Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Walkers Have Never Been Modern

May 26th, 2016

Walkers Have Never Been Modern

for Bruno Latour

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Robert MacFarlane along with Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards wrote a beautiful little book called Holloway. A holloway is “a sunken path, a deep & shady lane. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll, & rain-run have harrowed into the land.” In other words, a holloway embodies and records a human history of acting in and with the non-human world, a world made of earth, stone, water, but also animals, wheels, wagons, and tools. I recently finished the Camino Frances path of the Camino de Santiago, crossing the Pyrenees near St. Jean-Pied-de-Porte and walking through Pamplona, Burgos, and León to Santiago de Compostela, and then beyond to the Costa de Morte, to Muxia and Finisterre (900 kilometers). Though its paths are not usually as deep as the holloways MacFarlane explores in England, they record a deep history, one of pilgrimages to Finisterre that even predate the Christian Era. While parts today must be re-routed to newer paths to avoid trekking on what have become major highways, the Camino breaths a complex history, passing by every church in its path, but also circling natural formations, avoiding rugged climbs, reflecting the wisdom of the choices made by centuries of walkers. With each step, the modern peregrino is constantly aware of those years of wear, an overwhelming sense of human and nonhuman history.

Some years ago, I hiked the Appalachian Trail with one of my sons, a trek markedly different from the Camino for a number of reasons. Over 2000 miles, the AT winds its way up the east coast ridge of the United States, from Georgia to Maine, never very far from large population centers but on land that is largely depopulated, giving little sign of its ever having been occupied. There are of course moments when hikers feel history. Passing through northwestern Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland is a lesson on significant battles of the American Civil War, but often the sense of hikers, one reinforced by the designers and maintainers of the trail, is that they are walking in wilderness, a place devoid of human history. This mood is even stronger for those hiking the other two major US long-distance trails–the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide–both of which indulge walkers in the fantasy that they are walking where no one has walked before. Unlike the intensely historical nature of the Camino, the trope of American long-distance trails is uninhabited wilderness. Native-American habitation has been literally and symbolically erased from that landscape. American hikers, particularly those from the west, tend to fetishize this blankness, using human absence as a form of valuation, what is called the “fallacy of the wilderness.” It is as if there have been no “centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll, & rain-run.”

It may seem odd to turn to a French philosopher of science and technology to talk about attitudes toward the wilderness and human history, but Bruno Latour, in his early book We Have Never Been Modern and the recent An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence gives a vocabulary to help frame these observations. At the risk of oversimplification (which is inevitable given the length of this essay), We Have Never Been Modern is a critique closely related to Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of the “bifurcation of nature” which initially was a criticism of the philosophical distinction between an object’s primary and secondary qualities but eventually becomes a tool to dismantle the subject/object distinction that has dominated modern philosophy at least since Kant which is the avowed purpose of An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. In Latour’s timeline, Modernism began (or did not actually begin) when Western philosophy accepted and enforced a rigorous distinction between the subject and the object. An accomplished modernity would be one that could rigorously control the boundary between knowledge of the natural world and of human society. Latour’s insight is that while that wall might be tall and seemingly impregnable, it (like all geopolitical walls real or imagined) cannot stop subject/object hybrids (what he calls “quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects”) from proliferating. No matter how hard the modern knowledge police work, the subject/object distinction cannot be maintained for long.

A nature untrammeled by human contact and history, one seen only from a scenic overlook or walked on paths that were never built for transportation or human labor, is the wilderness ideal. From that perspective, American long-distance trails mimic the modernity Latour decries, one that erases the history of the material world and the imprint of human thought and action on the landscape. They are a celebration of Nature purged of all humans except the limited few with the strength, stamina, time, and financial wherewithal to make the trek. The holloway is an example of the sort of hybrid Latour invokes to destabilize the notion of an accomplished modernity. The holloway is objective, made of what we would call natural objects–dirt, stones, trees, roots, plants–and is subject to natural forces–rain, wind, drought, frost heave. But it is also social as it was made and is maintained by human activity, serving as a conduit for labor, play, transportation, and human contact. To walk a path is to live its history and trip over its ruts, at the same time!

The modernity Latour critiques is one without history, and many ways it is one without thought. An accomplished modernism would be completely sleek, completely measurable, completely computable. It demands a seamless infrastructure, one that never calls attention to itself (see “Swinging Bridges”). In many ways, it is the neo-liberal dream. Walking a holloway track– the Camino de Santiago or Nepal’s Helambu circuit–is to feel a sedimented history, but also much more. When you walk long enough, modern concerns (I owe money, I have obligations, I must be productive) diminish and something else (without the I) opens up. A range of forces come to bear–gravity, oxygen levels, a fine-grained sense of the weather, attention to flora, fauna, the impress of human activity, and memory. These and other factors constitute a mood that can open to reflection and ultimately open onto the possibility of thinking instead of having thoughts which, like ideas, become tokens to move about in some discourse to be measured and validated by a calculus of intellectual activity. The latter–thoughts–are prized by the neo-liberal academy as they can be converted into statements that circulate as a proxy for thinking and an emblem of intellectual activity, but are actually a faint shadow of the non-modern experience of thinking. In that light, the academia’s long slide from celebrating wisdom to knowledge (18th century) to information (20th century) to data (21st century) is to the neo-liberal university, a place of constant self-assessment, periodic review, and impact analysis, a machine designed to halt thinking in its tracks. The optimism of Latour’s book is his claim that we have never been modern, that such a state can never be accomplished because the boundary between subject and object, self and world, is a chimera. Purification gestures may create power relations and try to reduce thinking to having thoughts, but the hybrid I am calling thinking proliferates outside those boundaries, in a world that never was modern.

On morning I woke in a Kathmandu hotel with no electricity which is of course a regular occurrence in most of the world. Technological differences tend to be what we first notice when visiting other places. Heading out of the city deeper into the mountains is a move toward fewer conveniences and what seems a simpler life. Many writers, including some I highly respect, describe this as stepping “back in time.” I understand what they mean. In isolated rural areas, the daily practices of the people living there are often quite similar to those of their ancestors. Farmers tilling narrow terraced fields with short-handled heavy hoes or metal-tipped wooden plows with a yoke of oxen is a scene repeated for centuries if not millennia, so for visitors, it is of an antique simplicity. However the “back in time” attitude is the result of a parochial sense of modernity. Yes, without doubt, the people living in, say, Melamchigaon are not working in sanitized, hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled environments staring at computer screens all day, but they live in the 21st century, surrounded by artifacts of that era including the ubiquitous steel and aluminum sheathing, cell phones, polyester jackets, airplanes and helicopters circling, soldiers patrolling with automatic weapons. While they may not be in a high-tech envelope, they, like the vast majority of the world’s population, are in the larger 21st century world. The place where they live and work is a hybrid of high tech and traditional practices that a narrow, hyper-modern view overlooks. What the “back in time” trope brings is a sense of distance from and a concomitant blindness to the hybrid nature of all our lives. Silicon Valley daily life is also full of activities long practiced by humans but overlooked in pursuit of a digital totality. Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” starts with an “it” that is modernized, but the “it” and all its deep history is sedimented in that “new.” Stepping into Melamchigaon is not a temporal disjunction. It is spatial. It is stepping into a different modernity or, to use Latour’s terminology, into the non-modern world where we have been all along.

