The northern parts of Benton Mackaye Trail prior to entering the Great Smoky Mountain National Park generally consist of thin, overgrown paths—steep, rutted, rooted, wet, rocky, and usually devoid of other humans (plenty of nonhumans though). Solitude in those circumstances is not contemplative. Instead each step must be taken with care and precision, a mentally and physically taxing process. All trekking involves paying close attention to surface as that, often more than distance or altitude gain and loss, determines the mood of the day. On entering the Smokies, that surface mood shifts. It is a region long inhabited by the Cherokee people and later by Appalachian settlers. Their occupation is most evident by the trails and roads that remain today as current ways or ghostly presence. Doubtless, the road with the most powerful resonance in this part of the world is the Trail of Tears. The settlers who displaced the Cherokee built on their local paths. Today walkers encounter remnants of game trails, washed out logging roads, as well as other roads more carefully built (some still maintained by the Forest Service for access). Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the “Language” chapter of Nature notes, “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance.” I’ve long found it curious that the etymology of “career” is in part a headlong race, but also refers to a well-built track or road. Traversing well-laid and some not-so-well-laid roads on this part of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I decided to think with Emerson a bit, trying to understand career as “material appearance.”
Rummaging around my memories, the only place I could recall the word career used in its earlier sense was The Wind in the Willows where, as I remember, Mr. Toad’s wild ride involved a car careering at high speed (I could be mistaken, but if Grahame didn’t use the word, he should have). It is hard to imagine how the contemporary sense of having a career would relate to a headlong dash like Mr. Toad’s recklessness, but the idea of a well-laid road resonates with my sense of career. Careering on the Lakeshore Trail in the Smokies, I encountered, of all things, cars—slowly rusting hulks of 1920’s vehicles, one with an old tree growing up through it. Not the sort of sight you expect in the so-called empty American wilderness, but also not surprising given the path I had been following was once a fairly well-made road. Heading north not far past the cars other evidence of Appalachian settlers emerges— old sheet metal, beams, axles, the remains of an old mill race and stone mill, and then the Calhoun House, the last standing structure of the Proctor community. In the late 19th century Proctor was an agrarian village. In the first decade of the 20th, a railroad was pushed there, and Proctor became a lumber boomtown, swelling to over 1000 inhabitants until the timber was exhausted. During World War II, the Alcoa aluminum plant needed smelting power, so the Fontana Dam was built, with the lake submerging parts of the town. A promised road to Proctor was never finished, though the “tunnel to nowhere” some miles to the east is now a tourist destination. The remaining town dwindled and then disappeared, with most structures disappearing into the regenerating forest. I would guess that disappearance was also hastened by the National Park service— a whole nother story of displacement.
Emerson opens Nature with “Our age is retrospective.” Without doubt, the roads around Proctor invite retrospection, thinking about lost human communities—violently displaced Native American people and the later scattering of the settlers who followed. Now it’s only trekkers who transiently occupy that space.
Standing on the bridge over Hazel Creek, it is hard to imagine a town of any size occupying this space, let alone an industrial sawmill or fields large enough to support food production, but at one time the narrow dirt roads and those abandoned cars enabled the transportation of goods— corn or, for greater ease of transport, corn liquor. Present day stock car racing has its origins in these hills, with cars modified for speed and strengthened to carry gallons of moonshine to the flatlands below. (I grew up with a 50 gallon copper still in my backyard). The railroad was built to haul out the timber, but in those years it likely also carried a commodity nearly as valuable as shine— chestnuts. Another important inhabitant now gone from this area—the American Chestnut—was lost in the early 20th century to the blight. Once the dominant tree species of the southern Appalachians, the chestnut was fundamental to the life of most inhabitants. For humans, the leaves provided medicine, the wood was nearly perfect—plentiful, strong, rot resistant, easy to work (many of those traditional log cabins in old pictures are chestnut). But most important were the nuts. Plentiful in mast years, chestnuts were a key source of nutrition for humans, were used as forage for hogs (another human food source), and, with the coming of the small gauge railroads up into the coves and the opening of markets in the US northeast, a source of income. A generally unrecognized cause of community loss and present-day Appalachian impoverishment is the environmental devastation brought on by the chestnut blight. The loss of the trains parallel the loss of forest, the chestnut, and the life of many small communities.
