Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Hiatus

December 30th, 2015

Hiatus

People often announce that they are taking their blog on hiatus, which is what I am doing just now. The Te Araroa phase of my walkabout is complete, and I’ll be teaching in Wellington in the new year–Moby-Dick, “he tasks me; he heaps me”–so I am taking a break from daily blogging, but first I want to think about the idea of hiatus, of the interval, particularly as it relates to walking; hence, another pointless essay.

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It’s hard to think the idea of a beginning without an end, but the in-between, the inter esse is where everything interesting is to be found. The nomads in Deleuze and Guattari do not travel from point to point but instead occupy the middle, a milieu. The Nomadology is an attempt to understand what that means (and is the subject for what should be another pointless essay). Completing the Te Araroa–arriving at Bluff–invites a meditation on ending in the way that commencing from Reinga prompts a reverie on beginning. It has been cause for congratulations, requests for stories, explanation of motivation, but the rhetoric of accomplishment tends toward a sense of victory or triumph– getting the t-shirt or the merit badge–which wholly misses the experience of the walk which is always in the gap, a space never empty but instead occupied by varied and often inarticulate ways of being. To be in-between is to perpetually deny the end as absolute because the moment is always opening out onto a horizon of possibility and not directed toward a finish line. Indeed the very notion of a finish line can only exist in a constrained framework, one rarely experienced (e.g., most thru-hikers don’t make it to Katadhin or Stirling Point). My days since finishing the Te Araroa have seemed empty as I’ve rested. My hiatus from daily walking many kilometers and writing about that experience appears empty but of course I have been differently occupied–with thinking, healing, and wrestling with the idea of the in-between. As John Cage teaches about sound, there is no empty even in silence, and we never simply occupy a beginning or end point–are never present in some pure plenitude– but instead are always on the way which is the very being of desire. The real question is how we live that desire– as lack or as inter esse.

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Hiatus is repetition. To take a hiatus from an activity requires a break in what had been a repetitive action, and it is in repetition that difference can be articulated/discerned from one stabilized moment to another. A daily blog reveals shifting mood in 24 hour increments, manifested by reflection and mediated by language. Repetition produces difference and, at the same time, the illusion of continuous variation, but it cannot capture the experience of the milieu–the space and time where everything happens but nothing is reported. It is there that we live–in-between, anxiously minding the gap and never occupying a beginning or ending except perhaps as a brief moment of joy or anguish. Long-distance tramping brings this insight into sharp relief on many scales. A trek is a hiatus from quotidian life (or, more precisely, is a different dailiness). It breaks calendar time–I recall when hiking the Appalachian Trail thinking that it must be a weekend because of the distant roar of motorcycles in the mountains. Trekking produces a hiatus of information (there is no internet in the bush), but by definition, it is a movement from one point to another. Hiking days begin and end with strong awareness of changing position in space and time. Minding the gap is particularly evident in times of navigational difficulty. On the Te Araroa, particularly on the South Island in broad open spaces where the trail proceeds not as a footpath but instead by striking out across open uneven terrain, you hike toward marker poles set in the distance and capped by orange plastic cylinders. When new (or at least not weathered), the orange stands out at some distance, providing reassurance that there is indeed an articulated direction and that you are still on it. Given the vagaries of terrain, unseen needs to detour, or just the simple extension of an interval beyond a sight line, pole-spotting can be difficult and consequently stressful. Generally, confident competent trampers have little trouble following pole markers (unless weather interferes), but the gap still produces an interval of uncertainty that echoes the interval between poles. Constantly wavering between confidence — oh, there it is!–and panic–oh, where the hell is it?–trampers find such days physically and psychologically taxing.

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Even on well-formed, blazed, and documented trails, the experience of the interval can be psychologically difficult. Often trail signs define time rather than distance–time spans that almost never calibrate with actual trekking time as fitness, walking speed, and trail conditions are highly variable. On the Te Araroa sometimes the listed times are realized, but more often they are wildly inaccurate. Anxiety comes with the possibility that for once the sign may actually be correct, throwing off anticipated day’s attainments. Sometimes time and distance inexplicably move to the front of consciousness, often prompted by devices that provide fine-grained measurements. Watches and GPS compute movement from one waypoint to another, filling the interval with thin slices of space/time, a calculus that creates the illusion of flow through minuteness of interval. These moments prompt calibration of body, space, and temporality. Many hikers — including me–try to resist constant monitoring, but inevitably there are days (often when a town is the end-point) where calibration is obsessive–perhaps every hour (or even half hour). The point in time is anxiously awaited, and the point in space–the jump of a pulsing blue dot on a GPS device–is a moment of marvel or disappointment.

But to walk without such constructs, to be in the walk is, at least for me, the true goal. William James gives a way to think the experience of the temporal middle with his notion of the “specious present.” Lasting less than a minute, it is experienced as now: “In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time.” For James, the specious present is never empty though it can be experientially poor (as in stretches of boredom). Because of its temporal extension, the specious present–the gap we live as coherent nowness–enables the possibility of anxiety (searching for the marker pole) and joy (finding it). It creates the very possibility of expectation, something that would be impossible were time a series of discontinuous moments. Later in the chapter, James discusses the physiological and neurological bases for the experience of the specious present (speculations later supported by Francisco Varela through a review of recent work timing interactions between various neural cellular assemblages). After going through the philosophical argument establishing the idea as phenomenon, he shows how it is part of a cerebral process. He speculates about what it would be like to have a different specious present (e.g., that of a gnat), then uses example of the fine-grained perceptions of hashish intoxication which stretch out the normal perception so that, in his example, the beginning of the sentence fades before reaching the end. Then in a note discussing the work of Hugo Munsterberg, he adds muscle groups linked to directing perception tensing and untensing as part of the embodied constitution of the specious present.

What is clear in James’s discussion is that the experience of the now is the result of both neural and physical experience. I would add that there are times when our awareness of the specious present is heightened, and trekking often produces that sense. The now can be experienced negatively–anxiously measuring progress toward (and away from) spatial-temporal goals–but also positively as the now, moments as close to pure awareness of being is possible. When walking, you use your entire body as a perceptual apparatus–head to toe–promoting awareness of self and now, both of which are forms of consistency in the midst of flux: “Meanwhile, the specious present, the intuited duration, stands permanent, like the rainbow on the waterfall, with its own quality unchanged by the events that stream through.” This is the double lesson of time and walking– the specious present is a saddle of present (if not presence) where the immediate past slips off the edge as the new now is experienced. A body walking mimics this motion through both space and time. The hiatus is the now.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Why I Walk

December 10th, 2015

Why I Walk

The first answer to the question “why walk?” is because I can, a claim I don’t make lightly. I turned 59 just before starting this particular trek–the Te Araroa in New Zealand–and I am constantly reminded of the need for good health and strength in order to backpack long miles day after day. Some years ago, my orthopedist told me to stop running, but when asked about backpacking he said “no problem,” so I immediately started hiking the Appalachian Trail which is how I got my trail name–Tinman. During that first stretch, I kept having to go back to Atlanta to get injections in my surgically repaired knee, creaking and moaning like my counterpart from Oz. In the years since I have completed the Appalachian Trail, the English Pennine Way, part of the Pacific Crest, and been trekking in the Dolomites and Croatia. To me, walking has never really been about completing tracks. I’m not interested in bragging about hiking the triple crown as if it were a merit badge. Rather walking is a form of living that brings insight, gratitude for certain abilities, all enabled by a resolutely simple encounter with the big outside.

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Long-distance hiking is an experiment in bare life. The echo of Georgio Agamben (Homo Sacer, 1995) here is intentional though, to be clear, my use of “bare” does not signify a legal “state of exception” but instead life outside–outside of society and outside in the world. The need to pack light demands simplification and a constant interrogation about what is necessary. I am carrying things that I have not yet used though I have nearly completed this particular trek–things I probably should have abandoned months ago, but there are also those fundamental bits of equipment that enable living (see pointless essay “Care”). At the same time, being out a long time simplifies your relationship to the natural world. Life becomes bare and elemental: the extraordinary taste of water, palpable morning light, the surface of the earth through your bootsoles, breathing on a mountaintop.

The philosopher Michel Serres noted that the French word for time (temps) is the same as the word for the weather. Walking is fundamentally about temps. Backpackers experience the weather in most of its forms. I rarely check the forecast unless I am going into a particularly treacherous area since I will be out in it whether it is sunny or a storm. On rainy days, I just gear up and start walking. The big outside brings all the subtle shifts of the day, the wind changes, there is a little patch of blue in the sky, or a layering of clouds that signals the breakup of a downpour. In the United States, people speak of climate-controlled environments. They aren’t talking about fixing global warming; they simply mean staying in a heated/air conditioned space completely unaware of weather. Clearly there is nothing particularly virtuous about standing out in a storm. On the Te Araroa I have run from lightning bolts across lowland dykes, fought hypothermia on the edge of the Tongiriro crater, and shivered in knee deep, ice cold stream water on an early morning trek. Rather, being in the weather is part of bare life, of being in the world, and it brings a nuanced sense of what a (your) body can do, and how the world responds.

