Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

A Conspiracy of Trees

August 6th, 2020

A Conspiracy of Trees

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Hiatus

December 30th, 2015

Hiatus

People often announce that they are taking their blog on hiatus, which is what I am doing just now. The Te Araroa phase of my walkabout is complete, and I’ll be teaching in Wellington in the new year–Moby-Dick, “he tasks me; he heaps me”–so I am taking a break from daily blogging, but first I want to think about the idea of hiatus, of the interval, particularly as it relates to walking; hence, another pointless essay.

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It’s hard to think the idea of a beginning without an end, but the in-between, the inter esse is where everything interesting is to be found. The nomads in Deleuze and Guattari do not travel from point to point but instead occupy the middle, a milieu. The Nomadology is an attempt to understand what that means (and is the subject for what should be another pointless essay). Completing the Te Araroa–arriving at Bluff–invites a meditation on ending in the way that commencing from Reinga prompts a reverie on beginning. It has been cause for congratulations, requests for stories, explanation of motivation, but the rhetoric of accomplishment tends toward a sense of victory or triumph– getting the t-shirt or the merit badge–which wholly misses the experience of the walk which is always in the gap, a space never empty but instead occupied by varied and often inarticulate ways of being. To be in-between is to perpetually deny the end as absolute because the moment is always opening out onto a horizon of possibility and not directed toward a finish line. Indeed the very notion of a finish line can only exist in a constrained framework, one rarely experienced (e.g., most thru-hikers don’t make it to Katadhin or Stirling Point). My days since finishing the Te Araroa have seemed empty as I’ve rested. My hiatus from daily walking many kilometers and writing about that experience appears empty but of course I have been differently occupied–with thinking, healing, and wrestling with the idea of the in-between. As John Cage teaches about sound, there is no empty even in silence, and we never simply occupy a beginning or end point–are never present in some pure plenitude– but instead are always on the way which is the very being of desire. The real question is how we live that desire– as lack or as inter esse.

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Hiatus is repetition. To take a hiatus from an activity requires a break in what had been a repetitive action, and it is in repetition that difference can be articulated/discerned from one stabilized moment to another. A daily blog reveals shifting mood in 24 hour increments, manifested by reflection and mediated by language. Repetition produces difference and, at the same time, the illusion of continuous variation, but it cannot capture the experience of the milieu–the space and time where everything happens but nothing is reported. It is there that we live–in-between, anxiously minding the gap and never occupying a beginning or ending except perhaps as a brief moment of joy or anguish. Long-distance tramping brings this insight into sharp relief on many scales. A trek is a hiatus from quotidian life (or, more precisely, is a different dailiness). It breaks calendar time–I recall when hiking the Appalachian Trail thinking that it must be a weekend because of the distant roar of motorcycles in the mountains. Trekking produces a hiatus of information (there is no internet in the bush), but by definition, it is a movement from one point to another. Hiking days begin and end with strong awareness of changing position in space and time. Minding the gap is particularly evident in times of navigational difficulty. On the Te Araroa, particularly on the South Island in broad open spaces where the trail proceeds not as a footpath but instead by striking out across open uneven terrain, you hike toward marker poles set in the distance and capped by orange plastic cylinders. When new (or at least not weathered), the orange stands out at some distance, providing reassurance that there is indeed an articulated direction and that you are still on it. Given the vagaries of terrain, unseen needs to detour, or just the simple extension of an interval beyond a sight line, pole-spotting can be difficult and consequently stressful. Generally, confident competent trampers have little trouble following pole markers (unless weather interferes), but the gap still produces an interval of uncertainty that echoes the interval between poles. Constantly wavering between confidence — oh, there it is!–and panic–oh, where the hell is it?–trampers find such days physically and psychologically taxing.

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Even on well-formed, blazed, and documented trails, the experience of the interval can be psychologically difficult. Often trail signs define time rather than distance–time spans that almost never calibrate with actual trekking time as fitness, walking speed, and trail conditions are highly variable. On the Te Araroa sometimes the listed times are realized, but more often they are wildly inaccurate. Anxiety comes with the possibility that for once the sign may actually be correct, throwing off anticipated day’s attainments. Sometimes time and distance inexplicably move to the front of consciousness, often prompted by devices that provide fine-grained measurements. Watches and GPS compute movement from one waypoint to another, filling the interval with thin slices of space/time, a calculus that creates the illusion of flow through minuteness of interval. These moments prompt calibration of body, space, and temporality. Many hikers — including me–try to resist constant monitoring, but inevitably there are days (often when a town is the end-point) where calibration is obsessive–perhaps every hour (or even half hour). The point in time is anxiously awaited, and the point in space–the jump of a pulsing blue dot on a GPS device–is a moment of marvel or disappointment.

But to walk without such constructs, to be in the walk is, at least for me, the true goal. William James gives a way to think the experience of the temporal middle with his notion of the “specious present.” Lasting less than a minute, it is experienced as now: “In short, the practically cognized present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time.” For James, the specious present is never empty though it can be experientially poor (as in stretches of boredom). Because of its temporal extension, the specious present–the gap we live as coherent nowness–enables the possibility of anxiety (searching for the marker pole) and joy (finding it). It creates the very possibility of expectation, something that would be impossible were time a series of discontinuous moments. Later in the chapter, James discusses the physiological and neurological bases for the experience of the specious present (speculations later supported by Francisco Varela through a review of recent work timing interactions between various neural cellular assemblages). After going through the philosophical argument establishing the idea as phenomenon, he shows how it is part of a cerebral process. He speculates about what it would be like to have a different specious present (e.g., that of a gnat), then uses example of the fine-grained perceptions of hashish intoxication which stretch out the normal perception so that, in his example, the beginning of the sentence fades before reaching the end. Then in a note discussing the work of Hugo Munsterberg, he adds muscle groups linked to directing perception tensing and untensing as part of the embodied constitution of the specious present.

What is clear in James’s discussion is that the experience of the now is the result of both neural and physical experience. I would add that there are times when our awareness of the specious present is heightened, and trekking often produces that sense. The now can be experienced negatively–anxiously measuring progress toward (and away from) spatial-temporal goals–but also positively as the now, moments as close to pure awareness of being is possible. When walking, you use your entire body as a perceptual apparatus–head to toe–promoting awareness of self and now, both of which are forms of consistency in the midst of flux: “Meanwhile, the specious present, the intuited duration, stands permanent, like the rainbow on the waterfall, with its own quality unchanged by the events that stream through.” This is the double lesson of time and walking– the specious present is a saddle of present (if not presence) where the immediate past slips off the edge as the new now is experienced. A body walking mimics this motion through both space and time. The hiatus is the now.

 

T. Hugh Crawford