T. Hugh Crawford

Sunrise

May 22nd, 2016

Sunrise

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Early on in Walden, Thoreau says, “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.” Presence at first light, ever elusive but somehow fundamental. The labors of many people require they rise before the sun, but being up early does not necessarily put one in the presence of the sunrise as an event, the first of the new day. Long-distance walkers are a privileged few as they, like Thoreau, are up and about, doing their daily labor before the sun, and most days find themselves lingering on some path watching the unfolding of yet another rosy-fingered dawn.

In El Gamso on the Camino de Santiago, Gloria, my trekking partner suggested we get up early enough to see the sunrise from the peak at Cruz de Ferro. Walkers are game for most things, but this was a pre-dawn trek of 15 km including a long steep climb. At 4:00 am, we were up and in a few minutes hiking fast and hard down the path, headlamps dimly lighting the way. It was smooth but still there was the occasional stumble. An advantage of the early time was a sky awash with stars, the Milky Way streaming through the middle, punctuated by the occasional meteorite, but we had to ignore the sight most of the time, focusing instead on our feet. There was less than 3 hours time to cover the distance. Before long a crescent moon rose at our backs, partly showing the way. That time of morning brings new sensations. Birds often unheard call out. Different temperature gradients cross the skin. The earth and plants exhale unique odors. Setting a brisk pace, we made the the next town in good time but then had to climb a ridge in mud and flowing water, all as the horizon began to lighten ominously. Soon anticipation gave way to near despair. Pushing on through the just-waking village of Foncebadon, we crested the main ridge, still short of Cruz de Ferre but finding an ideal place to see the morning in. Sunrises happen every day but they are never the same. This day some low clouds ran interference as the orange intensified along the horizon, then a brilliant flash of yellow light turned our retinas purple. Soon the sun’s rays touched all around and, though we had not materially assisted in its rising, we had contributed our mite and received everything in return. It’s a strange feeling to have been up and toiling long and hard only to recognize that a new day has just commenced. We got up, stretched, and made our way to the Cruz de Ferre, an iron cross atop a tall wooden pole surrounded by a huge pile of rocks brought by peregrinos from all over the world. I found a rock by the path and pitched it over my head onto the pile, while Gloria retrieved the one she had carried from some far away place. Anticipation frames a moment, but the moment always exceeds it.

That morning while watching the sunrise, I could not help but recall Hölderlin’s hymn, “The Ister,” and Heidegger’s commentary in a book of the same name. I kept repeating the opening lines:

Now come, fire!
Eager are we
To see the day.

Command, presence, inevitability, anticipation, anxiety. Sunrise is but one in 24 hours of moments, but it is a singularity, an edge, a precise point. It predates industrial time and is measured not in seconds or minutes but in duration–a taunt, stretched now that extends from the first bit of pure light to the emergence of the sun as full body. Heidegger, ever the interrogator, questions Hölderlin’s opening line: “Yet if “the fire” comes of its own accord, then why is it called? The call does not effect the coming.” He is pursuing a broader philosophical point, but his questioning uncovers the walker’s dilemma, one phrased by Thoreau differently but essentially asking the same thing: what calls for presence at a sunrise? Eager to see the day, we pause watching colors, the false dawn, then the moment of pure light. Our eagerness calls on the sun to come, but it was the sun all along that brought us to this ridge. Presence at sunrise questions Being in ways few other quotidian actions can. The most temporal of events calls the caller out of measured time into dureé. It is time as a thread stretched to absolute thinness. Clocks do not tick at sunrise; time expands, filling the horizon.

But fire can bring destruction, and to think the now is to think its end. Not far from the Cruz de Ferro is the Galician Atlantic coast and Finisterre, the end of the earth in the Medieval world, the place where the sun goes to die. On the Costa de Morte there once was the altar of Ara Solis dedicated to that daily dying sun, something pilgrims witness with each sunset. Sunrise is both inevitable and not, prompting questions of the end rather than the beginning. Ben Schneider (of the band Lord Huron) asks, “what if the world dies with the sunrise?” Not an anxiety strongly felt by those called to witness the beginning of the day, but a thought that lurks in the background. To anticipate an event is to entertain the possibility of it not happening. Heidegger also calls the now the “time of poets.” The sun calls the poets to write. It calls walkers differently, not to give words but more fundamentally to mark the surface of the earth, to write paths with bootsoles. To be present at the sun’s rising, the way is trod, the ridge is climbed. To participate in the now of that moment is to be part of a longstanding community with feet maintaining the way and naming the history of the land’s dwellers, sometimes going back millennia. The pause on the ridge gives the sunrise a silent voice. An event made reverent by the act of stopping to pay attention, to attend. Deleuze asks of Leibniz and Whitehead “What is an Event?” He then produces a multiplicity of answers, or, to put it the same way, his answer is a multiplicity with some convergence. An event is a gathering to an intensity, a set of forces singled out and directing attention. It is, in Whitehead’s terms, a concresence of elements, the active creation of the new and, I would add, the now which is always novel.

Sunrise calls out a particular now for our attention, showing by implication the production, the concresence, of all nows, however unremarkable others may be. Sitting there on that hill in that moment was an event. We did not materially assist the sun in its rising, did not wake the birds’ songs or paint the full palette of colors on the sky or cause the mist to rise from the plowed earth or bring both light and shadow to play across the land. But we were there attending and anticipating. Already wide-awake from a long, hard hike, we were there to begin the new day.

T. Hugh Crawford

A Walker of Rivers

April 13th, 2016

A Walker of Rivers

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Water–you’d have thought I’d had enough of it. Starting the Te Araroa on September 1st (against the advice of everyone consulted), I sloshed my way through the Herekino and Rataea forests, splashed up the Mangapukahukanu, climbed any number of peaks to admire the fog, and even tried (unsuccessfully) to wade across the mouth of the Okura just north of Auckland. The better part of my first two months on the Te Araroa was in a damp mist if not outright downpour. But as spring gave way to summer, that fog lifted and water took on a new and surprising quality–indescribable beauty. When hiking the Appalachian Trail in the United States, I crossed many rivers–from the white water of the Nantahala in North Carolina to the broad slow tidal waters of the Hudson just above New York City, or the Kennebec in Maine where a paid staffer ferries thru-hikers across in a canoe. The Te Araroa has more than its share of tough river crossings, particularly on the South Island–the Rakaia, Rangitata, and my personal nemesis, the Ahuriri–but along with crossings, the TA also brings opportunities to hike a river’s length, to become a walker of rivers. Each has its own attractions and devotees, but for me, nothing compares to the trek from St. Arnaud along Lake Rotoiti then up the Travers River to its high mountain source.