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Of course weather is not just a daily experience–it is also seasonal which is where time clearly comes into play. Earl Shaffer, the first Appalachian Trail thru hiker, described his experience in a book called Walking with Spring, the title signaling the seasonal nature of his hike (and the time-frame most AT hikers continue to follow). My Te Araroa blog is called “South with Spring” in acknowledgement of Shaffer and to mark the same seasonal tactic in the Southern Hemisphere. The time of hiking–daily, monthly, seasonally– is the heart of walking. With long-distance hiking, your body gets into a particular rhythm, generally waking at the same time, getting hungry at specific points in the day, and exhausted at the end. Then there is just the pure walking itself which takes on its own temporality governed not by a clock but by the pendulums that are your legs, marching out a pace, a time, a day, a season. I started the Te Araroa in early spring when the days were short. A good hiking day generally requires more than 12 hours of daylight, so I would find myself waking in the dark and packing up waiting for first light, learning that greeting the dawn is an exquisite element of the big outside. Walking across the seasons is a subtle experience. Unlike home-dwellers who often express surprise at the seemingly sudden appearance of spring or fall, walkers have been noting fine-grained temporal variations daily, the slow budding of plants, feeling days begin to stretch out, watching the sun linger longer on the horizon.

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Walking with a backpack, day in and day out, also brings a different relationship to your body. We are accustomed to thinking of our bodies as close, as fundamental to daily life, but actually our experience of corporality can be quite distant. By staying out of the weather and living within industrial time, bodies become objects to be observed in the mirrors on the gym wall rather than occupied as our first-form materiality. Backpacking brings with it a constant inventorying of your body, monitoring hot spots on feet, nutrition needs, and tight muscles. It also brings transformation. Out in the bush, it is virtually impossible to consume as many calories as you are burning (the good news is that long-distance hikers can eat all the ice cream they want). Although the time varies, most people experience significant late afternoon energy drops after tramping a few weeks, the result of having burned off most stored body fat. Initially it is a phenomenon hard to recognize, but after several long treks, the symptoms are familiar, and the only choice is to eat more food (which means carrying a heavier pack). Clothes fit differently as general body shape changes, and transformed vascularization brings out veins that once were hidden. But true nearness to your body comes from experiencing what it can do, how walking in the big outside involves a constantly shifting surface bringing rapid micro-adjustments to stride and foot placement. These are cognitively complex gestures that, on consideration, can only be marveled at. We have a tendency to regard thought as some “higher order” cognition while walking is a simple internalized gesture, but that is to forget the amount of time it took for each of us to learn to walk. It is a neuronally intensive process at least on a par with learning mathematics or composing a poem.

The link between walking and thinking runs deep. Evolutionarily our sensorium is optimized for a 3 kph pace which is one reason it is so easy today to be thrilled through technologically induced acceleration. But there is something about a walking pace, particularly in solitude over long hours, days, weeks and months, that enables careful observation and clears a space for thought. While walking, the sensory stream rarely overwhelms. Instead it offers a different, simpler engagement with the material world and our sense of self (which actually cannot be disentangled). The curve of a hill brings back memories of hills climbed in childhood. Unidentifiable smells, or quality of air shifts (heat and humidity variation), or changes in the light are all lures for thought, a thinking uncoupled from distraction (by distraction I mean that which derails a particular line of thought before it has a chance to fully form). Walking is flow, but a flow at some distance from that of television, the Internet or other media forms. The pacing is its own time and quality: the pace of human bodies and human thought which makes me want to recast Descartes’s formula as “I walk, therefore I think.”

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Addendum: In my blog walkinghome.lmc.gatech.edu there is a category called “Pointless Essays.” I’ve been taken to task about that term, but with it I am trying to signal a practice that is only tangentially related to traditional economies. They in some way resemble academic essays but would have no home in an academic journal. They are part of a blog economy, but my readership is precious and few, so their place in any larger economic system is provisional if not pointless. But there is a relationship between pointlessness and walking–particularly long-distance hiking–which is perhaps quintessentially pointless in a capitalist economy. Now I’m not so naive as to believe that there isn’t a huge industry surrounding walking practices, including outdoor equipment providers, hostellers, national parks, and the media (which of course participates in the manufacture of the very idea of Nature), but the personal act of walking in itself is deliberately non-productive in most economic senses. Long-distance hikers are often marginal participants in traditional economies (see my earlier pointless essay “Just a Bindlestiff”). Perhaps a way to phrase it is to appropriate a term from Kant’s Critique of Judgment: walking is “purposive without purpose.” It is motivated but not rewarded (in a monetary sense). Its world is perhaps best articulated by my favorite economist, Henry David Thoreau, who claimed: “It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” I’m present at that rising. I walk because I cannot stop.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Care

November 29th, 2015

Care

A few days ago, after a beautiful morning’s tramp, I arrived at a new and spacious Department of Conservation hut. Since there were no good campsites down the trail for some distance, I decided to call it an early day and settle in. The hut had a large deck that looked out onto a beautiful river valley, and as I was going through the ritual of unpacking and signing the Intentions book, I heard footsteps out front and soon a man entered. I could tell immediately he was an experienced hiker as he was traveling light and also went about his unpacking methodically. We began a conversation and soon it was clear to me that he was also a real gear-head. I wondered to myself how long it would be before he told me how many grams his stove weighed (answer: half hour). This is not to say that I am uninterested in equipment. It is very much part of the long distance hiking experience and good equipment can make a trek much more enjoyable (see my earlier post “Inventory”). Rather, gear is really not much of a topic for conversation, particularly when it becomes a competition measured in grams.

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However, that encounter did get me thinking about deliberation–how it functions in our sense of being, our sense of living. One of Thoreau’s most quoted phrases is his explanation for his time at Walden pond: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”. The rest of the sentence reads, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Two things are clear about this sentence: Thoreau is concerned with a life (perhaps a topic for another pointless essay), and that living deliberately is part of that concern. I have always been intrigued with how adverbs, even when clearly linked to a particular action in a sentence, tend to float above all, somehow modifying or at least Inflecting the entire utterance and often creating interesting tensions and ambiguities. I suppose it is easy to ascribe attributes to objects, but actions are slippery. Without doubt Thoreau thematizes living deliberately in this sentence, but his decision tends to also get folded into the modification. Going to the woods was a deliberate choice and it is in many ways the subject of the his book, his justification for rustication.

Care is a concept often associated with deliberation. A jury will (one hopes) carefully deliberate the fate of the defendant. To be deliberate is to proceed with forethought, taking account of the multiple implications of any given action. In other words, to be deliberate is to be careful. Indeed, to be carefully careful. But I want to understand where those two terms diverge, and in that gap, reflect on different modes of walking. Thoreau may have gone to the woods to live deliberately and often he does, but just as often another, non-deliberative form of life comes into play, one that can be understood by a brief excursion into the work of another philosopher who went to the woods, to a small house near Todtnauberg, also to live and write deliberately–Martin Heidegger. It is appropriate that as I write this, I find myself also deliberately in the wilds. In my case, severe weather has driven me off the Te Araroa and into Comyns Hut on the South Island about 15 km south of the Rakaia River. Comyns is an odd, old hut, completely made of steel– corrugated steel siding attached to a structural steel frame, all of which rocks and rolls In the wind (even the door is flapping steel). There are plenty of holes for the wind and rain to enter and no firewood for warmth or to dry my wet clothes. After a morning spent fording streams in gale-force winds and driving rain, I need to think about care as well as my own deliberateness.

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Toward the end of Division 1 of Being and Time, Heidegger is offers the ground for Dasein, for the question of Being: “Care, as a primary structural totality, lies ‘before’ every factical ‘attitude’ and ‘situation’ of Dasein, and it does so existentially a priori; this means that it always lies in them. So this phenomenon by no means expresses a priority of the ‘practical’ attitude over the theoretical. When we ascertain something as present-to-hand by merely beholding it, this activity has the character of care just as much as a ‘political action’ or taking a rest and enjoying oneself. ‘Theory’ and ‘practice’ are possibilities of being for an entity whose being must be defined as ‘care.'” Being, in all its possible modes (including both the practical and the theoretical, the ready-to-hand and the present-to-hand) is primordially grounded in care. Up to this point, this does not seem too distant from Thoreau’s ‘deliberately.’ Both imply life of mindful consideration. One must proceed deliberately and with care. But the distinction Heidegger makes above between the practical and the theoretical, and his invocation of the notion of present-to-hand complicate the picture. A way to unravel this a bit is to go to the woods with both of them and also out walking the trail.

When Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live, he first borrowed an axe to cut the timbers for his house. Heidegger’s ontology begins with the question of tools, of what he calls ‘equipmentality,’ further noting that, “Taken strictly, there is no such thing as an equipment.” On the one hand, this is an obvious observation. An axe or a hammer (Heidegger’s favorite example) can be regarded ‘objectively’ as a material entity, but as equipment, it exists in a larger world of equipmentality: in carpentry you have hammers, nails, wood, measuring devices, plans, templates, customers, earth, wind, all coming together to make the scene of building/dwelling. Thoreau had an axe, some “arrowy” second growth white pines, a lot on a hill above the pond, boards and (some) nails from an Irishman’s shanty, and an agreement with R.W. Emerson, the landowner. For Heidegger, this equipmentality is the way into understanding being-in-the-world as any given part of an equipment presupposes a background of tools, materials, plans, and actions as an already given. It is on this point that he makes his famous present-to-hand and ready-to-hand distinction. According to Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger proposes to demonstrate that the situated use of equipment is in some sense prior to just looking at things and that what is revealed by use is ontologically more fundamental than the substances with determinate, context-free properties revealed by detached contemplation.” Present-to-hand is that form of looking, regarding a piece of the world as an entity with certain attributes. To see a hammer as present-to-hand is to regard an object that (depending on the type) probably has a handle made of wood/fiber glass/steel and a head of a certain configuration made of steel in a pattern that enables striking. The regard to hammer as ready-to-hand is to use it: “the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is–as equipment.”

