutes. At low tide the beach is wide and smooth, marked only by the tracks of nesting tortoises and their scampering young. Unlike directional hiking where you might find yourself walking all day with the wind at your face or blasting from the side, a circle brings the weather from all points of the compass. Many people, particularly in the Himalayas, look askance at the notion of conquering a peak. They prefer to show respect by circumambulation, best known in the West with the walk around Kailash. Having just come off a month of rigorous trekking in Tasmania and therefore still having feet, not unlike Bulkington’s, scorched by the land, Heron became my Kailash— circling at least twice a day. Such wandering clarifies the lesson of the lee. Depending on the direction I started, I would either begin or end with the wind. The rising tides brought waves crashing to the edge of the forest, making walking tiresome, awkward, but not dangerous. In the lee comes peace and I’d sing (quietly) Graham Nash’s song “Lee Shore”: “All along the lee shore/ Shells lie scattered in the sand.” Such circuits are strikingly different from a day of long-distance, directional trekking. The sun and wind burn both cheeks equally, and intensity is exactly balanced by peace, each shading into the other on the edges. Equanimity is a balance of extremes, offering a glimpse of Melville’s “mortally intolerable truth”: deep thinking demands that you “fly all hospitality” at least temporarily. But as my daily island circles taught me, fleeing to the lee (also temporarily) is just as fundamental.

As it turned out, the danger that lurked there was not a tempest but instead pestilence. We retreated back across the sea to the Australian mainland and soon home to the United States because of the emerging corona virus pandemic, circumstances that make every day here a question of refuge or danger. Hölderlin also makes room for the lee shore with a prayer for all wanderers: 

  give us calm waters; 

Give us wings, and loyal minds 

To cross over and return.


T. Hugh Crawford


February 17th, 2020


A healthy eucalyptus/nothofagus rainforest swallows you completely. Old growth eucalyptus trees easily measure 6’ diameters and tower out of sight with the beech serving as understory. Most striking though are the downed trunks of giants matted with moss, ferns, and other epiphytes building new soil and providing habitat for countless organisms. The air is thick with oxygen and aromatic compounds—the exhalation of all that green—and passing through it feels both primal and somehow proper, as if this is how life is to be lived. Once while crossing a particularly vibrant section, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of what I took to be a man-made structure. On turning I saw instead a medium-sized deadfall caught in the branches of other trees settled into a nearly perfect right angle. I was puzzled why this peripheral sight had alarmed me, or at least set off a cascade of neurons different from the familiar patterning of my rainforest saunter. One answer is that the rainforest and its complex inhabitants abhor the rectilinear (and their eyes don’t have “corners”).

One of my favorite television series is Ray McKinnon’s Rectify— a dark southern tale of violence and small town retribution. The title raises the question of the program—can the past be straightened? Can clear understanding clear away distrust, violence, and pure malevolence? To me, given my encounter in the rainforest, the more pressing question is why we associate straight—the rectilinear— with truth and understanding. I can justify this text with a keystroke (though that won’t straighten the thoughts), but the rainforest—that place where life burgeons—is anything but square.

There are of course many counter-examples to this intuition, particularly from the mineral world. Humans have long prized the crystalline, clean hard edges of gemstones that seem to resist the non-linear creep of nature. Think of Water Pater who defines a well-lived life as a profoundly aesthetic stance that “burn[s] always with this hard, gem-like flame.” Here even the sensuousness of a flame is rectified. Far outside academic debates, walkers regularly encounter the hard and sometimes gem-like— bare sharp mountain peaks, limestone fractured into prisms—but perhaps those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The mineral and the metallic find their stability, some would say ideality, in their crystalline form, something humans tend to admire for a certain timelessness which is clearly a denial of change, becoming, and death. When time is reintroduced to the formula—the sort of time that far exceeds the human like that found in the rainforest—those sharp edges melt away. Mountain peaks are surrounded by skirts of scree, slowly rounding and rolling away. The fractured squared stones in landscapes are soon covered by layers of reactive chemicals, slowly smoothing, a process hastened by lichens and moss. In isolation from both space and time, the crystal dominates. Through the long-now of the rainforest, those edges abrade and fade.

