Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

Career

June 20th, 2021

Career

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

Mediating a Mountain

June 9th, 2021

Mediating a Mountain—some thoughts on Nan Shepherd and Elise Wortley

After some years of exploring nature writing through actual material practices (e.g., that time we framed up Thoreau’s house using only the tools he could have used “Building Thoreau’s House”), I was gratified to read Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways where he encountered Edward Thomas’s poetry by following the paths he had walked. It seems a simple, even obvious, move, but it is one at some distance from much academic writing which tends to comment on other writing. Macfarlane’s approach provides real insight. Thinking back to Walden and our woodworking, it is surprising how few pages Thoreau devotes to actually building his house even though, as we learned, felling those “arrowy pines,” squaring them with an axe, and joining the resultant beams with mortise and tenon joints is incredibly time-consuming (at least for 21st century novices). Walden became a radically different book for us after that experience. It is not surprising that I found myself drawn to the work of Elise Wortley—Woman with Altitude—who studies famous women walkers (e.g., Nan Shepherd and Alexandra David-Neel) by walking their paths with period clothes and equipment. I’ve had the opportunity to trek in the Himalayas though not David-Neel’s path (and I walked with 21st century gear). I’ve also have had a good wander around the Cairngorms and have long thought Shepherd’s Living Mountain is perhaps the best nature writing ever (pace Thoreau).

Usually mediating nature—those mountains—involves movement between text and path, that well-worn distinction between word and thing, a jump that has always troubled me as it seems so stark, a vertiginous abyss between the material world and our sometimes feeble efforts to refashion it with words. Wortley, with her unusual strategy—along with her filmmaking friend from Wilderness Scotland (Rupert Shanks) who made a short film of her Nan Shepherd research—helps show how what seems an abyss is actually a series of short leaps, almost like crossing a creek (or burn) by stepping from stone to stone.  https://vimeo.com/368036090

The short film depicts (and is) a range of incremental mediations, showing many material practices that are part and parcel of what we think of as mediation. The first and obvious strategy is Wortley’s voiceover. She does not speak in her own voice; instead she reads passages from The Living Mountain. At one point she is filmed sitting by the path reading from a tattered paperback copy. The filmmaker integrates images of her walk in the Cairngorms with passages from the text. The viewer is treated with a panorama of the rough peaks of that massif while Wortley/Shepherd exclaim “one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty.” The film links closely image and text— very much in the tradition of nature documentary, but that by itself replicates the binaries of word/world, or here image/world.

It is within the action of the film that mediating the mountain gets interesting. Along with the book, another printed text appears— a well-worn topo map (I’m guessing a UK ordnance survey). Again, a distant (scale of miles) representation, but for trekkers, a bit more. They learn to see the subtleties of contour, elevation gain and loss directly correlated to the image the Cairngorms themselves (on a clear day) produce. Those topographic lines are not just seen, but are also felt; they are embodied at a glance by the experienced hiker. Discussing the beauty she encounters, Wortley/Shepherd notes, “A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see.” Here the film shifts from cartography to aesthetics but the two are of a piece. The mountain forms need to be there for the aesthetically inclined eye to find beauty, but they also must be there to confirm the topography represented by maps, seen by eyes, and felt through feet.

The opening scenes, perhaps unintentionally, raise this point. The camera focuses not so much on Wortley in relation to the mountain, but instead on her feet following a rocky path. This of course calls attention to her period attire—she wears a hand-sewn pair of leather boots—handsome, but a far cry from the comfort and stability demanded by today’s trekkers. Something more is going on in this opening scene— another form of mediation makes an appearance that begins to re-articulate the word/world gap. For Wortley (along with so many Cairngorm walkers), the mountain is first felt through feet. The leather soles of her boots are a media form. Sure, eyes and images are important, but so are those feet and all the small muscles in her knees, ankles, and hips, each teaching the terrain in a way more intimate than graphic representation.

In his introduction to the most recent edition of The Living Mountain, Robert Macfarlane calls attention to the similarity of parts of the book with Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. One section Wortley chooses to read up on the mountain that day is perhaps the best example. But I have a nagging suspicion that phenomenology with its concern with “consciousness of” the material world can only go so far in understanding Shepherd’s mediation of the mountain. As we will see in a moment, she references consciousness, but as Shepherd states and Wortley’s research reveals, the mountain becomes something you enter into, not become conscious of. There seems in this layered mediation, something that evades conscious apprehension. Here Macfarlane rightly signals Merleau-Ponty’s as a phenomenology that would accommodate this broadened sense of mediation, and yet to me, it seems she is doing a bit more here, that her experience of the mountain is somehow more elemental than the phenomenological. 

Wortley’s boots on that path show that experience—even the experience of reading nature writing—is worked out in the middle, not on the endpoints of a polarity of mind/world or text/object. Shepherd and Wortley understand well the in-between. Many modern walkers— particularly those “quants” with fitbits —measure their movement by specific geographic or numerical goals. They live beginnings and ends. In contrast, The Living Mountain is always in the middle, the milieu. Even structurally, the book works through chapters (often elemental) and does not narrate a temporal sequence. Indeed, I think one characteristic of the best nature writing is a de-emphasis of narrative. As Shepherd says early in the book (and Wortley repeats at the beginning of the film): “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.”

Wortley’s shoes mediate the material world while the path she follows mediates both the mountain and generations of Scottish walkers. The path the film features prominently is both physical and graphic. It is a history of feet and a mark on a map and on the ground—here is a line, follow it! (Footpaths). And it is also a history. Once while walking down the southwest side of Cairn Lochan on my way to Ben MacDui, I looked off to the west and could see in the distance Ben Nevis. An older man stood on the path looking in the same direction. He said he had been walking the massif for over fifty years and there were few days when Ben Nevis appeared. At first I was struck by the visual privilege I had been given that day, but then I realized how his fifty years was very much part of the line I was tracing. Paths are communal and require the ongoing presence of feet to remain clear, open, and legible—to continue to produce meaning. I was talking with a long-term contributor to that knowledge and a source of that mark.