The heart of Heidegger’s critique of Western philosophy is that it is fairly well-equipped to deal with the present-to-hand but woefully lacking in resources to comprehend the ready-to-hand, which, by the way, is where all the action is. One could say the present-to-hand is adjectival, while the ready-to-hand is adverbial, and we all know how ambiguous but at the same time vital all those adverbs are. Heidegger is quick to point out that the ready-to-hand is not just using a tool: “The ready-to-hand is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself the sort of thing that circumspection takes proximally as a circumspective theme. The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw … in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically. That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell with not the tools themselves …. On the contrary, that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work — that which is to be produced at the time; and this is accordingly ready-to-hand too. The work bears with it that referential totality within which the equipment is gathered.” The ready-to-hand “withdraws” not to some mysterious other world but rather withdraws from any understanding as present-to-hand. A hammer used fluently is transparent. A hiker’s trekking poles (discussed below) are transparent extensions of arms, at least until a compression joint slips and one is suddenly shorter than the other. There is always more to the ready-to-hand than the objective description because it is always already part of a larger functioning whole that is part of a humming, buzzing background of human/nonhuman activity.

Perhaps we are now ready to understand better what Thoreau was actually doing and perhaps what we are trying to do when we sometimes think of living deliberately. In his tool analysis, Heidegger articulates a series of terms to explain when a tool is not ready-to-hand. It may be broken, not quite the right tool, or obstinately getting in the way. His point is that at any given moment, the fluid withdrawn nature of hammering ready-to-hand can breakdown so the hammerer must stop and regard the tool not as part of a functioning system but rather as a part, in this case a recalcitrant part. Such moments demand a stepping back to plot possible solutions and then act on those plans. In other words, the broken tool brings about the moment of deliberation. Breakdown brings about the need to plan rather than smoothly acting. Even though Walden is about life in the woods and includes his building a house, there is little actual description in that process in the book. Nevertheless, given some of the details, we can infer some tool relationships. He borrowed an axe and set out to cut the timber necessary to frame his house. He came to know trees through extended tool interaction. He was absorbed in the ready-to-hand. While chopping, he sings:

Men say they know many things;
But lo! they have taken wings—
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that any body knows.

On the one hand a banal jingle, but on the other, a direct and sincere questioning not so much about the sources of knowledge, but what counts as knowledge. All anybody might know is the wind that blows, as the rest of knowledge that is produced by the arts and sciences (and presumably the appliances of technology) remains abstract or ephemeral. In a sense, what he is pressing in these questions is how can we know the entities experienced through the ready-to-hand. As Heidegger argues in Being and Time, concernful absorption has its being in the function of “discovering” and fundamental to this process is that “those entities within-the-world which are brought along [beigebrachte] in the work . . . . The kind of being which belongs to these entities is readiness-to-hand.” In the process of building his house, Thoreau also encountered Heidegger’s notorious broken tool as he broke the borrowed axe handle and had to replace it himself, an action that give some insight into the local nature of equipmentality. If the axe’s owner was a tool proficient, he or she would likely not appreciate the returned axe even it it was exceptionally sharp (as Thoreau claimed) because hanging the axe head was, in the nineteenth century, a highly personalized process. In addition, no one would soak an axe with its handle in the pond to tighten the fit as the moment it dried back out, everyone would be dodging a flying axe head.

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Thoreau does not interrupt his book in an attempt to present his building as ready-to-hand. Perhaps he did not feel it was necessary as most of colleagues had their own axe-knowledge, but he did struggle with articulating such understanding, as his time in the bean-field tells. In Walden, Thoreau would claim exhaustion and his failure to read when his labors were heavy, but that never stopped him from thinking. The experience of the ready-to-hand is, as he makes clear, another form of understanding. He would shoulder his hoe and head out to his too-large garden, noting that, “When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios.” This is a commonly reproduced passage, usually with commentators focusing rightly on the central claim–the blurring of boundaries between self and beans– but the larger context is equally essential, as Thoreau offers a real glimpse into equipmentality and a form of care. His labor produces earthly music which potentially calls attention his separation from society, but he dismisses a trip to town for staged music and instead offers up his own absorption in a world of work, one made up of a complicated equipmentality that features the musical tinkling of his hoe. His version of the ready-to-hand is through work: “Nearest to all things is that power which fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed. Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.”

Probably taking a cue from Dewey, Francisco Varela makes a distinction between ethical “know-how” and ethical “know-what” that can illuminate this distinction I am trying to draw between care and deliberation. When confronted with breakdown, a specific problem that must be decided on the basis of the good, we deliberate. There we know we are in the presence of the ethical and, one hopes, exercise all our deliberative capacities to make a good decision. But there are countless everyday gestures that do not rise to the level of the clearly ethical, that do not invite us to exercise our ethical know-what, but still form part of a life that tends toward the good. When walking through a door at a crowded building entrance, you may hold the door open as you pass just a moment longer to enable those behind you to follow. Hardly an “ethical” act, but one that is part of a habitual pattern of behavior that can be described as care. It is a proceeding with care by recognizing that Dasein is already being-in-the-world so that it includes the world in all its equipmentality.

From that perspective, Being opens out onto a future through an authentic relationship to the world articulated as care. Such care extends not just to people but also to equipmentality broadly construed, which finally brings me back to the gear-head who prompted this reverie and an example that in its triviality I hope demonstrates the point. As it turns out, we both have the same brand and style of tent which requires the use of trekking poles as it does not have traditional tent poles. Trekking poles are an important part of my hiking equipment as they enable steep ascents and descents (particularly with old and infirm knees), enable me to off-load some of the strain on my legs to my arms, and serve to guide me through boggy terrain. They are the perfect example of tools ready-to-hand. I am particularly hard on trekking poles and I am pleased with my current pair– carbon fiber Lekis (please don’t ask how many grams they weigh). When I set up my tent, I first adjust the length of each and usually I find myself holding both and looking down on my already stretched-out tent. The shorter pole needs to go to the back so I end up tossing it across the tent to the other side where it makes a sprongy sound on hitting the ground. I always flinch even though there is no way tossing it five feet will cause damage. Nevertheless, the sound is one of uncaring. I know, in a world of untold human misery, concern about the well-being of a trekking pole is absurd if not reprehensible. But, if care is the central instance of being, and equipmentality signals both the point of access to ready-to-hand understanding and a recognition of the interrelated human and non/human complexity of equipmentality, then care even on the level of hiking triviality is at least as important as life lived deliberately.

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We all experience the things of the world through use. For Heidegger, using an tool creates a primordial relationship that exceeds simple observation or hypothetical activity. For him, learning by doing is actually knowing by using. Such activity brings us closer to the equipmental whole the tool participates in. Such participation is the everydayness of being in the world, and brings with it the past present and future opening out of care. I can deliberate at length the details of my hike, and I can choose my equipment deliberately, but walking which is a primary mode of being is all about care.

T. Hugh Crawford

Proximity

November 15th, 2015

Proximity

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Perhaps the most frequent but often unvoiced question that walking gives rise to is “how far?” or “am I near?” Walking is primordially an engagement with near/far. But near and far are relational terms. A far person can be many miles from another, whereas a chess piece can be far from another on a board. Or the baker’s tansformation, where a point on rolled then folded dough moves from far to near in an instant. Hiking near and far can be measured in feet. Today I took quite a tumble because I was looking ten feet ahead instead of six. For humans, near and far are experiential phenomena which become known through the possibility of movement or communication. Once again, a comment from Thoreau is a point of entry to question the experience of proximity: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” This could be seen as Thoreau at his Luddite best, criticizing the major technological innovations of his era– railroad and telegraph– as just pretty toys which distract us from true thought and meaningful action. One need only recall his playful imaginary journey to Fitchburg where his one self buys a ticket and rides the train while the other walks. By computing the labor-time involved in earning money for the ticket, walking Thoreau comes out ahead, granting the assumption that time spent walking is better than time spent working for wages. Still it is hard to imagine the railroad trains which run daily past Walden Pond as pretty toys (any more than, with Emily Dickinson, we can imagine them as horses). The train in this framework is not just about temporality, it is about proximity. The train transforms the notion of near and far. Or, to be more precise, the train calls us to question the functional category near/far.

Much of Walden is a meditation on just that question and a celebration of the near which has brought Thoreau much critique (including a recent New Yorker article). His intense focus on the local seems to be at the expense of global awareness and can seem overwhelmingly parochial. This is even more evident in the second technology of the above quotation– the telegraph. At least the train has the virtue of a heavy and obvious embodiment. It is, in the words of Whitman, “ponderous.” The telegraph does have wires, but the messages move by imponderous electrons. Thoreau’s questioning of this fancy toy is more pointed as he questions the value of rapid communication. Does Maine really have anything to say to Texas? and would anyone in Maine be the slightest bit interested in what someone from Texas had to say (questions that remain vital today). Regarding Thoreau, we must always recognize the hyperbole that accompanies any claim like this one. Widely read in intellectual traditions that extended beyond the USA and Europe, he was anything but a parochial intellectual. Clearly he is questioning what he saw in his townsfolk as an overweening interest in the news of the world and a concomitant failure to know or understand their locality.