An Absurd Aside: Rectilinear, rectify—etymology that also points toward rectum, surely an unrelated term. Oddly enough, on that same path where I saw the fallen tree, I regularly encountered wombat scat (their preferred defecation sites are the open surface of a trail). Most people are quick to notice that wombat scat, unlike the smoothly tapered excretions of other bush creatures, appears rectangular, prompting questions about the physics of a square object emerging from a round hole. One of life’s great mysteries. My personal theory is that they are herbivores who tend to chew the plant at a specific length. The undigested cellulose fibers arrange themselves in the gut in pellets of that length so on expulsion the scat breaks at a specific point, forming at least part of the rectangle. How the sides then spring out to form longitudinal right angles needs to be explained by someone with greater knowledge of the physics of extrusion.

Take an axe and chop into one of those eucalyptus logs—one not yet fibered with fungus filaments. Your first moment of arrest will be from the powerful wine-like smell welling up from the newly opened grain which brings the realization that you’ve been immersed in a faint version of that aroma all along—perhaps the reason for that walking well-being. It is sometimes possible to reveal, with careful splitting, a square beam from a round log. A tree that grew “straight and true” —in the absence of wind, water, animal, fungus, or insect stress —can be split into a perfect rectangular prism, that ideal geometric form. That rare moment is greeted with surprise and some pleasure by the chopper, because all trees are affected by wind, light, other flora and fauna, so, on the level of the fiber, they are just as sinuous/sensuous as the tangled mats of moss and roots hikers stumble through. Joiners in the old days had a solution for such unruly tangles— the adze and the broadaxe. Both are tools that function on the business end exactly the same. The differences are in the hanging of the handle and the stance of the chopper. The broadaxe looks like a heavy headed oversized hatchet. Its primary characteristic is a sharp blade beveled on one side (like the adze and the wood chisel). This allows the worker to square a round log by chopping down the length, flattening each side in turn. The beauty of the tool is that it only cuts in one direction so that, once the cut is begun, the flat side of the log acts with the flat side of the axe. In the words of David Pye, it is a self-regulating tool. It will not cut deeper into the log, and instead will follow the flat plane it is making. The product can be a beam flat and square, but most hand workers stop short of such perfection, preferring the adequacy of a roughly squared beam. Such practices, now generally long past, reveal the material basis of geometry. It is, of course, easy to see geometry as one of the most abstract of human practices, positing as it does idealized hylomorphic objects that have no actual counterparts in material life—Platonic forms always beyond grasp, experience, or understanding glimmer, holding out the chance of realization. The broadaxe is an instrument of the possible rectilinear, one that satisfies not because of actual realization but instead because it is a lived temporal process.

In the Modern world (the Industrial West), building is nearly always associated with the rectilinear which is held out as ideal (think of high-modern flat roofed houses) and comes with an associated vocabulary. Unlike the products of hand tools, the materials for today’s construction are formed by overwhelming force. The nonconforming scraps are cast aside (or sold to naive customers) and the standardized products enable joiners to build “straight and true” with joints that are “jam up and jelly tight.” I’ve spent much of my life building, particularly with wood. An essential tool in any joiner’s box is named for what it does— a square, which gives itself over to 90 degrees (or mutiples). But rectilinear tools don’t stop just with measurement. Hand saws (as well as most powered ones) cut straight lines (except of course specialized ones such as coping, scroll, or jigsaws). Using levels, planes, winding sticks, chalk boxes and plumb bobs, the skillful carpenter can “true up” both the materials and the spaces they form. As I recall, Michael Pollan in his Place of My Own spends some time speculating on the sometimes strange equation of an upright beam with an upright person, so I’m probably unwittingly incorporating his insights here. Still, think of the terms describing human behavior or mores in a positive manner linked to right angles. A person is direct, squared-away (or, pejoratively, square), upright, upstanding, right, righteous, true, level-headed. One “frames” a problem. There are even unrecognized versions of this rectilinear attitude. Being ”in fine fettle” generally means in good health with a positive sense of well-being, but originally meant level—bringing one’s sharpening stone to perfect flatness so it can impart that trait to the tools, to put them in fettle. And of course there are the opposites: twisted, meandering, devious, serpentine, warped, sinuous, crooked.