Although the film only makes glancing reference to it (and Wortley’s boots  skillfully avoid it), water is a medium Shepherd explores at length (air gets the full treatment as well). Early in the chapter entitled “Water,” she invokes communication: “Water is speaking.” Of course it is easy to mention babbling brooks (or in her vernacular, burns), but Shepherd’s speaking water is not soporific. It too, like the path, is full of meaning (both interpreted and felt); its sounds guide the walker on her way through those peaks and vales:

“The sound of all this moving water is as integral to the mountain as pollen to the flower. One hears it without listening as one breathes without thinking. But to a listening ear the sound disintegrates into many different notes—the slow slap of a loch, the high clear trill of a rivulet, the roar of spate. On one short stretch of burn the ear may distinguish a dozen different notes at once.”

Through sheer repetition over years of wandering the Cairngorms, Shepherd learns to listen to the sounds literally pouring from the mountain, to distinguish various and complex messages. For Shepherd, water as a medium is the message.

Not just sound, Cairngorm water is also taste and a touch that engenders a sense of embodiment: “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.” In The Living Mountain, water is a source of physical satiation but also a signal of alarm: “Water, that strong white stuff, one of the four elemental mysteries, can here be seen at its origins. Like all profound mysteries, it is so simple that it frightens me.” Her’s is an interesting fear, one sometimes felt by walkers who encounter what feels to be the purely elemental, that which is devoid of mediation and provokes a thrill, perhaps even the nausea of the sublime (Water). But rather than framing such an encounter as beyond media or prior to it, Shepherd makes mediation itself elemental. Before words, before images, there is water—pure media. In the above quotation, she is regarding water, later she directly encounters it when attempting to ford a rain-swollen burn:  “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.” Yes, in Shepherd’s world the water speaks.

A body that has learned to fear the strength of the water becomes for Shepherd and Wortley a way into the mountain. Unlike Emerson, a founder of American nature writing, Shepherd’s nature does not symbolize some higher, transcendental power, but instead is, in its very materiality, what we access directly by being in it. She refuses a figure of speech that abstracts—pointing elsewhere—and instead is resolute in pointing toward the experience of the flesh in and of that mountain as meaning in itself, as first writing. Wortley reads at length from The Living Mountain:

“Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body. It is therefore when the body is keyed to its highest potential and controlled to a profound harmony deepening into something that resembles trance, that I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain.”

Like her elemental water, Shepherd’s walking is itself a mediation of her essential body—one that does not stop at the skin, but is made and made meaningful (at the same time) by its and the mountain’s inter-worlding. Her “walking out of the body” is no transcendence, nor is it spiritual in a traditional sense. Nor is it some abstract oneness. Rather it is the aggregate that walkers sometimes experience—the sense of being as there, in all its messy, multiple, plural immediacy. And let’s not forget, immediacy’s etymological root is media.

 

The film then turns to Shepherd’s phenomenological aesthetics, one that rejects the spectatorial for the immersive—an embodied plunge into a wider, worldly body found through walking (Brutal Beauty). Wortley reads from her copy of the book—the one that has clearly spent time on the mountain itself, absorbing its blows—directly addressing the problem of beauty in a way that reframes or at least points in a direction different from Immanuel Kant’s formulation:

“Why some blocks of stone, hacked into violent and tortured shapes, should so profoundly tranquillise the mind I do not know. Perhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle—as beauty. Else why did men for so many centuries think mountains repulsive? A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind: but the resultant issue is a living spirit, a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead.”

What intrigues me is Shepherd’s notion of “matter impregnated with mind” which seems to re-inscribe any number of traditional binarisms, ones that the book (and the film) are working against. Mind and consciousness are barely categories in this text except as effects of the ongoing unfolding of experience of the mountains and its elementals. She introduces beauty as a category—how could she not?—only to ignore traditional notions of unity, symmetry, balance, etc., to embrace a processual immersion of sights, sounds, smells, and bodies—the “confusion” of being in and with the mountain.

In the immediately following passage, Shepherd turns from aesthetics to ontology, though I think she purposely elides the distinction: “It [a living spirit] is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” With this Shepherd brings the last binarism—being/nonbeing— back into the middle, giving new meaning to the notion of love (and I think representing the love Wortley is expressing in her taking on a version of Shepherd’s sense of being). Being-in-with-the mountain is the subject of the entire book but she gets there by walking into it, in those hand sewn leather boots and homespun clothes, not seeking transcendence or abstraction but instead a sense of the admixture of being and non-being in a “continuous creative act.” From that perspective, Shepherd is more Whiteheadian than phenomenological. The sentence “Man has no other reason for his existence” is not so much existential—a way of framing individual being (an impulse to demarcate self)—as it is a celebration of our minor selves in the milieu of “the vastness of non-being” which is, as she has been saying all along, the source of the material being that produces meaning, mediates self as mountain. It is a nature “writ” (lived) large.


T. Hugh Crawford

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

The Lee Shore

April 27th, 2020

The Lee Shore

Once hiking up the Tongariro Crossing from the north just after I cleared the tree (and lahar) line, I stepped headfirst into a gale. The storm had been threatening as I ascended the lower section, but it unleashed on gaining the open ground. No visibility and winds that literally blew me off the trail. As I was closer to the Department of Conservation’s Ketetahi hut, I pressed on, hiking in a crouch with one arm swung back holding my pack in place, finally reaching it but not without being soaked through and feeling hypothermia. Obviously the goal of my trek that day was impossible so, after bundling in my sleeping bag for an hour to get back temperature, I made my way down the mountain to the place where I had begun, feeling grateful when I entered the woods which cut the wind and then finding two English trekkers in the parking lot who offered a ride to a campground on the south side of the crossing. That evening I found myself warm, cleaned up, dressed, and eating a meal in an elegant restaurant.

