Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 19

March 8th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 19
D’Agostini Campground to El Chaltén

Woke to the sound of light rain on the tent and a distinct chill in the air. Dozed a bit, looked out at the other tents where no one was stirring. My cold, wet-weather New Zealand training kicked in, and methodically I gathered my things, filled compression bags, and stuffed my pack, so on emerging I was nearly ready to leave. Wasn’t really in a hurry as the way back to town is only nine km, but also didn’t want to sit around long in the rain. The camp was quiet, so my jetboil actually seemed loud. Couple of cups of coffee and I was off, just as the tents started rustle. The first two thirds of the walk were flat and easy. The surface was primarily water rounded stones embedded in sandy granite gravel, so the trail was almost a sidewalk. It followed closely the river which was pretty high and rough from all the rain and glaciel melt. The clouds were low and a light rain continued, so the mountains forming the valley were mere shadows.

In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd talks about how the mist doesn’t inhibit vision but instead lets you see that which doesn’t ordinarily appear in the brightness of clear air. The same can be said of sound. Early morning sharp sounds—bird cries, branches breaking—were not so much muffled as modulated. The thick air thickens the sound, giving a different, perhaps richer timbre. The dominant sound was the river which rumbled constantly but without rhythm—a chaotic wall of sound muted by heavy air. As paths are wont to do, it glanced off the riverbank, drifted into groves of massive old Lenga trees which further attenuated the roar. I recalled a passage in Walden where Thoreau pauses while hoeing beans to hear Concord church bells peal, commenting on how the distance and the trees transformed that music. As you might suspect, that first hour was uninterrupted by footsteps, voices, or the obligatory “Holas” to each passing trekker. Instead it was just me, a path, a river, a forest, in a purity of sound almost unimagined, almost unlived.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 11

March 1st, 2018

In Patagonia Day 11
Grande Paine—Puerto Natales

This morning the sun came up over the ridge as brutally strong winds whipped up Lago Grey, dragging aloft a fine mist which made rainbows.

One of the most common words in The Voyage of the Beagle is “wind,” but of course that’s to be expected in a nineteenth century book about a sea voyage. Winds always howl and even scream when literary ships round the Horn, but the word appears just as often in Darwin’s descriptions of his land journeys, and the bulk of those are in Patagonia. The Voyage details a nearly five year circumnavigation, touching at numerous exotic places (he was one of the world’s first eco-tourists), so I find it striking that in the conclusion Darwin singles out Patagonia: “In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless.” When I let my mind simply drift over long treks, what is most vivid is usually not the picturesque—more often the memory partakes of the open: the vast, the empty, and usually the windy. Darwin’s “plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown: they bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time.” Of course they are passable. The cordillera and some strong rivers make passage difficult, but what Darwin speaks of is not obstacle but difficulty, rugged terrain, profound weather, and an abiding sense that, like Thoreau’s Ktaadn, this is not a place for humans to linger.

W. H. Hudson, always ready to defend the Patagonia he cherished in Idle Days finds the wind salubrious, “I do not myself believe there is any climate in the world to compare with the winter of the east coast of Patagonia; and although its summer might seem disagreeable to some persons on account of the violent winds that prevail at that season, the atmosphere at all times is so dry and pure as to make pulmonary complaints unknown.” Of course he describes the eastern region near Rio Negro and not the dry dust of the west. Odds are, some pulmonary complaints have been lodged there. Chatwin is the one who brings together the magic and the violence of the air, “a country of clean air and open spaces; of black mesas and blue mountains; of grey scrub breaking into yellow flowers, a country of bones picked clean by hawks, stripped by the wind, stripping men to the raw.”

