Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker


November 29th, 2015


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

T. Hugh Crawford