I woke early at the backpacker hostel in the Nelson Lakes Motel–one of those places cherished by hikers both for its amenities and the information passed between staff and fellow trekkers. Triple Hands Dave, a mountain guide who had also hiked the Appalachian Trail, was already cooking breakfast for his crew. I made coffee while we talked about the differences between the AT and the TA. Little did I know, I was about to start a day’s hike that would bring into stark relief those very differences. I soon packed up and headed out, but not to the trail just yet. One of my Te Araroa resolutions was to never eat food from my pack when there was a restaurant nearby, so I wandered down to the St. Arnaud Cafe for the “big breakfast.” Hiking the Appalachian Trail brought few opportunities for a cafe breakfast. It was almost always an early morning meal of cold poptarts or granola bars before plunging back in the wilderness, so lingering in a cafe was quite the luxury. The morning was cold as I sat at the picnic tables waiting for the cafe to open, using some free wifi to catch up on the news and staving off obligations back in the States. Soon I was tucking into a hearty breakfast followed by ice cream (on both the AT and the TA, thru-hikers can eat as much as they want, a habit hard to break after returning to a more sedentary life). Soon the trail beckoned, and I started the thirty kilometer hike to Upper Travers Hut.

The best beginning of a day, one that limbers up old arthritic joints, is an easy flat walk. Along the shore of Lake Rotoiti, one of the Nelson Lakes that give water a good name, the manicured path at times veers out onto gravel beaches giving a chance to linger and study the water’s color, texture, and the lake bottom which, regardless of depth, always seems just inches from the surface. By the time I got to the top of the lake, my legs felt young and the sun was shining brightly. There was a clear sense of adventure in the air, and the water was in the lake, streams and river, not coming down on me from the sky. The valley opened up as the trail crossed old pastures and followed the winding of the Travers, occasionally crossing by those swinging bridges that still give me pause. Walking those lower parts close to the river, I became increasingly aware of the water’s clarity, marveling at its almost unimaginable color. In the United States before the advent of brown ceramic insulators, rural electrical lines were strung on blue-green glass knobs. Today those knobs are collectibles (they make great paper weights). The one siting on my desk at home echoes the color of the Travers River, but it is a only a feeble echo.

The hike took me from the lake to the headwaters, so the river’s life unfolded across the day, going from the staid maturity at the mouth to the rollicking turbulence of youth (yes, the water really does rollick over rocks). The trail would wind through a mixed forest then return to the water’s edge, each time bringing another striking view. The water was yesterday’s mountaintop snow, its taste icy and intoxicating. I stopped once to look into what must have been a deep pool, though it was difficult to judge the depth of something so transparent. As I stared at the bottom– perfect, round blue-gray stones– a trout caught my eye. Large, brown, at least 20 inches long and initially invisible, the fish was holding steady in the current. I’m not a fisherman though at that moment I wish I were. Instead I found myself thinking of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River” where Nick Adams, the protagonist, is recovering from the mental anguish of fighting in World War I. He goes fishing in northern Michigan, and early in the narrative leans over a bridge rail to watch big trout in the current. Nick has travelled to this river hoping to find a way to steady himself. Similar to most long-distance hikers, his actions are studied–precise, almost ritualized. Taking care is a way for him to control his situation and dampen down the uncertainty that wartime trauma has brought. Standing there watching that particular trout, I began to better understand Hemingway’s story. The Travers plunges down the mountain to the lake below, waterfall after waterfall. Even slack water is anything but slack. That fish motionless in the pool was swimming fast. Holding steady is hard work.

Although smaller streams had been joining the river all day, toward late afternoon, they came rushing in louder. I could see the mountain looming after passing Hopeless Creek (one of many vaguely ominous place-names along the Te Araroa). In contrast to the valley, the trail became steeper and more hazardous. The surrounding mountains cast dark shadows, and the trail itself made that familiar move–climbing above the stream then striking out level along an edge both narrow and slippery. I walked with care, staring at the path to keep steady, occasionally stopping to see where it led–a narrow chasm cut by slips, slides, and tumbling brooks. Then I saw, dropping straight off a mountain top, a waterfall with fully half of the water making up the Travers river at that point. It was as if someone had just taken up half the river and leaned it against a mountain, then let it fall, that blue-green water rushing vertically for what looked to be hundreds of meters. There are no words.

The day was winding down as I finally made my way to the hut which, to my surprise, had smoke coming from the chimney. Hiking the Te Araroa early in the season had been a solitary experience, so I wasn’t expecting company up near the top of Mt. Travers. With the hut in sight, I decided to cut across a meadow in what seemed a more direct route only to discover the way I had chosen was more water than land, so I managed to soak shoes and socks within yards of my destination. On entering I was met by a party–two Kiwi guides from Picton and four trekkers from Australia. They had crossed the lake by boat and spent the previous night at John Tait Hut, clearly hiking a more civilized pace than I was, something evident by their buoyant good humor. Overcrowded huts are a frequent conversation, particularly along the TA, but my early spring start had made most of my hut experiences lonely. I well remember two nights and one very long day at Waiopehu in the Tararuas where I found myself wet, cold, and alone staring at windows made opaque by driving rain, wondering what was out there. The morning it cleared brought a clear view of Levin, the town I had hiked out of two days earlier, looking entirely too close for all my hiking efforts. The Waiopehu and Upper Travers huts are fairly new, spacious, clean and inviting with the Upper Travers made even more so by the fire in the wood stove and a group of enthusiastic hikers. I hung my wet clothes by the fire and instead of a solitary evening, I was treated with extra food, some wine, and lively conversation.

The next morning, I woke to the expedition leader rekindling the fire, and soon the rest were rustling about. I packed, made breakfast with steaming coffee and even had a second cup, but that day my goal was Waiau Forks which required a climb over Travers Saddle and then, later in the afternoon, Waiau Pass. I said my farewells and walked out into one of those days where the very air is like glass, imparting a sheen on everything within sight. The path soon climbed above the bush and spread out below was the entire river valley. Even though I couldn’t, it seemed as if I could see all the way back to Lake Rotitiri, so for a moment it felt as though I was looking at an illustration in a topography book, one that explained the parts of a river valley, and I had the view from the top. All around were peaks, jagged rocks, some softened by the remaining snow– the snow that melted and fed the Travers. I lingered for a while at that point where the river began, then turned to start the long descent to the Sabine Valley, heading off for another day of walking rivers.