There is something special about the wind in the Southern Hemisphere. Apart from being in or near hurricanes, or perhaps standing on top of Mt. Washington, I don’t recall any time in the north where I felt I would actually be sent sprawling by common, everyday wind. In the deep (global) south it’s another story. I was blown off the north side of Mt. Tongariro with gale force winds, horizontal rain, and zero visibility. Just outside of Wellington I crossed a ridge where I first staggered, and then had to hold onto my pack to keep it from being torn off. Several times on the South Island I simply had to sit to avoid falling. My walk yesterday back from the Grey glacier was in calm weather, enough to make me forget how strong the wind blew the day before. When I arrived at Paine Grande, the flags were simply rustling, but I considered what I thought would be prevailing winds when setting up my tent. A word about my tent— I have an unnatural attachment to my one pound, Cuben fiber ZPacks soloplex. My trekking poles are the tent poles, and the floor is exactly the size for my gear + me. I have spent many a comfortable night in it, but it is open all around, so wind generally makes it heave and shake, but not fail. The only exception thus far was my second night in it. After spending my first on New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail in a campsite, I had to follow the ninety mile beach and therefore camped one night just back in the dunes. Of course that night a huge storm blew in, the pegs would not hold in sand, so I spent most of the night in the rain lying on top of my now-favorite tent to keep it from blowing away. Since then, it has never failed, though I have spent some nights awake holding the poles in place as the wind howled and sometimes screamed.

Last night, I went to sleep in a sweet calm (after the American college students in the next tent who clearly had skipped high school goverment class finished talking politics). Around 2:00 the winds came in and did not stop the rest of the night—no sleep, just constant flapping. I well remember spending summers on the ocean at Nags Head, North Carolina, where you might not know what day of the week it was, but you damn sure knew when the tide came in and which way the wind was blowing. Wandering the Southern Hemisphere brings back that element. Daily life is significantly directed by the strength and direction of the winds, and in some circumstances, your very life is dictated by it. I think what drew Darwin’s (and Chatwin’s) memory to Patagonia is this elemental nature, one that brings awareness, and strips you raw.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

 

In Patagonia Day 1

February 19th, 2018

Patagonia Day 1

Left Wellington on the morning of the 18th, with a long layover in Aukland, then 10 hour flight that put me in Santiago early afternoon on the 18th. That dateline crossing thing is disconcerting, and my phone daily steps app parsed them oddly. Settled into a comfortable flat in the Lasterrria district— I decided to indulge myself before diving headlong into trekking culture. The area is very hip, many restaurants, small galleries etc. Took a walk out toward the river and then down to the Mercado Centrale, a large old-fashioned market with a soaring Victorian iron-framed roof housing fish stalls and their associated restaurants. Had fried fish, rice and a beer — simple but delicious. Wandered a while in the park of the Castillo Hidalgo and in the neighborhoods. As it was Sunday, people were filling the restaurants, and the street venders were out in full force, very festive with a lot of music. Was hot which may explain why the Chileanos love their helado. Lack of sleep got me, so I took a nap, waking to drift out into the evening to sample Patagonian beer at the Utopia cafe. Chile has not fallen into the IPA world just yet, so I’ll have to be content with lager. Austral which tastes great in the heat, but, like all lagers, is thin (apparently Patagonian beer is brewed by German immigrants which explains a lot). The server brought a great plate of bread with some spread to go with the beer— guess I looked famished or maybe pitiful. Just now beginning the transition from being a teacher in New Zealand to becoming, I hope once again, a careful observer— to learn again to slow impressions, focus on the minute and mundane, empty out triviality, and see place and people in their place, among them. A simple but difficult goal—that old Thoreauvian chestnut—simplify, engage, understand.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking with Ghosts

May 28th, 2017

Walking with Ghosts
28 May, 1968–28 May, 2017

Henry David Thoreau wrote the first modern treatise on the philosophy of walking— On Walking —arguing that one of wandering’s primary values the possibility of genuine solitude, something he prized perhaps more than most. Walking is not only a way to be alone. In fact, it might teach us about the impossibility of solitude, or at least make us attentive to its complexity. In the “Solitude” chapter of Walden he notes, “However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you.”

Walking—real walking—means walking with ghosts. It is easy to celebrate the idea that after breaking out of quotidian space and industrial time you will somehow be one with the trail, but, as Thoreau makes clear, that singularity is multiple. Nietzsche, another great walking philosopher, has Zarathustra exclaim in frustration, “There is always one too many about me…Always once one–that maketh in the long run two.” The Nietzschean “two” is not a mind magically hovering over a lump of flesh, but instead is a plenitude generated by the walk—the path, the wander, and the wanderer. (Another lesson of Zarathustra and the trail is the poverty of the mind/body dualism.)

