Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Thoreau’s “Cosmopolitical Proposal”

July 13th, 2016

Thoreau’s Cosmopolitical Proposal

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

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

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

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

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

T. Hugh Crawford

June 30

July 1st, 2016

June 30

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Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” is a poem about walking and memory, one that celebrates the poet’s ability to call to mind an intense encounter with a specific rural landscape even years later while living and working in a city:

But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet. . .

That possibility sustains the poet along with the entire recreational industry, promising as it does memories “to last a lifetime.” Hiking trails and national parks are usually crowded with scenic overlooks which provide perfectly framed landscapes suitable for your personal memory theatre as well as offering a place to take selfies. Wordsworth, a man who crossed France on his way to the Swiss Alps walking at a rate of 30 miles a day, was well aware of the powerful connection between the physical difficulty of attaining a particular viewpoint and the impress of its beauty. He did not passively consume a picturesque landscape through the windows of a train or the confines of a museum. He got there through sometimes arduous labor (see Brutal Beauty). What caught my attention on rereading this poem is his repetition of the word “unremembered,” a word I would guess almost no one has ever uttered unless reading the poem aloud:

feelings too
Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
As have no slight or trivial influence
On that best portion of a good man’s life,
His little, nameless, unremembered, acts

A poem about memory repeats in a positive light a word about the failure of memory. Of course there are many ways of framing this usage. Because of the phrase “feeling too” he may be relegating pleasure to a secondary status below the memory that was,

Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind…

but that ignores the importance of idea of memory in the poem. What exactly would unremembered pleasure or acts be? Again there are many possibilities. As I am a walker and not a scholar of Romantic poetry, I would just note that to walk strenuously over distance involves a wavering between seeing, feeling, and thinking about being in a particular landscape, picturing oneself as an actor in a specific ecology. At times one calls up representations or memories of that moment even while occupying other domains, but just as often walkers are simply in tune with the world walked, thinking but not having thoughts, experiencing without representing. Of course there are those who would argue that we can only experience the world through our historically constituted representational schema, that we cannot encounter the world naked but instead only tricked out in the clothes language and culture provide. I think most walkers would disagree and would take a different approach, one that attempts to move outside what Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.” There are other modes of existence (many have been charted in Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence), and I think “unremembered pleasure” is one.
T. Hugh Crawford

Walkers Have Never Been Modern

May 26th, 2016

Walkers Have Never Been Modern

for Bruno Latour

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Robert MacFarlane along with Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards wrote a beautiful little book called Holloway. A holloway is “a sunken path, a deep & shady lane. A route that centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll, & rain-run have harrowed into the land.” In other words, a holloway embodies and records a human history of acting in and with the non-human world, a world made of earth, stone, water, but also animals, wheels, wagons, and tools. I recently finished the Camino Frances path of the Camino de Santiago, crossing the Pyrenees near St. Jean-Pied-de-Porte and walking through Pamplona, Burgos, and León to Santiago de Compostela, and then beyond to the Costa de Morte, to Muxia and Finisterre (900 kilometers). Though its paths are not usually as deep as the holloways MacFarlane explores in England, they record a deep history, one of pilgrimages to Finisterre that even predate the Christian Era. While parts today must be re-routed to newer paths to avoid trekking on what have become major highways, the Camino breaths a complex history, passing by every church in its path, but also circling natural formations, avoiding rugged climbs, reflecting the wisdom of the choices made by centuries of walkers. With each step, the modern peregrino is constantly aware of those years of wear, an overwhelming sense of human and nonhuman history.

