Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

The Lee Shore

April 27th, 2020

The Lee Shore

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

… a spirit 

Led me forth from my own home 

To a place I thought I’d never go.

. . . .

And how fearsome it was to leave 

The sight of dear friends and walk off 

Alone far over the mountains

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

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

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

  give us calm waters; 

Give us wings, and loyal minds 

To cross over and return.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Rectify

February 17th, 2020

Rectify

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 26

March 16th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 26
Chilean coast on The Eden

Early on in Moby-Dick, Ishmael is speaking with Peleg and Bildad about shipping on the Pequod. After some slapstick humor about Ishmael’s time in the “marchant service,” Peleg asks him to go aft and tell him what he sees. As I recall Ishmael’s answer is just water and perhaps a squall brewing on the horizon. Peleg then again asks why he wants to ship, as that is the same view he will have for the next three years. Today we were never out of sight of land, but the view out was constant—a misty driving rain with slow rolling waves. A day for reading books. Tomorrow weather permitting, we dock at Puerto Montt.