Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

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
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


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


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


June 15th, 2016

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


T. Hugh Crawford


May 22nd, 2016



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


March 20th, 2016


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


T. Hugh Crawford


November 29th, 2015


A few days ago, after a beautiful morning’s tramp, I arrived at a new and spacious Department of Conservation hut. Since there were no good campsites down the trail for some distance, I decided to call it an early day and settle in. The hut had a large deck that looked out onto a beautiful river valley, and as I was going through the ritual of unpacking and signing the Intentions book, I heard footsteps out front and soon a man entered. I could tell immediately he was an experienced hiker as he was traveling light and also went about his unpacking methodically. We began a conversation and soon it was clear to me that he was also a real gear-head. I wondered to myself how long it would be before he told me how many grams his stove weighed (answer: half hour). This is not to say that I am uninterested in equipment. It is very much part of the long distance hiking experience and good equipment can make a trek much more enjoyable (see my earlier post “Inventory”). Rather, gear is really not much of a topic for conversation, particularly when it becomes a competition measured in grams.


However, that encounter did get me thinking about deliberation–how it functions in our sense of being, our sense of living. One of Thoreau’s most quoted phrases is his explanation for his time at Walden pond: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately”. The rest of the sentence reads, “to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Two things are clear about this sentence: Thoreau is concerned with a life (perhaps a topic for another pointless essay), and that living deliberately is part of that concern. I have always been intrigued with how adverbs, even when clearly linked to a particular action in a sentence, tend to float above all, somehow modifying or at least Inflecting the entire utterance and often creating interesting tensions and ambiguities. I suppose it is easy to ascribe attributes to objects, but actions are slippery. Without doubt Thoreau thematizes living deliberately in this sentence, but his decision tends to also get folded into the modification. Going to the woods was a deliberate choice and it is in many ways the subject of the his book, his justification for rustication.

Care is a concept often associated with deliberation. A jury will (one hopes) carefully deliberate the fate of the defendant. To be deliberate is to proceed with forethought, taking account of the multiple implications of any given action. In other words, to be deliberate is to be careful. Indeed, to be carefully careful. But I want to understand where those two terms diverge, and in that gap, reflect on different modes of walking. Thoreau may have gone to the woods to live deliberately and often he does, but just as often another, non-deliberative form of life comes into play, one that can be understood by a brief excursion into the work of another philosopher who went to the woods, to a small house near Todtnauberg, also to live and write deliberately–Martin Heidegger. It is appropriate that as I write this, I find myself also deliberately in the wilds. In my case, severe weather has driven me off the Te Araroa and into Comyns Hut on the South Island about 15 km south of the Rakaia River. Comyns is an odd, old hut, completely made of steel– corrugated steel siding attached to a structural steel frame, all of which rocks and rolls In the wind (even the door is flapping steel). There are plenty of holes for the wind and rain to enter and no firewood for warmth or to dry my wet clothes. After a morning spent fording streams in gale-force winds and driving rain, I need to think about care as well as my own deliberateness.


Toward the end of Division 1 of Being and Time, Heidegger is offers the ground for Dasein, for the question of Being: “Care, as a primary structural totality, lies ‘before’ every factical ‘attitude’ and ‘situation’ of Dasein, and it does so existentially a priori; this means that it always lies in them. So this phenomenon by no means expresses a priority of the ‘practical’ attitude over the theoretical. When we ascertain something as present-to-hand by merely beholding it, this activity has the character of care just as much as a ‘political action’ or taking a rest and enjoying oneself. ‘Theory’ and ‘practice’ are possibilities of being for an entity whose being must be defined as ‘care.'” Being, in all its possible modes (including both the practical and the theoretical, the ready-to-hand and the present-to-hand) is primordially grounded in care. Up to this point, this does not seem too distant from Thoreau’s ‘deliberately.’ Both imply life of mindful consideration. One must proceed deliberately and with care. But the distinction Heidegger makes above between the practical and the theoretical, and his invocation of the notion of present-to-hand complicate the picture. A way to unravel this a bit is to go to the woods with both of them and also out walking the trail.

When Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live, he first borrowed an axe to cut the timbers for his house. Heidegger’s ontology begins with the question of tools, of what he calls ‘equipmentality,’ further noting that, “Taken strictly, there is no such thing as an equipment.” On the one hand, this is an obvious observation. An axe or a hammer (Heidegger’s favorite example) can be regarded ‘objectively’ as a material entity, but as equipment, it exists in a larger world of equipmentality: in carpentry you have hammers, nails, wood, measuring devices, plans, templates, customers, earth, wind, all coming together to make the scene of building/dwelling. Thoreau had an axe, some “arrowy” second growth white pines, a lot on a hill above the pond, boards and (some) nails from an Irishman’s shanty, and an agreement with R.W. Emerson, the landowner. For Heidegger, this equipmentality is the way into understanding being-in-the-world as any given part of an equipment presupposes a background of tools, materials, plans, and actions as an already given. It is on this point that he makes his famous present-to-hand and ready-to-hand distinction. According to Hubert Dreyfus, “Heidegger proposes to demonstrate that the situated use of equipment is in some sense prior to just looking at things and that what is revealed by use is ontologically more fundamental than the substances with determinate, context-free properties revealed by detached contemplation.” Present-to-hand is that form of looking, regarding a piece of the world as an entity with certain attributes. To see a hammer as present-to-hand is to regard an object that (depending on the type) probably has a handle made of wood/fiber glass/steel and a head of a certain configuration made of steel in a pattern that enables striking. The regard to hammer as ready-to-hand is to use it: “the less we just stare at the hammer-Thing, and the more we seize hold of it and use it, the more primordial does our relationship to it become, and the more unveiledly is it encountered as that which it is–as equipment.”

The heart of Heidegger’s critique of Western philosophy is that it is fairly well-equipped to deal with the present-to-hand but woefully lacking in resources to comprehend the ready-to-hand, which, by the way, is where all the action is. One could say the present-to-hand is adjectival, while the ready-to-hand is adverbial, and we all know how ambiguous but at the same time vital all those adverbs are. Heidegger is quick to point out that the ready-to-hand is not just using a tool: “The ready-to-hand is not grasped theoretically at all, nor is it itself the sort of thing that circumspection takes proximally as a circumspective theme. The peculiarity of what is proximally ready-to-hand is that, in its readiness-to-hand, it must, as it were, withdraw … in order to be ready-to-hand quite authentically. That with which our everyday dealings proximally dwell with not the tools themselves …. On the contrary, that with which we concern ourselves primarily is the work — that which is to be produced at the time; and this is accordingly ready-to-hand too. The work bears with it that referential totality within which the equipment is gathered.” The ready-to-hand “withdraws” not to some mysterious other world but rather withdraws from any understanding as present-to-hand. A hammer used fluently is transparent. A hiker’s trekking poles (discussed below) are transparent extensions of arms, at least until a compression joint slips and one is suddenly shorter than the other. There is always more to the ready-to-hand than the objective description because it is always already part of a larger functioning whole that is part of a humming, buzzing background of human/nonhuman activity.

Perhaps we are now ready to understand better what Thoreau was actually doing and perhaps what we are trying to do when we sometimes think of living deliberately. In his tool analysis, Heidegger articulates a series of terms to explain when a tool is not ready-to-hand. It may be broken, not quite the right tool, or obstinately getting in the way. His point is that at any given moment, the fluid withdrawn nature of hammering ready-to-hand can breakdown so the hammerer must stop and regard the tool not as part of a functioning system but rather as a part, in this case a recalcitrant part. Such moments demand a stepping back to plot possible solutions and then act on those plans. In other words, the broken tool brings about the moment of deliberation. Breakdown brings about the need to plan rather than smoothly acting. Even though Walden is about life in the woods and includes his building a house, there is little actual description in that process in the book. Nevertheless, given some of the details, we can infer some tool relationships. He borrowed an axe and set out to cut the timber necessary to frame his house. He came to know trees through extended tool interaction. He was absorbed in the ready-to-hand. While chopping, he sings:

Men say they know many things;
But lo! they have taken wings—
The arts and sciences,
And a thousand appliances;
The wind that blows
Is all that any body knows.

On the one hand a banal jingle, but on the other, a direct and sincere questioning not so much about the sources of knowledge, but what counts as knowledge. All anybody might know is the wind that blows, as the rest of knowledge that is produced by the arts and sciences (and presumably the appliances of technology) remains abstract or ephemeral. In a sense, what he is pressing in these questions is how can we know the entities experienced through the ready-to-hand. As Heidegger argues in Being and Time, concernful absorption has its being in the function of “discovering” and fundamental to this process is that “those entities within-the-world which are brought along [beigebrachte] in the work . . . . The kind of being which belongs to these entities is readiness-to-hand.” In the process of building his house, Thoreau also encountered Heidegger’s notorious broken tool as he broke the borrowed axe handle and had to replace it himself, an action that give some insight into the local nature of equipmentality. If the axe’s owner was a tool proficient, he or she would likely not appreciate the returned axe even it it was exceptionally sharp (as Thoreau claimed) because hanging the axe head was, in the nineteenth century, a highly personalized process. In addition, no one would soak an axe with its handle in the pond to tighten the fit as the moment it dried back out, everyone would be dodging a flying axe head.