The English Pennine Way is, by and large, a beautiful wander through the Yorkshire Dales on long-trod paths. But, as readers of Wuthering Heights well know, up on the moors the fog and wind come in, easily disorienting the casual walker. Much of the path is cobbled with material from old mills, so in the dense fog, you have to trust the stones. One day in such a state, I heard the unmistakable sound of an ATV engine, and soon out of the mist a modern-day Heathcliff appeared, asking if I had seen any stray cattle on the ridge. I replied that I had barely seen my own feet. He laughed and rode off, maybe heading to the Grange. Up on those ridges people—probably shepherds—have built stone walls in the shape of a cross, allowing walkers caught in the weather to find shelter in the lee of whatever angle breaks the wind. These seeming Christian contrivances are pure material practicality and not theological symbol, serving troubled travelers no matter the direction of the weather. 

After finishing a month of trekking in Tasmania this February, I found myself on the Great Barrier Reef teaching a university course on Moby-Dick. The weather on the day we took the ferry out from Gladstone to Heron Island was a little rough—barf bags were widely distributed and people passed around Dramamine like it was molly. Twice on the outbound leg, the ferry passed in the lee of an island (Mast Head then Erskine) so briefly the waves smoothed and wind abated. Much to the relief of some nauseated students, we arrived at Heron, disembarking in the sun but also to wind and surf stirred by an offshore cyclone—one that would slowly pass on the the East buffeting us for days. 

Moby-Dick is a maddeningly beautiful book. Ahab famously declares “The path to my fixed purpose is laid with iron rails,” but Melville the author has clearly gone off them. It’s a book with a complicated textual history, with some dead ends and a number of enigmatic characters. Some think the original protagonist was to have been a man named Bulkington whom Ishmael encounters at the New Bedford Spouter Inn, his having just returned from a four year voyage on the whaler Grampus. Bulkington, like Jack Chase or Billy Budd, is a handsome sailor—a strong, capable man who inspires confidence and loyalty from his fellow sailors. He appears again briefly on Ahab and Ishmael’s boat, the Pequod, in a “six inch chapter” that serves as his “stoneless grave” entitled “The Lee Shore.” Obviously a teachable moment, my students, having braved the seas, Dramamine, and barf bags on a short channel crossing, well understood the calm of a lee shore. 

Of course all calm in Melville is soon disrupted, and he uses this chapter to push at the calm/danger binary. Like crouching in Pennine Way cruciform walls, to be in the lee of an island is to albeit briefly inhabit shelter, but as Melville makes clear for the sailor it is the island that is the danger. Bulkington must pilot the Pequod into the sea, the teeth of the storm, to avoid being wrecked on the reef: “The port would fain give succor; the port is pitiful; in the port is safety, comfort, hearthstone, supper, warm blankets, friends, all that’s kind to our mortalities. But in that gale, the port, the land, is that ship’s direst jeopardy; she must fly all hospitality; one touch of land, though it but graze the keel, would make her shudder through and through.” So to rest in the lee, perhaps only for a moment invokes home’s hearth and brings calm, that “insular Tahiti” Ishmael describes later in the book, but in the big outside, leeward is short lived, and safety or perhaps even truth is only to be had by casting off, doubling the cape and facing the teeth of the storm: “Glimpses do ye seem to see of that mortally intolerable truth; that all deep, earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore?” Melville sets up a land/sea binary, but the two-stranded lesson of the lee shore is that seeking refuge is but a momentary respite—actual safety is to be had by abandoning false comfort. My time in Ketetahi hut was limited because, built on the slope of an active volcano which had recently erupted hurling rocks through the roof, it was deemed by the authorities unsafe. Refuge was actually to be found by returning to the storm, piloting before the wind to the woods below.

 

Although he died nearly a decade before the publication of Moby-Dick, the German Romantic poet Friedrich Hölderlin pressed precisely the point of Melville’s “Lee Shore.” In “Patmos” he pens the phrase that so stirred Martin Heidegger: “But where the danger is, also grows the saving power.” The speaker is a wanderer seeking salvation in the lee of Patmos, an island that could bring revelation (if St. John doesn’t remain hiding in the cave). Charles Olson, in his wonderful book Call Me Ishmael, reads Melville’s 1856 journals on his trip to Egypt, the Mediterranean, and the Holyland, recording Melville’s response to the Mediterranean in general and Patmos in particular: “Off Cyprus, on his way from the Holyland to Greece, Melville can no more imagine a Venus to have risen from these waters than ‘on Mt. Olivet that from there Christ rose’ …. Now, off Patmos, he can ‘no more realize that St. John had ever had revelations here.’” Like Ishmael, Hölderlin’s speaker is persuaded by an unseen force—the amorphous desire some call wanderlust—the desire to cast off the assurances of hearth and home to live by passing through (or around) a world that alternates danger and refuge.

… a spirit 

Led me forth from my own home 

To a place I thought I’d never go.

. . . .

And how fearsome it was to leave 

The sight of dear friends and walk off 

Alone far over the mountains

Bulkington, like Ishmael, is one of Melville’s isolatos, “living on a separate continent of his own.” There are scenes of camaraderie in the novel— who can forget the squeezing of the hand—but Ishmael’s solitude is unmistakable. What Hölderlin makes clear is that a wanderer’s solitude is profoundly different from the alienated soul in society. It is a necessary forsaking and wandering out into “howling infinite” which, as Ishmael opines, is better “than [to] be ingloriously dashed upon the lee,”

Heron Island can be circumambulated in about 30 minutes. At low tide the beach is wide and smooth, marked only by the tracks of nesting tortoises and their scampering young. Unlike directional hiking where you might find yourself walking all day with the wind at your face or blasting from the side, a circle brings the weather from all points of the compass. Many people, particularly in the Himalayas, look askance at the notion of conquering a peak. They prefer to show respect by circumambulation, best known in the West with the walk around Kailash. Having just come off a month of rigorous trekking in Tasmania and therefore still having feet, not unlike Bulkington’s, scorched by the land, Heron became my Kailash— circling at least twice a day. Such wandering clarifies the lesson of the lee. Depending on the direction I started, I would either begin or end with the wind. The rising tides brought waves crashing to the edge of the forest, making walking tiresome, awkward, but not dangerous. In the lee comes peace and I’d sing (quietly) Graham Nash’s song “Lee Shore”: “All along the lee shore/ Shells lie scattered in the sand.” Such circuits are strikingly different from a day of long-distance, directional trekking. The sun and wind burn both cheeks equally, and intensity is exactly balanced by peace, each shading into the other on the edges. Equanimity is a balance of extremes, offering a glimpse of Melville’s “mortally intolerable truth”: deep thinking demands that you “fly all hospitality” at least temporarily. But as my daily island circles taught me, fleeing to the lee (also temporarily) is just as fundamental.