T. Hugh Crawford

Water

March 20th, 2016

Water

Mountains weep. No sadness there, though they do have moods. Water seeps from cracks in rocks, down from thin streams, or gurgles beneath mats of moss. Paths are suddenly slick, the smell of the air changes as does the temperature. You become aware of something that had been absent–or maybe it was following you all along, just beneath the surface.

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The skies were uncertain at Glenrock Stream. The wind picked up and rain spotted the stones, but there was also blue sky. Morning showers on New Zealand’s South Island often dissipate quickly. The first part of the path was up through pastures. The hills were treeless and covered with brown grass. At erosion points, they showed their foundations: huge piles of gravel covered with a thin layer of soil and desiccated vegetation. Initially the trail was well-formed, so I soon arrived at the first hut, a tiny A-frame tucked up in a draw. By then, the rain had intensified, and I should have gotten out heavy weather gear, but after a brief stop, I pushed on fast for the next hut–Comyns–which was only 6 km away. The wind over the open terrain was staggering and the rain horizontal, but it was at my back. I was already drenched, so I continued, covering the distance in a little over an hour, arriving wet, cold, and slightly hypothermic. Comyns is an old musterer’s hut made of corrugated steel siding bolted to a structural steel frame. It rocks and creaks in the wind. Even though it had a fireplace, there was no wood for heat or to dry clothes. Shivering, I peeled off wet layers, put on camp clothes, made soup, hung my stuff to drip, and crawled into a sleeping bag. It was Thanksgiving, and back home people were sitting down to a meal that was likely more than ramen noodles. Next morning I woke early, put on my still-wet clothes and followed the trail as it led out over the hill behind the hut. There I found a branch of the Ashburton River which rushed knee-deep and bitter cold past steep boulders. At least today the sun was shining except in the deep shadows, but the trail forded the river all morning (a fellow thru-hiker later told me he had to wade it twenty-three times). My toes were soon numb–it felt as if I had boards strapped to my feet. Mid-morning, the trail turned off to climb up Round Hill Creek which thankfully was narrow and easier to ford. Late that morning, I stopped and sat on a rock, turned to feel the warm sun on my face, and filled my water bottle. Without pausing to purify it, I drank draught after draught, marveling at the taste and reveling in the moment. Water is sublime–awful and awe-inspiring.

Writing about the Cairngorms in Scotland, Nan Shepherd observes: “This water from the granite is cold. To drink it at the source makes the throat tingle. A sting of life is in its touch.” Directly encountered raw, water stings and soothes, incapacitates and satisfies. It is multiple. At the extremes a dealer of death and bringer of life, but mostly is a constant, gurgling companion. Plutarch says of the first philosopher, “Thales the Milesian doth affirm that water is the principle whence all things in the universe spring.” For Thales, water is prime matter, but for us it is also the source of the abstract philosophical ideals of purity and clarity. Water is the basis for physics and metaphysics.

Today we live different contradictions. Water is an image of purity and a source of fear, the vehicle of hidden contamination. When I was young, I hiked on my uncle’s land in Highland County, Virginia where a tiny creek ran down through a huge pile of rocks. My uncle, a physician, assured me the rocks filtered it, rendering it safe to drink. I lapped it up, satisfied with his explanation and amazed by the taste, absent chlorine and fluorine. I also remember by brother, on getting his driver’s license, taking jugs over into the Fort Valley to get Miss Lucy her spring water which, I am fairly certain, was meant for her evening bourbon and branch. Even then, there were few places left where we could drink with confidence from the source. Now, frightened as we all are by all the outdoor organizations selling SteriPens and iodine tablets, fearful of giardia, lead, and the thousands of other toxins we have poured into the water table (what exactly is “fracking fluid”?), water is treated with suspicion. The crisis in Flint, Michigan (which we all know will be followed by dozens of other political/infrastructure failures), combined with the real and imagined dangers of drinking the water in any country unless served in a sealed plastic bottle, makes it a substance that is anything but an image of purity. It was with a certain cavalier freedom that I indulged the streams of New Zealand, and of course it was risky. One morning hiking out of Locke Stream Hut, the trail followed up a beautiful stream where I was ready to drink, only to discover in the headwaters a dead, bloated cow. Water is the universal solvent, but what washes away the residue our modern contamination leaves?

Ever the natural historian, Thoreau subjects Walden’s waters to rigorous analysis of clarity and color, claiming his pond first in the Concord Lake District regarding clarity and taste. He writes at length on the color of water, noting it is imparted by surrounding materials– trees, sand, sky. For Thoreau, Walden Pond has the perfect palette–blue sky, white sand, green trees–which reveals the depths of those colors, and at the same time, the depths of the pond itself (which he constantly surveys). But minerals do impart color, and blue-green or, as the name clearly indicates, aquamarine, is a marker of clarity and purity. I had the chance to walk the Travers River in New Zealand from its mouth at Lake Rotoiti to its headwaters in the Travers Saddle. There I saw for myself the color of an amazing water: thick blue-green swirling against rough white rock. Resulting from dissolved minerals, glacier melt, reflection from the sky, vegetation above the surface–no matter–it was the color of magic, and maybe even truth.

To know such water is both to see through it and at the same time, to see its surface, another doubleness that confounds understanding. That day on the Travers, the surface reflected and sparkled while the depths, on examination, revealed large brown trout, swimming static in the current. Thoreau, ever the master of seeing through and looking at offers a natural history of that surface: “It is a soothing employment, on one of those fine days in the fall when all the warmth of the sun is fully appreciated, to sit on a stump on such a height as this, overlooking the pond, and study the dimpling circles which are incessantly inscribed on its otherwise invisible surface amid the reflected skies and trees.” Along with being the only widely distributed substance which expands when frozen (making it the most potent of materials when it comes to shaping the world in which we live), water’s surface tension and adhesive properties enact equally important transformations, including helping it defy gravity through capillary action as well as seep into and through the most unlikely of places. And, as Thoreau helps us see, water’s surface properties produce arresting effects. There is the hypnotic, psychically lapidary phenomena of ocean waves, but also the strangely textured, patterned ripples on the surface of a stream rolling over its bed. The uneven rocks, through the mediation of the water, produce a ridged geometry that is regular, complex, and utterly compelling.

In a poem from The Whitsun Weddings, Philip Larkin also helps us recognize what water reveals, how it provokes human contemplation, and gives access to a wider understanding:

If I were called in

To construct a religion

I should make use of water.

Going to church

Would entail a fording

To dry, different clothes;

My liturgy would employ

Images of sousing,

A furious devout drench,

And I should raise in the east

A glass of water

Where any-angled light

Would congregate endlessly.

His water is not symbolic, metaphoric, or really even spiritual. Instead it is insistently physical. It souses and drenches furiously. It is matter, perhaps even Thales’s prime matter.

