Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

A Conspiracy of Trees

August 6th, 2020

A Conspiracy of Trees

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

T. Hugh Crawford

June 29

July 1st, 2016

June 29

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The first part of MacFarlane’s The Old Ways describes some fairly traditional (if sometimes dangerous) walks, while the second takes to the seas, noting the similarities between navigating the old sea ways and walking old paths, but that part also includes a chapter on crossing Lewis island on a path through peat and rock, navigating by sighting cairns. In other words, much of Part 2 is about paths that you cannot see simply by looking at your feet. What hovers over this section is the very real possibility of getting lost, either at sea or in a peat bog. If walking is, as I believe, a particular form of knowing, it is important to understand the variables that contribute to the practice. One often but not always present pressure remains the possibility of getting lost. Walking brings risk, and risk (as Hubert Dreyfus is fond of noting) creates a complex relationship between self, world, knowledge, and understanding. In a very real sense, the same pleasure centers are activated when one comprehends a difficult philosophical point and when one successfully navigates a risky path. To me the important part is not navigation (or understanding) on a macro scale–successfully traversing a complete trail–but instead the micro risks–the moment when, on gaining a cairn marker, the next one snaps into view. The small leap from anxiety to momentary comfort characterizes work in a risky world, an experienced enriched and enhanced by that very risk.

T. Hugh Crawford

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

May 8

May 8th, 2016

May 8

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Gonzalez to Boente 37 km.
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.” They trace and illustrate a number of English Holloways and in the course uncover a deep, somewhat hidden history. Today was a day for winding footpaths. Not quite the very deep, tree-hidden landforms MacFarlane and company articulate, but without doubt, these paths have centuries of foot-fall & rain-run, and they are well below the grade of the field. Last night it rained hard, the only pleasant sound to come from an overcrowded Albergue with some serious snorers (along with people who simply don’t understand that slamming the bathroom door at 3:00 am or talking on the phone at 2:00 am is douchy). That rain did wash down the paths, perhaps deepening them a bit further, but the cloudy weather slowly grew bright, and though clouds drifted all day, it was a magnificent day to walk Galicia. The deep paths were usually lined by oaks, some old, twisted, and covered both with deep moss and heavy vines. The edges were a riot of wild flowers, mostly purple and white, though of course there was plenty of yellow from the gorse that crowded parts of the woods. Crossed white pine plantations again, but also eucalyptus, a crop favored by wealthy absentee landlords but bemoaned by farmers who have been caring for this soil for millennia.

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Apart from some magnificent ancient churches, the main architectural features were the many hórreo–rectangular stone, brick, and wood grain storage structures set on stone piers about three feet above the ground. Very distinctive. Pushed a bit near the end of the day. Tomorrow will be another long one, then a short hop into Santiago for the finish line.

T. Hugh Crawford