Nietzsche’s “two” is a prompt to follow out the vectors of the multiple, the play of the ghosts. Still suffering from a torn muscle in my knee, my walk today was short—not one that offered sufficient distance or time for genuine thinking—but it was haunted. On this day 49 years ago my mother died. I was only eleven at the time and recovering clear memories of her remains difficult. Still, she haunts my life, nudging me at surprising moments, occupying my thoughts even when I’m not thinking—which is perhaps the definition of haunting.

Without doubt wandering brings cues that call to presence something or someone long absent. As William Carlos Williams, in the middle of a section of a poem where he is taking a long walk, says:

Memory is a kind
of accomplishment
a sort of renewal
even
an initiation, since the spaces it opens are new places
inhabited by hordes
heretofore unrealized

I remember with great clarity standing beside my mother pushing a roller dipped in a muted orange masonry paint up the concrete walls of a bathroom in the basement of the Woodstock Presbyterian Church. I hear her on Wednesday night in that same building rehearsing with Ruth Rhodes, the organist, and Marion French, the other soloist, for Sunday’s service. But I also remember with more clarity than I want Leo Snarr, my father’s best friend, collecting me from the Woodstock Elementary School’s lunchroom just after I had bought an ice-cream bar (probably a Fudgesicle or a Refresho—6 ¢). I sat in the back of his car, he in the passenger seat, his wife Mary Sue drove. He turned, put his hand on my knee and told me my mother had died (she was only 44, an age I have long since passed). At that moment I was double—in shock, I held my ice-cream loosely until Leo took it, but I was also thinking about how should I respond. I lived what Thoreau describes—“part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator.”

I often recur to that moment. Obviously an intense experience, but also one of real insight into the multiplicity of being. Walking is an act of presencing. To be crossing a loose scree field above cliffs demands an intensity of presence often not experienced in daily life. Learning of the death of a parent is another form of intensity, but even there, Being is not concentrated into a single luminous point, but rather continues moving as part of “hordes heretofore unrealized.” We always walk with ghosts.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Thoreau’s “Cosmopolitical Proposal”

July 13th, 2016

Thoreau’s Cosmopolitical Proposal

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Henry David Thoreau casts a long shadow over my thoughts about and practice of walking, particularly his essay “On Walking” which opens with “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil,–to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of nature, rather than a member of society.” In a stroke, he introduces what becomes an elemental concept–the wild–and frames his understanding of the human away from society in the big outside actively participating in the making of that outside. But his initial phrasing also opens the question of who is authorized to speak for another, particularly an other without language. Although the essay is full of many strongly (if ironically) stated sentiments about who is qualified to walk–“If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again,–if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settle all of your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”–speaking a word for nature is, from the first instant, made in a tentative voice. He might speak a word for Nature, but he cannot speak for Nature. “On Walking” is an essay on being “part and parcel of nature,” of acknowledging its “subtle magnetism,” and the “capabilities of the landscape.” The Nature he speaks for is full of agencies known and unknown.

The Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers also wants to question those who speak “a word” for Nature, to understand what authorizes certain people (usually scientists) to speak for nature, and to what extent their words are final. Her “Cosmopolitical Proposal” advocates listening to multiple voices speaking for or with multiple constituencies, articulating alliances, and arriving at an often brief consensus. She opens with a question–“How can I present a proposal intended not to say what is, or what ought to be, but to provoke thought; one that requires no other verification than the way in which it is able to ‘slow down’ reasoning and create an opportunity to arouse a slightly different awareness of the problems and situations mobilizing us?” Her friend and mentor Gilles Deleuze once characterized Nietzsche’s philosophy as a “series of darts” –provocations to thinking– rather than a system or method. Alfred North Whitehead, Stenger’s other, more distant mentor, spoke of philosophy as “lures for thinking.” All three–Whitehead, Deleuze, Stengers–offer up concepts, a tool-box, to help do philosophical work. They give no absolute position from which to speak absolutely, but they do point out a branching path where thinkers can, in Thoreau’s word, saunter.