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Near and far, maps, communication technologies, and touching the local ground are staples of life on the trail. As much as you may want to always be in the moment of any given walk, you are always turning to the future. Walking opens out to a place you are not, a constant negotiation of the near and the far. The interesting question then is how those negotiations manifest. Every evening in anticipation of the next day’s walk, guidebooks and maps are consulted, ideal distance computed and plans made. But even prior to that, there are abstract computations. My Te Araroa hike is framed by necessary calendar time. Starting before September was discouraged as the weather would have been even worse than it actually was. Hiking in the rain and the mud was brutal; were the temperatures even lower it would have been impossible. And my finish date is fixed by my teaching schedule. My simple rule of thumb has been to average 25 km per day. Existentially, that is often easy to accomplish. Any given day, getting an early enough start and walking long enough usually suffices to get more than 25 km, though there are days up on alpine crossings where such distance is impossible because of surface and terrain or when weather interferes (or when both come together as happened to me on both the Tararua and Richmond ranges).

But near and far is never simply a function of distance walked, even while walking. The physically near or far are not necessarily experienced as walking near/far. Experientially many other factors come into play. Perhaps most important is the actual hiking surface– clearly an experience of nearness as your feet/shoes (and sometimes hands) are in actual contact, but also an experience of far as surfaces enable distance. There is a hiking adage, “take what the trail gives you,” which can be translated to “hike hard and fast when the path is easy.” There the surface is a function of far as well as near. Distance hiked–far–also can become almost obsessive, particularly when telecommunication technologies come into play (Thoreau was right in this way). Checking GPS position turns the experience of the near or the local into one of nearly complete futurity, always seeing not so much where you are as how far you are from an imagined destination. Then there is the landscape photograph which is always one of distance that only implies presence because you took the picture and so stood in that singular vantage point. Such mediation is very much part of navigating your way through the day, but transforms the nearness of the walk into a distance to be seen, then covered.

Walking is a way to see a landscape: stand on this spot to observe that mountain, here is a perfect place to take a picture. That is to experience landscape as far but still proximate, , but walking is also to be in the landscape. It is a way to break through the specular and be part of the viewed which is very different than regarding it. It is near not just in terms of physical proximity, but also as a way to signal that being is always being-in-the-world. The spectatorial far, particularly as it is technologically mediated, belies the simple truth that a landscape is never simply viewed from afar, but also is very much part of a near that your presence in makes manifest.

One form of far (the one Thoreau was criticizing) is the product of a static viewpoint. The world viewed is often an invitation to see it as separate, as over there. The world walked is a world where near/far are constantly switching, moving rapidly from that place over there to that place where I now move. Then near/far is experienced no so much as distance as pace, mood, fatigue or lightheartedness, pack weight, foot pain, hunger (a rumbling stomach is a clear measure of distance traveled), or anxiety about time/distance. They are also functionally related to repetition, the experience of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I began the South Island by hiking the Queen Charlotte Track, a walk I have taken twice before. Not only could I anticipate possible distances traveled, but my very familiarity with the track make the far quite near. There was much anticipation and surprise–oh, I am already here!– compared to my recent time on the Richmond Range where having to climb 900 meters in about 5 kilometeres made the near quite far. It was very much the experience as a child who constantly asks “are we there yet?”

In phenomenology, bodies in the world are experienced initially as front/back, left/right, and up/down. The next move, to be in the world as near/far, is the first to create a disjunction between self and world. The objects of that world are either felt as a clear part–near–or as more or less unrelated and disconnected–far. This I think is what Thoreau might be driving at in his criticism of some technologies. The initial experience of far is the first disjunction. The first time being is not in-the-world. (Freud’s fort/da is a version of this, but the da is absence–non-being–while the far is present but not phenomenally connected to being). Letting that version of far stand can create an attitude of a world that is not over-there, but instead is disconnected, separated, unlived. The telegraph’s solution is ironically increased separation because of unrelation. Technologically mediated forms of communication bring with them different protocols of presence, and specific bandwidths of communication. For Thoreau, they are creating an illusion of near while reinforcing a disjunctive far.

The near he is promoting is not a simple physical near. Rather, an insistence that near and far always pertain to bodies-in-the-world. His privileging of walking is by no means the only route into this insight, but it is one where the near and the far are in constant commerce, are continuously interchanging, refusing to settle into unbridgeable distance. The far is not separate from the near, it’s just a little farther away.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Point/Line/Plane/Vector

November 4th, 2015

Traversing Space:
Point/Line/Plane/Vector

Homage to Deleuze and Guattari

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POINT
When I began hiking the main Tararua Range, the weather was mild– the kind of day that makes you want to walk. Past the gate, the first stretch was up through a cattle pasture, fields that appear simple solid green grass until you try to cross them, then it’s tussock to tussock, cow flops to meadows that are actually bogs. A herd of young steers ran out in front of me, making a muted thundering when they all hit their stride. The stile at the end, one of those inflection points that is always a brown muddy soup, marked the entrance to the range itself, and the path rose fast when I left the pasture behind. As I gained elevation, the temperature dropped, the rain thickened, and the wind began to push me around. This section of the Tararua Range has five Department of Conservation huts (each a different style, age, and comfort level) every eight kilometers or so. My plan was to get to the second one — Te Matawai– that first day, but by 2:30 the rain was intense and the winds pushed even harder, so when I got to Waiopehu, the first hut, I called it a day. The next morning brought no relief. The rain continued so the trail was a stream, and the wind rattled the windows of this well-built but unheated shelter. I spent most of the day reading while seated at the table looking out a bank of windows at an opaque white wall. I was fairly certain below me was the flatland I had hiked out of the day before, but for all I knew, it was the moon or the Arctic. I was inert and immobile, a walker without a path.

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POINT-LINE
In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau describes going to see two panoramas (the Imax of the 19th century). The first was of the Rhine River; its castles and ruins were the sites of stories that had stirred him in his youth. Then he saw the Mississippi panorama, depicting stories yet untold. In pairing these, he gestured toward what he considered the heroic age of young America which was building out from Eastern shores to become a transcontinent. Using the idea of the West to signal openness and freedom typifies the rhetoric of his essay, but the way he describes his experience of the paintings also is telling. On the Rhine, he “floated along under the spell of enchantment, as if [he] had been transported to an heroic age.” On the Mississippi he “worked [his] way up,” “gazed,” and “looked” into rivers and an emerging history, an heroic age in the making. Although one is passive, the other active, both are experiences of space as point-line. Thoreau was already inclined to such a narrative as it was the mode of his early book, A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack, which describes a trip with his brother in an unwieldy boat, seeing his familiar Concord and environs from an unfamiliar perspective. Although a river unfolds like a ribbon, bending back on itself, forming within its banks differential currents and lateral complexities, it remains a line, with the boat a point. Perhaps unwittingly, Thoreau’s digression regarding the river panoramas recapitulates the phenomenology of the essay’s subject– walking –which in the frame he initially articulates is a point following a line.

I spent four days paddling the Whanganui river from Whakahoro Landing to the city of Wanganui (spellings alternate between “w” and “wh”). It was locomotion through a combination of river current, piloting, and arm strength (my tramping legs got a rest). The landscape unrolled slowly, with a perspective more distantly specular than the hiking trail because of the openness of the water as opposed to the confinement of the deep dark woods. Piloting the canoe engages the senses in ways at least superficially different from walking. A distant roar could be wind, a waterfall, tributary stream, or rapids that demand alert and instantaneous actions. You hear and feel changes in the current, even as you see stories both old and new unreeling down the line. But this is not to dismiss walking as less sensory intensive. There your ears hear subtle transformation of landscapes (shifting wind on ridge tops) as well as register altitude gradations concomitantly felt in feet and legs. In both, the information is navigational–the ribbon of the water or the worn path of the trail unwind in a line that commands a following.

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On the river, following the point-line is staying within a laminar flow. Drifting off the line even for a moment takes you into the slack of a backwater or head-on into a turbulent flow from which only chance will extricate you. Walking, particularly footpaths, tends to minimize such vortical or non-linear disturbances. Paths are usually there to lead you through. Long-distance hiking is the willing subjection to the tyranny of the point-line, though at times, like on the water, there are counter-currents. All hikers resist, complaining about track lay-out where designers inevitably and for seemingly no reason swing through difficult terrain or arbitrarily go over every hilltop no matter how difficult the climb or unappealing the vista. In addition, pathways themselves can produce turbulence or resistance, something Christopher Alexander’s landscape design tries to exploit. In laying out walkways, particularly for college campuses, Alexander tries to build in the possibility of an eddy forming in the flow of students, a place where the path compresses and releases in such a way that some of those following it are ejected into a calm space, one for chance encounters and possibly quiet conversation outside the restricted choreography of academic intercourse. Alexander’s point-line becomes vector, a way out of simple directedness.

POINT-LINE/PLANE
Ideally, the point-line form of being is one of constant orientation. Hiking the Appalachian Trail can be almost completely a point-line affair. In good weather, the trail itself is worn and usually obvious. That line is supplemented by the white rectangular blazes appearing with regularity throughout. Junctions might have supplemental signage or just a clear white blaze indicating the proper choice. The Te Araroa aspires to such a state and often succeeds by a visible track and strategically placed orange triangles. Because it is a trail fairly recently cobbled together via a number of already existing trails, such signage can be inconsistent or even absent. This is compounded by what seems a general reluctance to nail the plastic triangles to tree ferns, small bush, or on any pines in a tree plantation (nails in stump timber completely devalues the lumber). Consequently, navigation is more complicated. I find I rely heavily on PDF maps supplied by the Te Araroa Trust and a New Zealand topo/GPS smartphone app. As a result, my experience of point-line becomes point-line/plane. I position myself as a pulsing blue dot on a screen at the same moment that I stand firmly (or slip uncertainly) on a terrestrial path. The representational plane supplements the point-line function; however, at that navigational moment, it is only tangentially planar. On the screen, the topography surrounding the line is inconsequential. The only information of significance is confirmation that I am indeed standing where I am supposed to be, moving along the line I need to follow. The plane becomes significant when the line is misread or unreadable.