Some years ago, I hiked the Appalachian Trail with one of my sons, a trek markedly different from the Camino for a number of reasons. Over 2000 miles, the AT winds its way up the east coast ridge of the United States, from Georgia to Maine, never very far from large population centers but on land that is largely depopulated, giving little sign of its ever having been occupied. There are of course moments when hikers feel history. Passing through northwestern Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland is a lesson on significant battles of the American Civil War, but often the sense of hikers, one reinforced by the designers and maintainers of the trail, is that they are walking in wilderness, a place devoid of human history. This mood is even stronger for those hiking the other two major US long-distance trails–the Pacific Crest and the Continental Divide–both of which indulge walkers in the fantasy that they are walking where no one has walked before. Unlike the intensely historical nature of the Camino, the trope of American long-distance trails is uninhabited wilderness. Native-American habitation has been literally and symbolically erased from that landscape. American hikers, particularly those from the west, tend to fetishize this blankness, using human absence as a form of valuation, what is called the “fallacy of the wilderness.” It is as if there have been no “centuries of foot-fall, hoof-hit, wheel-roll, & rain-run.”

It may seem odd to turn to a French philosopher of science and technology to talk about attitudes toward the wilderness and human history, but Bruno Latour, in his early book We Have Never Been Modern and the recent An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence gives a vocabulary to help frame these observations. At the risk of oversimplification (which is inevitable given the length of this essay), We Have Never Been Modern is a critique closely related to Alfred North Whitehead’s notion of the “bifurcation of nature” which initially was a criticism of the philosophical distinction between an object’s primary and secondary qualities but eventually becomes a tool to dismantle the subject/object distinction that has dominated modern philosophy at least since Kant which is the avowed purpose of An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence. In Latour’s timeline, Modernism began (or did not actually begin) when Western philosophy accepted and enforced a rigorous distinction between the subject and the object. An accomplished modernity would be one that could rigorously control the boundary between knowledge of the natural world and of human society. Latour’s insight is that while that wall might be tall and seemingly impregnable, it (like all geopolitical walls real or imagined) cannot stop subject/object hybrids (what he calls “quasi-objects” and “quasi-subjects”) from proliferating. No matter how hard the modern knowledge police work, the subject/object distinction cannot be maintained for long.

A nature untrammeled by human contact and history, one seen only from a scenic overlook or walked on paths that were never built for transportation or human labor, is the wilderness ideal. From that perspective, American long-distance trails mimic the modernity Latour decries, one that erases the history of the material world and the imprint of human thought and action on the landscape. They are a celebration of Nature purged of all humans except the limited few with the strength, stamina, time, and financial wherewithal to make the trek. The holloway is an example of the sort of hybrid Latour invokes to destabilize the notion of an accomplished modernity. The holloway is objective, made of what we would call natural objects–dirt, stones, trees, roots, plants–and is subject to natural forces–rain, wind, drought, frost heave. But it is also social as it was made and is maintained by human activity, serving as a conduit for labor, play, transportation, and human contact. To walk a path is to live its history and trip over its ruts, at the same time!

The modernity Latour critiques is one without history, and many ways it is one without thought. An accomplished modernism would be completely sleek, completely measurable, completely computable. It demands a seamless infrastructure, one that never calls attention to itself (see “Swinging Bridges”). In many ways, it is the neo-liberal dream. Walking a holloway track– the Camino de Santiago or Nepal’s Helambu circuit–is to feel a sedimented history, but also much more. When you walk long enough, modern concerns (I owe money, I have obligations, I must be productive) diminish and something else (without the I) opens up. A range of forces come to bear–gravity, oxygen levels, a fine-grained sense of the weather, attention to flora, fauna, the impress of human activity, and memory. These and other factors constitute a mood that can open to reflection and ultimately open onto the possibility of thinking instead of having thoughts which, like ideas, become tokens to move about in some discourse to be measured and validated by a calculus of intellectual activity. The latter–thoughts–are prized by the neo-liberal academy as they can be converted into statements that circulate as a proxy for thinking and an emblem of intellectual activity, but are actually a faint shadow of the non-modern experience of thinking. In that light, the academia’s long slide from celebrating wisdom to knowledge (18th century) to information (20th century) to data (21st century) is to the neo-liberal university, a place of constant self-assessment, periodic review, and impact analysis, a machine designed to halt thinking in its tracks. The optimism of Latour’s book is his claim that we have never been modern, that such a state can never be accomplished because the boundary between subject and object, self and world, is a chimera. Purification gestures may create power relations and try to reduce thinking to having thoughts, but the hybrid I am calling thinking proliferates outside those boundaries, in a world that never was modern.