As it turned out, the danger that lurked there was not a tempest but instead pestilence. We retreated back across the sea to the Australian mainland and soon home to the United States because of the emerging corona virus pandemic, circumstances that make every day here a question of refuge or danger. Hölderlin also makes room for the lee shore with a prayer for all wanderers: 

  give us calm waters; 

Give us wings, and loyal minds 

To cross over and return.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

Rectify

February 17th, 2020

Rectify

A healthy eucalyptus/nothofagus rainforest swallows you completely. Old growth eucalyptus trees easily measure 6’ diameters and tower out of sight with the beech serving as understory. Most striking though are the downed trunks of giants matted with moss, ferns, and other epiphytes building new soil and providing habitat for countless organisms. The air is thick with oxygen and aromatic compounds—the exhalation of all that green—and passing through it feels both primal and somehow proper, as if this is how life is to be lived. Once while crossing a particularly vibrant section, out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of what I took to be a man-made structure. On turning I saw instead a medium-sized deadfall caught in the branches of other trees settled into a nearly perfect right angle. I was puzzled why this peripheral sight had alarmed me, or at least set off a cascade of neurons different from the familiar patterning of my rainforest saunter. One answer is that the rainforest and its complex inhabitants abhor the rectilinear (and their eyes don’t have “corners”).

One of my favorite television series is Ray McKinnon’s Rectify— a dark southern tale of violence and small town retribution. The title raises the question of the program—can the past be straightened? Can clear understanding clear away distrust, violence, and pure malevolence? To me, given my encounter in the rainforest, the more pressing question is why we associate straight—the rectilinear— with truth and understanding. I can justify this text with a keystroke (though that won’t straighten the thoughts), but the rainforest—that place where life burgeons—is anything but square.

There are of course many counter-examples to this intuition, particularly from the mineral world. Humans have long prized the crystalline, clean hard edges of gemstones that seem to resist the non-linear creep of nature. Think of Water Pater who defines a well-lived life as a profoundly aesthetic stance that “burn[s] always with this hard, gem-like flame.” Here even the sensuousness of a flame is rectified. Far outside academic debates, walkers regularly encounter the hard and sometimes gem-like— bare sharp mountain peaks, limestone fractured into prisms—but perhaps those are the exceptions that prove the rule. The mineral and the metallic find their stability, some would say ideality, in their crystalline form, something humans tend to admire for a certain timelessness which is clearly a denial of change, becoming, and death. When time is reintroduced to the formula—the sort of time that far exceeds the human like that found in the rainforest—those sharp edges melt away. Mountain peaks are surrounded by skirts of scree, slowly rounding and rolling away. The fractured squared stones in landscapes are soon covered by layers of reactive chemicals, slowly smoothing, a process hastened by lichens and moss. In isolation from both space and time, the crystal dominates. Through the long-now of the rainforest, those edges abrade and fade.

An Absurd Aside: Rectilinear, rectify—etymology that also points toward rectum, surely an unrelated term. Oddly enough, on that same path where I saw the fallen tree, I regularly encountered wombat scat (their preferred defecation sites are the open surface of a trail). Most people are quick to notice that wombat scat, unlike the smoothly tapered excretions of other bush creatures, appears rectangular, prompting questions about the physics of a square object emerging from a round hole. One of life’s great mysteries. My personal theory is that they are herbivores who tend to chew the plant at a specific length. The undigested cellulose fibers arrange themselves in the gut in pellets of that length so on expulsion the scat breaks at a specific point, forming at least part of the rectangle. How the sides then spring out to form longitudinal right angles needs to be explained by someone with greater knowledge of the physics of extrusion. Recently scientists (including some from my home institution) claim to have solved this conundrum. 

Take an axe and chop into one of those eucalyptus logs—one not yet fibered with fungus filaments. Your first moment of arrest will be from the powerful wine-like smell welling up from the newly opened grain which brings the realization that you’ve been immersed in a faint version of that aroma all along—perhaps the reason for that walking well-being. It is sometimes possible to reveal, with careful splitting, a square beam from a round log. A tree that grew “straight and true” —in the absence of wind, water, animal, fungus, or insect stress —can be split into a perfect rectangular prism, that ideal geometric form. That rare moment is greeted with surprise and some pleasure by the chopper, because all trees are affected by wind, light, other flora and fauna, so, on the level of the fiber, they are just as sinuous/sensuous as the tangled mats of moss and roots hikers stumble through. Joiners in the old days had a solution for such unruly tangles— the adze and the broadaxe. Both are tools that function on the business end exactly the same. The differences are in the hanging of the handle and the stance of the chopper. The broadaxe looks like a heavy headed oversized hatchet. Its primary characteristic is a sharp blade beveled on one side (like the adze and the wood chisel). This allows the worker to square a round log by chopping down the length, flattening each side in turn. The beauty of the tool is that it only cuts in one direction so that, once the cut is begun, the flat side of the log acts with the flat side of the axe. In the words of David Pye, it is a self-regulating tool. It will not cut deeper into the log, and instead will follow the flat plane it is making. The product can be a beam flat and square, but most hand workers stop short of such perfection, preferring the adequacy of a roughly squared beam. Such practices, now generally long past, reveal the material basis of geometry. It is, of course, easy to see geometry as one of the most abstract of human practices, positing as it does idealized hylomorphic objects that have no actual counterparts in material life—Platonic forms always beyond grasp, experience, or understanding glimmer, holding out the chance of realization. The broadaxe is an instrument of the possible rectilinear, one that satisfies not because of actual realization but instead because it is a lived temporal process.