Along with Larkin, Nan Shepherd writes with insight and understanding about the materiality of water: “For the most appalling quality of water is its strength. I love its flash and gleam, its music, its pliancy and grace, its slap against my body; but I fear its strength.” Water is pliant, it has heft, and ultimately, power. In New Zealand, rivers braid over wide gravel valleys. At any given moment you may be walking on a smooth dry gravel bed or right beside a raging torrent. Absent swinging bridges, trekkers must cross rivers that demand care, something that increases in urgency as the braids get deeper and wider. I remember crossing the Otira near the Arthur’s Pass with some fellow hikers where we locked arms through pack straps and marched across together. The man on the downstream end who was both tall and strong floated up from the riverbed and was only kept anchored by his grip and the feet of those of us who were upstream. I did not have the same luck some days later trying to cross the Ahuriri. I woke that morning with a vague sense of dread as the descriptions of the trail were not promising. My direction was up the saddle, down a river with no real trail to follow and markers that were few and far between. Topping that off, there was a ford at the end of the day. Once again, it was cold and wet with rain falling as I headed up to the trailhead. The hike initially was uneventful, the mist cleared, and the trail soon turned up toward the pass, following a rollicking stream through an old beech forest. Just before it broke out of the woods above bushline, I stopped at a big rock, got out my stove and made oatmeal and coffee. Then I just sat, listening to the chorus of voices the water made. No monotony there, the sounds were polyphonic and complex. I could pick out a roar and a tumble, gurgles and drips–all playing in a water wall-of-sound. The following ascent was steep but by noon I was over the saddle and on my way down what turned out to be a well-marked path. Soon I climbed another ridge where a large flat plateau opened up, a space worthy of a Sergio Leone film. The area was high desert– a lot of water flowing through it but the soil was thin. In the bogs were masses of moss and springy grass and the edges of the streams had bushes and spear grass, but on on the plain, the vegetation was crispy and thin except the dandelions which were blooming by the millions. They were different from the ones back home. Leaves were small and thick with no lobes. Instead, they spread out touching the ground avoiding the drying wind to get maximum sun and hoard moisture, waiting for the beginning of December to thrust up a single bloom on a two inch stalk. That day was all yellow.

Later in the afternoon, the valley flattened, then opened to the river. My plan was to ford and camp just on the other side, but I arrived to find a high, fast-running current. To the west I could see a range of snow capped mountains melting fast in the day’s hot sun. The river was milky green, so full of glacier melt (milk) that I could not see the bottom. Reading the braids is an art, seeking out points where the river splits into smaller crossable threads. I surveyed the scene and made several tentative forays, trying to get a good foothold and then cross, but each time I’d get about 1/4 of the way across and the bottom would drop out. The icy water refreshed after a hot walk across the plain, and the density of the water was palpable–so green but so opaque as to make it impossible to see my feet, let alone the bottom I needed to find. It became obvious I would have to walk along the river instead of across. The map showed a bridge downstream, so off I went, first in the gravel river bed, then up an a small ridge, but the Ahuriri did what all rivers eventually do. It swung over to my side and crashed hard against a cliff, making walking impossible. About 100 meters nearly straight up was a flat plateau covered in pine which I had no choice but to climb, then weaving in and out of trees, sticker bushes, pasture, barbed wire fences, fording a dozen streams, I finally got to the bridge, having hiked over 12 hours. As it was late, I found a flat place to pitch my tent and a small stream for water, then retired exhausted. Some days, the power of the water exceeds all determination.

Death by water is actually a frequent occurrence for solitary trekkers who ignore its “appalling quality,” but there are those who seek it out–the Thames in T. S. Eliot’s imagination or the Ouse in Virginia Woolf’s actual death. Still, we have turned water into a different medium for death. Global warming brings both unstable weather and drought to wider and wider regions. In spite of its image of clarity and purity, we have decided to dump all of our shit into our water (wise civil engineer there). Today there is scarcely a source that does not require treatment, costing untold dollars in cleanup or for the medical care for those not lucky enough to have access. Or it simply hastens the death of those who have access to nothing but filth. Water wars are our destiny, and soon no one will understand that once water, in its natural, unpolluted state, had taste– a brilliant flavor– because the lucky few will only drink treated, purified, filtered piss rather than the stuff that once bubbled up from springs as if by magic. No, by magic. Nan Shepherd sought out water we no longer know, “that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins.” If we no longer have water, do we have origins? Norman MacLean, a writer of rivers, expressed our current situation in the closing line of his novella A River Runs Through It: “I am haunted by waters.” His vision is the hauntology of a substance which, like all the previous doublings, is both absent and still present in its very degradation. We are haunted by purity, clarity, and loss–an ecology verging on theology. If there is a god, it is water.

T. Hugh Crawford
Pokhara, Nepal

A [Walking] Life

March 15th, 2016

A [Walking] LIFE

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What if the transcendental field were actually a field? Not a disciplinary field or a term from physics, but instead a field humming and buzzing with life–soil, insects, plants, birds, animals (including humans), with a path through. Gilles Deleuze returns to fields, to immanence, in his last essay, “Pure Immanence: A Life.” It is a work of old age. Nearing death, A Life deserves to be thought. I have recurred to this essay many times over the years but have only recently arrived at an age where I feel its richness, something I am still incapable of expressing even as it moves me. So instead I just want to make a tentative claim. Deleuze’s last essay can be read by walkers as their A Life. In those few pages (it is a remarkably compact piece), he does not mention walking, but does describe with uncanny precision the experience of non-self, the actual life that both appears and is performed by serious walkers. Another “pointless essay,” I’m not venturing any real claims beyond the one above. Instead I want to proceed in the manner of my friend Isabelle Stengers and try to think with Deleuze (a strategy that requires many quotations, but it is the only way I know how to proceed).

His opening sentences are by themselves a complete essay and a summary of A Life: “What is a transcendental field? It can be distinguished from experience in that it doesn’t refer to an object or belong to a subject (empirical representation). It appears therefore as a pure stream of a-subjective consciousness, a pre-reflexive impersonal consciousness, a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self.” Perhaps feeling old, Deleuze is making himself an ancient philosopher–a pre-Socratic–voicing a philosophy of immanence, a philosophy lost because of subjects set over against objects, lost because of the transcendence of the idea of self. As he says in the Nietzsche essay included in Pure Immanence, “The degeneration of philosophy clearly begins with Socrates.” So what would an a-subjective consciousness be? Practically it seems an impossibility as, at least to me, consciousness has always been the province of the self, but Deleuze want to speak of a transcendental field (and later pure immanence, the two of which veer together). So the question is whether it is possible to experience that field prior to or in spite of the fall into a subject-object existence. Clearly A Life is some sort of process of recovery.