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As is well-documented, Thoreau sometimes made his living as a surveyor, rendering the landholdings of his neighbors onto gridded paper, representing through points and lines a plane or a plat. There cairns, spikes, or blazed trees don’t mark a way through but instead are the metes and bounds of properly surveyed land. Representing space as planar, perhaps a map laid out on a table or the ichnographic vision of GPS or google maps, is a form of mastery, a Cartesian leverage. Conversely, seeing the world from a point-line is phenomenologically distinct and at least in part embraces uncertainty. It is according to Ezra Pound “Periplum” which he characterizes in this way: “not as land looks on a map/ but as sea bord seen by men sailing.” A point-line makes a way, a point-line/plane makes a difference. This is not to say that the experience of space is a simple duality–point-line or plane–only to note those are dominant modes that can help us understand how it is that we come to walk in the world, or how it is that we world when we walk.

The 42 Traverse is a section of the Te Araroa that follows a mountain-bike path from the beautiful village of Owhango over a small mountain range into the Tongiriro Reserve. The area was extensively logged in the 20th century and now is a protected reserve, regenerating as wild bush. The trail itself is a wide, well-benched gravel surface. The Te Araroa hiking directions describe the point where the trail splits off from the Traverse to descend into the Tongiriro area at a point further north than the end of the Traverse. I started this part of the tramp one afternoon after lunch at the cafe in Owhango, planning to get about half-way and pitch my tent for the evening. The traverse is the epitome of point-line tramping. Near the end of the day, I found a grassy spot next to a small stream to camp. The next morning I resumed my trek, and, not paying careful attention, missed the Te Araroa turnoff. This did not initially trouble me because the guidebook had warned that portion of the trail was poorly marked and it was reasonable to just follow the 42 Traverse to the end. However, when I pulled up the full planar view on my phone, I saw that I would connect with the highway at a very great distance from my destination point which happened to be the only camping accommodation any where near my path. The planar view offered a number of other possible lines to follow, lines that, if navigated properly, would save me many kilometers even if they didn’t make up for my negligence in missing a turn. Now I was in full planar navigation though my map did not have the resolution necessary to make good judgments nor to have confidence in the lines I hoped to follow. The area had once been criss-crossed with logging roads, many of which remain open for ATV travel while others are overgrown and impassable. I spent the afternoon tracking old tracks, some there, some not, following a faint line to its end, backtracking to another, never quite certain where or how I would find my way out. After a good 30+ kilometer day, I found myself trespassing through a school property and finally out onto the highway, only to discover I had another 7 km to the campsite. Of course it then started to rain–not a pleasant day. Clearly I occupied space that day differently from a normal tramping day. The shift from point-line to point-line/plane produced a space fraught with tensions and decisions, stress and anxiety, even as I remained within the confines of the planar striations (not that I wasn’t tempted to strike out through the gorse in hopes of finding another way out). But the addition of the plane view did finally make a difference. What I experienced on the ground was not exactly what was represented on the map, but the combination resulted in (relatively) successful navigation. The doubling of view– sea bord and bird’s eye–worked.

PLANE-VECTOR
As a tramper, my occupation of space almost always follows the point-line/plane model, but clearly there are other forms of walking being. As mentioned earlier, on that same traverse I pitched my tent on a perfect moss bed just off the trail. It was a cool evening, and I had walked a long way, so, as is my wont, I crawled into my tent early, got warm in my sleeping bag and read for a long while. You can imagine my surprise when, in the middle of John McPhee’s travels in Alaska, a gun cracked a short distance from my tent. The sound came from downhill, off the trail. I looked out, straining my ears for other noises, and hearing none, returned to my book though now on alert. Some time later another, louder report echoed around my site, and this time I could hear a rustle in the bush. Soon a middle-aged man in green and camo carrying what looked like a 30-30 bolt action rifle appeared. We spoke a while. He had shot a deer with a silencer on his rifle, then later fired an unsilenced shot to signal his hunting partner. It was then that I saw the man’s hands, both covered with blood to the wrists. Clearly he had brought down his prey. Bidding good evening, he headed down the trail in the direction I had passed earlier that day. Before long I heard the roar of an ATV engine, off down the hill away from the trail. As dusk set in and I grew sleepy, voices came from the other direction (tomorrow’s destination) and soon there appeared my hunting friend with a younger man who appeared to be wearing a backpack. Only as they passed did I realize the straps were the deer’s front legs as he was carrying the gutted animal, still bleeding out. Soon after I heard the ATV start up and drive away, the engine noise fading with the day’s light.

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I lay there that night thinking about how those two men and I differently occupied the same space. I was, quite literally, on a linear traverse, but they were following a series of vectors enabled first by their familiarity with the actual plane of the land and their reason for occupying. Long-distance hikers move in an open, free space relative to the places they likely occupy in the workaday world. My job which to varying degrees dictates my position in space and time seems much more structured than my trek down the Te Aroara, but my position on the 42 Traverse was completely linear compared to the hunters (and their prey) as they moved not via point-line but instead plane-vector. The hunters deployed machines (guns, ATVS), positioning sounds (engine noise, shots), topographic features (hills, streams, dense bush), and their own historically constituted understanding of the New Zealand terrain coupled with their time in this particular place. They knew its affordances including the possible vectors of human and animal movement. Their senses were differently tuned to sounds and motions that I could safely ignore or probably didn’t even notice.

The terrain we were all traversing also had vectors formed since the volcanic eruptions laid down its soils. Pre-human New Zealand was a land with no mammals (except a particular species of bat), so birds of bewildering variety evolved to occupy various ecological niches. As waves of humans arrived, so did their animals and plants. Rats, opossums, deer, wild pigs, stoats, rabbits, all flourished in an environment with few or no enemies. Introduced plants also flourished, transforming the landscape. There is a lot of finger pointing regarding responsibility for the more invasive varieties. A Kiwi farmer I met blamed the Irish for the introduction of gorse. The Irish tend to get blamed for much in New Zealand it seems, but regardless of who brought it, gorse was a bad idea. This reserve was nearly completely logged off– first of native large trees, then of planted pines (another introduced species). In the last decades the government has set out to restore the area as native bush, a strategy that on the surface is laudable, but raises the question regarding what point in history one chooses to restore. One thing is clear, the gorse is here to stay. The mammals seem to be the primary targets and are aggressively pursued with traps, poisons, and hunters, so the hunters here include both human and chemical (one has to wonder about the cyanide legacy of attempted species eradication). What is important to recognize is that point-lines are drawn, established, and maintained, actions that require effort, diligence, take place in time, but also follow fairly predictable patterns. Plane-vectors unfold dynamically in time through unexpected and unpredictable paths. Gorse might be attractive, sweet smelling and generally docile in Ireland, but it becomes an aggressive, dominant plant on disturbed land in New Zealand. It, like the animals the program seeks to eradicate, thrives on edgelands, places of possibility, quickly occupied by the opportunistic.

VECTOR
I watched a pastoral version of the vectoral play out one day tramping down a road on a ridge not far from Manunui. It had on its right (as I walked south) a narrow verge with, as is common in New Zealand, fencing up to the edge of the road enclosing a pasture. What was striking to me was the narrow shelf of turf just inside the fence before the land dropped off precipitously many meters before leveling off in a field where I could just see in the distance a farmer next to his truck. (The pastures are so steep in New Zealand they fertilize them from airplanes.) A little further down the road, the narrow shelf broadened out to form a plateau of perhaps an acre where about thirty steers were grazing quietly. As I walked toward them I heard the sharp whistle of the farmer and saw two border collies racing up the vertical pasture wall toward the cattle. Alarmed, the cattle began to move about. A number followed along the fence line onto the narrow strip where I stood. The dogs separated and, responding to different whistles, proceeded to draw the group back together. I stood transfixed, not wanting to disturb the operation and fascinated by what was unfolding. The cattle came near me, spooked, split off, some heading back, others trotted down the fence line. Those outlaws were soon headed by one of the dogs, and as the herd regrouped at the apex of the narrow strip and the wider pasture, one steer–spooked, slipped, pushed, had the ground give out beneath him–turned and ran downhill. Then a cascade of cattle descended the declivity, while dogs circled up the remaining few who joined the herd in a rapid descent to the main pasture. Not a profound event, just a morning on the farm for farmer, dog, cow, and turf, but it was a marvelous moment, showing the spontaneity of vectoral traverse.

That brings me back to Thoreau because I have not fairly represented him. His essay “Walking” is a classic celebration of the vectoral. His ideal walking is never on a road, or even crossing roads (though that is something that remains unavoidable for anyone who walks distance). He seeks out huckleberries and wild apples–the denizens of the margins–and celebrates swamps, edgelands, and the aimlessness of wandering. It was in “Walking” that he wrote the often (mis)quoted line: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” There is much that can (and has) been said about what he means by “wild,” but I would add to it the notion of vectoral walking. Following out a line of flight through a point of intensity, a bifurcation, a moment of possibility, is a form of the wild. Like the tree grown from an apple dropped somewhere by man or beast, it is a wilding. Traversing space through point-line, or positioning and navigating carefully through a planar representation or through sheer familiarity with the space is a form of traverse but also a form of discipline and even subjection. Thoreau’s ideal is a purer resistance. His sauntering follows out unacknowledged internal impulses, a “subtle magnetism” coupled with the “capabilities of the landscape,” the affordances it provides and the dialog it produces to cross the line, escape the plane and follow the vector. It is a traverse without goal, except to express and even live the possibilities of the space, the open, the wild.