In the Modern world (the Industrial West), building is nearly always associated with the rectilinear which is held out as ideal (think of high-modern flat roofed houses) and comes with an associated vocabulary. Unlike the products of hand tools, the materials for today’s construction are formed by overwhelming force. The nonconforming scraps are cast aside (or sold to naive customers) and the standardized products enable joiners to build “straight and true” with joints that are “jam up and jelly tight.” I’ve spent much of my life building, particularly with wood. An essential tool in any joiner’s box is named for what it does— a square, which gives itself over to 90 degrees (or mutiples). But rectilinear tools don’t stop just with measurement. Hand saws (as well as most powered ones) cut straight lines (except of course specialized ones such as coping, scroll, or jigsaws). Using levels, planes, winding sticks, chalk boxes and plumb bobs, the skillful carpenter can “true up” both the materials and the spaces they form. As I recall, Michael Pollan in his Place of My Own spends some time speculating on the sometimes strange equation of an upright beam with an upright person, so I’m probably unwittingly incorporating his insights here. Still, think of the terms describing human behavior or mores in a positive manner linked to right angles. A person is direct, squared-away (or, pejoratively, square), upright, upstanding, right, righteous, true, level-headed. One “frames” a problem. There are even unrecognized versions of this rectilinear attitude. Being ”in fine fettle” generally means in good health with a positive sense of well-being, but originally meant level—bringing one’s sharpening stone to perfect flatness so it can impart that trait to the tools, to put them in fettle. And of course there are the opposites: twisted, meandering, devious, serpentine, warped, sinuous, crooked.

A modern building out-of-square will cause a world of problems (something Pollan deals with in his writing house as does everyone else who fails in an initial layout). I guess the question is how deep does this attitude run? Is it simply material (my roof leaks) or is it also ethical or psychological (my self leaks)? It’s not surprising that Plato (in the Republic and the Meno) embraces geometry not as the road to the truth about the measure of the earth but as a practice necessary for a leader (guardian) or thinking person to take the measure of others, to help them understand proportion and balance between clearly defined entities. And generally this geometry is Euclidean—the patron saint of the right angle. Centuries later Descartes carries that righteousness into our delineation of space with his coordinates. Now we are able to locate objects in a clearly defined, unambiguous space, albeit one that lacks temporality except as a series of layered static positions. Since then, (Western) human habitations and “well-designed” cities and states aspire to the grid (and indeed are drawn on them)—a cleanly articulated spatiality that, like a power planer, runs roughshod over the undulating substratum that is our actual material world. In a brilliant mediation on fate and free will, Melville unravels those coordinates via the weaving of a sword mat (an abrasion resistant pad made of rope). Ishmael (here the representative of the Modern sensibility) tends to the warp and woof (x and y axis) while Queequeg, the tattooed Maori harpooner who grew up amongst the tangled roots of a Kauri rainforest, strikes with the weaving sword indifferently, by chance making an uneven, even crooked mat.

 

The Western philosophic project has been to distinguish humans from the non-human (and the “less-than-human” other). Bipedalism, thumbs, souls, humongous brains (homage to Jethro Bodine), and of course language have all been called on to articulate human exceptionalism. The right angle is another. The rectilinear is a timeless place of stability (which perhaps is why it is prized by builders—ideal buildings withstand time). In the rainforest, the point-line of geometry is replaced by the point—the clinamen which is the minimal angle necessary to produce—in time—a cascade of events, an efflorescence of growth. A moment pondering of any point in that breathing mass reveals a past disturbance —in deep or recent time—which configures but does not determine an entangled complex of entities. Of course geometry can be used to describe such tangles—e.g., knot theory in hyperbolic geometry—but those formulae haven’t yet been used to frame ethics. The difference is obvious—in the modern house, humans look out onto nature through a windowframe (or a video screen, the most recent instauration of rectilinear lust) while being confined in their “true” (90 degree) environment. In the rainforest, they are immersed in a temporal world, the one that is actually true (just not straight).

T. Hugh Crawford

On Missing the Super Bowl

February 6th, 2020

On Missing the Super Bowl

One January day in 1967, my family gathered in Lacey and Margaret Boyer’s basement around a grainy black and white television with a rabbit ear antenna to watch the NFL/AFL Championship game, the first Super Bowl. The result was as expected. No team from the upstart AFL was going to beat Green Bay. I was 10 and found Lacey’s workshop immediately adjacent to the television more interesting. In those days, TVs were usually located in out of the way places. They certainly didn’t belong in living rooms. I remember a 4 foot wooden octagonal beam with metal screw tops nailed on the faces. Screwed into the tops were pint jars containing different size nails, screws, and bolts. When spun it seems to contain an entire hardware store fastener aisle. At halftime I went to the driveway to admire his Karmann Ghia, the closest thing to a European sports car to be found in our rural town. As for the game itself, the outcome will out, Lombardi and Stram coached with the passionate masculine intensity one expected from coaches of that era. There were no instant replays or Jumbotron, few camera angles. The game viewed on the screen was more or less the same static shot a viewer in the stands would have. Still, there was a sense in that basement room that something special was happening. Ever since—for 53 years— I have found my way to a television to watch the game. Every year until this one.

Two years after that opening game, the first celebrity football player, Joe Namath, wearing white football shoes, a long fur coat and Brut aftershave (maybe the Brut came a little later) guaranteed an AFL victory, something preposterous on the face of it. He and the Jets delivered, and the modern league was born. In the years since it has transformed from game to spectacle. At some point I realized watching yearly had become a personal tradition that had to be upheld regardless of inconvenience. The year the Panthers played the Patriots, I was in a French ski lodge, where in the middle of the night the desk clerk tuned the lobby television to the game. He and his English friend watched the first half, asked some questions about the rules, then bored, they drifted off. 

When I was young, it was never difficult to find that television. One of the linebackers of the dynastic Steelers teams of the 70s went to the local prep school coached by the man who lived across the street. All the kids in the neighborhood took up the Steelers —  Bradshaw, Harris, Swan and Stallworth, and of course the legendary Steel Curtain defense. They have remained my team. Following those years, the television spectacle exploded, and the day for many became more about the halftime show and commercials than the action of the field. Viewing parties involved complicated bets about events unrelated to the game itself, and the halftime shows became increasingly elaborate and finally preposterous. The year the Bears finished out their magic season (coached by Mike Ditka doing his very best throwback coach imitation), a friend invited me to his lake house. He had a satellite dish and we watched on the Armed Forces channel, so instead of commercials featuring the Budweiser Clydesdales, we were treated with PSAs warning about stealing government pencils. I longed for some of the spectacle that year. 