The beginning of “On Walking” is a critique of an overly sedentary existence promoted by the business economy, but it is also a description (sometimes prescription) of proper walking attitudes. In the latter part he echoes his mentor Emerson’s plea in the “Divinity School Address” for a unique American literature and philosophy, one partaking of and maybe even articulating the wild land they now occupy. This notion of “the wild” is a fraught concept, one subject to many different appropriations, most notably to support eco-political movements advocating for setting aside wilderness areas. His line “in wildness is the preservation of the world” is often misquoted as “in wilderness…” Without doubt, one could find elements of a Thoreavian wild in a vast wilderness, but it also is to be found in the “civilized” world: in swamps or low spots on farms, at the edges of fields, in the margins of cultivation (agricultural and social). Thoreau himself, as Walden demonstrates, seeks out the wild and lives it on those very margins. He notes in “On Walking,” “For my part, I feel that with regard to Nature, I live a sort of border life….” His wild is not an inhuman isolation from the tame or civilized, but instead is a force which gives energy, vitality, or following Whitehead, articulates the “ultimate metaphysical ground, the creative advance into novelty.” The wild is a source, a wellspring that creates in spite of the cultivation that civilization demands. It is the tang of the wild apple or the wilding potato growing on the edge of a cultivated Peruvian field ready to bring new taste and characteristics to the dinner table. A place to locate this is in one of his seemingly offhand rants near the end of the essay where, as a counter to an American obsession with the practical (or as a proleptic critique of the neo-liberal University), he calls for a “Society for the Diffusion of Useful Ignorance.” He immediately renames ignorance “beautiful knowledge” to distinguish it from the practical, but it could just as easily be called “the wild” as he follows his proposal with a Whitmanesque image of cattle who find vitality in the new spring grass after a winter of hay.

Ignorance can take many forms, and usually not particularly positive ones, but Thoreau’s is a plea for thought freed from the cultivation of a rigidified civilization, of one that only listens to narrowly defined expert voices speaking an officially sanctioned discourse. Useful ignorance is a form of naïveté, a voice that can produce insights that, because unrecognized, are not available to the expert witnesses. The central figure in Stenger’s “Cosmopolitical Proposal” is the idiot, a conceptual persona she takes from Deleuze (who appropriated it from Dostoevsky). In Stenger’s hands, the idiot is the tentative, unauthorized voice who asks non-sensical or useless questions. Idiotic questioning is a way to strip bare the categories of sense and use. She does not deny knowledge but does want a fuller understanding of the ground on which it stands: “We know, knowledge there is, but the idiot demands that we slow down, that we don’t consider ourselves authorized to believe we possess the meaning of what we know.” Stenger’s idiot is a practitioner of Thoreau’s useful ignorance, or perhaps is Thoreau himself–someone willing to ask naively the obvious question, who slows down a railroaded consensus. Thoreau is the consummate railroad philosopher. Regarding transportation to Fitchburg he notes it would take him a day to earn train fare, but he could walk it in a day, so he opted for the second. A form of willful perversity perhaps, maybe a refusal to participate in an unnecessary economy, from most perspectives the action of an idiot, but definitely a way to slow down. In her plea for slow science, Stengers quotes Whitehead’s critique of a narrow professionalism: “minds in a groove. Each profession makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove. (…) The groove prevents straying across country, and the abstraction abstracts from something to which no further attention is given.” Inherent in this position is the desire to move transversally, as Thoreau advocates, to set out across the fields instead of following established roads, and as a consequence to slow down enough to pay due attention– not just to the world encountered but also to the thinking produced by that practice. Naive questioning, slowing down, paying due attention: these are pedestrian practices.