A modern building out-of-square will cause a world of problems (something Pollan deals with in his writing house as does everyone else who fails in an initial layout). I guess the question is how deep does this attitude run? Is it simply material (my roof leaks) or is it also ethical or psychological (my self leaks)? It’s not surprising that Plato (in the Republic and the Meno) embraces geometry not as the road to the truth about the measure of the earth but as a practice necessary for a leader (guardian) or thinking person to take the measure of others, to help them understand proportion and balance between clearly defined entities. And generally this geometry is Euclidean—the patron saint of the right angle. Centuries later Descartes carries that righteousness into our delineation of space with his coordinates. Now we are able to locate objects in a clearly defined, unambiguous space, albeit one that lacks temporality except as a series of layered static positions. Since then, (Western) human habitations and “well-designed” cities and states aspire to the grid (and indeed are drawn on them)—a cleanly articulated spatiality that, like a power planer, runs roughshod over the undulating substratum that is our actual material world. In a brilliant mediation on fate and free will, Melville unravels those coordinates via the weaving of a sword mat (an abrasion resistant pad made of rope). Ishmael (here the representative of the Modern sensibility) tends to the warp and woof (x and y axis) while Queequeg, the tattooed Maori harpooner who grew up amongst the tangled roots of a Kauri rainforest, strikes with the weaving sword indifferently, by chance making an uneven, even crooked mat.


The Western philosophic project has been to distinguish humans from the non-human (and the “less-than-human” other). Bipedalism, thumbs, souls, humongous brains (homage to Jethro Bodine), and of course language have all been called on to articulate human exceptionalism. The right angle is another. The rectilinear is a timeless place of stability (which perhaps is why it is prized by builders—ideal buildings withstand time). In the rainforest, the point-line of geometry is replaced by the point—the clinamen which is the minimal angle necessary to produce—in time—a cascade of events, an efflorescence of growth. A moment pondering of any point in that breathing mass reveals a past disturbance —in deep or recent time—which configures but does not determine an entangled complex of entities. Of course geometry can be used to describe such tangles—e.g., knot theory in hyperbolic geometry—but those formulae haven’t yet been used to frame ethics. The difference is obvious—in the modern house, humans look out onto nature through a windowframe (or a video screen, the most recent instauration of rectilinear lust) while being confined in their “true” (90 degree) environment. In the rainforest, they are immersed in a temporal world, the one that is actually true (just not straight).

T. Hugh Crawford

On Missing the Super Bowl

February 6th, 2020

On Missing the Super Bowl

One January day in 1967, my family gathered in Lacey and Margaret Boyer’s basement around a grainy black and white television with a rabbit ear antenna to watch the NFL/AFL Championship game, the first Super Bowl. The result was as expected. No team from the upstart AFL was going to beat Green Bay. I was 10 and found Lacey’s workshop immediately adjacent to the television more interesting. In those days, TVs were usually located in out of the way places. They certainly didn’t belong in living rooms. I remember a 4 foot wooden octagonal beam with metal screw tops nailed on the faces. Screwed into the tops were pint jars containing different size nails, screws, and bolts. When spun it seems to contain an entire hardware store fastener aisle. At halftime I went to the driveway to admire his Karmann Ghia, the closest thing to a European sports car to be found in our rural town. As for the game itself, the outcome will out, Lombardi and Stram coached with the passionate masculine intensity one expected from coaches of that era. There were no instant replays or Jumbotron, few camera angles. The game viewed on the screen was more or less the same static shot a viewer in the stands would have. Still, there was a sense in that basement room that something special was happening. Ever since—for 53 years— I have found my way to a television to watch the game. Every year until this one.