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T. Hugh Crawford

Vital Heat

October 16th, 2015

Vital Heat

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In Coming into the Country, John McPhee offers a series of portraits of Alaskan backwoods men and women. One particularly striking character is Dick Cook, an able trapper who among other quirky traits disdains wool, wearing instead cotton, the one fabric every outdoor adviser warns against. We’ve all heard the phrase “cotton kills” because, once wet, it offers no warmth. Cook claims, “You have to worry more up here about overdressing than underdressing. The problem is getting overheated.” It is perhaps easy to dismiss his comment as Alaskan individualist bravado, but he also is calling attention to the delicate practice of thermoregulation in the big outdoors.

In the “Economy” chapter of Walden, Thoreau uses the phrase “vital heat” to describe the basics necessary to sustain life (or perhaps even to define life). He goes on to critique fine clothing and the fashion industry and, later, elaborate architecture. For him, clothes and houses exist to maintain heat/life, not to designate status. This is all part of his familiar plea to simplify and his broader critique of overly complex social relations. But, if you think a bit about being in the big outdoors over time–that is, to be like Dick Cook working all day outside and perhaps sleeping in a thin shelter at night–this notion of vital heat might be less an opportunity to tweak the noses of Thoreau’s fellow townspeople than it is his acknowledgment of a real and constant imperative which only creeps into conscious awareness outside sealed, climate-controlled spaces.

My experience the other day (detailed in my Te Araroa journal) attempting the Tongiriro Crossing is illustrative:

All advice is not to attempt [the crossing] in bad weather, and my morning started out cold (down at low elevation) and wet, though there were glimpses of sun, and the cloud cover did not look significantly different from a typical New Zealand morning, so off I set. My plan was to get up to the Ketatahi Hut which was about 18 km from the campground and a little over six from the car park. I figured to get there mid-morning and would then have a sense of how the weather would play out. If it stayed bad, I’d sleep in hut and wait for morning. The hike went well, long road walk followed by well-designed and maintained paths. As I emerged from the bush and started hiking the alpine tundra the temperature started to drop as I expected, and the wind picked up. I could smell the sulfur from the hot springs nearby. Still, I was well dressed in wind/rain gear, ready for what I thought would come. The trail has been rerouted a bit since I last hiked this track (I’ve already done this stretch twice before, but in summer weather), so I was not sure how close the hut was. The rain intensified and the wind soon got to gale force. It at times actually pushed me off the trail. The last kilometer or two were otherworldly– horizontal rain, freight train wind, and no clear end in sight. Then it appeared (not a moment too soon). The first thing I saw when I got to the door was the hut’s redesignation as a temporary shelter, not an overnight site any longer (because of a recent eruption– after all, this is a volcano hike). I went inside, stripped off wet clothes, and with shivering hands made an early lunch. As I did not get appreciably warmer–the wind by now was bashing the sides of the cabin– I spread out my sleeping bag on the table and crawled in which soon got my body temperature to a better range.

Here the great outdoors is threatening and heat is indeed vital. Its maintenance is something requiring anticipation, preparation, and self-awareness. I used all the elements Thoreau details for proper balance–food, clothing, shelter–but my getting to that level of understanding about vital heat was the result of a specific crisis. It is the day to day that tends to slip beneath notice but is perhaps what Thoreau is actually signaling through his discussion in Walden.

Dick Cook rejects wool clothing because of the expense, but also because he lives near Eagle, Alaska which happens to be in the driest part of the state. Places with high moisture and sharp temperature shifts require more deliberation. Even though I have a slight wool allergy (it itches a lot), that is what I wear on the trail. The main difference between merino wool and polypropylene (the other backpacker fabric of choice) is that wool is warmer, dries quicker, and–a perhaps aesthetic but still important difference–wool does not smell after a few days’ wearing (nothing reeks worse than polypropylene after a couple of sweaty days). But maintaining vital heat is not so much about the material as it is a set of practices in relation to your own body’s heat response. A typical hiking day for me: early mornings are usually cool, so I often start with long pants (I hike with zip-offs, so at a break I can easily convert to shorts). Unless it is raining, I usually wear a merino wool t-shirt, a heavier merino long-sleeve t-shirt, and start with a fleece. I keep in my pocket a thin merino skullcap, perhaps the handiest piece of clothing I have for thermoregulation. It only takes a little uphill hiking to get me out of the fleece. Once I reach hiking temperature, the subtle vital heat practices emerge. I sweat profusely when exerting myself, regardless of outside temperature, which is why I found McPhee’s discussion of Dick Cook telling. I soon find my undershirt soaked even if the rest of my body– hands and head– remain cold. Practice then includes putting the hat on and off, often in different ways (pulling it above or over my ears, or pulling it down over my temples). The same goes for my long sleeves, which I regularly pull away from my wrists, or back down over them. These adjustments continue throughout the day responding to terrain difficulty, altitude change, moisture, wind speed, and physical exertion.

Thoreau’s vital heat is initially not an abstraction to enable social critique, nor does it designate a passively stable system, even if our thermostats today invite us to believe that is the case. Rather, what he describes in “Economy” is a set of material gestures that dynamically unfold and constantly change over time, conditions demanding attention, care, and vigilance. Thoreau characteristically resists the quick leap from the material to the abstract or transcendental. Rather, he stays on the ground, in the weather, over time. Maintaining vital heat in the great outdoors demands living deliberately.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Wonderlust

October 10th, 2015

Wonderlust

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The great philosopher Van Morrison once asked, “Didn’t I come to bring you a sense of wonder?” Besides listening to his music music, there are many ways to wonder. Wandering the Te Araroa prompts a questioning of the many senses of the term, as the relation between a single alphabetical differential–wander/wonder–brings out. Although they are, I think, etymologically distinct, the two words share one important valence–comfortable uncertainty. Wandering is purposive but not directed, and wondering is encounter with circuitous speculation.

People often associate wonder with childhood. To be young and in the big outdoors is to be filled with wonder. In the last chapter of Landmarks, a book on disappearing place-names, Robert MacFarlane describes the activities of children exploring their version of the Hundred Acre Wood. He examines the language they invent to mark out their daily wonders. One child became obsessed with watercourses, speculating that much of it disappeared by flowing beneath the ground, a phenomenon he called “secret water.” Since reading that chapter, I’ve have found myself in many boggy places on the Te Araroa hearing a deep gurgle and saying (usually out loud, as I have no social censor in the bush) secret water! The resonance of this particular wonder-word is its fluidity. The boy’s phrase grants access to a concept without limiting its possibilities.

The most frequent moments of wonder I have in my wandering are the landscapes in morning or evening light which are often wild yet still domestic. Pastoral in the most literal sense as the hills are covered with sheep, but rough and rugged in their jagged steepness. Then there are the old forests. Walking the trail requires focus on the surface–a root can break an ankle and end the trek–along with rapid scanning for orange triangle blazes as the woodland path is easy to lose. Breaking this concentration is the sudden recognition of what has probably been present for many a step: trees in fantastical twisted shapes, covered with moss, itself covered by layers of other moss until all is an intense green surge. Or perhaps a single tree of such girth as to have come from an illustrated children’s book. The Totara seems straight from the imagination of the author of Swiss Family Robinson. Another is the pissing wonder. Camping far from light-polluted urban areas inevitably includes that moment in the middle of the night when you crawl out of the tent to urinate. You rub the sleep from your eyes speculating about the creatures that might be lurking in the dark, and then, almost inadvertently, you look up and see the sweep of stars. Here in the Southern Hemisphere the only familiar form is Orion, but no matter. It is not constellations you see, but instead innumerable points of pure light set in the darkest dark.

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To wonder is to be in a state of arrest, pausing to process. As a noun it denotes something unusual, even cosmic as in the biblical “signs taken for wonders.” As a verb it means to ponder in a non-linear or wandering fashion. Wonderful is a word that has perhaps lost its power of wonder, reduced now to describing something “good” or “beautiful.” But wonder brings something much different. It is not ethical (good) nor aesthetic (beautiful); it is epistemological. The sense of wonder is a way of knowing, speculation without rigor, a joyful non-cognitive understanding. In that sense, wonder is pre-Kantian. It resists categorical reduction. “Secret water” opens up the wonderer to a form of speculative understanding that is not just hydrology. I remember a class on the literature of walking where one day we talked about trail lore, the natural history that springs up amongst those walking the big outdoors. One student with open computer and turbo-charged browser fact checked each story, effectively ending the discussion with specific determinations of accuracy. A bright and engaging person, but someone who lives in a world without wonder, what Weber called the disenchanted world. I’m not saying that there is not a place for fact-checking, particularly in contemporary politics. Rather, I’m suggesting that there are other forms of knowledge that do not depend on categorical determination. Instead they are tentative probings into a world that continues to amaze.