The quest for the game has sometimes been more difficult. My job often takes me to New Zealand in January, so I’ve had to get used to Super Bowl Monday—mid-morning to be precise. In the early 2000s I could usually find a nearly empty sports bar open for the game, but as the century has progressed, the crowds have grown, requiring early arrival for good seats. Spending a Monday morning drinking beer and watching a game is a peculiarly Kiwi thing to do. One year I wandered into a likely viewing place and sitting at one of the tables were some vaguely familiar faces. Ryan Adams and his band The Cardinals were in Wellington for a concert, so a friend and I watched an amazing game with the band and some of the roadies. Their namesakes that day lost in the last minute to the Steelers. An exciting game for any football fan, for a Steelers diehard it was pure joy. 

When not watching every Super Bowl, I spend much of my time long-distance hiking. This year I find myself in Tasmania on game day. I wanted to tramp their “Overland Track,” generally regarded as the best seven day walk on the island. It requires a reservation for the start day, and the only one available put me in the middle of the bush at kickoff. A few years ago, I would have cancelled and found a sports bar in Hobart, but instead I decided to call an end to the streak. I was torn between a lifetime’s commitment and a game that is increasingly difficult to love. The game day activities verge on the ridiculous. In many ways the sport has passed me by. As far as I’m concerned, it’s still the Baltimore Colts, the Browns are not the Browns, the Ravens are and they should be back in Cleveland, Miami and Seattle are just expansion teams, the Rams have always played in LA, and whenever the Redskins play the Cowboys I still hope they both lose.  

Then there is our increasing awareness of the physical and mental toll the game takes on the professionals, as well as the legions of university, high school and little league players who look to the Super Bowl Sunday as a career goal. All of that was brought home one day in class when a student, an offensive lineman on the University’s team—a bright engaging person—looked at me and said he would have trouble participating for the next few weeks because his “brain was bruised.” 

I’ll probably track down a TV to watch the big game next year, but my streak is broken, a pause that has prompted me to think hard about the game I have invested so much in. Not the television extravaganza, but football as pure play. What I remember best is from those early years: a cold winter Sunday, gathering at the field next to the town’s tennis courts. Kids of different ages, sizes, and abilities pick teams. Running, passing, catching, tackling, we roll in the mud — laughing. 

T. Hugh Crawford

Learning to Walk Again

January 28th, 2020

Learning to Walk Again 

A few years ago some French trekking friends asked me to write an essay for their blog. I gave them this: Why I Walk. There, my opening point was that the reason I do long-distance trekking is because I can. That is, I am acutely aware of the privilege reasonable health and socio-economic status confers. In the years since that essay, I have taught a number of seminars on the literature and philosophy of walking, and every time my students teach me more about that privilege. But now I want to explore what is has been like for me to learn to walk again.

The syllabus for those seminars often opens with this line: “As most parents know well, walking is the first major step an infant takes in that whole complicated process of growing up, yet after those first tentative steps are transformed into a confident stride, people spend little time reflecting on just how walking functions (or does not function) in our culture:” I’m now interested in the part about tentative steps to confident stride, the remarkably complicated neuromuscular dance that many people simply take for granted. Long-distance hikers usually don’t fall into that category. Trekking demands a careful and detailed understanding of your body moving in the world—trekkers are necessary phenomenologists.

I remember some years ago talking to a man who was almost finished with the Appalachian Trail (2165 miles). His evaluation: “no one told me I’d spend five months staring at my feet.” Try to visualize the neural activity of walking at a brisk pace on an undulating path randomly covered with different sized rocks and protruding roots. Your eyes flicker from a space immediately before your feet to a spot about 6 – 10 feet ahead. You barely notice this constant flicker, nor your registration of the obstacles to avoid or the strategies for how to deal with them. Then consider the many small muscles in your hips, knees and feet, making the slightest variations in order to move evenly in that uneven world. The computation involved in those gestures far exceeds the computers and smart phones we consider so powerful. Walking on a homogenous surface—a sidewalk or building floor—can be smoothly accomplished by able walkers and imitated by machines. Trekking in the world of tangled roots and rock scree is more of a dance— a full bodied experience flickering between control and abandon, twist, duck, release, lunge, halt (briefly), then plow ahead, all without apparent thought. What a marvel!

Days of excessive mud, elevation change, blisters, hunger, or overall fatigue bring to mind just how complicated those seemingly autonomous gestures are to effect. Time also plays a fundamental role— the slow degradation of bodily function across a long hiking day, a long hiking season, or a lifetime of wear and tear. On the Appalachian Trail, hikers are given trail names. You cannot name yourself but instead are nominated by a trail colleague. Mine was “Tin Man” because a month before I started hiking I’d had surgery to clean up (that felicitous term debride) one of my knees. The surgeon recommended I return every two weeks for a shot, and since the first weeks of the AT are still fairly close to my hometown, Atlanta, I was, with the help of friends and family, able to get back from the trail for a lube job— hence my sobriquet. As the years and many other long distance trails passed, my bow legs stressed my knees and the arthritis increased. This time a tuneup and lube job were not possible, so I went in for total knee replacement— first one, then 4 months later the other (thanks #MicroPortOrtho #MicroPortMedEd #EmorySportsMed #EmoryOrthopedics #EmoryHealthCare). A year of rehab which for me meant miles of city walking, and I was ready to test the modifications.

Many teenagers spend time thinking about how they walk, defining a particular look in the process of forming what will be their adult identity. I think after those years, after most of us have internalized a stride, we pay little attention to the role that walking plays in a basic sense of personal identity. One effect of my knee replacement surgery was increased height. I’d claimed to be 6’1” though always was a shade under that metric. When my surgery straightened my legs I found I now topped 6’1” by that same measure, but with that came a new look, and a fraught sense of identity.  Once I was able to walk “normally,” I saw my reflection in the window of a distant building, and did not recognize myself. People tend to focus on faces—think Deleuze and Guattari’s “faciality” and today, facial recognition software—as the site of personal identity, once again forgetting the fundamental role walking can play. A moment’s reflection brings the awareness that we usually recognize people at a distance not by their faces but by their walk. What eludes is the self-awareness one’s own stride brings, its role forming a sense of being—being in the world.