In “On Walking” Thoreau notes, “My desire for knowledge is intermittent, but my desire to bathe my head in atmospheres unknown to my feet is perennial and constant.” This is contrasted to Emerson’s more famous transparent eyeball, “I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part of God.” Thoreau is not after knowledge (at least none of the officially authorized kind), nor does he attain airy transcendence. Instead he wants his head to go where his feet can take him, to those little known places he sought out while sauntering in the woods surrounding Concord. He opens “On Walking” tracing an etymology of saunter, first claiming it describes someone going to Sainte Terre, to the Holy land. Then he sets out the possibility it comes from sans terre, to be without land, which “will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere.” Ultimately Thoreau prefers the former, but I like the latter because of the double logic it proposes. To be without ground is to acknowledge that the position from which you think and speak is solid but transient. To saunter intellectually is not to be arrogant but instead tentative. You can venture to “speak a word for Nature,” but you cannot utter the definitive term. You cannot close off the conversation. The second half of the logic is that such groundless can still provide a home, that we don’t have to root ourselves in the village, condemned to repeat the same formulae, nor do we have to run on the grooved rails of the train. Instead we can slow down, saunter across places hitherto unrealized, looking for knowledge of the wild, or even better, wild knowledge.

T. Hugh Crawford

June 28

July 1st, 2016

June 28

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Once again, I must take a break (see Hiatus) from long-distance trekking, this time to teach in the Georgia Tech Oxford program a course on the literature of walking. Instead of stopping WalkingHome completely, I will try to write up some thoughts on the material we are reading and, where possible, connect to any short walks I can squeeze in. Introducing others to the complexity of what seems a simple act of walking can be difficult, but I have found Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways does a fine job. Layering precise description with personal narrative and with cultural and literary history, MacFarlane prods his readers to think closely about what seems the mundane. Regarding literature, his gambit is simple but profound: one can understand literature (along with history and culture) by walking the landscapes that produced it. Edward Thomas’s poetry is known differently after walking the chalk downs and the Ichnield way, and of course, one comes to a different sense of self and indeed a different sense of “knowing” through such embodied experiences. This is an argument I have long been sympathetic to. I once taught a class on Thoreau’s Walden where we framed up his house using only the tools he could have used: axes, broad axes, adzes, mallets, chisels. The Walden we read (and the one I continue to read) is simply a different book because of that experience. Of course re-reading is always a transformation, but I now feel Thoreau’s words through the vibrations of an axe-blow up my arm.

T. Hugh Crawford

Air

June 15th, 2016

Air (an essay to complete the four elements, see also “water,” “surface,” and “vital heat“)

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They were burning the fields in Helambu, mountains terraced like a 3-d model of a topo map but nearly as old as human history. First they burn the chaff and straw, then cultivate with short-handled heavy-headed hoes, a design older than the millennium. In the larger fields, a wooden plow is pulled by a yoke of yak, writing simple lines in the soil with a metal tip tapering to a plain point. The plows are carved from a small tree-trunk with a heavy root angled by the winds, water, and rocks where it grew. A handle is mortised at the butt to give the plowboy control over depth and direction. The ashes from the burn are turned into the soil, but only after the fire has filled the sky with a choking smoke. In the villages they heat and cook with wood, often in rooms without chimneys. Instead a hole up in the eaves helps draw some of the smoke from the kitchen. The paths that wind between villages and farms are littered with empty coughdrop blister-packs, an attempt to sooth the irritation of indoor and outdoor smoke. The latter was completely unexpected as I climbed the trail, finally gaining 3690 meters of altitude. Higher than I had ever been but still not above tree line. The forest remained primarily pine and juniper, though becoming more scrub-like as the afternoon progressed. Ahead was a peak the path would go around, but I could see a recent rockslide had sheared off most of its face and the trail rerouted at that point. The foot stones were fresh and there were small cairns signaling the way, but as it turned out, in order to get past the slip, the path went almost to the peak. My altitude sensitive lungs went on full alert. Until this point, the hour estimates printed on my map had been spot on, but the walk from Mangengoth to Thadepati Bhanjyand was listed as one hour and took two and a half. Not sure what the kilometers were, but at this altitude they are of little consequence. The only thing that mattered was the air.