Thoreau does not interrupt his book in an attempt to present his building as ready-to-hand. Perhaps he did not feel it was necessary as most of colleagues had their own axe-knowledge, but he did struggle with articulating such understanding, as his time in the bean-field tells. In Walden, Thoreau would claim exhaustion and his failure to read when his labors were heavy, but that never stopped him from thinking. The experience of the ready-to-hand is, as he makes clear, another form of understanding. He would shoulder his hoe and head out to his too-large garden, noting that, “When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop. It was no longer beans that I hoed, nor I that hoed beans; and I remembered with as much pity as pride, if I remembered at all, my acquaintances who had gone to the city to attend the oratorios.” This is a commonly reproduced passage, usually with commentators focusing rightly on the central claim–the blurring of boundaries between self and beans– but the larger context is equally essential, as Thoreau offers a real glimpse into equipmentality and a form of care. His labor produces earthly music which potentially calls attention his separation from society, but he dismisses a trip to town for staged music and instead offers up his own absorption in a world of work, one made up of a complicated equipmentality that features the musical tinkling of his hoe. His version of the ready-to-hand is through work: “Nearest to all things is that power which fashions their being. Next to us the grandest laws are continually being executed. Next to us is not the workman whom we have hired, with whom we love so well to talk, but the workman whose work we are.”

Probably taking a cue from Dewey, Francisco Varela makes a distinction between ethical “know-how” and ethical “know-what” that can illuminate this distinction I am trying to draw between care and deliberation. When confronted with breakdown, a specific problem that must be decided on the basis of the good, we deliberate. There we know we are in the presence of the ethical and, one hopes, exercise all our deliberative capacities to make a good decision. But there are countless everyday gestures that do not rise to the level of the clearly ethical, that do not invite us to exercise our ethical know-what, but still form part of a life that tends toward the good. When walking through a door at a crowded building entrance, you may hold the door open as you pass just a moment longer to enable those behind you to follow. Hardly an “ethical” act, but one that is part of a habitual pattern of behavior that can be described as care. It is a proceeding with care by recognizing that Dasein is already being-in-the-world so that it includes the world in all its equipmentality.

From that perspective, Being opens out onto a future through an authentic relationship to the world articulated as care. Such care extends not just to people but also to equipmentality broadly construed, which finally brings me back to the gear-head who prompted this reverie and an example that in its triviality I hope demonstrates the point. As it turns out, we both have the same brand and style of tent which requires the use of trekking poles as it does not have traditional tent poles. Trekking poles are an important part of my hiking equipment as they enable steep ascents and descents (particularly with old and infirm knees), enable me to off-load some of the strain on my legs to my arms, and serve to guide me through boggy terrain. They are the perfect example of tools ready-to-hand. I am particularly hard on trekking poles and I am pleased with my current pair– carbon fiber Lekis (please don’t ask how many grams they weigh). When I set up my tent, I first adjust the length of each and usually I find myself holding both and looking down on my already stretched-out tent. The shorter pole needs to go to the back so I end up tossing it across the tent to the other side where it makes a sprongy sound on hitting the ground. I always flinch even though there is no way tossing it five feet will cause damage. Nevertheless, the sound is one of uncaring. I know, in a world of untold human misery, concern about the well-being of a trekking pole is absurd if not reprehensible. But, if care is the central instance of being, and equipmentality signals both the point of access to ready-to-hand understanding and a recognition of the interrelated human and non/human complexity of equipmentality, then care even on the level of hiking triviality is at least as important as life lived deliberately.


We all experience the things of the world through use. For Heidegger, using an tool creates a primordial relationship that exceeds simple observation or hypothetical activity. For him, learning by doing is actually knowing by using. Such activity brings us closer to the equipmental whole the tool participates in. Such participation is the everydayness of being in the world, and brings with it the past present and future opening out of care. I can deliberate at length the details of my hike, and I can choose my equipment deliberately, but walking which is a primary mode of being is all about care.