My prosthetic stress-test involved jumping into the deep end, or in this case, getting dumped into the bush in nearly complete isolation with a 100 miles of muddy, boggy, often poorly marked trail ahead and only one point midway where I was sure to encounter other people—the Melaleuca airstrip in the World Heritage section of southwest Tasmania (an airstrip without a road). To get there you either fly or take a boat up a narrow creek, or do what I did—walk in from Scott’s Peak on the faintly traced seldom used Port Davey Track. That particular path is supposed to be a true Tassie hiking experience (boggy and disorienting) and was originally laid out in the 19th century as a way for sailors marooned in the Port Davey region to find their way to Hobart. I’ve many difficult treks in my past, but in a very real sense I was starting over. I’d learned to walk city streets, vaguely recognize myself as possessing the body I was walking in, but in Port Davey, I had to learn to trek all over again— something I’ve not yet accomplished.

Moving in a muddy, overgrown wilderness has to be a dance and not a trudge. Exhaustion brings a simplified stride guaranteed to inflict pain and produce mistakes. Even plowing straight through ankle-deep mud demands finesse, a constant data stream and response to the slightest variation in surface or intrusion of vegetation. I found my strength was generally good, but because of my leg straightening, my balance was off. The major muscles were there, but the small ones in my joints did not respond to terrain variation on the way I used  to, so I fell more often, usually from simple surface variation. We think of higher-level cerebration usually in terms of symbolic systems— math, poetry, philosophy— because we have forgotten the effort demanded by that first great neurological hurdle: learning to walk. Those hundred miles required not just simple muscular stamina; they demanded a neurological engagement every bit a intense and complex as writing a sonnet sequence or the Mathematica Principia (or Milles Plateaux).

 

I took a rest day at Melaleuca, then followed the South Coast Track back in the direction of Hobart. There were people on this part and unlike Port Davey, I didn’t lose the path. The obstacles ahead were more clearly presented. Still, on the day we (I ended up in the last days hiking with 4 people who had been out as long as I) staggered out to Cockle Creek and transport back to the city, there was a collective groan of exhaustion, pleasure, and relief. Clearly I’ve not yet learned to walk again. Perhaps age and general wear and tear will keep such a skillful practice just beyond my ken, but the lesson of the Tasmanian bush is clear. Personal identity is directly tied to a sense of self framed by past activities and an ability to perform through a body in a place. Any number of factors can undermine, disrupt, or devastate that embodied self-identity. My going off after knee replacement to find my old self through long-distance trekking was quixotic at best. We never stop walking/thinking/being in an unfolding new self. It’s when disturbances manifest that we become aware of those processes (c.f., Martin Heidegger’s “broken tool”). William Carlos Williams, in the poem Paterson, presses directly the question of knowing with and through a body in motion:

We know nothing and can know nothing

                                                       but

the dance, to dance to a measure

contrapuntally,

                                  Satyrically, the tragic foot.

 

He’s referring to the Greek satyr plays, but could just as easily be calling out the tragic foot as the lame one, the one that both enables and disables the dance or in its new variations creates a new one. We never stop learning to walk.

T. Hugh Crawford

A Tramp Abroad Redux—the Sound of Moss

February 11th, 2018

A Tramp Abroad Redux—the Sound of Moss

New Zealand: 2/8/18 Waikanae— Kapakapanui Hut, 2/9 Kapakapanui Hut—Renata Hut, 2/10 Renata Hut—Waikanae via Akatarawa saddle.

The other day I overheard someone (probably American) say “I’ll walk, maybe take a short hike, but I won’t go tramping!” An offhand comment by a tourist that’s soon forgotten but which, for some reason, has been stuck in my head ever since. Clearly tramping, the Kiwi term for backpacking in the bush, is not for everyone. It demands a certain level of fitness and high tolerance for minor discomfort, but the rewards, whew! Context: once again I find myself teaching in a Georgia Tech program at Victoria University, Wellington and have been in New Zealand since early January. Two years ago, I was in the same situation but had just finished hiking the Te Araroa Trail (The 3000 km New Zealand Long Trail here). Since then, I have torn my medial meniscus along with a small muscle in the back of that same knee. The orthopedist says the only repair is knee replacement, so before going into the shop for some mods, I decided to put as many miles on the original equipment as I can stand. Most of my time since arriving has been wandering the city and its environs, trying to strengthen both knees by walking at least ten miles daily. City walking without a fully loaded backpack is only minimally strenuous, so basically I’ve been a tourist. I went up to Taupo and did the Tongariro crossing, took the ferry across to wander Days Bay and Eastbourne, and in Wellington climbed Mt. Victoria only to find the path led out onto a car park with buses disgorging cameras strapped to dazed people.

This is all just to say that I have been walking, some hiking, but definitely not tramping. I can confirm is that Wellington is my favorite city. Te Papa is a world-class museum, you can get a flat white on any corner, Little Beer Quarter is as fine a pub as you will ever encounter, and the local brewers —particularly Garage Project—are beyond compare. The national tourist destinations—Queenstown, Wanaka, Taupo, Rotorua—offer high adventure and excitement, and one can, of course, tour the wine regions, sniffing and comparing, but, and the Kiwis clearly know this, all that is mere window dressing. It’s bucket-list tourism. Few countries offer the density, variety, and comprehensiveness of the Hut/campsite/trail system of New Zealand, and that’s the best reason for flying halfway around the world. Of course people know about the Great Walks, those curated, reservation-only treks, but they make up but a fraction of the countryside made accessible by national parks and continuous negotiation with private landholders. The tourist destinations are spectacular, but New Zealand is a land best understood through patient, step by step encounter with its many off-the-beaten-path paths.