There is a kinship between this sense of wonder and what Keats called “negative capability,” which is to be “in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” With this concept, Keats describes a way of living. Wonder, while it can be that, is more often a moment of fairly short duration prompted by an event. The experience of awe is also one of arrest, of being overwhelmed (even to the point of nausea, e.g., Thomas Jefferson peering over the edge of Natural Bridge), but, as an aesthetic phenomenon, it is experienced all as that moment. With wonder, the perceiver is further prompted toward speculation–wondering–a series of somewhat random intellectual wanderings toward an engagement with or understanding of that moment.

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We can feel wonderlust, but perhaps just as often we experience wonderguilt. I find myself walking rapidly through forests or over mountains without pausing. Occasionally I upbraid myself for gliding past what I think I should be feeling deeply and examining closely, but that also highlights the temporality of wonder. It is, as I have been saying, a moment of arrest which is followed by speculation supported by non-reductive observation. It is a turning loose of the mind to speculation that knows no bounds apart from the material circumstances of wonder itself, and that process is exhausting. It’s much easier to google than it is to wonder.

Early on as a parent, I thought hard about what sort of traits to foster or celebrate. There are the standards– honesty, rectitude, respect– but wonder exceeds them all, which raises the question, can you cultivate wonder? It seems to be something we are born with and lose, but my wager is that it is less about maturing than it is a hardening of the categories. The material world is much easier to process when there is a precise term available for all the parts, an articulation that enables you to stop thinking about how all those parts fit, or indeed, what constitutes a part. Speculation without strict categories is hard work, so it is no wonder that we embrace simple answers–facts and reason. But ultimately to really live in the world, you must bring to it a sense of wonder.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Just a Bindlestiff

October 6th, 2015

Just a bindlestiff

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Walking long distance is never just about solitude. Most trails cross roads, towns, and some (such as the Te Araroa) go through cities. It’s one thing to be out in the bush– hot, sweaty, a bit fragrant from a few days without bathing, sporting unruly hair and a scraggly beard– and running into other trekkers. Even if they are day-hikers (what my son Bennett calls “bed-sleepers”), they recognize you for who you are–a hiker. But there are times when you can find yourself walking down the sidewalk of a city where your appearance and fragrance can single you out as stranger if not simply strange.

A term used by American long-distance trekkers is “hiker trash,” a phrase that is variously meaningful. Applied by actual hikers, it can be a form of self-consciousness, an awareness that in certain circumstances you are violating social norms. I pack hiking clothes and one set of town clothes– a shirt and pants that are only worn in a clean environment. So, for example, the other night I was in Waitomo with my tent set up in a campground. I was able to shower, put on my clean clothes, comb my hair and beard, and eat a magnificent meal in a nice restaurant. My shuffling limp might have been noticeable, as were my not-quite-stylish clothes, but I was well within the bounds of decorum. But “hiker trash,” like its source term “white trash” is more than self-consciousness. It can clearly be pejorative and demeaning, a word (like many other culturally deterministic terms) that gathers conflicting ideas and charges them.

It’s no coincidence that hiker trash emerged as an epithet on the Appalachian Trail, a route that has its roots in the Deep South, right up through the area where there live many of the people who were (and are) regarded as the original white trash. So it is not just a self-deprecating term deployed by middle class hikers who might be a bit embarrassed about their appearance. It also signals questions of class on the trail. Some general history might help. Benton MacKaye, the man who first envisioned the AT and who was one of its early promotors, did not picture a trail where people started hiking in Georgia and finished in Maine. His vision did not even require continuity of the trail itself. Instead he wanted a trail that would run near most of the major Eastern population centers and could then provide access to the great outdoors to any and all people. The major national parks that Teddy Roosevelt initiated were primarily in the west, out of reach of working class Americans. The AT was to provide recreation and the chance to work in outdoor camps in clean air away from the perceived decay of eastern urban life. Incidentally, similar arguments were used by the English in the “right to roam” movement during the same years, trying to grant access to the countryside for laborers in the English industrial midsection. The original vision of the AT was of a place that welcomed all.

Trail names are an amusing part of today’s American hiker culture, and they too have their roots in the AT. People hiking long stretches eventually get named by their fellow hikers because of some characteristic, attribute, or event, a gesture both humorous and ritualistic. One of my favorites was a woman who was using a tried-and-true method of defecating in the woods: plant your feet firmly, reach out and grasp a small tree or sapling, squat, and take care of business. She chose a rotten small tree and was subsequently dubbed “Timber!” Trail names serve another function, as long-distance hikers are to some degree anonymous. Newly christened, they have no past (at least to other hikers). In conversation, rarely does anyone directly ask someone else what they do “in real life.” There is, almost in the spirit of Benton MacKaye, an attempt to erase class. Everyone is just a hiker, everyone is hiker trash.

So a form of camaraderie is achieved with the term, an almost Foucauldian “fellowship of discourse” which brings with it friction with outsiders. I recall vividly being in a small town in western Connecticut. I was taking a break in a coffee shop sitting off to the side out of notice. When I went outside I discovered a picnic table set in a small park near a grocery store which was having a sale on six packs of Polar Bar ice cream. Sitting around the table were six thruhikers (and my son Bennett), each eating an entire six pack of ice cream bars, oblivious of the incredulous stares from passing shoppers (Bennett, to his credit, did give me one of his). That moment captured the sense of collective unity designated by hiker trash– a certain defiance of social norms and an assertion of a particular form of identity: people who may not be all that clean or well-groomed, but who nevertheless are capable of remarkable physical efforts such as hiking 20 miles a day, day after day, or eating an entire pack of Polar Bars before they melt.

Doing the White Mountain traverse, particularly the Presidentials, also brings out these class issues. This is a stretch where there are no open campsites. A characteristic of the AT is that all campsites are free, including the regularly spaced shelters. In the Whites, the Appalachian Mountain Club maintains a series of huts which offer bunks and meals at a price meant for well-heeled visitors from the cities (almost the opposite of Benton MacKaye’s vision). The first couple of thru-hikers to arrive at a hut can request work-for-stay, which usually involves some menial task in return for being able to eat leftovers and sleep on the dining room floor. It’s a good deal if you can get it (Bennett and I were lucky in that regard when we made our crossing). What is conspicuous is the clear distinction between the paying guests and the not-quite-welcome hiker trash. Of course it all varies with the evening and the guests, but generally speaking, most thru hikers feel the disrespect, which is ironic given the relative hiking skills of the paying customers compared to them.

On the Pacific Crest Trail, the term is used, but is much less charged, tending to be more just a slightly humorous, deprecating epithet used by disheveled middle-class hikers. The PCT requires a lot of planning and forethought. Food must be purchased well ahead of time and mailed to drop points along the way. It is not a trail you can simply begin and resupply every couple of days.The AT has many hikers who range up and down the trail, stopping to work for a week or two, then head back out. People who in the city might be regarded as homeless, but who have some financial support (disability or veteran’s benefits, savings from seasonal work) and can live by and through hiking. Sitting in a shelter having a conversation with its occupants, you almost never know anything about their financial circumstances.

So, as my hair and beard get longer, my clothes a bit more worn, am I regarded as tramper trash here in New Zealand? I cannot answer that yet. Without doubt, I find people notice me when I walk down the street. I’m a man alone with backpack trying to figure out where he is. Couple that with the drive-on-the-left-hand-side syndrome, and you get someone who is always a bit uncertain crossing the street, and who often is walking down the sidewalk on the right, causing consternation for other pedestrians. That marks me as an outsider, a tourist, but not a bindlestiff. I think in part, at least in the areas I have been, NZ is a less formal country, so my clothes and general appearance are not significantly out of place. But ultimately, it is a matter of self-perception. In the absence of obvious discrimination or disdain, I don’t see people’s reactions because I don’t yet recognize their cultural cues. So for now, in the words of Mark Twain, I’m just a tramp abroad.

T. Hugh Crawford

 

Inventory

September 30th, 2015

Inventory

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I remember as a child marveling at a Boy Scout mess kit. Inside a green canvas cover embossed with the Scout emblem was a shiny aluminum flying saucer. Loosening wingnut at the end of two extended metal tabs let me rotate a metal strap away and lift off the top half disk which magically became a deep plate or a shallow bowl. Inside was a pot with a lid, and inside that a pale green plastic cup marked with measuring gradations. The bottom disk, with the strap rotated and re-secured became a frying pan. Add a fire and you had a complete kitchen.

Such designs are ingenious in their compactness, but also carry with them a process that is an inventory. The act of assembling the mess kit also assures all parts are there. Long-distance hikers tend not to carry such kits today. They may be a compact way to store all the parts, but those parts weigh a fair amount and most are unnecessary. For cooking, I only carry a Jetboil which is an isobutane burner attached to the bottom of a half-liter titanium pot/cup (It too ingeniously fits together– burner/fuel inside the pot/cup for transport), a titanium spork, and a very small pocket knife. But all of my gear combined fits together in a way similar to the mess kit. The act of packing is in itself taking inventory.

Many long-distance hikers become equipment obsessed, something I, almost of necessity, share. The lighter, more compact the backpack, the more distance you can cover in more comfort (comfort is not the right word, less pain). A quick inventory: I’m hiking the Te Araroa with a 27 liter cuben-fiber Zpack backpack (1 lb). I have a Nemo 30 degree down sleeping bag (1 lb), and a Zpack cuben-fiber one person tent (1 lb). My gear is distributed in 10 dry and/or compression bags. Two exterior dry bags extend my pack volume and carry stove and a Nalgene bottle on one side, and heavy weather gear (rain pants, coat, etc.) on the other. A 20 liter dry sack contains my sleeping bag, clothes bag, a small toiletries bag, and a small equipment bag. A Sea to Summit micro backpack doubles as a food bag (and the bag to carry to the grocery store for re-supply). Those all go inside the main bag along with a 2 liter camelback water supply. My tent is in a stuff sack in the outside mesh compartment. And my attic (or as some people call it, the brain) is a small Zpack bag carrying wallet, passport, iPad and charger. It clicks off the pack easily and can then be carried to the store, cafe, pub. Other items outside the pack include a thermarest foam sleeping pad, rain cover, teva light-weight sandals, and a pair of Leki carbon fiber trekking poles. Total base weight– about 18 lbs.