T. Hugh Crawford


November 15th, 2015



Perhaps the most frequent but often unvoiced question that walking gives rise to is “how far?” or “am I near?” Walking is primordially an engagement with near/far. But near and far are relational terms. A far person can be many miles from another, whereas a chess piece can be far from another on a board. Or the baker’s tansformation, where a point on rolled then folded dough moves from far to near in an instant. Hiking near and far can be measured in feet. Today I took quite a tumble because I was looking ten feet ahead instead of six. For humans, near and far are experiential phenomena which become known through the possibility of movement or communication. Once again, a comment from Thoreau is a point of entry to question the experience of proximity: “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” This could be seen as Thoreau at his Luddite best, criticizing the major technological innovations of his era– railroad and telegraph– as just pretty toys which distract us from true thought and meaningful action. One need only recall his playful imaginary journey to Fitchburg where his one self buys a ticket and rides the train while the other walks. By computing the labor-time involved in earning money for the ticket, walking Thoreau comes out ahead, granting the assumption that time spent walking is better than time spent working for wages. Still it is hard to imagine the railroad trains which run daily past Walden Pond as pretty toys (any more than, with Emily Dickinson, we can imagine them as horses). The train in this framework is not just about temporality, it is about proximity. The train transforms the notion of near and far. Or, to be more precise, the train calls us to question the functional category near/far.

Much of Walden is a meditation on just that question and a celebration of the near which has brought Thoreau much critique (including a recent New Yorker article). His intense focus on the local seems to be at the expense of global awareness and can seem overwhelmingly parochial. This is even more evident in the second technology of the above quotation– the telegraph. At least the train has the virtue of a heavy and obvious embodiment. It is, in the words of Whitman, “ponderous.” The telegraph does have wires, but the messages move by imponderous electrons. Thoreau’s questioning of this fancy toy is more pointed as he questions the value of rapid communication. Does Maine really have anything to say to Texas? and would anyone in Maine be the slightest bit interested in what someone from Texas had to say (questions that remain vital today). Regarding Thoreau, we must always recognize the hyperbole that accompanies any claim like this one. Widely read in intellectual traditions that extended beyond the USA and Europe, he was anything but a parochial intellectual. Clearly he is questioning what he saw in his townsfolk as an overweening interest in the news of the world and a concomitant failure to know or understand their locality.


Near and far, maps, communication technologies, and touching the local ground are staples of life on the trail. As much as you may want to always be in the moment of any given walk, you are always turning to the future. Walking opens out to a place you are not, a constant negotiation of the near and the far. The interesting question then is how those negotiations manifest. Every evening in anticipation of the next day’s walk, guidebooks and maps are consulted, ideal distance computed and plans made. But even prior to that, there are abstract computations. My Te Araroa hike is framed by necessary calendar time. Starting before September was discouraged as the weather would have been even worse than it actually was. Hiking in the rain and the mud was brutal; were the temperatures even lower it would have been impossible. And my finish date is fixed by my teaching schedule. My simple rule of thumb has been to average 25 km per day. Existentially, that is often easy to accomplish. Any given day, getting an early enough start and walking long enough usually suffices to get more than 25 km, though there are days up on alpine crossings where such distance is impossible because of surface and terrain or when weather interferes (or when both come together as happened to me on both the Tararua and Richmond ranges).

But near and far is never simply a function of distance walked, even while walking. The physically near or far are not necessarily experienced as walking near/far. Experientially many other factors come into play. Perhaps most important is the actual hiking surface– clearly an experience of nearness as your feet/shoes (and sometimes hands) are in actual contact, but also an experience of far as surfaces enable distance. There is a hiking adage, “take what the trail gives you,” which can be translated to “hike hard and fast when the path is easy.” There the surface is a function of far as well as near. Distance hiked–far–also can become almost obsessive, particularly when telecommunication technologies come into play (Thoreau was right in this way). Checking GPS position turns the experience of the near or the local into one of nearly complete futurity, always seeing not so much where you are as how far you are from an imagined destination. Then there is the landscape photograph which is always one of distance that only implies presence because you took the picture and so stood in that singular vantage point. Such mediation is very much part of navigating your way through the day, but transforms the nearness of the walk into a distance to be seen, then covered.