Sitting in a library reading Deleuze can twist the mind. We fall, we grope, yet a-subjective consciousness remains elusive. But the field begins to answer, the field crossed on foot in a long ramble where, as all long-distance walkers know, the subject-object dualism is nonsensical. Minds are in bodies, bodies are in clothes and gear, which in turn are in the world. By that I don’t mean the World writ philosophically large, but rather the physical world being occupied and traversed: this path, this air, these sounds which do not appear to the senses as an outside, an object to be surmounted, but instead are the blurred zone of the becoming of field. Not being, not self– field! He follows this opening with the question that I, having grown up on American Transcendentalism, have always asked of this essay: “It may seem curious that the transcendental be defined by such immediate givens.” Although the Transcendental he struggles against is Kantian, let’s instead walk a bit with Emerson, because I don’t think Deleuze is terribly far from him here (though their paths soon diverge). The ecstatic moment of American Transcendentalism occurs in Nature: “In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life,–no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground,–my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space,–all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.” Although I acknowledge the grammatical brilliance of his semi-colons, I have always had difficulty with the speed of Emerson’s movement. In a few short sentences, he goes from the woods to the “currents of universal being.” As an inveterate walker himself, Emerson knows crossing such distance takes time. The speed of walking is the speed of thought — something much slower than the rapid transcendence Emerson executes here. Of course he has a philosophical point to make, one not to be found in the field but instead is enabled by the field. Emerson’s transcendence is a movement out of the “givens” of the path he actually walks, so even though his loss of “mean egotism” seems much like Deleuze’s a-subjective consciousness, in the process it loses its immanence.

So it is here that Emerson’s way diverges from Deleuze’s, but let’s follow it for just a moment to see how it aligns with, instead of moving away from Kant’s. Still from Nature: “The first effort of thought tends to relax this despotism of the senses, which binds us to nature as if we were a part of it, and shows us nature aloof, and, as it were, afloat. Until this higher agency intervened, the animal eye sees, with wonderful accuracy, sharp outlines and colored surfaces. When the eye of Reason opens, to outline and surface are at once added, grace and expression. These proceed from imagination and affection, and abate somewhat of the angular distinctness of objects.” This in some ways accounts for his rapid transcendence. As is clear from his transparent eyeball and fear of losing his sight, Emerson wants to celebrate what the mind brings to perception of nature which is, from the outset, considered as spectatorial other. Emersonian objects are refined by Emersonian subjects. Very much in a Kantian tradition, he wants to celebrate what the mind brings to those objects, the “imagination” and “affection” that temper the angularity of the material world. The other path, the one followed by Deleuze is through the “animal eye” along with all the other senses (including proprioception) that perform the crossing of the transcendental field. Given Emerson’s spatio-visual metaphors, his transcendence is a move up, a change in perspective that provides an intellectualized understanding, a bird’s eye view of the field. Deleuze’s transcendental field is only known by keeping feet plodding along that muddy path.

A serious walker–one who is tramping long enough for the daily world to vanish and to also move beyond an aesthetic appreciation of “taking a walk”–can recover the transcendental field that pre-exists the subject-object distinction with a different form of empiricism, one Deleuze calls transcendental: “We will speak of a transcendental empiricism in contrast with everything that makes up the world of the subject and the object. There is something wild and powerful in this transcendental empiricism that is of course not the element of simple sensation (simple empiricism), for sensation is only a break within the flow of absolute consciousness.” Wild and powerful–a good way to describe what he opens up in this passage. Walking presses the question of consciousness (simple or absolute) and sensation, both of which push the boundaries of A Life in the world. Where to begin? Maybe back in the field where we started. Without doubt, a general walk across that meadow, that field buzzing with life, is full of sensations perceived by all the aggregate entities found there equipped some sensorium (all the way to light sensitive minerals). Deleuze’s absolute consciousness senses this but does not articulate a sensation as that pitches the absolute consciousness into an opposition–sense/mind/subject vs. world/object. To have a sensation is to break from the field where all participate, interact, flow. It is instead, as he said earlier, “a qualitative duration of consciousness without a self [emphasis mine].”

He continues: “Must we then define the transcendental field by a pure immediate consciousness with neither object or consciousness with neither object nor self, as a movement that neither begins nor ends.” Here it seems he is using the term consciousness as a placeholder, a concept, to describe this movement or becoming within the transcendental field. “Consciousness becomes a fact only when a subject is produced at the same time as its object.” The world of becoming he wants to describe happens before that fall into subject/object. In terms of human experience, such events come in waves. We walk across that field, the low-growing shrubs crowd in the path. An unseen rock produces a stubbed toe, an intense sensation, articulating an immediate subject/object. No transparent eyeball or part or particle of God there. Just you, your foot, and that damn rock. But what was happening before the unfortunate incident? Was the walker–bathed in light and heat, surrounded by sound–a subject living in an objective world? In Kant’s transcendental philosophy, yes. In Deleuze’s wild and powerful transcendental empiricism, no.

We seem to be in some philosophical rare air here, but those out trekking for a long time, who move from the awareness that they are taking a walk into walking, find themselves living an act that is automatic, but not unconscious. This is why Deleuze’s idea is so wild and powerful. The walker is conscious, aware, but only occasionally finds herself as a subject set up against an object. An example: walking the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal which is considered by many to be one of the best long distance treks in the world. Because of the spacing of villages with accommodations, people usually circle the massif counterclockwise. A constant topic of conversation amongst trekkers is the Thorung La, a pass 17,769 ft. high which requires careful acclimatization to prevent altitude sickness. A walker can approach a trek like the Annapurna Circuit as a circumambulation of a mountain, a way to pay respect to it and the path followed, a path “as a pure stream of a-subjective consciousness.” Or, because Thorung La is an obstacle, it becomes something to be conquered, a goal, something on a bucket list. There is perhaps no stronger subject/object distinction than man vs. mountain. That sense of self is a youthful philosophy, one of challenges, finely hammered arguments, or treks with rigidly determined itineraries and carefully marked scenic overlooks. The older, pre-Socratic Deleuzian circumambulator passes landmarks, marvels at the eagles overhead, shrinks from high swinging bridges, and of course occasionally takes bearings, but most often feels the path, the air, and light. That experience is by no means a construction of self or a movement into a different world. Rather it is the experience of pure immanence.