I know, boring list, but just like the mess kit, all of those components fit together in a specific configuration. Every piece of equipment is important–even crucial– to success, comfort, and perhaps survival. Keeping track of it is paramount, and requires a degree of care that borders on obsession. That’s where assembly inventory come in. All the equipment fits in bags which fit into other bags, counting and being counted as the process unfolds. There is a temporal dimension to this spatial organization as things are packed and unpacked daily in particular sequences, and are often redistributed in another careful/ obsessive fashion. My tent, which is a single layer tarp held up by my trekking poles has a tub base suspended by mosquito netting. Apart from the gale on the Ninety Mile Beach dune, it has functioned incredibly well, snug and dry in the pouring rain. The tub is large enough for me, my sleeping pad and bag, and, distributed about the edges, all those small bags described above, each in a particular place so I can find them in the dark and so they can be re-packed in the morning. In some ways it is like being on a boat or a tiny house. There is nothing you don’t need, and there has to be a place for everything you have. It is a precision that enforces austerity and fosters care.

Nutrition also falls into the category of precision and care, but not because of preparation. Of course one can exercise both care and precision in camp cooking. Remembering to bring Tabasco, buying sundried tomatoes, or finding mushrooms can make a bland dry meal delicious, but the real issue with food is consuming calories. Backpacking 25-35 kilometers daily generally burns more calories than most people can easily eat in a day. Eating on the trail is much less about taste and culinary fulfillment than it is about pure consumption. Food must be lightweight yet packed with nutrition, and eaten carefully across the day.

There is a moment in Earl Shaffer’s book North with Spring where he complains about fading energy and expresses concern that he will not be able to continue his quest to be the first Appalachian Trail thru-hiker. He is a good distance into his hike, I’m guessing around one month, and he finds himself eating the equivalent of two suppers one night. He then realizes he simply was not eating enough. A probable explanation for this event is fat. Obviously it varies among people, but most long-distance backpackers lose most of their body fat about a month into the trip. Hikers note weight loss, but the accompanying energy loss can go unnoticed for a while. They are usually tired and just assume they’ve put in a big day. But careful attention can signal that shift which means you really don’t have reserve calories to call on at the end of the day unless you have eaten them that day. My Earl Shaffer moment came on September 27th mid-afternoon up on a muddy ridge. Just did not understand why I had run out of gas.

The equipmentality of hiking is a form of inventory, but in parallel, there is body inventory, those moments in the day when you check physical components. For me, those times are most vital just before sleep and on awakening. I lie there wiggling toes and fingers, rotating feet and hands, flexing all muscles, seeking out pain, anticipating trouble or discomfort. What is interesting is that such care translates into everyday gestures. It becomes hard to disentangle the pain inventory of your feet from the care you take with each step. Ideally each neither produces nor inflicts pain. Careful walking brings with it the desire to lessen all impact, producing gestures that do not disrupt micro-environments. Constant inventory attunes hikers to how everything fits together–that Boy Scout mess kit, marvelous and precise.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Footpaths

September 23rd, 2015

Footpaths

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First writing is done by feet. When we walk, we make marks and we make meaning. A path is deep writing. It is a material surface that over time becomes worn and accommodating, but it is also indexical, pointing out a direction–actually two. In addition, paths are communal: formed and maintained by community while at the same time forming and maintaining those very communities. They enable movement and embody memory. For children, at least those who are able to experience childhood outdoors (not on flooring, pavement or artificial turf), paths are possibility. Each day they start yet another adventure. Their windings are a wild writing, leading not to places of labor or commerce, but instead to the hidden which is also the imaginative.

Writing takes many forms, but the classic scene is a steel-nibbed pen scratching the surface of thick paper with the ink leaving a dark line modulated by the faintest lateral threads, liquid drawn out infinitesimally by capillary action of the paper’s fibers. The direction of the mark is, at a glance, obvious, but the possibilities of divergence are framed by those faint lateral marks. Drawn lines and footpaths–diagrams–have direction, but like their childlike wild counterparts also signal other possibilities.

Footpaths and words can take you places or get you lost, which is just a word for a place unknown. Through use, paths enforce a certain directionality. They are habituated to the feet that speak their direction, discourage divergence, dampen wildness. Even walking in blankness is all about making and possibly following marks. Ninety Mile Beach is flat, often 30+ meters wide, and can be walked comfortably anywhere in a wide section, but I still found myself following paths defined by earlier walkers or car tracks. On other beaches (I’ve followed many a beach track on the Te Araroa which is Maori for “The Long Path”) where the sand is often too soft to walk, my feet seek out a thin trace of shells that form a tide line and mark out firm footing. But paths are not just directors, they can be aesthetic, as in Richard Long’s famous 1967 “Line Made by Walking.” They remember passersby, and, for example, express grief as in Rider’s walk down his dead wife Mannie’s weekly pathway in William Faulkner’s “Pantaloon in Black,” or they express and embody love, lovingly demonstrated in Eudora Welty’s “Worn Path” or the footpath of my own youth which led through an orchard to a girlfriend’s house.

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On the other hand, a long-distance footpath must be precisely legible, so they tend to be multimediated. There is, of course the path itself, the reminder of where to step, step by step. Long-distance trails are, almost by definition, unfamiliar. The childlike pleasure of the wild path is, in long-distance hiking, overwhelmed by uncertainty and the physically high stakes of mistakes. A wrong turn can take the trekker many miles from intention. When crossed by another path, the trail needs further indication, often supplied by signs (made of wood or other ponderous material, but which can still be taken as wonders). Theirs is a writing that supplements the first pathwriting. Trail anxiety is also alleviated by other visual marks, usually some form of blazing. On the Appalachian Trail, these are white vertical rectangles (approximately 2 1/2″ x 6″) painted on a tree or rock, usually at eye height. Change in direction is signaled by the turn of the path itself, and reinforced by double blazes, often slightly staggered to indicate direction. In addition, the AT has blue blazes which point out secondary or supplementary trails, usually those which cannot be recognized by the differential width and wear of the path itself.

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The Te Araroa is blazed by orange plastic triangles nailed to trees and posts at something that approaches eye height. Change in direction is indicated by doubling the blazes but also by tipping the triangle in that direction. Such indices are important on the TA, not just to alleviate anxiety, but also to embody the path which often, particularly in the Northland, can be more-or-less non-existent. In steep areas of, for example, the Herekino Forest, the slope can be completely washed out, giving no indication from the ground where to put feet. There the orange triangles become the path. But blazes also transform the experience of the pathway, moving it from feet and downcast eyes to scanning vision at human height, something that seems unimportant but is nevertheless phenomenologically significant.

Even with paths and blazes, it is still easy to lose trail direction. Often in the deep bush there is that heartsinking moment when you realize you have lost the trail. Usually, rather than returning to the last meaningful place (obvious path or blaze), a slight change in perspective, a simple shifting of head and eyes, reveals the obvious–Oh, there it is! Further mediation often takes the form of maps, usually topographical but also terrain profiles. I found that the Appalachian Trail itself was so well-worn and well-blazed that traditional topo maps were not necessary, though profile maps were useful in gauging the overall difficulty of the day. The most recent media form to layer over these others is GPS, which on smart phones takes the form of many useful apps that can obviate the need for all other writing except the path itself, which remains, as always, the first writing.

In a somewhat neglected essay, “The Biology of Cognition,” Humberto Maturana makes a distinction between connotative and denotative language. He does not appeal to traditional definitions of these terms, instead using “denotative” to mean the careful representation of concepts or ideas (in spoken or written language) to another person– almost like tokens passed from one person to another. In his schema, “connotative” then means the use of language to orient interlocutors to each other. When I ask someone how they are, I really do not expect bits of information about their health or financial status, nor am I directly interested in their mood. Rather, I am initiating an interaction where our mutual interests and concerns might in some way become aligned.

Maturana goes on to imply (as I recall) that a majority of language use is connotative, seeking orientation. Humans and other animals, fish, birds, insects, and microbes all orient themselves to each other through pathwriting. It is impossible not to marvel at the subtle communication within a formation of birds whose wings write currents in the air, leading those who follow to shift ever so slightly direction and speed. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes with fascination the watery paths leviathans follow in their migrations. Paths may not be denotative unless they are part of a highly ritualized set of symbolic gestures (e.g., The Stations of the Cross), but without doubt, they are connotative, serving to orient all motile beings to each other, their umwelt, livelihood, and selves. The hills of New Zealand are an intricate patterning of lines, a corduroy of paths and ledges made by generations of cattle and sheep, all finding a home in a steep and difficult place.

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Footpaths and writing often come together (witness Wordsworth), and paths can be a model for thought, from Gerald Edelman’s notion of neural pathways to Martin Heidegger’s holzwege. The latter saw the path as thinking itself. One was never in a particular place or thought, but instead was always on the way toward it. To write is first and foremost to experience the open. To be on a footpath is never to arrive.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

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