Walking is a way to see a landscape: stand on this spot to observe that mountain, here is a perfect place to take a picture. That is to experience landscape as far but still proximate, , but walking is also to be in the landscape. It is a way to break through the specular and be part of the viewed which is very different than regarding it. It is near not just in terms of physical proximity, but also as a way to signal that being is always being-in-the-world. The spectatorial far, particularly as it is technologically mediated, belies the simple truth that a landscape is never simply viewed from afar, but also is very much part of a near that your presence in makes manifest.

One form of far (the one Thoreau was criticizing) is the product of a static viewpoint. The world viewed is often an invitation to see it as separate, as over there. The world walked is a world where near/far are constantly switching, moving rapidly from that place over there to that place where I now move. Then near/far is experienced no so much as distance as pace, mood, fatigue or lightheartedness, pack weight, foot pain, hunger (a rumbling stomach is a clear measure of distance traveled), or anxiety about time/distance. They are also functionally related to repetition, the experience of the familiar and the unfamiliar. I began the South Island by hiking the Queen Charlotte Track, a walk I have taken twice before. Not only could I anticipate possible distances traveled, but my very familiarity with the track make the far quite near. There was much anticipation and surprise–oh, I am already here!– compared to my recent time on the Richmond Range where having to climb 900 meters in about 5 kilometeres made the near quite far. It was very much the experience as a child who constantly asks “are we there yet?”

In phenomenology, bodies in the world are experienced initially as front/back, left/right, and up/down. The next move, to be in the world as near/far, is the first to create a disjunction between self and world. The objects of that world are either felt as a clear part–near–or as more or less unrelated and disconnected–far. This I think is what Thoreau might be driving at in his criticism of some technologies. The initial experience of far is the first disjunction. The first time being is not in-the-world. (Freud’s fort/da is a version of this, but the da is absence–non-being–while the far is present but not phenomenally connected to being). Letting that version of far stand can create an attitude of a world that is not over-there, but instead is disconnected, separated, unlived. The telegraph’s solution is ironically increased separation because of unrelation. Technologically mediated forms of communication bring with them different protocols of presence, and specific bandwidths of communication. For Thoreau, they are creating an illusion of near while reinforcing a disjunctive far.

The near he is promoting is not a simple physical near. Rather, an insistence that near and far always pertain to bodies-in-the-world. His privileging of walking is by no means the only route into this insight, but it is one where the near and the far are in constant commerce, are continuously interchanging, refusing to settle into unbridgeable distance. The far is not separate from the near, it’s just a little farther away.


T. Hugh Crawford


November 4th, 2015

Traversing Space:

Homage to Deleuze and Guattari


When I began hiking the main Tararua Range, the weather was mild– the kind of day that makes you want to walk. Past the gate, the first stretch was up through a cattle pasture, fields that appear simple solid green grass until you try to cross them, then it’s tussock to tussock, cow flops to meadows that are actually bogs. A herd of young steers ran out in front of me, making a muted thundering when they all hit their stride. The stile at the end, one of those inflection points that is always a brown muddy soup, marked the entrance to the range itself, and the path rose fast when I left the pasture behind. As I gained elevation, the temperature dropped, the rain thickened, and the wind began to push me around. This section of the Tararua Range has five Department of Conservation huts (each a different style, age, and comfort level) every eight kilometers or so. My plan was to get to the second one — Te Matawai– that first day, but by 2:30 the rain was intense and the winds pushed even harder, so when I got to Waiopehu, the first hut, I called it a day. The next morning brought no relief. The rain continued so the trail was a stream, and the wind rattled the windows of this well-built but unheated shelter. I spent most of the day reading while seated at the table looking out a bank of windows at an opaque white wall. I was fairly certain below me was the flatland I had hiked out of the day before, but for all I knew, it was the moon or the Arctic. I was inert and immobile, a walker without a path.


In his essay “Walking,” Thoreau describes going to see two panoramas (the Imax of the 19th century). The first was of the Rhine River; its castles and ruins were the sites of stories that had stirred him in his youth. Then he saw the Mississippi panorama, depicting stories yet untold. In pairing these, he gestured toward what he considered the heroic age of young America which was building out from Eastern shores to become a transcontinent. Using the idea of the West to signal openness and freedom typifies the rhetoric of his essay, but the way he describes his experience of the paintings also is telling. On the Rhine, he “floated along under the spell of enchantment, as if [he] had been transported to an heroic age.” On the Mississippi he “worked [his] way up,” “gazed,” and “looked” into rivers and an emerging history, an heroic age in the making. Although one is passive, the other active, both are experiences of space as point-line. Thoreau was already inclined to such a narrative as it was the mode of his early book, A Week on the Concord and the Merrimack, which describes a trip with his brother in an unwieldy boat, seeing his familiar Concord and environs from an unfamiliar perspective. Although a river unfolds like a ribbon, bending back on itself, forming within its banks differential currents and lateral complexities, it remains a line, with the boat a point. Perhaps unwittingly, Thoreau’s digression regarding the river panoramas recapitulates the phenomenology of the essay’s subject– walking –which in the frame he initially articulates is a point following a line.