Two years after that opening game, the first celebrity football player, Joe Namath, wearing white football shoes, a long fur coat and Brut aftershave (maybe the Brut came a little later) guaranteed an AFL victory, something preposterous on the face of it. He and the Jets delivered, and the modern league was born. In the years since it has transformed from game to spectacle. At some point I realized watching yearly had become a personal tradition that had to be upheld regardless of inconvenience. The year the Panthers played the Patriots, I was in a French ski lodge, where in the middle of the night the desk clerk tuned the lobby television to the game. He and his English friend watched the first half, asked some questions about the rules, then bored, they drifted off. 

When I was young, it was never difficult to find that television. One of the linebackers of the dynastic Steelers teams of the 70s went to the local prep school coached by the man who lived across the street. All the kids in the neighborhood took up the Steelers —  Bradshaw, Harris, Swan and Stallworth, and of course the legendary Steel Curtain defense. They have remained my team. Following those years, the television spectacle exploded, and the day for many became more about the halftime show and commercials than the action of the field. Viewing parties involved complicated bets about events unrelated to the game itself, and the halftime shows became increasingly elaborate and finally preposterous. The year the Bears finished out their magic season (coached by Mike Ditka doing his very best throwback coach imitation), a friend invited me to his lake house. He had a satellite dish and we watched on the Armed Forces channel, so instead of commercials featuring the Budweiser Clydesdales, we were treated with PSAs warning about stealing government pencils. I longed for some of the spectacle that year. 

The quest for the game has sometimes been more difficult. My job often takes me to New Zealand in January, so I’ve had to get used to Super Bowl Monday—mid-morning to be precise. In the early 2000s I could usually find a nearly empty sports bar open for the game, but as the century has progressed, the crowds have grown, requiring early arrival for good seats. Spending a Monday morning drinking beer and watching a game is a peculiarly Kiwi thing to do. One year I wandered into a likely viewing place and sitting at one of the tables were some vaguely familiar faces. Ryan Adams and his band The Cardinals were in Wellington for a concert, so a friend and I watched an amazing game with the band and some of the roadies. Their namesakes that day lost in the last minute to the Steelers. An exciting game for any football fan, for a Steelers diehard it was pure joy. 

When not watching every Super Bowl, I spend much of my time long-distance hiking. This year I find myself in Tasmania on game day. I wanted to tramp their “Overland Track,” generally regarded as the best seven day walk on the island. It requires a reservation for the start day, and the only one available put me in the middle of the bush at kickoff. A few years ago, I would have cancelled and found a sports bar in Hobart, but instead I decided to call an end to the streak. I was torn between a lifetime’s commitment and a game that is increasingly difficult to love. The game day activities verge on the ridiculous. In many ways the sport has passed me by. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still the Baltimore Colts, the Browns are not the Browns, the Ravens are and they should be back in Cleveland, Miami and Seattle are just expansion teams, the Rams have always played in LA, and whenever the Redskins play the Cowboys I still hope they both lose.  

Then there is our increasing awareness of the physical and mental toll the game takes on the professionals, as well as the legions of university, high school and little league players who look to the Super Bowl Sunday as a career goal. All of that was brought home one day in class when a student, an offensive lineman on the University’s team—a bright engaging person—looked at me and said he would have trouble participating for the next few weeks because his “brain was bruised.” 

I’ll probably track down a TV to watch the big game next year, but my streak is broken, a pause that has prompted me to think hard about the game I have invested so much in. Not the television extravaganza, but football as pure play. What I remember best is from those early years: a cold winter Sunday, gathering at the field next to the town’s tennis courts. Kids of different ages, sizes, and abilities pick teams. Running, passing, catching, tackling, we roll in the mud — laughing. 