Thinking about the idea of one’s career as either headlong dash (Mr. Toad) or a retrospective pondering of lost patterns of living (Proctor) does not seem particularly helpful. Generally people’s careers are not sprints, but they do open out onto a future, not to look back to a distant past. There are only two modern careers I’m qualified (somewhat) to use as examples: medicine and academia. My father was a small-town surgeon and ER physician, and later a public health director. In those years I observed him (including observing operations gowned-up at the OR table) and read the many histories of medicine in our home library. Later, for my dissertation I studied the history of medical education in America. That led me to the other career I have some understanding of—though it is a world I find increasingly strange—professing the humanities in a university. (N.B. I entered the academy in the 1980s when it was generally possible to find a university tenure track job. The neoliberal takeover of the American university system has made that path a chimera today, radically transforming any notion of career).
A career regarded as a well-laid road is at best banal, but perhaps thinking about or with the material experience of roads, paths, and trails could bring some insight. Standing on the Hazel Creek bridge looking across at what is now a riot of trees and undergrowth, then turning to walk for a short stretch on the still level abandoned railroad line, doesn’t so much produce nostalgia (deforestation is hardly something to sentimentalize), as it frames the moment in a dense and complex historical context. Modern roads—e.g. Interstates—appear to erase their history through sheer speed (though attention to what is abandoned by such a-historicism can be compelling). Maybe that is a way into the notion career. As those familiar with the current state of the university in America know well, we are currently being transformed into a “knowledge economy,” which defines knowledge as that which can be measured by standardized metrics, emphasizes rapid production and context-free digital dissemination. In addition, the very idea an academic career has been aggressively undermined, shifting much of the professoriate to precarious, adjunct labor where the time necessary to pursue knowledge is compressed or eliminated. However, harking back to some illusory “good old days,” in academic life is a fool’s errand. The professoriate I entered in the 1980s was overwhelmingly white, male, and academically elitist. A naive celebration of that time as a point of pure intellectual plenitude would be profoundly misguided. Nevertheless, as the road(s) to Proctor teach, it is still important to pause at ghostly presences and listen to what they might tell. That site of rapacious deforestation was also a place of human community—one that maintains a fragile continuity as the descendants of Proctor continue to visit the cemeteries annually to connect with their ancestors and with the still-living descendants of those families. In our corporate universities, the knowledge economy commodifies the parts of academic life that submit to metrics and generally ignores those which cannot. Put bluntly, wisdom—the traditional (idealistic) goal of the humanities—no longer has a place or is at best a ghost.
Perhaps a way to contextualize this trend in academia is as a transition from the idea of career traditionally construed—a road well-laid and followed by careful study and understanding over time—to one defined by readily signaled and celebrated waypoints. The Appalachian Trail is often called “the green tunnel” because it (like the Benton Mackaye) rarely offers those celebrated panoramic views. Days are spent in a long trudge, seeing feet, rocks, toads, snakes, and flowers, even as those same hikers tend to represent their walk with selfies on cliffs and peaks. Today’s humanistic academic careers are forms of branding defined by similar selfie moments. Academic brand development uses every tool in the social media arsenal to not just commodify knowledge, but also the supposed bearer of that knowledge.
This essay springs from my hiking the Benton Mackaye Trail, a path starting at Springer Mountain, Georgia (the same point of commencement as the Appalachian Trail which, by the way, was originally conceptualized by Benton Mackaye). It winds northwest through the Georgia Appalachians, crosses into Tennessee, follows the Tennessee/North Carolina border for a long stretch, ending by crossing the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, climbing Mt. Sterling and descending to the end point in a parking lot—all told about 286 miles of difficult trekking in nearly complete isolation. A bad foot forced me off just before the Mt. Sterling climb. In the career-as-brand world that would be a complete failure as I cannot take the selfie and check off the box for reaching the end point. I can’t wave trekking poles, posing for a social media moment, and then tweet about it (incidentally and ironically, cell service is rare on the trail, so social mediation is always delayed). But, to state the obvious, knowledge and understanding comes in the middle of that long green-tunnel trek, what Gilles Deleuze calls the milieu, and that is precisely what is most often left out of brand development. Proctor is learned by a long road(ish) walk in, through, and back out, not through a Google search or captured by a perfect tweet. So what emerges by thinking career via Emerson are these two versions: one of narrowly defined goals, a series of discrete way-points easily plotted on a roadmap, multiplying products (content) rapidly across media platforms, and constructing a recognizable brand (scholarship as hype-house). The other is career as becoming (a Deleuzian Nomadology), the result of engagement with an unfolding process. The latter recalls the Scottish writer Nan Shepherd, whose Living Mountain I discussed in a previous Pointless Essay. On setting out to walk a Cairngorms path, she says, “Yet often the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination, when I reach nowhere in particular, but have gone out merely to be with the mountain as one visits a friend with no intention but to be with him.” I suspect a brand-oriented academic would hesitate putting that in an annual report.