I spent four days paddling the Whanganui river from Whakahoro Landing to the city of Wanganui (spellings alternate between “w” and “wh”). It was locomotion through a combination of river current, piloting, and arm strength (my tramping legs got a rest). The landscape unrolled slowly, with a perspective more distantly specular than the hiking trail because of the openness of the water as opposed to the confinement of the deep dark woods. Piloting the canoe engages the senses in ways at least superficially different from walking. A distant roar could be wind, a waterfall, tributary stream, or rapids that demand alert and instantaneous actions. You hear and feel changes in the current, even as you see stories both old and new unreeling down the line. But this is not to dismiss walking as less sensory intensive. There your ears hear subtle transformation of landscapes (shifting wind on ridge tops) as well as register altitude gradations concomitantly felt in feet and legs. In both, the information is navigational–the ribbon of the water or the worn path of the trail unwind in a line that commands a following.


On the river, following the point-line is staying within a laminar flow. Drifting off the line even for a moment takes you into the slack of a backwater or head-on into a turbulent flow from which only chance will extricate you. Walking, particularly footpaths, tends to minimize such vortical or non-linear disturbances. Paths are usually there to lead you through. Long-distance hiking is the willing subjection to the tyranny of the point-line, though at times, like on the water, there are counter-currents. All hikers resist, complaining about track lay-out where designers inevitably and for seemingly no reason swing through difficult terrain or arbitrarily go over every hilltop no matter how difficult the climb or unappealing the vista. In addition, pathways themselves can produce turbulence or resistance, something Christopher Alexander’s landscape design tries to exploit. In laying out walkways, particularly for college campuses, Alexander tries to build in the possibility of an eddy forming in the flow of students, a place where the path compresses and releases in such a way that some of those following it are ejected into a calm space, one for chance encounters and possibly quiet conversation outside the restricted choreography of academic intercourse. Alexander’s point-line becomes vector, a way out of simple directedness.

Ideally, the point-line form of being is one of constant orientation. Hiking the Appalachian Trail can be almost completely a point-line affair. In good weather, the trail itself is worn and usually obvious. That line is supplemented by the white rectangular blazes appearing with regularity throughout. Junctions might have supplemental signage or just a clear white blaze indicating the proper choice. The Te Araroa aspires to such a state and often succeeds by a visible track and strategically placed orange triangles. Because it is a trail fairly recently cobbled together via a number of already existing trails, such signage can be inconsistent or even absent. This is compounded by what seems a general reluctance to nail the plastic triangles to tree ferns, small bush, or on any pines in a tree plantation (nails in stump timber completely devalues the lumber). Consequently, navigation is more complicated. I find I rely heavily on PDF maps supplied by the Te Araroa Trust and a New Zealand topo/GPS smartphone app. As a result, my experience of point-line becomes point-line/plane. I position myself as a pulsing blue dot on a screen at the same moment that I stand firmly (or slip uncertainly) on a terrestrial path. The representational plane supplements the point-line function; however, at that navigational moment, it is only tangentially planar. On the screen, the topography surrounding the line is inconsequential. The only information of significance is confirmation that I am indeed standing where I am supposed to be, moving along the line I need to follow. The plane becomes significant when the line is misread or unreadable.


As is well-documented, Thoreau sometimes made his living as a surveyor, rendering the landholdings of his neighbors onto gridded paper, representing through points and lines a plane or a plat. There cairns, spikes, or blazed trees don’t mark a way through but instead are the metes and bounds of properly surveyed land. Representing space as planar, perhaps a map laid out on a table or the ichnographic vision of GPS or google maps, is a form of mastery, a Cartesian leverage. Conversely, seeing the world from a point-line is phenomenologically distinct and at least in part embraces uncertainty. It is according to Ezra Pound “Periplum” which he characterizes in this way: “not as land looks on a map/ but as sea bord seen by men sailing.” A point-line makes a way, a point-line/plane makes a difference. This is not to say that the experience of space is a simple duality–point-line or plane–only to note those are dominant modes that can help us understand how it is that we come to walk in the world, or how it is that we world when we walk.