So what then is A [Walking] Life?: “We will say of pure immanence that it is A Life, and nothing else.” The experience of pure immanence is what he was sketching out earlier with the transcendental field. It is pre-subject/object and simply lived (not lived simply). The experience of pure immanence is in the walk in the field not leading to higher consciousness but instead to A Life: “The transcendental field is defined by a plane of immanence and the plane of immanence by a life.” Here is the payoff: Deleuze executes an ethical turn, wanting to embrace A Life not as a primitive experience prior to the celebrated constitution of the human mind, but rather as one I would call profoundly ecological. Such a life “is a haecceity [intensity] no longer of individuation but of singularization: a life of pure immanence, neutral, beyond good and evil, for it was only the subject that incarnated it in the midst of things that made it good or bad.” To experience the ethical not as a form of judgment but rather as a form of becoming both outside the trivially ethical good/bad and inside a transcendental field of fully engaged life, one experienced by many people in many places, but without doubt regularly lived by walkers. It is a life of traverse, of being always in-between: “This indefinite life does not itself have moments, close as they may be one to another, but only between-times, between moments….” Walking is always between. To stop at a scenic overlook, to marvel at the [Emersonian] spectatorial, is to stop. To be in a moment, not between. As he says in the essay on Nietzsche published in the same volume: “Modes of life inspire ways of thinking; modes of thinking create ways of living. Life activates thought, and thought in turn affirms life.”
A Life is not continuously lived, but when it occurs, it is performed: “A Life contains only virtuals. It is made up of virtualities, events, singularities. What we call virtual is not something that lacks reality but something that is engaged in the process of actualization following the plane that gives it its particular reality.” A day may begin with a plan and proceed by a map (the product of ichnographic vision), and by the end might have traced out that (usually digital blue) line, a plane that Deleuze and Guattari would call “territorialization” (in A Thousand Plateaus), but the passage is purely virtual. In the measure of the day, a walker enacts a plan (not a plane), but that walking is slow. Its measure is on the level of the between-moment. This virtuality is a-conscious because “Consciousness becomes produced as a fact only when a subject is produced at the same time as its object…” Consciousness, subject, object are retrospectively produced in the performance of immanence. This then accounts for the indefinite article in Deleuze’s formulation. We are never in the presence of THE LIFE. That would be Being, a definition that pinpoints life in the way GPS and a map captures position but loses everything else. The map does not include the eagles circling overhead, the smell of cherry blossoms, the squeak of dry snow, the slip of mud, a midday snack of a Snickers bar, and that sense of rhythmic totality walking brings. It is indefinite because such becoming always evades capture, even as it is beyond articulation– which is why Deleuze’s last essay is so damn difficult. So is walking.

T. Hugh Crawford

Brutal Beauty

February 6th, 2016

Brutal Beauty
The Appalachian Trail is often called the “green tunnel,” an acknowledgement of the dense forest canopy that surrounds the footpath. Couple that with uneven terrain that demands downcast eyes and you have an experience that by and large is devoid of the spectatorial beauty used to advertise and celebrate the trail. Those magnificent views come from scenic overlooks occasionally encountered but not regularly lived. Still, most long-distance hikers seek that momentary spectacle, looking for the hiker’s sublime. They seem to understand pleasure, definitely know pain, and without doubt experience more than their share of natural beauty. I cannot even begin to explain what motivates long-distance hikers. Many want to test their resolve in the face of deprivation over long stretches of space and time, others simply enjoy the simplicity the hiker’s life brings, but all, on some level, acknowledge the desire to experience isolated mountaintops, silent forests, cascading waters.

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Although over time its fortunes have risen and fallen in aesthetic theory, the concept of the sublime maintains a special place for walkers–the experience of awe that is awful, a beauty that overwhelms, something that arrests as well as upends. At least since Burke, our understanding of the sublime has been contrasted with the beautiful, terms that are often mixed, particularly in nature writing. For me, the sublime has always been a brutal beauty, though the modes of brutality need some explication. As an aesthetic category, the sublime can be encountered in language (Longinus), nature (Kant), or the visual arts (Lyotard), but it always remains within a discourse of power, specifically of being overpowered. However in most accounts, it–similar to beauty–is either spectatorial or is passively experienced through speech or reading. It is a moment of arrest–a hiatus–producing awe, terror, and a pleasure somehow derived from pain; it belittles and makes anxious. We are puny in the face of its “irresistible force” (Longinus).

Not far from the Appalachian Trail is Virginia’s “Natural Bridge,” a limestone formation once owned and surveyed by Thomas Jefferson who, in Notes on Virginia calls it “the most sublime of Nature’s works.” When regarded from below, it is quite a sight, but, as Jefferson further notes, visitors who venture to the top fear creeping to its edge: “Looking down from this height about a minute, gave me a violent head ache.” He acknowledges the sublimity of the view below, but “the view from the top [is] painful and intolerable.” Jefferson hung in Monticello a painting of Natural Bridge by William Roberts, a work that participates in the spectatorial sublime, as does viewing the bridge from the stream bed. However Jefferson’s embodied experience on the precipice is different, resembling trekking in the big outside with its uncertainty, anxiety, pain, and sometimes fear.

For Burke, terror is the sublime’s “ruling principle.” It is lived in an instant though it is the product of a slowly building situation. Terror in the sense of breathless fear is not a common experience of the hiker, but a low-grade anxiety about health, safety and loss, an anxiety not regularly experienced by people in familiar surroundings, is part of what could be called the ambulatory sublime. Beautiful scenes–the ubiquitous “scenic overlooks”– are staged by an enframing that brings them into foveal vision, into a comfortable spectacle. Evolution linked adrenaline and the flight response to peripheral vision, the fear that is invoked by movement on the edges of perception. Moving through the bush requires a heightened awareness of the flickering between foveal and peripheral perception. There the micro-sublime is lived at the edges of perception, where uncertainty and danger lurk. On the Te Araroa, hikers often have to follow poles topped by orange cylinders marking the pathless trail. Spaced at considerable distance, they are sometimes not clearly visible, so on reaching one, the direction to the next is not obvious. The orange chosen for marking stands out from the rest of the landscape, but it is most easily distinguished by peripheral vision, that part of sight best equipped to notice the anomalous in the field. Hikers searching for the next marker saccade across the scene, using low-level anxiety to find their way across what feels a vast and inhuman landscape. Such moments are obviously not the sublime in any traditional sense, but they structure a hiker’s form of attention.

Like vision flickering from foveal to peripheral, walking is both spectatorial and immersive, a double move described by the inveterate walkers Wordsworth and Thoreau. Hikers stop for the spectacular, are arrested by those moments, but then continue on, feeling both the loss of the scene and the possibility of an even better one at the next turn. They are moving bodies immersed in a moving nature. Hall of Fame hiker William Wordsworth is reputed to have walked 180,000 miles in his lifetime. Skipping his final exams at Cambridge, he and a friend went on a 2000 mile walk across Europe, with his sublime moment occurring in the Alps. Definitions of the sublime usually focus on a moment, that awful singularity, but such moments pass and walkers continue their journey. For them, the sublime opens out over time and is experienced as anticipation, arrest, loss, and continuation. Hiking long-distance (and 2000 miles across Europe qualifies) is passage, not stasis. Hikers may creep out onto the edge of the precipice, but they also will spend most of the day trudging step by step in less heart-pounding circumstances.

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Despite his anticipation, Wordsworth’s actual crossing of the Alps, as detailed in The Prelude, was a belly-drop. Like most long-distance hikers, he and his friend become momentarily disoriented (moment of low-level anxiety). Finding someone to ask the way, they discover they have already passed what they most anticipated:

To our inquires, in their sense and substance
Translated by the feelings which we had,
Ended in this–that we had crossed the Alps.