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It is not surprising that Buddhist meditation practices focus so intently on breath. Spiritus is elusive at altitude. Just moving about in the Himalayas is an exercise in breathing, a palpable factor in all activity. Visiting the gompa at Bhraga required not just a long walk up the Annapurna Circuit but also slow acclimation. The general rule of thumb is not to gain more than 1000 meters altitude per day, and I was by no means pushing myself on arrival at the village. On learning I could see the inside of the monastery which was perched high on a cliff above the village, I had to hustle to get up to it in time. Almost immediately, oxygen debt crushed my stamina. I slowed and methodically made my way to the entrance where I was met by an ancient Nepali doorkeeper who instructed me to remove my shoes and compose my breathing, then led me into an exuberance of Buddhist statuary, imagery, and manuscripts. I wandered in a daze, enthralled at the spectacle and the history it contained (I’m sure lack of oxygen contributed to that daze). On leaving, she tied a thin, blue-green string around my neck (which remains to this day), and I breathed one last time the smell of incense and ancient learning before descending some meters to the village and its relatively richer oxygen world.

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Bhraga is on the Annapurna circuit in Nepal. As a child I was a voracious reader in a house with a decent but limited library. I remember Maurice Herzog’s account of the ascent (and more important, descent) of Annapurna in the first expedition to summit what was then the highest mountain yet climbed by Western mountaineers. That story remained tucked in my psyche, resurfacing when I read about the circuit. I’ve been trekking long enough to have chucked the “bucket list” mentality over the edge many years ago. My idea was to walk around the Annapurna massif as a sort of pilgrimage, like the Buddhist circumambulation of Mt. Kailash. In my pilgrimage, I would see the villages, people, and countryside but also the places Herzog’s expedition passed, and I would see the mountain that bulked so large in my childhood imagination. Except for ice gear, I carry the equipment necessary to meet most challenges on a trail. The description of the Annapurna Circuit was quick to point out that people of moderate fitness were capable of finishing, so I didn’t worry much about the specifics. My first days out were uneventful, walking without a guide on a well-marked, well-travelled path. As the days passed, I encountered many of the same trekkers, listening to their conversations which almost never mentioned the walk itself. Instead, like a mantra, they repeated the words “Thorung La,” a pass that, at 17,769 ft., was the highest point on the circuit. It soon became clear most of my hiking colleagues were focused almost exclusively on the challenge of that pass. Along with the 1000 meter rule, everyone hydrated relentlessly and many ate lots of garlic, a folk remedy I was most happy to follow. Morning eggs in the guest houses were usually covered in garlic. Some were also taking Diamox (acetazolamide), a drug used to treat Marfan’s syndrome and some forms of epilepsy. It is a diuretic which tends to acidify the blood, causing deep breathing and increasing the blood’s oxygen supply, so it supposedly works as prophylaxis for mountain sickness. For these people, a pilgrimage around and through a remarkable landscape had been reduced to hemoglobin, to blood and oxygen.