The dark side of all this is a definition of academic productivity borrowed from the corporate world that simply does not fit the job of nurturing wisdom. Not just confined to the humanities in the university, these tick-box, rapid production pressures are felt across most disciplines including the sciences, a point made clear in Isabelle Stengers’s Another Science is Possible. In what I recall as a recent interview, Donna Haraway voices her preference for the term “engender” over “reproduction” or “production.” She is making a different set of observations than I am, so her reasoning follows a different path, but it is a helpful distinction. Put simply, to live and work, to have a career, in a (re)productionist model requires the fabrication of products— closed, packaged things, a list of intellectual entities on a form. Engendering is a practice of bringing into being possibilities latent in the context. A self-reflective example: what you are reading just now is in my walkinghome blog under the category “Pointless Essays.” To me, the title is a redundancy. While most young scholars in freshman composition are harangued about the need for their essays to have a point, the very notion of an essay is actually its pointlessness. An essay is an attempt, a trying out, weighing (assaying) possibilities, exploring a set of ideas or concepts. An essay does not measure out in already established metrics some narrowly definable idea; instead “the mountain gives itself most completely when I have no destination.” To essay, in its purest form, is to explore, initially with a certain aimless tentativeness, to see what can perhaps be engendered. My initial walk along the Lakeshore Trail was not simply to tick off the 12 miles from Fontana Shelter to Proctor Fields campsite. Instead, the path, the different surfaces, the stray artifacts, but also the temperature, humidity, the angle of light, bugs, snakes, flowers engendered a form of thinking on careers.
Obviously there are plenty of activities in any career that can be captured by metrics, and, at least the way I was brought up, the very notion of having a career means making a positive contribution to society in whatever way one is capable. What the road/career connection helps uncover is that travel— moving through the world on historically constituted paths—will always include some metrics: beginnings, waypoints, measured distances, ends. But no thinking person sees those marks as constituting a career. They leave out everything in the middle which of course is where thinking is engendered. As readers can easily infer, I’ve never celebrated digital media as a form of liberation, but I’ve found blogging an interesting way to resist the corporatization of knowledge. The conceit of the Pointless Essays section is that the general idea and/or mood of each resulted from material encounters on the trail, chewed over during that day’s walk. This particular essay was engendered June 16, the day after crossing Proctor Field, as I walked from Chambers Creek to Pole Road Campsite, 22.5 miles in the Smokies (also a day I had a disturbingly close encounter with an exceptionally large timber rattler which perhaps will become another essay). My audience, as best as I can infer, is made up of a few colleagues who read the same philosophers. Thoreau, Emerson, Nan Shepherd, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, William James tend to appear often since my questions are not drawn from reading but instead are posed by my sometimes vague recollection of their work while walking. By far the vast majority of my readers are other trekkers scouring the internet for accounts of different trails (see About Walking Home for a list of trails walked). And then there are some shadow web sites selling essays to undergraduates on nature writing who have appropriated some of mine (end of semester times usually show an odd spike in essays mentioning Thoreau).
What I find compelling about blogging is as an opportunity to treat the essay form as an experiment outside the academy. It engenders serious thinking without submitting it to banal metrics. As a form of intellectual work, it brings me no annual performance review credit. Just like the actual walking, both are practices very much on the margins of productivity or commodification. Sure, some people commodify trekking, creating their own brand and gaining access to equipment and sponsorship. In similar fashion, others find ways to commodify blogs. But neither approach is necessary, and when avoided, both the walking and the thinking take on a different tone, a tone I value. Their ends are not ends, but instead are an ongoing opening out onto novel and seemingly unending possibility. I find that a better sense of what a career should be.
T. Hugh Crawford