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 23

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania  Day 23 Lake St Clair to Launceston

Woke early and on stepping out of my bunkhouse room I encountered a wombat— he just stared at me for a bit, then shuffled off. On my last day in the bush I finally see the animal responsible for all that scat I’ve been dodging on the trail for three weeks. Later in the day I also saw an echidna. Used my camp time to get everything in order— did laundry, scrubbed up cooking gear, rinsed out tent, etc. Now officially off the trail for next two months or so then the next walking adventure begins.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 22

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania  Day 22 Narcissus Hut to Lake St Clair 17.5 km

Early up as a fellow trekker was banging about the hut cooking area. Pulled all my stuff together and took off before 7. It was a quant day— 17.5 km and wanted to arrive in time for lunch before (hoping to) catch the Overland a day early.  Early 5 km section OK, but the middle to later was perhaps the best rain forest of the trip—it moved from old growth eucalyptus—some massive trees— to young and then a dense to fern forest with a Jurassic Park look. Very lively space. One section about a dozen Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoos squawking with the same sound as two trees rubbing together. They exhibited classic territorial behavior—calling loudly, swooping close, following and perching nearby calling loudly and aggressively until I passed some unknown boundary.

Later I bumped into my friends from York who were struggling a bit but in their last 10 km (saw them later safe at the visitor center.  I strode it all out making the best time of the trek, arriving at noon and got something to eat and a pint. I had hoped to get on bus a day early but no luck. As it turned out, staying was pleasant. I booked a bunk room which was similar to those at NOC or Furneau Lodge on the NZ Queen Charlotte. An afternoon with lots of beer and pizza on deck, talking to many of the of the people I had crossed earlier—very gratifying. Early to bed (one with a mattress though I needed my sleeping bag.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 21

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania Day 21 Pine Valley Hut to Labyrinth then Narcissus Hut 14 km

Slept in a bit as I’d planned to spend two nights here. The others got off early even though it was very cold and still overcast. Packed a day pack and ventured up the mountain about 8:30. More mossy rainforest then a steep wet climb including walking straight up a cascading waterfall. It was a short hike but took time because of terrain and the trail was easy to lose. The skies cleared, and from the lookout I could see clearly the main peaks dusted with snow and many lakes below.

In the distance around the edge of one of the mountains I could make out Lake St. Clair, the end of the Overland. The way back down was a little painful on the new knees and old muscles, but I got back to Pine Valley a little after 1:00 and decided to pack up and head on to Narcissus Hut. Pine Valley is a gloomy hut and I couldn’t face another night packed in there (it was filling rapidly). The hike out included more moss and some magnificent old growth— trees so big you wonder how anyone could have ever thought to cut them down. A few old friends at Narcissus Hut, nice walk along the lake looking for platypus. Early to bed zzzzzz

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 20

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania   Day 20 Bert Nichols Hut to Pine Valley Hut 11 km

Snow! Woke to a snow globe view (for all you northern hemisphere folks, it is the middle of summer here). Rain poured all night, shifting to freezing rain and snow mix in morning. Just planned to walk three hours today to Pine Valley Hut which is off of the official overland Track but a popular place for some day hikes. I’m two days ahead of schedule and the weather is supposed to break tomorrow, so I plan two nights there before heading down to Lake St Clair. The walk out was strange— the terrain was beautiful, though the trail was pretty much an ankle deep stream the whole way. It was just freezing, but when the sun peaked out, it would be hot. Then of course another band of precipitation would come on with wind, and I’d get the gloves back on.

The track up to the hut was a flood plain with some very fast moving rivers well out of their banks. Crossed a couple of swinging bridges which were very kiwiesque.  Most striking though were the odd moments when, in the middle of a eucalyptus/nothafagus rain forest matted with moss and overtopped stream banks, the sun would blast through even though the snow and sleet continued to fall. Everything would light up green and sparkles in a positively surreal scene. But then I would have to slog on in the stream as to stop would bring on the pure cold of mountain water.