The 42 Traverse is a section of the Te Araroa that follows a mountain-bike path from the beautiful village of Owhango over a small mountain range into the Tongiriro Reserve. The area was extensively logged in the 20th century and now is a protected reserve, regenerating as wild bush. The trail itself is a wide, well-benched gravel surface. The Te Araroa hiking directions describe the point where the trail splits off from the Traverse to descend into the Tongiriro area at a point further north than the end of the Traverse. I started this part of the tramp one afternoon after lunch at the cafe in Owhango, planning to get about half-way and pitch my tent for the evening. The traverse is the epitome of point-line tramping. Near the end of the day, I found a grassy spot next to a small stream to camp. The next morning I resumed my trek, and, not paying careful attention, missed the Te Araroa turnoff. This did not initially trouble me because the guidebook had warned that portion of the trail was poorly marked and it was reasonable to just follow the 42 Traverse to the end. However, when I pulled up the full planar view on my phone, I saw that I would connect with the highway at a very great distance from my destination point which happened to be the only camping accommodation any where near my path. The planar view offered a number of other possible lines to follow, lines that, if navigated properly, would save me many kilometers even if they didn’t make up for my negligence in missing a turn. Now I was in full planar navigation though my map did not have the resolution necessary to make good judgments nor to have confidence in the lines I hoped to follow. The area had once been criss-crossed with logging roads, many of which remain open for ATV travel while others are overgrown and impassable. I spent the afternoon tracking old tracks, some there, some not, following a faint line to its end, backtracking to another, never quite certain where or how I would find my way out. After a good 30+ kilometer day, I found myself trespassing through a school property and finally out onto the highway, only to discover I had another 7 km to the campsite. Of course it then started to rain–not a pleasant day. Clearly I occupied space that day differently from a normal tramping day. The shift from point-line to point-line/plane produced a space fraught with tensions and decisions, stress and anxiety, even as I remained within the confines of the planar striations (not that I wasn’t tempted to strike out through the gorse in hopes of finding another way out). But the addition of the plane view did finally make a difference. What I experienced on the ground was not exactly what was represented on the map, but the combination resulted in (relatively) successful navigation. The doubling of view– sea bord and bird’s eye–worked.

As a tramper, my occupation of space almost always follows the point-line/plane model, but clearly there are other forms of walking being. As mentioned earlier, on that same traverse I pitched my tent on a perfect moss bed just off the trail. It was a cool evening, and I had walked a long way, so, as is my wont, I crawled into my tent early, got warm in my sleeping bag and read for a long while. You can imagine my surprise when, in the middle of John McPhee’s travels in Alaska, a gun cracked a short distance from my tent. The sound came from downhill, off the trail. I looked out, straining my ears for other noises, and hearing none, returned to my book though now on alert. Some time later another, louder report echoed around my site, and this time I could hear a rustle in the bush. Soon a middle-aged man in green and camo carrying what looked like a 30-30 bolt action rifle appeared. We spoke a while. He had shot a deer with a silencer on his rifle, then later fired an unsilenced shot to signal his hunting partner. It was then that I saw the man’s hands, both covered with blood to the wrists. Clearly he had brought down his prey. Bidding good evening, he headed down the trail in the direction I had passed earlier that day. Before long I heard the roar of an ATV engine, off down the hill away from the trail. As dusk set in and I grew sleepy, voices came from the other direction (tomorrow’s destination) and soon there appeared my hunting friend with a younger man who appeared to be wearing a backpack. Only as they passed did I realize the straps were the deer’s front legs as he was carrying the gutted animal, still bleeding out. Soon after I heard the ATV start up and drive away, the engine noise fading with the day’s light.


I lay there that night thinking about how those two men and I differently occupied the same space. I was, quite literally, on a linear traverse, but they were following a series of vectors enabled first by their familiarity with the actual plane of the land and their reason for occupying. Long-distance hikers move in an open, free space relative to the places they likely occupy in the workaday world. My job which to varying degrees dictates my position in space and time seems much more structured than my trek down the Te Aroara, but my position on the 42 Traverse was completely linear compared to the hunters (and their prey) as they moved not via point-line but instead plane-vector. The hunters deployed machines (guns, ATVS), positioning sounds (engine noise, shots), topographic features (hills, streams, dense bush), and their own historically constituted understanding of the New Zealand terrain coupled with their time in this particular place. They knew its affordances including the possible vectors of human and animal movement. Their senses were differently tuned to sounds and motions that I could safely ignore or probably didn’t even notice.