In order to break out of tourist mode and also shakedown my trekking set-up, a tramp was in order. I had much of the same gear used on my round-the-world trekking year but I changed packs (my 28 liter Zpack was a little worn and I wanted the greater capacity offered by a new model ZPack Nero 38). In planning, I realized my last decent tramp was in August of 2016 on Iceland’s Laugavegur trail, far too long ago for mental well-being (here). The Tararuas loom large in my memory. They are a range where the trail absolutely determines the time. This is not to say that all trails don’t determine time, but to acknowlege that the Tararuas are deceptive, sometimes demanding a full hour to walk what on a map looks like an easy kilometer. My first time through, in 2015, I found myself marooned in a hut for two days as the rain and wind howled, then had to make up time on a trail that denied that very possibility. A return to these mountains was in part contrition for a stretch skipped that year when faced with the choice of continuing on from Otaki Forks over one more range followed by a long road walk into Waikanae or catching a ride with some very nice kiwis to Otaki to watch (in a pub at 4:00am) the All Blacks win the Rugby World Cup (here). My penance this year was a long road walk out of Waikanae followed by an incredibly steep ascent to the Kapakapanui Hut, then, on the next days, an ascent of Mt. Kapakapanui and a trek to the Renata Range. The road walk on the first day was hot and dusty, broken only by a stop at the Pottery Farm Cafe where, over a cold Tui, I talked to Ed, an engaging gentleman from the Cook Islands who had just celebrated his 80th birthday (here). Much later in the evening, I arrived at an empty hut, soaked with sweat but clearly remembering why you must tramp when you visit New Zealand.

The first and most obvious reason is solitude. I have long preferred solo hiking (here) as you take on all responsibility for distance, pace, navigation and safety. All thought is bent toward the trek, and the triviality of daily life recedes. You are not overwhelmed by voices, the smell of soap and shampoo, or constantly adjusting to a different trekking tempo. Of course it is possible to experience solitude with hiking partners, but such companions are rare. The best rough-terrain partner is my son Bennett. Together we have hiked all of the Appalachian Trail, part of the Pacific Crest, and the Trans-Swiss (the last was not a difficult terrain trek—our camelbaks were replaced by wine bottles). I also had a remarkable hiking partner for much of the Camino de Santiago, but that is an entirely different sort of trek. This short tramp in the Tararuas brought a moment when I stood on a narrow ridge looking to my left at the headwaters of the Otaki river, and to the right at the beginning of the Waikanae, and just ahead, the confluence of the entire system that drains the Hutt Valley. Such moments are arresting and demand silent, solitary contemplation. Tramping brings solitude which is an absence—the loss of chatter—but also a presence: trekking hard and alone requires and enables a presencing-of-self generally denied in daily life. Of course, solitary tramping is not available to everyone—something my stiff and painful knee reminded me every step—but for those who can, it is a gift without parallel.

New Zealand outdoors is raw. It feels geologically brand new, something any visitor learns immediately. There are plenty of volcanos, regular earthquakes, and steep-sided mountains that seem ready to give way any moment. Such sights are awesome (in the traditional sense of the word), but tramping reminds us that the spectatorial is not a fully embodied experience. Seeing a landscape (the term itself is part of a culture of the spectacle) is by no means comparable to being in the landscape (Brutal Beauty) A simple example (one familiar to NZ trampers): after scrambling up a steep and usually muddy path where gnarled roots are not just aesthetically appealing but also serve as hand and footholds, you find yourself on a high ridge entering a beech forest. Foresters in Europe and North America marvel at mature beech forests because of the almost palpable yellow light that filters through the leaves (see Joan Maloof and Peter Wohlleben), but New Zealand beech produce a completely different effect. They cluster in forests on the mountain tops, bent and twisted by unremitting winds sweeping the islands. Their leaves are tiny, round, dark green, and seem to repel light rather than filter it, though when shed they make a forgiving soft brown path which is welcome after mud, rocks and roots. Their arresting features are masses of moss, ferns, and innumerable epiphytes festooning their trunks and branches. More magical than anything in a Peter Jackson film, entering such a forest is a full body experience. 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. The forest shuts down all sound except your own blood. The moss absorbs and gives off all, so you stand, quite literally, speechless, listening intently for what is not there. That absence is only made present by tramping.

*******************

Addendum: Not generally a superstitious person, I do have some faith in Trail Karma. In any trek you have to treat the path with humility, taking what it offers with a minimum of whine, and leaving all the places you stop the way you found them. It’s not something as simple as leave-no-trace, but instead is slipping into the rhythm of the place. Sometimes it’s difficult not to mutter under your breath at a trail designer who takes you up every slight rise in elevation or crosses a stream every 50 yards. A good bit of my recent tramp was on paths not particularly well-travelled, so they were covered with branches that trip gnarled knees, along with downed trees that must be clambered over, crawled under, or circumvented through the bush. And yes, the first 3 kilometers included 7 stream crossings. Nothing like starting a hike with soaked feet. The weather report warned for rain Saturday afternoon with gale force winds on Sunday. Having done my share of that sort of trekking, I opted to head out Saturday, avoiding re-climbing the Kapakapanui by following a mountain bike trail out to the Akatarawa Saddle. That meant my afternoon would be a long road walk back to Waikanae. About five minutes from the saddle, I passed a burned-out car on the trail with a bag of garbage smoldering by the front wheel. My arrival at the road coincided with the siren-screaming approach of a fire truck, van, and police car, all up on a call to inspect the burning car. I showed them a picture of the vehicle and directed them to the spot, so in return my trip to Waikanae was not a three hour trudge, but instead was 15 minutes in a fire truck with a crew of jovial Kiwis. Trail Karma— don’t mumble about the trail, take it on its own terms and make them yours.

T. Hugh Crawford

Walking with Ghosts

May 28th, 2017

Walking with Ghosts
28 May, 1968

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

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

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

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

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

I remember with great clarity standing beside my mother pushing a roller dipped in a muted orange masonry paint up the concrete walls of a bathroom in the basement of the Woodstock Presbyterian Church. I hear her on Wednesday night in that same building rehearsing with Ruth Rhodes, the organist, and Marian 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 42, 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

image

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