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reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 15

March 5th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 15
El Calatafe—El Chaltén

I started reading Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life the other day. In the opening chapters he lays out an argument familiar in 21st century environmental philosophy criticizing the notion that humans are actors—agents of history— acting on a mute and stable Nature. Societies have history, Nature does not (ironically, what we today call science was once referred to as natural history). Of course people have long recognized that nature is always in some flux—earthquakes, eruptions, floods are all transformative—but the science that emerged in the Modern era was a description of underlying stabilities, uniformities, laws, and it rests on familiar binaries: subject/object, society/Nature, what in a slightly different form Alfred North Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.” But Moore’s is not a science studies book; rather he wants to understand how capitalism(s) use (and indeed are constituted by) the capital “N”Nature of modern science.

Reading is a material practice. Words can’t be abstracted from their substrate, but instead participate in specific material economies. It matters where and how words are produced and consumed. People often comment on how different a book is on re-reading, but such a claim depends on abstracting that text from the point of its consumption. From a materialist perspective, there is no such thing as re-reading as all readings necessarily involve a different configuration, setting, and materiality. That is all just to say I was reading and thinking about Moore while moving about in southern Patagonia. The question that nagged was why modern science—depending on atemporal, universal objects—emerges in Europe. It is, of course, a tired question, one chewed over by philosophers and historians for centuries, and probably not one to even ask in a hastily written blog about walking, so I’ll limit myself to walking speculation.

The Pennine Way runs up the backbone of England 200+ miles from Edale (near Manchester) to Kirk Yetholm just across the Scottish border. Days walking this path usually involve loitering in pubs in the Yorkshire Dales, strolling from picturesque village to picturesque village, occasionally up and over a ridge in high wind and blustery weather—the heights truly do wuther. Generally it is a peaceful, intimate environment though there are moments when, for example, entering Malham Cove or gazing out from High Cup Nick you feel something momentous and non-human has happened there, some environmental upheaval. But by and large, the walk is one through human history, one deeply felt. An early center of Modern Science was the English Royal Society, where the fellows defined the principles and practices necessary to articulate truth claims about the objective world. Much has been written about the complex politics of these emerging protocols (in particular Shapin and Schaffer’s magisterial Leviathan and the Air Pump). Later, in the 19th century Lyell and Darwin were able to bring long-scale earth history into the discourse, but remained magisterial. Still, I just want to make one small observation. Walking across England produces a sense of an environmentally stable world —Nature—written all over by Human history.

Walking in Patagonia is imbued with a hyperawareness of environmental conditions. It is raw, elemental. The wind flays you, the temperature swings cause constant adjustment, and its sheer vastness makes you feel insignificant. It is a land in flux—the actual land. Early European explorers derided the people they found living in this part of the world, criticizing their hygiene, clothing, housing, food, and social practices (even as late as the 19th century, Darwin was particularly vicious in his appraisal of the Tierra del Fuegeans). They were also condemned for their non-modernity, their failure to see the earth as object and instead finding all manner of spirits, animisms, and active agents in their Nature. They lived in a world full of what Jane Bennett would call in the 21st century “Vibrant Matter.” Most people who travel to southern Patagonia try to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is an amazing sight (see “Day 14” below). Glaciers bring geological time into awareness, enabling us to see ice-age conditions and the massive disruption caused by the slow movement of active matter. Something visitors tend to miss, though, are the peaks that loom over the glacial valley. From the lake you can see four, each heavily eroded revealing clear strata marking upheaval and slow erosion. What struck me was how the first two showed perfect horizons of strata, level lines marking out the ticking of a long slow clock, while the the next two, made from what appears the same temporal and material strata but thrust up by different forces, were a twisted curving, almost writhing mass of flux. Looking at those peaks doesn’t give the sense of long past environmental transformation. You too are caught up in the geological maelstrom. I can imagine an emerging scientific practice here that does not start with a subject/object distinction, but instead begins with a world tangled up, erasing human/nonhuman binaries, and vastly complicating any sense of time’s arrow.

T. Hugh Crawford

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