The hut is older, a bit damp and cold, but it has an old coal stove that takes some of the edge off. Outside the smell of burning coal reminded me of the old days as a child In Woodstock when people’s furnaces still burned Valley Builders and Supply coal. Some climbers are here waiting for clear weather for some climbs as well as some folks from the crew I’ve been trekking alongside for the past few days.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 19

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania    Day 19 New Pelion Hut to Bert Nichols Hut 18.2 km

One person I spoke with last week claimed that it rains on the Overland Track 300 days per year. My experience thus far has been pretty much that proportion. Today demanded flexibility, as the weather report was varied (for the next days as well). In keeping with this trek, my morning departure time keeps growing later— today 8:00. People rustle about early but take long to pack up. My ritual is long established and efficient, so I’m always ready to get going early unless, as in recent days, I delay for coffee. Part of my motivation is the pure pleasure of walking out of camp alone while the morning mist is still rising, always a magical moment and lost when the sun gets high.  Today there was no danger of the sun burning off any mist— the rain was steady and sometimes hard. The A plan was to hike about 4 km up to the saddle between Mt Pelion and Ossa, drop pack and climb one of them. Ossa is highest in Tasmania but Pelion looked more inviting on the map. Neither were inviting today as visibility was about 10 yards.


So I pressed forward on a well-formed track across a moor with occasional blasts from the wind and rain. I soon passed Kia Ora Hut, the official target for today, as  the mountain climb was to take up much of the afternoon. Instead I opted to push for Bert Nichols (which was much the same distance as the previous two days except for a side trip to an amazing and powerful waterfall.

The falls were impressive but more so once again were the moss covered rain forest— still dominated by eucalyptus and nothafagus.  Stopped for many pictures—just all green! The latter part of the day climbed up out of the  Mersey river valley up through a pass and down into another watershed. Though not quite the Gottard Pass, it’s still a fascinating moment to transition from one watershed to the next—the ecological shifts are sometimes subtle, but important. Different flora because of new soil composition, moisture, angle of the sun and wind. A short but rooty descent into the new valley soon brought the hut— like  New Pelion, Burt Nichols is very spacious, but the weather front has made it very cold. Everyone was sitting shivering in most of their winter layers (it is still summer here) and snow is predicted.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Tasmania Day 18

February 6th, 2020

In Tasmania   Day 18 Windemere to  New Pelion Hut. 17 km

The rain roared on the roof all night, regularly waking me, so when 6 rolled around I was ready. A problem with hut hiking is you have to be in other people’s diurnal rhythms. Some folks started rustling around so I decided it was ok to pack up. Was still drizzling and today’s walk was a short time, so I made coffee and relaxed a bit before leaving—the crowd is very companionable, so the early morning was pleasant. One couple got off early, I followed soon after. There was an adventure race on the track today— runners doing all 80k in a day, rushing through puddles, sliding down rocks. Didn’t look much like fun. Once I passed the first hiking couple, I looked forward to a day of trail solitude, but was instead interrupted every five or ten minutes by feet pounding up behind me (so I’d hop to the side of the trail). This went on until at least 10:30. All were jovial, but I missed my quiet misty morning hike.

Most of the morning that mist was heavy—all I could see was the immediate forest (so I laughed at a side trip for a scene overlook). The trail gradually descended to the Forth River (lowest point on track) through a nothafagus rainforest with amazing moss-covered trunks and fallen logs (some huge eucalyptus mixed in). Dozens of little streams crossing the trail in the midst of it all—straight up magic.  The day was billed as 5 hours, exactly what it took and I found myself at an incredibly nice (and spacious) hut by lunchtime. 

Just before it, several large eucalyptus trees had fallen and were being split up for firewood. The most intense wine-like smell was rising up from the splits. The aromas on this track are striking, reminding me how pure the air is here, with the wind blowing off Antarctica. Got settled, hung everything up to dry, ate a big lunch and wandered to the original Pelion hut, a copper miner’s shanty with four old wooden bunks. Looks straight out of New Zealand’s South Island old huts. The one here is a museum piece, the ones In NZ I slept in.

T. Hugh Crawford