My passage over Thorung La was uneventful. A beautiful but bitter cold day, a long steady climb followed by a hasty descent to Kagbeni, it was satisfying and, by walking at a judicious pace, my blood remained well-oxygenated. A few weeks later, on another continent I came to understand thin air. I began the final ascent of Mt. Kilimanjaro at midnight, but not before asking the guides about the rationale for such a strategy. We had already spent days acclimating, and it seemed unwise to disrupt diurnal patterns just at the moment we were readying for the big push. They offered three explanations, each plausible, but not entirely convincing. The hike up from Kibo huts to Uhuru peak is less than six km with a little more than 1000m altitude gain. The summit is 5895m (19,341′). For comparison, Everest is 29,029′, and the highest peak in North America is Denali coming in at 20,310′. So the first answer had some merit– seeing the sunrise from the crater rim is an incredible experience. People walk up Poon Hill in Nepal starting at 4:00 am to see the sun rise over the Annapurna massif and Daulighiri, but that is a well-marked and fairly short track. Another reason: it was the wet season and the rains tend to start mid-morning, so they wanted to get up and then off the mountain early. The last, which seemed both patronizing and nonsensical, was actually the best. Hikers cannot see what they are climbing in the dark. It might only be six kilometers and only 1000 meters elevation gain, but it is straight up the highest mountain in Africa. At 11:00, we had coffee and biscuits and by the stroke of midnight were walking out of camp, each wearing a headlamp directed at our feet. We soon discovered that rain the day before was snow up high, and within the hour we were in ankle-deep powder, each of us following single file, seeing only the terrain illuminated by our headlamps and concentrating on the footprints directly in front of us. This went on for six hours. Initially, I treated it the way I do all long treks. Walking is an opportunity to think, but walking and thinking at high altitude is a curious and subtle experience. I found while I did the Kili shuffle–placing one foot directly in front of the other, heel to toe with no space between (very much Pink Floyd’s The Wall walk)–I could maintain a train of thought, but soon the lack of oxygen took effect, and I could only focus on the feet stepping in front of me, step after step, hour after hour. Climbing in snow is physically taxing, and as the air thinned, every misstep or slip interrupted carefully patterned breathing which in turn made me stop to pant, trying to get oxygen balance back. The new snow slowed our pace, so we arrived at Gilman’s point on the crater rim much later than expected. Kilimanjaro is a dormant volcano– a singular peak rising out of the Rift Valley that characterizes the geology of East Africa. We rested briefly, and for the first time could see beyond the halos of our headlamps. The sun washed across the landscape, making shadows of unbelievable intensity and finally breaking the monochrome of our night walk. By now I was really feeling the altitude. I had crossed Thorung La with little distress, but given the exertion of climbing in snow, I was gasping for air and feeling many of the symptoms of altitude sickness. Nevertheless I continued the last bit of the climb around the crater rim to Uhuru point. There were congratulations all around, but what stunned us all was the sheer magnificence of a clear, rainless morning looking out over the glaciers surrounding a breathtaking crater (and I mean breathtaking in its most literal sense). We soon turned back– lingering at the peak invites many problems including body-temperature drops and perhaps more time sliding down the incline in the rain. We made our long return to Kibo huts, and each step brought more oxygen. After a glorious hour resting, we geared back up and made the descent to Horombo, had supper and slept the sleep of the dead. Emily Dickinson once wrote that “the brain is wider than the sky.” On Kilimanjaro, I learned that a tired, physically stressed, and oxygen-starved brain is no wider than the faint outline of a headlamp illuminating footsteps in the snow.

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Air signals its presence in other ways, perhaps most directly by moving. In Nepal climbing to Tilicho Lake, I watched the snow on a mountainside break off, sliding into a ravine a couple of kilometers from where I walked. There was no danger the avalanche could reach the trail, but in a few moments the clear sunny day was filled with airborne ice crystals moving east fast and wet. About 20 minutes later, the same ricocheting wave recrossed the path, this time moving west, once again covering me completely in ice. The Tongiriro Crossing on New Zealand’s North Island involves altitude change though nothing like Kilimanjaro. The edge of the Red Crater is a little over 1800 meters and when I was to cross during my hike of the Te Araroa Trail there was still snow, a lot of it. Tongariro is one of those hikes that swiftly changing weather can make dangerous. My morning started out cold (down at low elevation) and wet, though there were glimpses of sun, and the cloud cover did not look significantly different from a typical New Zealand morning in late Spring. My plan was to first hike to the Ketatahi Hut which was about 18 km, so I hoped to get there mid-morning and would then have a sense of how the weather would play out. Early on the hike went well, a long road walk followed by well-designed and maintained paths. When I emerged from the bush and started hiking the alpine tundra the temperature started to drop, and the wind picked up. Still, I was well dressed in wind/rain gear, ready for what I thought would come, but the rain intensified and the wind was soon gale force. At times it actually pushed me off the trail. The last kilometer or two were otherworldly– horizontal rain, freight-train wind, and no clear end in sight. Then the hut appeared (not a moment too soon). The first thing I saw when I got to the door was a sign redesignating the hut as a temporary shelter. It was not an overnight site any longer because of a recent eruption which had dropped rocks through the roof and disrupted the foundation. I went inside, stripped off wet clothes, and with shivering hands made an early lunch. As I did not get appreciably warmer–the wind by now was bashing the sides of the cabin– I spread out my sleeping bag on the table and crawled in, which soon got my body temperature to a better range. Before long some Department of Conservation people showed up to work on the hut, surprised to find anyone there in such weather and relieved that I had decided to return down the way I had come. I packed up, headed back into the maelstrom, and could feel the temperature creep up as the altitude decreased. While hiking back down the mountain, I thought about Thoreau in The Maine Woods where he climbed Katahdin, though he did not achieve the summit. His description of the mountain is some of his best writing, and I was thinking about how to him Katahdin was a cloud machine, making its own weather. He did not end up posing at the top for pictures the way Appalachian Trail thru-hikers do today, but he experienced the mountain in all its weather fury. From that perspective, his was a successful climb, as was mine that day on Tongariro.