Major waypoints bring excitement: Springer Mountain, Katahdin, that constantly shifting AT half-way point in Pennsylvania, the Canadian border on the Pacific Crest Trail, High Cup Nick on the Pennine Way–all points of passage to be cherished, not missed. For Wordsworth, crossing the Alps did not bring a sublime view, but it was a temporally sublime moment, part of the ambulatory sublime experienced not through the eyes but instead through his bootsoles, a quickened pulse and a sense of loss–failure to capture, contain, or comprehend an always already passing world. Wordsworth follows that momentary disappointment with an image of timeless sublimity:
Downwards we hurried fast,
And, with the half-shaped road which we had missed,
Entered a narrow chasm. The brook and road
Were fellow-travellers in this gloomy strait,
And with them did we journey several hours
At a slow pace. The immeasurable height
Of woods decaying, never to be decayed,
The stationary blasts of waterfalls,
And in the narrow rent at every turn
Winds thwarting winds, bewildered and forlorn,
The torrents shooting from the clear blue sky,
The rocks that muttered close upon our ears,
Black drizzling crags that spake by the way-side
As if a voice were in them, the sick sight
And giddy prospect of the raving stream,
The unfettered clouds and region of the Heavens,
Tumult and peace, the darkness and the light—
Were all like workings of one mind, the features
Of the same face, blossoms upon one tree;
Characters of the great Apocalypse,
The types and symbols of Eternity

Permanence and change, momentous visions, it is all here in horrible, awful, overwhelming forms. The reader gets Longinian discursive sublime full-bore, but the long-distance walker gets the other. Theirs is a stationary blast passed by. The pain is not nausea or terror, but footsore pain/pleasure at seeing that which is nominally and normally unavailable to all but the most intrepid. The beauty is brutal, and the experience is brutalizing. Wordsworth missed marking his crossing of the divide, but as he well knows, walking is always about loss. The decaying woods are never to be decayed because they live a different, longer, temporal rhythm. At the same time, walkers are acutely aware of their temporal rhythms, the need to mark out the day’s trek, to not get lost, and to live the way intensely.

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Long before hordes of Appalachian Trail hikers began to arrive at Baxter State Park to climb Mount Katadhin marking the end of their 2000 mile journey, Thoreau attempted an ascent which he documented in The Maine Woods. Although a part of the massif now bears his name, Thoreau’s climb was unsuccessful (if you define success as attaining the summit). He set out from his group’s encampment just below tree line early one morning filled with hope only to be stymied by the notoriously difficult weather near the peak. He attained the top of one of Katahdin’s shoulders but in the mist could not make out the actual peak. Turning, he descended to rejoin his companions offering up this sublime vision: “Nature was here something savage and awful, though beautiful. I looked with awe at the ground I trod on, to see what the Powers had made there, the form and fashion and material of their work.” Then, “Here was no man’s garden, but the unhandselled globe. It was not lawn, nor pasture, nor mead, nor woodland, nor lea, nor arable, nor waste‐land. . . Man was not to be associated with it. It was Matter, vast, terrific, ‐‐ not his Mother Earth that we have heard of, not for him to tread on, or be buried in….” Thoreau is firmly in the rhetoric of the literary sublime, offering up a vision of the inhuman which permeates such scenes, but his experience of that climb is another sublimity. His passage, his inability to comprehend the misty, craggy, inscrutable world he was passing through, was filled with amazement and anxiety. Retracing his steps down a pathless scree in hopes of clearer weather or a sign that he was on the proper way, Thoreau as walker lives the ambulatory sublime and experiences its brutality.

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Back in November, I woke in Upper Travers Hut hearing Grant, an expedition leader, stoking the fire in the wood stove, and before too long his hiking crew started rustling about. I packed, made oatmeal and coffee, then had a second cup while talking with the crew when I really should have been hiking. Ideally I wanted to get to Waiau Forks to camp that night, but that required an early morning climb over Travers saddle which is 1700 + meters and then, late in the day, Waiau Pass which, at 1800+ meters, is the highest point on the South island part of the Te Araroa and also the most dangerous. Regretfully I said my farewells and started out. It was a sunny clear day as I climbed up above the bush line. All around were snow-capped peaks, and I made it to the top within an hour, lingering for a moment before starting the long descent to the Sabine River Valley. The winter snows, avalanches, and rock slides had pretty well taken out all the poles marking the lower part of the decent, so I followed rock cairns helpfully but haphazardly piled to show the way. By late morning I found the trail through the woods where I crossed the river and made my way up toward Blue Lake. Like the Travers, the Sabine is clear and fast running. At its headwaters is Blue Lake, the place where the body of the first hiker to die on the Te Aroroa was found. I arrived by midday and decided there was enough daylight to make the trek over Waiau. The trail took me past Lake Constance which rivals Blue in color and beauty though getting around it required some hard climbing and narrow ledge hiking. The last bit was on a gravel beach at the water’s edge. The waters coming into it came across a wide flat plain that the trail followed. It gradually narrowed to a canyon surrounded by snow-capped mountains with nothing that looked like a pass in evidence. Then trail markers made a sharp turn and went straight up the side of one of the mountains which might have had a little bit of a dip in altitude compared to the others, but hardly deserves the name “pass.” The initial climb was on loose gravel, so each step slid back almost as much as it went forward. After an hour or so, I got the the first leveling off to rest. In mid-winter this is a high avalanche risk area, and I was uncertain what conditions reduce that risk in the spring. Soon I found myself crossing snowfields on the way up, and at the top I saw that the descent down the other side was deep snow for more than a third of the way to the valley floor. Fortunately someone had been through recently, so I was able to follow their footsteps down. I’m not sure how deep the snow was, but only the tops of the markers were visible and I would sink to about mid-calf with each step. Sweating from exertion but with freezing feet, I finally got below snow line, followed the western branch of the Waiau River to where it met the eastern half. After eleven hours of hard hiking, I pitched my tent in a beech forest beside the river, built a small fire to dry out my shoes and warm my feet, then gratefully crawled into my tent ready for a hard night’s sleep.

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That day was not part of a discursive or artistic sublime. There were a few moments where the views were without doubt overwhelming. The Travers and Waiau Passes afforded scenes that surpass capture, and a Sabine tributary that runs through a deep roofless cave crossed by a narrow wooden bridge would surely have given Jefferson another head ache, but it was a day of the ambulatory sublime. A walk where pain was mixed with pleasure, confidence was shaken by uncertainty, and fear was promoted by both low-level anxiety and the real possibility of bodily harm–an intensity not captured by traditional aesthetic categories. It was temporal, embodied, and immersive, but above all, it was brutal.

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T. Hugh Crawford

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