The terrain we were all traversing also had vectors formed since the volcanic eruptions laid down its soils. Pre-human New Zealand was a land with no mammals (except a particular species of bat), so birds of bewildering variety evolved to occupy various ecological niches. As waves of humans arrived, so did their animals and plants. Rats, opossums, deer, wild pigs, stoats, rabbits, all flourished in an environment with few or no enemies. Introduced plants also flourished, transforming the landscape. There is a lot of finger pointing regarding responsibility for the more invasive varieties. A Kiwi farmer I met blamed the Irish for the introduction of gorse. The Irish tend to get blamed for much in New Zealand it seems, but regardless of who brought it, gorse was a bad idea. This reserve was nearly completely logged off– first of native large trees, then of planted pines (another introduced species). In the last decades the government has set out to restore the area as native bush, a strategy that on the surface is laudable, but raises the question regarding what point in history one chooses to restore. One thing is clear, the gorse is here to stay. The mammals seem to be the primary targets and are aggressively pursued with traps, poisons, and hunters, so the hunters here include both human and chemical (one has to wonder about the cyanide legacy of attempted species eradication). What is important to recognize is that point-lines are drawn, established, and maintained, actions that require effort, diligence, take place in time, but also follow fairly predictable patterns. Plane-vectors unfold dynamically in time through unexpected and unpredictable paths. Gorse might be attractive, sweet smelling and generally docile in Ireland, but it becomes an aggressive, dominant plant on disturbed land in New Zealand. It, like the animals the program seeks to eradicate, thrives on edgelands, places of possibility, quickly occupied by the opportunistic.

I watched a pastoral version of the vectoral play out one day tramping down a road on a ridge not far from Manunui. It had on its right (as I walked south) a narrow verge with, as is common in New Zealand, fencing up to the edge of the road enclosing a pasture. What was striking to me was the narrow shelf of turf just inside the fence before the land dropped off precipitously many meters before leveling off in a field where I could just see in the distance a farmer next to his truck. (The pastures are so steep in New Zealand they fertilize them from airplanes.) A little further down the road, the narrow shelf broadened out to form a plateau of perhaps an acre where about thirty steers were grazing quietly. As I walked toward them I heard the sharp whistle of the farmer and saw two border collies racing up the vertical pasture wall toward the cattle. Alarmed, the cattle began to move about. A number followed along the fence line onto the narrow strip where I stood. The dogs separated and, responding to different whistles, proceeded to draw the group back together. I stood transfixed, not wanting to disturb the operation and fascinated by what was unfolding. The cattle came near me, spooked, split off, some heading back, others trotted down the fence line. Those outlaws were soon headed by one of the dogs, and as the herd regrouped at the apex of the narrow strip and the wider pasture, one steer–spooked, slipped, pushed, had the ground give out beneath him–turned and ran downhill. Then a cascade of cattle descended the declivity, while dogs circled up the remaining few who joined the herd in a rapid descent to the main pasture. Not a profound event, just a morning on the farm for farmer, dog, cow, and turf, but it was a marvelous moment, showing the spontaneity of vectoral traverse.

That brings me back to Thoreau because I have not fairly represented him. His essay “Walking” is a classic celebration of the vectoral. His ideal walking is never on a road, or even crossing roads (though that is something that remains unavoidable for anyone who walks distance). He seeks out huckleberries and wild apples–the denizens of the margins–and celebrates swamps, edgelands, and the aimlessness of wandering. It was in “Walking” that he wrote the often (mis)quoted line: “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” There is much that can (and has) been said about what he means by “wild,” but I would add to it the notion of vectoral walking. Following out a line of flight through a point of intensity, a bifurcation, a moment of possibility, is a form of the wild. Like the tree grown from an apple dropped somewhere by man or beast, it is a wilding. Traversing space through point-line, or positioning and navigating carefully through a planar representation or through sheer familiarity with the space is a form of traverse but also a form of discipline and even subjection. Thoreau’s ideal is a purer resistance. His sauntering follows out unacknowledged internal impulses, a “subtle magnetism” coupled with the “capabilities of the landscape,” the affordances it provides and the dialog it produces to cross the line, escape the plane and follow the vector. It is a traverse without goal, except to express and even live the possibilities of the space, the open, the wild.


T. Hugh Crawford

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