Another of Thoreau’s mountains is New Hampshire’s Mount Washington, a place where the air asserts itself insistently. It is a mountain with a constant flow of tourists. I remember one day climbing it through the Tuckerman Ravine with one of my sons. Like Katahdin, Washington is also a cloud factory, so on nearing the summit the mist came in. Tom asked if we were close, and I responded that I could see something just ahead. As it turned out, that something was the bumper of a car. We summited through a parking lot, then stood next to tourists in street clothes waiting our turn to snap a picture by the sign at the peak. Flat and exposed, Washington is situated at a point where major storm systems from the south and the west converge. It can have temperatures as low as -35 and, at 231 mph, the highest wind speed ever directly recorded by humans. It is no wonder that in the past 150 years, almost the same number of people have died on its slopes. Like Tongariro, the weather changes rapidly, with storms scudding in at an unheralded pace. Standing at the peak, ignoring the cog-railway and full parking lot, watching the clouds mark the wind direction and speed, is to experience air as air.

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Today when people speak of a medium they might be thinking of a trafficker in the spiritual realms but more likely are referring to a communication medium. I currently teach in the newly re-named School of Literature, Media, and Communication, where media finds itself squarely in the middle, sandwiched between an elderly media form and the study of how to get the message through as clearly as possible. At least since McLuhan (actually since Plato), people concerned with effective communication focus not just on the message but also on its medium since, obviously, its specific affordances configure the messages that pass. Idealists desire transparency, the mythic state where the medium recedes to such an extent that the message stands clear for all to see and understand. In Remediation, my old friend and colleague Richard Grusin makes the distinction between immediacy and hypermediacy, where the first characterizes the push for transparency while the second calls attention to both the limitations and the affordances of the medium itself. Similar to Heidegger’s tools “ready-to-hand” and “present-to-hand,” immediacy and hypermediacy are engaged in a constant dance. One leads for a moment, then the other, as the message is passed and its medium registered. In the last half-century, we have come to think of information moving through a medium as fundamental to the maintenance of society and vital for continuing life through our very genetic structure.

In a climate-controlled environment (at least in the West), air rarely shows itself as hypermediacy. Instead it seems textbook immediacy. Indeed, except for startling instances of dense air pollution (or to a trekker on the Helambu circuit during spring field preparation), the primary characteristic of air is its transparency. Something invisible, beneath notice, surely does not carry a message of consequence, but of course it does. We respond somatically to changes in air pressure. We feel deep in our souls the freshness of a clear cool morning. We feel the oppressive weight of water on a humid day, and a stiffening breeze signals a change in the weather. The down on our cheek trembles in the slightest current of air or shift in temperature, but what makes air so clearly a medium is its very transparency. To experience the big outside on an exceptionally clear day is to be enthralled by its clarity, by exactly that which you cannot see. As William Carlos Williams says in the first poem of Spring and All:

under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

* * *

Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

One by one objects are defined —
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf

The transparency of the air there does not withdraw in the face of the immediacy of the object–it produces it, enables it, and mediates it. Air is our first medium.

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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, G–, 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 G– 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

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

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

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