On morning I woke in a Kathmandu hotel with no electricity which is of course a regular occurrence in most of the world. Technological differences tend to be what we first notice when visiting other places. Heading out of the city deeper into the mountains is a move toward fewer conveniences and what seems a simpler life. Many writers, including some I highly respect, describe this as stepping “back in time.” I understand what they mean. In isolated rural areas, the daily practices of the people living there are often quite similar to those of their ancestors. Farmers tilling narrow terraced fields with short-handled heavy hoes or metal-tipped wooden plows with a yoke of oxen is a scene repeated for centuries if not millennia, so for visitors, it is of an antique simplicity. However the “back in time” attitude is the result of a parochial sense of modernity. Yes, without doubt, the people living in, say, Melamchigaon are not working in sanitized, hermetically-sealed, climate-controlled environments staring at computer screens all day, but they live in the 21st century, surrounded by artifacts of that era including the ubiquitous steel and aluminum sheathing, cell phones, polyester jackets, airplanes and helicopters circling, soldiers patrolling with automatic weapons. While they may not be in a high-tech envelope, they, like the vast majority of the world’s population, are in the larger 21st century world. The place where they live and work is a hybrid of high tech and traditional practices that a narrow, hyper-modern view overlooks. What the “back in time” trope brings is a sense of distance from and a concomitant blindness to the hybrid nature of all our lives. Silicon Valley daily life is also full of activities long practiced by humans but overlooked in pursuit of a digital totality. Ezra Pound’s plea to “make it new” starts with an “it” that is modernized, but the “it” and all its deep history is sedimented in that “new.” Stepping into Melamchigaon is not a temporal disjunction. It is spatial. It is stepping into a different modernity or, to use Latour’s terminology, into the non-modern world where we have been all along.

T. Hugh Crawford

Sunrise

May 22nd, 2016

Sunrise

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Early on in Walden, Thoreau says, “It is true, I never assisted the sun materially in his rising, but, doubt not, it was of the last importance only to be present at it.” Presence at first light, ever elusive but somehow fundamental. The labors of many people require they rise before the sun, but being up early does not necessarily put one in the presence of the sunrise as an event, the first of the new day. Long-distance walkers are a privileged few as they, like Thoreau, are up and about, doing their daily labor before the sun, and most days find themselves lingering on some path watching the unfolding of yet another rosy-fingered dawn.

In El Gamso on the Camino de Santiago, G–, my trekking partner suggested we get up early enough to see the sunrise from the peak at Cruz de Ferro. Walkers are game for most things, but this was a pre-dawn trek of 15 km including a long steep climb. At 4:00 am, we were up and in a few minutes hiking fast and hard down the path, headlamps dimly lighting the way. It was smooth but still there was the occasional stumble. An advantage of the early time was a sky awash with stars, the Milky Way streaming through the middle, punctuated by the occasional meteorite, but we had to ignore the sight most of the time, focusing instead on our feet. There was less than 3 hours time to cover the distance. Before long a crescent moon rose at our backs, partly showing the way. That time of morning brings new sensations. Birds often unheard call out. Different temperature gradients cross the skin. The earth and plants exhale unique odors. Setting a brisk pace, we made the the next town in good time but then had to climb a ridge in mud and flowing water, all as the horizon began to lighten ominously. Soon anticipation gave way to near despair. Pushing on through the just-waking village of Foncebadon, we crested the main ridge, still short of Cruz de Ferre but finding an ideal place to see the morning in. Sunrises happen every day but they are never the same. This day some low clouds ran interference as the orange intensified along the horizon, then a brilliant flash of yellow light turned our retinas purple. Soon the sun’s rays touched all around and, though we had not materially assisted in its rising, we had contributed our mite and received everything in return. It’s a strange feeling to have been up and toiling long and hard only to recognize that a new day has just commenced. We got up, stretched, and made our way to the Cruz de Ferre, an iron cross atop a tall wooden pole surrounded by a huge pile of rocks brought by peregrinos from all over the world. I found a rock by the path and pitched it over my head onto the pile, while G– retrieved the one she had carried from some far away place. Anticipation frames a moment, but the moment always exceeds it.

That morning while watching the sunrise, I could not help but recall Hölderlin’s hymn, “The Ister,” and Heidegger’s commentary in a book of the same name. I kept repeating the opening lines:

Now come, fire!
Eager are we
To see the day.

Command, presence, inevitability, anticipation, anxiety. Sunrise is but one in 24 hours of moments, but it is a singularity, an edge, a precise point. It predates industrial time and is measured not in seconds or minutes but in duration–a taunt, stretched now that extends from the first bit of pure light to the emergence of the sun as full body. Heidegger, ever the interrogator, questions Hölderlin’s opening line: “Yet if “the fire” comes of its own accord, then why is it called? The call does not effect the coming.” He is pursuing a broader philosophical point, but his questioning uncovers the walker’s dilemma, one phrased by Thoreau differently but essentially asking the same thing: what calls for presence at a sunrise? Eager to see the day, we pause watching colors, the false dawn, then the moment of pure light. Our eagerness calls on the sun to come, but it was the sun all along that brought us to this ridge. Presence at sunrise questions Being in ways few other quotidian actions can. The most temporal of events calls the caller out of measured time into dureé. It is time as a thread stretched to absolute thinness. Clocks do not tick at sunrise; time expands, filling the horizon.

But fire can bring destruction, and to think the now is to think its end. Not far from the Cruz de Ferro is the Galician Atlantic coast and Finisterre, the end of the earth in the Medieval world, the place where the sun goes to die. On the Costa de Morte there once was the altar of Ara Solis dedicated to that daily dying sun, something pilgrims witness with each sunset. Sunrise is both inevitable and not, prompting questions of the end rather than the beginning. Ben Schneider (of the band Lord Huron) asks, “what if the world dies with the sunrise?” Not an anxiety strongly felt by those called to witness the beginning of the day, but a thought that lurks in the background. To anticipate an event is to entertain the possibility of it not happening. Heidegger also calls the now the “time of poets.” The sun calls the poets to write. It calls walkers differently, not to give words but more fundamentally to mark the surface of the earth, to write paths with bootsoles. To be present at the sun’s rising, the way is trod, the ridge is climbed. To participate in the now of that moment is to be part of a longstanding community with feet maintaining the way and naming the history of the land’s dwellers, sometimes going back millennia. The pause on the ridge gives the sunrise a silent voice. An event made reverent by the act of stopping to pay attention, to attend. Deleuze asks of Leibniz and Whitehead “What is an Event?” He then produces a multiplicity of answers, or, to put it the same way, his answer is a multiplicity with some convergence. An event is a gathering to an intensity, a set of forces singled out and directing attention. It is, in Whitehead’s terms, a concresence of elements, the active creation of the new and, I would add, the now which is always novel.

Sunrise calls out a particular now for our attention, showing by implication the production, the concresence, of all nows, however unremarkable others may be. Sitting there on that hill in that moment was an event. We did not materially assist the sun in its rising, did not wake the birds’ songs or paint the full palette of colors on the sky or cause the mist to rise from the plowed earth or bring both light and shadow to play across the land. But we were there attending and anticipating. Already wide-awake from a long, hard hike, we were there to begin the new day.

T. Hugh Crawford

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